It was September 1, 1996 and the last day of our vacation in lovely Lake Chelan, Washington. We went for one last bike ride with our boys who were 10 and 6 years old at the time. As we prepared to leave, I noticed from the corner of my eye that my wife, Debbie, was not wearing her helmet.
I asked, "Where is your helmet?"
"Oh, it messes up my hair," she replied.
"How can we ask the boys to wear one if we don't? Please put it on, hon," I said with certainty.
She sneered, yet reluctantly agreed. Twenty minutes later, a 16-year-old girl with a lead foot broadsided my wife, smashing her to the ground, breaking her leg in four places, and bending the bike to a useless state. I will never forget Debbie's screams.
"Call 911," I yelled to a passerby.
Our lives would never be the same. Over the next year, our savings were wiped out, our IRAs depleted, and we were eventually forced to sell our lovely home with a view of Mt. Baker and Puget Sound. Five years of depositions, uncertainty, and fear followed. The settlement was a joke. I now understand the time value of money. Nothing prepares you for that kind of adversity. It is financial, spiritual, physical, inter-personal, and emotional. In hindsight, it was one of greatest blessings of our married life.
It forced Deb to stay home with the boys. It forced her to retire from an 18-year career in court reporting that she had come to resent. It forced me to kick my newly-formed business into high gear and eventually write my third book, A Simple Choice, which turned out to be a cathartic process. Philosopher Albert Camus once wrote, "In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me lay an invincible summer."
Martin Seligman is one of my mentors. Though we have never met, I feel a kinship to him through his writing. His classic book, Learned Optimism, was a source of inspiration and healing for me during this challenging time.
One of the fathers of positive psychology, he contends, "Optimistic people generally feel that good things will last a long time and will have a beneficial effect on everything they do. And they think that bad things are isolated; they won't last too long and won't affect other parts of life." He goes on to say, "If you were an optimistic teen, then you'll be an optimist at eighty. People's reactions to bad events are highly stable over a half century or more." It dawned on me, I was an optimistic teen.
Each of us will encounter setbacks, disaster, and seemingly insurmountable tragedy in life if we only live long enough. It could be divorce, the death of a loved one, a financial setback, illness, or the loss of a job. It's not what happens, but how we respond that matters.
What doesn't kill me makes me stronger.
Fall down seven times, stand up eight. -
Challenges and setbacks give us longer legs for bigger strides. It provides us with perspective and objectivity, but not right away. Time and tide eventually wash away the pain. Over time, I came to a place of healing in my heart and soul. About three years after this event, when someone asked me how I was, I replied, "I'm grateful to be on this side of the grass." Honestly, it turns out it is possible to Bounce Forward.
In her newest book, Option B, Sheryl Sandberg calls it "post-traumatic growth." She contends, and I believe from experience, five things occur with P.T.G. They are:
- We find Personal Strength
- We gain a deeper Appreciation of Life
- We find ways to develop Deeper Relationships
- We discover Meaning in Life
- We begin to See New Possibilities
Socrates taught the world that the answers are in the questions. Here are my four favorite questions to ask, preferably in my journal, in the midst of the storm. You see what matters is continuing on with persistence and a constancy of purpose. We must take baby steps to get back on track.
- What did you do well today?(What specific actions did you take? It's trying that matters.)
- What are you looking forward to tomorrow?(We must have little goals to prod us along.)
- What are you grateful for?(Despair cannot exist alongside gratitude.)
- What am I learning from all this pain?(Affecting change and making new mistakes is what matters. Pain is the ultimate teacher.)
Autopsies are performed when someone dies. Every great coach in every sport studies film of the losses more deeply than the wins. The United States Marines have created a culture where failure is seen as a learning opportunity. How does your organization view failures? Are you conducting debriefs and autopsies?
The greatest gift mankind has is the freedom of choice. Suffering can give us purpose if we let it. Helen Keller was an American author, lecturer, and political activist. She was the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. She once said, "When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.
I remember calling my good friend Kevin Thomas in 2006, ten years after the collision to tell him we had purchased a condo in Chelan. He responded, "That is so important. It's the beginning of healing for you and your family."
Ernest Hemingway once wrote, "The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places." Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end. Every dark cloud has a silver lining. It's up to us to look for it, find it, and give thanks. It's a choice. How will you choose?
I hope in some small way this helps you navigate through rapids of change and setbacks. The best is yet to come.