Teaching high school English, I have occasion to reflect on human nature. Among the things I teach my kids is they are in control of how they feel. As Elanor Roosevelt said, “no one can make you feel inadequate without your permission.” When the kids ask me why I am always smiling, I tell them it’s a conscious choice, a choice they have every minute of every day.
I also tell them perhaps the most important lesson they will ever learn, one that takes a lifetime of effort is learning to pay attention. The example I use is if we live to 90, we will have spent 30 years unconscious—asleep. That’s eight hours a day, on average. They’re amazed to realize that, and then I ask: “How much more of your life are you willing to miss because you can’t pay attention to what’s happening right in front of you? Another year? Five years? Ten years? Are cell phones and video games so meaningful, so important, you’re willing to miss your own life?
Larry Elder, addressing racism, recently made similar points, talking about a friend, a very talented athlete:
When the coaches from major colleges came to see Paul play basketball, his best sport, they were impressed. But then they asked the high school coach about Paul’s character, whether he was ‘coachable.’ Paul’s coach, concerned about maintaining his reputation with college coaches, told the truth. Paul, he said, was a ‘coach killer.’ Bye-bye, Notre Dame. Bye-bye, Duke. Bye-bye, UCLA.
Paul ended up going to a small local college, not known for basketball. Did he double down, get better in hopes of transferring to a powerhouse basketball school? Hardly. Paul sulked, blamed racism and spent his first year of college playing basketball halfheartedly — that is, when he wasn’t smoking dope and opining on ‘the oppression of the black man in America.’
I went off to college in the East. When I returned during the summer, I visited Paul, who by then had changed his name to ‘Jamal’ to distance himself from the ‘slave’ religion of Christianity. When I informed him that Arab slavers took more blacks out of Africa and transported them to the Middle East and to South America than Europeans slavers took out of Africa and transported to North America, he told me to stop reading ‘the white man’s history.’ He insisted ‘racism’ had wrecked his basketball career, a career he argued that, but for the racism he encountered, was destined for the NBA. ‘Paul,’ I said, ‘you and I lived in the same neighborhood, in houses designed by the same builder, went to the same schools, took the same classes, had the same teachers. Why didn’t ‘racism’ stop me?
Why indeed? Elder adds an additional anecdote:
When I was in law school in Michigan, I visited my aunt who lived in a suburb of Detroit. During one visit, a friend of hers stopped by. He was a black man, about 40 years old. He sat near my aunt and me as we discussed my law school classes. Suddenly, the man began to cry. I could not imagine what I’d said that could’ve caused such a reaction. ‘Sorry,’ I said, ‘did I say something to offend you?’ He gathered himself. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I wanted to go to law school and become a lawyer. But I got sidetracked with ‘jackassery,’ hung around with a bunch of knuckleheads and just wasted my time.
I’m sure you’ll recognize Elder’s point is mine: attitude and effort matter. They make all the difference.
It’s a point I make often, and often I doubt it makes much difference. They’re teenagers and teenagers are all too often unfocused and goofy. But from time to time, I hear from a former student who remembered an assignment, something we read, a point I made, and it stuck with them, inspired them, even if they didn’t realize it until years later. Elder concluded:
It doesn’t have to be like this. My father always told my brothers and me the following: ‘Hard work wins.’ ‘You get out of life what you put into it.’ ‘You cannot control the outcome, but you are 100% in control of the effort.’ And ‘before you complain about what somebody did to you, go to the nearest mirror and say to yourself, ‘What could Ihave done to change the outcome?’
And finally, my dad said: ‘No matter how good you are, bad things will happen. How you respond to those bad things will tell your mother and me whether or not we raised a man.
I married young–far too young–and as during my high school years, was hampered by having, as my high school counselors said “great potential.” But it was unrealized. I had no clue who or what I was. I was talented but impulsive, unable to delay gratification and self-centered. My young wife, a beautiful girl in every way, needed a responsible man. That wasn’t me.
But one day I looked in the mirror and tired of looking at failure, understood I needed, above all, self-discipline, so I joined the Air Force. While away in training, I got a “dear John” letter. I couldn’t blame her, and surely don’t now. Even though I squared myself away, she had no way of knowing that. Everything I wasn’t then certainly gave her no expectation I’d get myself together. I haven’t heard from her since, and deeply regret my failure to give her what she so deserved. I know nothing of her life. I pray it has been fulfilling and joyous.
Yet it is adversity that is the determinant of character. Who and what we are when everything goes our way says little about our mettle. I picked myself up, found Mrs. Manor, and 40+ years later, have begun to understand what it is to be a man, a husband, and a useful servant of God. Like Elder, I looked in the mirror all those years ago, and decided to change the outcome. I didn’t blame my former wife. I didn’t blame anyone but my reflection.
I’m much better now at paying attention, though I still work at it. And every morning, after a stroke, a heart condition that could have killed me, several orthopedic surgeries, arthritis that is going to eventually require a knee replacement and several other surgeries, I make the conscious decision to be happy, to smile, and to appreciate yet another day the Lord has seen fit to give me.
How to succeed? How to be happy and prosperous? Get over yourself. Don’t let anyone make you a victim for their political gain. Suck it up and drive on. Smile. Treat others with sincerity—honor the Golden Rule. Be kind, thoughtful and helpful (that sign hangs in my classroom; it’s the sum total of my classroom rules). Care more for the welfare of others than yourself (that’s how to make a marriage work). Avoid destructive people; some people can’t be saved—they don’t want to be saved. Most of all, blame the reflection in the mirror and get it squared away.
Choosing happiness and optimism, and our effort, are a few of the things over which we have control. How much better off would we be if we recognized, and used, those abilities?