It’s good to connect up with you and I hope you and your loved ones are doing well.
We live in challenging times. I’m going to be speaking to a group of young people in a couple of weeks and their leaders were telling me that these youth feel considerable stress, anxiety and a foreboding about the future. Some of them are depressed. Most of them know school friends who are talking about taking their own lives. Some have friends who have.
Hearing this saddens me. I feel for these young people, many of whom feel uncertain and confused. And it’s not just young people, these days. Certainly lots of adults are living with a vague sense of dread about circumstances that can seem pretty overwhelming and beyond their ability to control or influence.
These thoughts bring up a distinction to me–life vs. life situation. My life situation has to do with what is going on “out there”–events, day-to-day occurrences, global circumstances that affect us all (economy, state of the world) and personal circumstances that affect just me and perhaps my loved ones.
My life, on the other hand, is much more than my life situation. It begins with the very fact of life. Here I am–an incredibly complex living and breathing being which not only miraculously sustains life but interprets, makes sense, and chooses how to respond to life (or my life situation). This “being” (life) is so much more and bigger than my life situation.
That’s what I want to say to these young people. Your life is not your life situation. You can tell me all about your life situation–what’s going on, the “good” and the “bad,” the “facts” and circumstances. And I’d want to listen. I love to hear people’s stories. And most people find something validating about telling their stories.
But then I’d come back to my main theme. What is most important about your life is not what’s going on, in other words, all the facts and circumstances. Far more important and what really defines “you” and the quality of your life is your incredible ability to see what’s going on and make choices about what things mean and how you’ll act on them.
It’s true that lots of youth, and their parents, face some tough realities right now. However, it is also true that what things mean is not cast in stone. I get to decide. You get to decide.
I recently listened to a 31 year-old man by the name of Luke Jones tell his personal story. On March 2, 1980, at 18 months of age, he fell head first into a washing machine of scalding water. By the time Luke’s mother pulled him out he was not breathing and covered over 60% of his body with 3rd degree burns.
His mother immediately began resuscitation and had someone call 911. Little Luke was rushed to the hospital in a coma. His brain had swelled so badly that the doctors didn’t think he’d last through the night. But he fooled them. Although a long and difficult journey and close to death on several occasions, Luke survived.
However, many effects of the accident permanently altered the course of Luke’s life. For example, the scarring was permanent. His parents put him in a “spiderman” type outfit (with eye, nose, mouth and ear holes) to help his skin heal and, no doubt, to protect other people from the shock of seeing him.
When four years old he was in a Sunday School class for children. A new girl came into the class and, upon seeing Luke, started to cry. At first, the teacher could not get her to stop crying. the teacher eventually consoled her by holding her in her lap. But then each time the girl would look up and see Luke, she’d start crying all over again.
At some point, as the girl was crying, Luke got up from his chair and started backing towards the door of the classroom. Can you imagine what he must have been feeling at that moment– scared, rejected, inadequate? After several steps he could back up no further. What next? Would he open the door and run? Find a place to hide? Seek out his parents?
Instead, he started singing a children’s song entitled, “I am a Child of God.” At first, Luke sang alone. Then a few more children joined in and before long every child, including the frightened newcomer and an astonished teacher, were singing the words to this song. Fear yielded to smiles and love; misperception to truth and goodwill.
I’ve thought about the change that happened inside of Luke as he started to sing. Certainly, he couldn’t conceptualize it in his four-year-old mind, but singing the words of that song made a statement. “I know who I am. My life matters. I am worthy of your love.”
Far more important than Luke’s appearance is his ability to decide. Luke is one of the fortunate souls who have learned this lesson.
In fact, Luke’s had lots of opportunities in adulthood to receive reconstructive surgery to repair his ears, make them look normal. He’s refused, telling his parents, “This is who I am,” saying, in essence, “Who I am is okay. I don’t need to be different to be lovable or have a happy and successful life.”
Reality is what is, the facts and circumstances of my life, my life situation. But reality doesn’t define “me,” the essence of my life, or who I am. Responsibility is my ability to make choices about reality–what it means; how I’ll step up to it. And how I use this responsibility determines my results, my destiny, the richness, and meaning of my life.
So that’s what I want to say to these young people. Yup, there are some tough realities out there. I won’t minimize that. And it’s sometimes tempting to be overwhelmed by those realities.
But what’s bigger, those realities or your ability to choose? And then I’ll go on and teach them some strategies (challenging negative thinking, leveraging motivation, putting yourself in a positive and resourceful mental state) for stepping up to life, for making good, positive, and strengthening choices. Because, in truth, there is nothing stronger and more resilient than the human spirit. Somewhere inside these youth know that. I just want them to know that they know it.
And, by the way, Luke Jones continues to express himself today through song. (I wonder if it goes back to that moment as a four year old boy.) In fact, you can learn about his story and even order his music CD by visiting his website.
Roger K. Allen
Roger K. Allen, Ph.D. is an expert in personal transformation, leadership, and teams. His tools and methods have helped hundreds of businesses and tens of thousands of people transform the ways they work and live. To learn more, visit www.theheroschoice.com.
Sign up to receive Dr. Roger Allen's newsletter, and receive a free copy of his eBook, Master Your Self-Defeating Emotions!