Many of the gifts which have the greatest impact on our lives are rarely accepted much less appreciated at the time we receive them.
I invite you to reminisce with me about my teenage years. I worked on my father’s charter boat as a “mate.” Fifteen to thirty customers would travel with us on a given Saturday or Sunday. A “mate” is the person who fixes everyone’s fishing lines and poles and tends to the needs of the people on the charter. When the fishing is done, he is also responsible for cleaning the fish. Finally, at the end of each trip, he cleans the boat.
I began working on the fishing boat when I was 10 years old. At first, I was the “second mate.” By the time I was 14 years old, I was promoted to first mate. As soon as I became the first mate, I was privileged to receive a great gift – a gift which I did not see, but even if I had seen, would not have wanted.
As the customers came on the boat at 6:30 am, I greeted them. It did not take long to meet them and find out which customers were happy and easy going and which were in less positive frames of mind. Luckily, most of the customers were great to work with. As the day started, and we headed out to the fishing area, there was usually one customer who would begin treating me like his personal slave. He expected me to fix his fishing pole before anyone else. He would even tell me I had better be ready when he brought in his fish. He would also demand that I have the net ready and I’d better not miss or lose his fish. As I stood there, I couldn’t help but look for a way to get as far away from this customer as possible. I wanted to move on to the happy customers. They were the ones I found easy to talk with; they were enjoyable to be around. As I stood there in misery – feeling sorry for myself – I excused myself and told him I needed to rig the rest of the poles, get the bait ready, and anchor the boat.
I was finally free (or so I thought) of the customer who seemed to drain me of half my energy before even an hour had passed.
Once I got everything ready and let the anchor down, the fishing began. As I stood waiting to react to the fish being caught, my dad called me into the pilot house for a quick minute. While I stood next to him, he asked me if there was anyone on the boat who seemed unhappy or particularly challenging. I quickly pointed out the one customer. I told my dad to try to stay away from “that guy.”
My dad’s response caught me by surprise. He told me it was my job to turn that customer’s attitude around. He wanted me to stay close to that customer and kill him with kindness. He basically wanted me to win this guy over – even befriend him. This idea, to a 14-year-old, made no sense. Why would my dad want his son to waste his time and energy on this mean person? Surely, he knew that man was just an unhappy person. Surely, he knew this man would not change and would make my day miserable. Why would a dad want to make his son miserable? Why didn’t he choose to work on this customer himself? Obviously, he knew something I did not yet understand.
Even though I did not understand, I did as my dad said. Why? Because in my house in 1969, as a member of a family of 12, we obeyed our dad. Some of it might have been fear and some of it might have been respect. For whatever reason, I put on a big smile, bit the proverbial bullet and worked hard to get to know this customer. In time I even found out his interests, his likes and dislikes. When we spoke about his interests a smile would come to his usually expressionless face, and his energy would become more positive. I actually started seeing good in this customer, and eventually we became buddies.
By the end of the day, he even gave me a good tip, and off he went. I didn’t quite know when it happened or how it happened, but my attitude also changed during that day. What started out feeling liked a dreaded assignment or even punishment from my dad had actually become an invigorating and enjoyable experience. Who would have guessed?
If you are searching for the gift – search no more. Thirty-seven years later, here I am working with people every day who are physically and sometimes emotionally or spiritually scarred. They don’t always come in looking forward to seeing me, the physical therapist. In some cases, they might even look at me as a source of physical torture.
Luckily, because my dad had presented me with a situation he knew (from experience) would give me an opportunity to grow and develop, I learned a lesson that stayed with me and helped me through my life. Fortunately, I accepted the challenge (gift) although sometimes with reluctance and maybe some anger, but with a fairly open mind.
This was not a gift he gave only once. This gift ended up in my lap almost every fishing trip I worked until I was 22 years old.
As I stated in the beginning, here was a gift of a lifetime. I didn’t know it at the time. I didn’t even want it at the time. But now I am so thankful and appreciative of it because this gift allows me to love my vocation as a physical therapist. I did finally accept the gift with open arms. I did learn that we all have goodness in us. It sometimes takes a little coaxing to show itself, but our uniqueness is there to be discovered and enjoyed by others.
So, on this day I wish for all of the children, adolescents and adults to look closely at the challenges and even nasty jobs you are asked to perform. They may be some of the greatest gifts you will ever receive.
Enjoy the journey,