Smilin’ at My Follies

There is a quote used by practitioners of Systema (a Russian martial art) that says “Smile at your follies as they happen and they will be your tools. Scowl and hide from them and you will be a tool to them”.

This is a mistake I’ve made – not smiling at the follies of life, but scowling and trying to hide them. I’ve worried too much over perceived past mistakes. It’s led to fear and discouragement – like a boxer who can’t quit because the ring is all he knows, yet feels he can’t really win, so now he just expects to absorb the blows until sometime soon, maybe today, he just will not be able to get back up again.

I thought I was supposed to be smarter, wiser and more faithful at this age. Again, I was scowling and hiding my follies. Today I read in an excerpt from Dom Van Zeller’s book Suffering: The Catholic Answer, that we think of the saints as triumphing over temptation by “the felt force of ardent love”, but in reality most of them actually had to grind out “dry, hard acts of faith and hope through clenched teeth”. That I can relate to.

Hiding my follies has sucked joy and faith from my life. It’s led me to question past decisions, worry over failings and almost despair over the future. One of the most inspirational friends I’ve had, a boxer with whom I trained,  taught me to keep jabbing – even when you can’t see, even when you’re hurt – keep jabbing.

So here’s a smiling jab at my follies, to which I will not be a tool again.

Thank you to the company that fired me from a job when I was 42, with three teenagers still at home. Because of this I had to start over in life – a forced second act. But I got to work each day with my wife and kids in a family business – watching young children look up to my children as heroes.  I got to help hundreds of kids. I had the motivation to earn two master’s degrees and seek a new career in education. Now I wake up each day saying “I get to do this” instead of “I have to go to work”.

Thanks to the company that threatened to fire me if I didn’t hit an impossible goal. I learned a lot, but you were not worth my time.

Thanks to the thief at Wal Mart who stole $50 from my little girl who mistakenly left her cute little purse in the dressing room. She had saved her birthday money to buy herself a pet guinea pig. I hope you were starving that day because there was nothing but that hard-saved $50 and some bubblegum lip gloss in that purse. You had to know you were stealing from a child. From you we learned that not everyone is nice or good – and while we have to love, we should also guard. Sleep well thief – that little girl turned into an amazing woman.

Thanks to a former friend who tested the limits of my self-control and cheek-turning by making inappropriate comments to my daughter. I discovered that she is amazingly strong, resilient and far more forgiving than her father.

Thanks to two failed businesses I tried to start. From you I learned the lessons that have helped me build a family business that has been profitable from day 1 for over 10 years now. I got to build it with my family, so that it has also become our mission – helping kids and women. We were featured on a national business magazine. So, thank you two failures, probably couldn’t have done it without you.

Thank you to the 10 seconds of raw terror on a whitewater rafting trip when Lisa was knocked out of the raft and then caught under it.  Ryan and Laura popped right up – but Lisa stayed under thinking she was pushing her kids up. Instead she was pushing on the bottom of the raft. Those were the longest and most agonizing seconds of my life when all sorts of things flashed through my mind. The most painful thought was that I hadn’t protected you, had let you be in danger, and then in seconds had decide to grab kids while I frantically looked for you. This folly – that I could protect everyone from everything if I tried hard enough – this was a really hard lesson.

Thanks to diabetes. You killed my grandfather in his 50’s and my mom in her 60’s. Now I’m wrestling with you. Expect a good fight.  From you I have learned that I cannot control, but I can manage; and that things don’t have to be perfect. A chronic illness has made me even healthier.

Thanks to the department chair and provost whose decisions cost me $10,000 and 2 years of my life. Your actions told me that 25 years worth of experience was not worth 2 years of school and the addition of a couple of initials behind my name. You were wrong. From you I learned that I had a dedication to effort that surprised myself.  And when you decided that I was not qualified to teach in your university, the loyalty of students I had been privileged to work with kicked the door in, and then other people there found a way to help me help their students.

It’s taken me a while to appreciate that I am the sum of my life experiences – the successes and failures. Now I’ve pulled the mask off my failures and follies. You follies own me no longer. You shall now be my tools.