The Gift of a Stranger
February 11, 2011
This is a guest post from the author, Beth Jannery.
During times of crisis, people often reach for the overused, and sometimes annoying, cliché that God will not give us more than we can handle. Then there is another popular comforting notion that what does not totally destroy us makes us stronger.
But there comes a time in life when you want to scream, “Enough! I can’t handle anymore.” Then something else happens and adds to your burden and you are left with the proverbial consolation prize of an arm around your shoulder convincing you that this too shall pass, another good, but worn out, phrase.
It’s all sage advice and you know it’s true, but when will it pass? When will your deep pain lift? In your heart you know things will get better. The rain clears and the sun comes up. It always does. For those who know the feeling of enough is enough all too well, I offer these words of solace from Vince Lombardi, a man who is on the short list of history’s greatest coaches: “It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get up.”
The question is, what will you do? Will you get up? This is the moment of truth when you are down – will you get up? And, if you do get up you may learn that you haven’t necessarily gotten stronger through the failing, but your true character is revealed. This is the key. You discover your true character, your grit, what you’re made of. It was right there all along.
Through tragedy you discover what’s at your core. “Adversity does not necessarily build character, it reveals it,” as another old saying goes.
If adversity reveals character, the same is true of sports. In sports much of what players learn on the field or court can be applied to what we all strive for in life. In fact, Lombardi believed that “the quality of a person’s life is in direct proportion to their commitment to excellence.”
How do I know this? I’m not an athlete (minus swim team and cheerleading 25 years ago, Rugby for a semester in college, and a solo Marine Corps Marathon in 1996….does Yoga count?). Here’s how I know – I met someone who lives by this motto.
When I first read about Jim Smith I cried. I’d tripped over his story in The Washington Post in the aftermath of my own changes – a job shift, a divorce finalized after 15 years, and a move. While none of these changes come close to the significant loss of losing a spouse, I was letting go and shedding the past and with that comes a mourning process of what once was. It is a different kind of loss and while I can’t compare the suffering, I can identify with some sadness. I was simply tired and emotionally spent. In other words, I was tapped out, so when I read the article about Smith, I was fairly fragile from my own changes.
It was the same month my most recent book, Simple Miracles, had been released and I had spent a solid year prior researching, interviewing, writing and editing short stories about simple, everyday miracles. I was proud of putting pen to paper, but I was exhausted and reeling from the end of my marriage. It was the close of a long and difficult year and I was feeling raw, but I was taking a much-needed respite for myself.
My mantra was “In with the good, out with the bad. Breathe in. Breathe out. Inhale. Exhale.” I kept things simple.
It was, around Christmas time that I read about Jim. He was a real example of a simple miracle; I had to know more. Here he was, a man who’d lost his wife eight months earlier (she took her own life after struggling for years with mental illness), left to raise four children. Here was the realization that as much as we’d like to control our lives, we are not in control of any person, place or thing.
But the beautiful part was that he was not alone by any stretch of the imagination. He had an outpouring of support and love coming from neighbors, basketball players, families and friends. He had the choice to either crawl up in a ball and pull the covers over his head, or find a hidden source of strength and rise up and be the man God intended him to be. He chose to get up, day after day, and do what needed to be done. He coaches, teaches, parents and inspires. He could not control others, but he could control how he reacted to the situation.
I was drawn to this story; his rare compassion and resilience practically leapt off the page. Yet I could feel the sadness.
I am all too familiar with living in a family surrounded by severe mental illness – growing up I learned what it does to a person, how it feels to walk on eggshells and hide the truth.
It is a devastating way to live. I know firsthand how it impacts the immediate family and how outsiders – friends, neighbors and coworkers – don’t know how to deal with the issue even though they want to understand.
For a family living with an ill mother, father or sibling, it is sometimes easier to hide the truth, than to try to explain. It is not a tangible illness and you cannot always see it, but for those who live with a person who suffers, it is a confusing way to live. That said, you lose all sense of what is normal. I know what it means to love the person and hate the illness. Maybe somehow I can help him heal, I thought. I felt immediate empathy and compassion for Jim and his children.
It is not easy to accept the things we cannot change, at first, but once the surrender takes place it can become effortless – and a big part of the healing process. It is a powerful message that comes from The Serenity Prayer: “God, Grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change. Courage to change the things I can, and the Wisdom to know the difference.“
I prayed about it and tried to shake the story from my mind, but in the end I was compelled to reach out. I felt called to make a connection as often is the case in a difficult situation when people tend to rally for the common good. So, I contacted him – offered to help in sea of already outreached arms. There was really nothing I could do or say that wasn’t already being done. Still, I reached out anyway. Perhaps I could add to his comfort and healing somehow, I told myself. At the very least, I thought, I should try. So I tried and what happened as a result has left me changed.
A friendship unfolded. What I was met with surprised me. Instead of finding a man who was down in the dumps, I met a healthy man who is committed to healing and is clearly a source of strength for so many others. He is reestablishing his life and his faith is unshakable. Instead of me helping him, he helps me. He shows me what it is to be grateful and focused and steadfast of mind. He solidifies for me core ideals that I know to be true. He walks the walk by making commitments and sticking to them. He puts himself third – after God and after others. He reminds me that isolating doesn’t solve a thing and showing vulnerability is the same as being full of courage. He strives for balance in his life; we see eye to eye on many levels.
Another cliché: He makes me want to be a better person.
Through Jim I learned to open my heart, to let in the unexpected. I reached out to help him and he turns around and helps me. I learned how special his wife Becky was and what an amazing mother she was to her four kids when she was not overtaken by her illness. I witness his world and see his character displayed out in the open as I observe him lead his team and guide his coaches and I see how they also guide and inspire him. I’m reminded how we all learn from each other. We are all in this life together. I am brought to tears, happy tears, during many occasions.
I feel blessed, and all because I took a risk to contact a stranger.
Here’s what else I have learned from him:
- Begin with an end in mind and remain open. Challenges come and go – remain flexible.
- It is important to talk to each other. Exchange ideas. Share.
- The little things in life are actually the big things.
- We must wake up and do what needs to get done, put others first – children, a sports team, neighbors.
- We are never sure why things happen the way they do. But, if we are open to possibility then we are open to all of life and in that openness we find new beginnings.
- Nothing is a coincidence. Find the meaning in it all. Listen and keep an open mind and an open heart. Do this and you end up with a powerful ability to see the humor and laugh. Be willing to accept what comes.
- Know that you are not in charge. Deep faith and humility are always the answer. Be OK with your lot in life. Be satisfied with the daily grind. Be at peace with yourself. Develop a strong inner confidence so you know who you are when all else falls away.
- Be friends with the people right next to you. We are all part of a collective soul – a oneness – this is the way life should be. Embrace tradition and get back to the simple way life once was – how neighborhoods used to be.
- Know your kids. Really know them, what makes them tick, watch for more teachable moments. He jokes that a good indication of being a successful parent is when you go to bed tired every night, then you are doing something right for your family.
- Maybe you can shoot higher and aim farther, but the beauty is being content with what is right here in front of you – right here at home in your own backyard.
- It’s great to take care of yourself, but when you can’t it is OK to ask for help. Smith believes that success if measured by close friends. Asking for help is part of being a good player, coach, friend and parent.
- Let go of selfishness. Be a good teammate – acknowledge other people. Don’t take every shot – pass the ball. Be a good team player. Play hard. Don’t ever quit.
Success, according to Smith “It’s not about me shining; it’s about the team doing well. What is best for my team? Ultimately, it’s about what is best for my family.”
This, in essence, is what it means to have a commitment to excellence. In the face of adversity or crashing waves, Smith strengthened his commitment and it is felt by those around him – even by strangers – or new friends.