choice

I won’t always have long posts.  Promise.  But here, for this first real post, I’m basically dropping a whole chapter on you.  I hope you won’t mind.  If you’re one of those people who scrolls down to see how long something is before you commit to reading it, I’m giving you permission right here up front to take it in chunks.  Like the famed 80s candy, “Eat some now.  Save some for later.”

The chapter, as it appears currently in the book:

What I am about to say is foundational to all that will follow.  Don’t race through it.  Spend some time with it.  Read it several times if you must.  If you can really internalize it and live it, it could quite literally change your life.

First, as is my way, I’d like to start with a story.

I mentor teens.  I’ve done so for more than two decades.  By mentor, I do not mean that I’ve joined an organization and agreed to spend a block of time each week with a teen.  While I certainly encourage and see the value in this type of commitment, my mentoring takes a broader scope.  At any given time, I’m investing in twelve to twenty young people on a personal, day-to-day basis.

A couple of years back, I had about a dozen seniors I was mentoring.  We’d sort of formed a band of brothers back when they were freshmen.  It was now April, and many of the guys were suddenly and simultaneously falling apart.  Frantic calls at all hours.  Lengthy, erratic emails.  One of them had even asked to come over near midnight.  When he arrived, he sat on my couch shaking and in tears, trying to explain that he had been having repetitive nightmares and was generally panicked at all times.  I listened as he gushed for a while.  Then I looked at him sagaciously. “I see.  I think I know exactly what’s going on.”  His eyes widened, as if he were sure I was going to tell him the term for some rare form of psychosis, which he would readily have believed he had.

“What is it?” he pleaded, tears still falling.

“You’re graduating,” I replied, smiling.

With these guys, in addition to hanging out one-on-one or in smaller clusters during the week, we all met together on Mondays at my place for dinner and open dialog.  That particular week’s discussion point was a given.  I’ve always thought it negligent somehow that adults don’t tell seniors about this phenomenon.  It seems as obvious and necessary a topic as the birds and the bees.  The simple fact, I told them, is that sometime during the three months before or after graduation, when faced with the end of life as they know it and the beginning of life as they do not know it – high school seniors have a period of what feels a lot like mental breakdown.  They wander through an unpredictable maze of fear, lethargy, mania and general emotional upheaval.  I told them that, as odd and scary as it may feel, this was completely normal.  And that set their minds at ease that they weren’t, in fact, going crazy like Great Aunt Bertha.

As we went around the circle, pressed in close along the olive sectional in my living room, each of them shared how they had been feeling, and were relieved to hear that they weren’t the only one.  Until we got to Chad.

Chad was different.  He was charisma incarnate.  And while he listened attentively to the others, offering encouragement and good advice, when it came to his turn, he just couldn’t relate.  “Gee,” he said, all smiles, “I just don’t feel any of that.  And I can’t imagine that I ever would!  I’m excited about college.  I’m comfortable with new people and situations.  I can’t wait to graduate and get started!”

I didn’t want to dull his shine.  And, if anyone were of the constitution to escape senior panic, it was Chad.  But I did want him to be prepared, should it creep up on him later.  “That’s terrific!” I said.  “Just keep it tucked away, in case it hits later on.”  He shrugged and let it go with a noncommittal “OK.”

Graduation came and went.  Chad was bubbling over with enthusiasm.  He even staged an ostentatious stumble and trip across the lawn as he went to receive his diploma, eliciting a few colorful but good natured words from the principal, who apparently forgot his microphone was on.  Chad’s graduation party was the hit of the summer.  True to his prediction, he remained deliriously optimistic and excited about heading off to college, where he would follow in his father’s footsteps, having enrolled as a pre-med student.

I helped him pack the day he headed off.  I actually think it was a far tougher day for me than it was for him.  I stood in the driveway as the family drove away, Chad waving from the window like a lunatic and shouting back, “I love you, Papa!” (one of his many nicknames for me).

A few days later, I was out having lunch with a friend when a text came through.  It was Chad:

Really not doing so hot.  Need to talk.  Call if you can.

I excused myself and called immediately.  The voice that answered was barely recognizable.  Chad was hoarse and sobbing.  Hard.

“Tell me what’s going on,” I invited.

Chad stumbled over his words, choking through the torrent of tears.  Everyone was fake.  No one thought he was funny there.  He was on a campus of thousands and felt completely alone.  His professor for Calculus was Bulgarian.  He couldn’t understand her, other than that she had made it clear that she really didn’t want to be teaching this class, but had been made to by the higher-ups.  He was presently curled up in fetal position on his bed in a dark dorm room, finding it unimaginable that he could get up and go to the next class, let alone continue for the long haul at this desolate campus.  His world was crumbling.  His dreams were over.  It was the first week of classes.

I welled up as he let it all drain.  It would have been pitiful had it been anyone, but being Chad – perpetually cheerful Chad – it was all the more heartwrenching.

“OK, Chad,” I said when his words had run out, “remember that conversation we had about the panic that hits everyone?  It’s hitting you.  It’s normal.  You just hit yours a few days late.  It will pass.  I promise.”

Whimpers on the other end of the line.

“Second, you need to go and drop this Calculus class today.  It’s your first semester.  Four classes is fine.  You’ll feel so much better.”

Chad sniffed.  “Really?”  Something like hope was breaking through.  “I can do that?”

“Yes, Chad, you can do that.  You can drop or change every class you want, and it’s still early enough that you won’t be charged a cent to do it.”

“Yeah, then I’m going to do that.  I just didn’t know I could.  That will be great.”

As we talked about Chad’s other classes, it seemed he wasn’t thrilled with many, even those not being taught by less-than-willing Bulgarians.

“Chad … why did you choose pre-med?”

He paused.  “I don’t know,” he finally replied.  “I guess – my dad and I just always talked about me being a doctor and I guess that seemed fine.  I couldn’t think of anything else I wanted to do, so I just did it.”

“I see.  How would you feel about changing that major to something you will actually enjoy?”

Chad didn’t say anything, but the sun may as well have been shining through the cell phone.  “You know what?” he chirped.  “I hate pre-med!  I hate science!”  We both laughed openly.

We decided that each of us would look through the handbook at all of the majors offered by the university.  We’d circle anything that we thought was a better possibility, given Chad’s personality and interests.  The next day, we compared notes.  Chad was ecstatic.  Every ounce of despair had been replaced with joy.  Among a handful of others, we had both wound up double circling this long shot of an option, but one that just seemed so … Chad.  Human Services: Rehabilitation.  It was settled.  He was changing his major.

“I don’t know what my dad will say,” Chad chimed, “and I know that it won’t pay anything close to a doctor’s salary.  But I’m so excited about it!”  He clamored on about the class lists and the professors and the opportunities available to students in this major.

As it turned out, Chad had a great talk with his father.  His parents have been the biggest supporters of his new major.  And, not only did Chad change his major, he has begun to change the entire campus.  He founded a unique club of which he is the president, a club whose mission is to take positive social risks.  And both he and the club have been getting lots of notice.  He’s been on the radio and in the newspapers. He’s met with high administrators  who are eager to back his efforts, and has even been in personal touch with the president of the university.

Nice story.  But what does this have to do with you?  Well, you see, even an ultra-optimist like Chad fell apart and was completely overwhelmed and despondent, because he’d forgotten a very important truth.  He was immobilized, because he believed in that space of time that life was happening to him, and that he had no say in the matter.  Yet, once he was reminded of this key truth, he not only rebounded but began to take the world by storm.

THE BEST ADVICE SO FAR:  You always have a choice.

Chad did not need to be a doctor.  There was no rule that said he must struggle through a schedule of classes he hated, or even that he needed to remain at that university.  Chad had choices.

If you don’t accept this truth – that you always have a choice – if you don’t remember it and live it, then you are left to play the part of the victim in life.  You begin (or continue) to live as if life is happening to you, that you are powerless, oppressed by your circumstances.  But, if you truly change your mind set to believe and live out in practical ways that, in every circumstance, you have a choice – now, you open a door for change.  Instead of living as if life is happening to you, you will begin to happen to life.  You will begin to realize the difference that one person – you – can make, that you are an agent of change in your own life and in the lives of others.

Don’t misunderstand me.  I’m not saying that we get to choose everything that happens to us in life.  We do not choose abuse, and we can at no time choose to undo those things which have happened to us in life.

We do not choose illness.  We do not choose when or how the people we love will leave us.  Or die.

We do, however, have the choice of how we will respond in every situation, even the hurtful ones.  Instead, so often, we pour our frustration and anger into those things we can not change, rather than investing that energy into the many choices that we can make from that point forward.

I saw this painted on a classroom wall recently:

HARDSHIP IS GUARANTEED.

MISERY IS OPTIONAL.

I devote a whole chapter to this concept later on in the book.  But for now, let that sink in.  In the worst of circumstances that life may bring, you always have the next move.  You have a choice.  In grieving, will you choose to close yourself off from others?  Or will you live with more passion and intention, realizing the precious nature of life?  Will you let the abuser rob you of continually more hours and days and years of your life, through bitterness and anger?  Or will you take the steps to thrive and live in the now, using your experience to help others do the same?

So it is with any advice.  It is always your choice to try it or to discard it.  You can skim future advice, mentally assenting or theoretically debating with me about why such-and-such wouldn’t actually work in real life.  Or you can come along for the adventure, try some new things, and see what happens.

The choice is yours.

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