Tag Archives: strength

chitty chitty bang bang

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Teaches Us About Life.

By Chris Warren.

I was on YouTube researching material for another website I write for and ended up wandering around and getting lost on my own click trail. YouTube does a great job of getting me to drift off task. My proclivity to being an easily distracted airhead had me watching clips from the classic British children’s movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I loved that movie as a kid. It never seems to get tiresome and I diverted from my mission for just a few minutes to partake in a little childhood joy.

I did not have time to watch the entire movie, but I saw enough Chitty Chitty Bang Bang clips to realize what I did not notice as a kid: The story, intentionally or not, had some depth to it. It was not just a cute kids’ movie. There were lessons buried in there:

Children can be strong agents of change. The magical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang car would never have existed if the kids had not grown fond of it and begged their eccentric inventor daddy to buy the old wreck before the junkman did. What started as a mere appeasement of children turned out to be a major process of self realization for its builder.

In real life, adults  learn a lot about themselves as a side effect of doing some pretty crazy stuff to please kids. Having kids means not living solely for yourself. It means being needed. And sometimes, it means buying an old junk car that you would otherwise have no interest in because a little kid begged you. It reminds me of all the things my parents put up with to make me happy and how that contributed to their wisdom.

How many of us will not actively go looking for a challenge but will accept one if it is given?

Great people always underestimate themselves. Main character Caractacus Potts (played by Dick Van Dyke), is a loving single dad of the two children but is a somewhat inept inventor who doesn’t make any real money. Lacking confidence, he seems resigned to his mediocre standing until he is forced take his flying car to the fictional Kingdom of Vulgaria and rescue his kidnapped father.

He successfully recovers his father and unintentionally also liberates an entire country from their immature man-child Baron. Throughout the story, even Caractacus himself seems amazed at his own abilities and those of the car that he built. By the end of the movie, everyone returns home safely. Caractacus gets the pretty girl, finally attains status as an inventor, and lives happily ever after. And oh yeah, the children get a really cool car that can also be a boat and an aircraft.

Great people usually begin as average  people. On the surface, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is just a whimsical kids’ story. But in the mix is a regular guy many of us can relate to: Potts trudges through life doing the best that he can with what he has. He deeply loves his kids but does not have a lot of money to give them the lifestyle he’d like. He never gives up, but does not take any big risks, either. That is, until he is forced to. How many of us will not actively go looking for a challenge but will accept one if it is given? It’s not the same as being lazy. Some of us just need a little push. Like many people who overcame adversity or achieved a difficult goal, Caractacus didn’t know how great he was until being great was the only option.

Ok, I know the plot of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a very far fetched and implausible children’s movie, but I’m not reading too much into this. There are legitimate lessons buried in there. Even the movie itself  defied its own fate: It received wishy-washy reviews from the critics when it  was released and was only a modest financial success. Yet like Caractacus it endured and hung in there and is now considered a timeless classic. What entertained me as a child now enlightens me as an adult., and that’s not silly kid stuff.

 

challenges

The Challenges of Mount Magazine.

By: Chris Warren

I consider myself a reluctant adventurer, meaning, I don’t go looking for challenges but if one is pushed upon me I’ll take it. Sometimes the challenges are mental, other times they’re physical. When I recently got caught completely unprepared for a long hike in the woods and came out of it feeling affirmed and positive albeit beaten and tired, I made the connection between mental and physical challenges and how they complement each other to make us stronger and better.

I was in Fort Smith, Arkansas visiting my active, outdoorsy friends who love taking long hikes in the many hills and mountains of the Ozarks. A day of bad weather finally gave way to sunshine and they invited me to to join them on a hike to the top of Mount Magazine.

Mount Magazine is 2,753 feet straight up and the highest point in Arkansas. My friends had never been there, so this was going to be a totally new experience for all of us. I had no idea what to expect so I stuffed my backpack with a jacket and some bottled water and we were off.

Mere minutes in I realized that this was not going to be a gentle stroll on a nicely groomed, clearly marked trail designed for retiree tourists and grade school field trips. What the map called a “trail” was barely a clearing of very rough, uneven rocks. I thought maybe it would smooth out after a while but it didn’t. It actually got worse.

The mistake of not wearing proper hiking boots became apparent almost immediately. All I brought with me to Arkansas was a pair of light Nike running shoes. I felt every sharp corner of every rock through those thin soles. It was going to be a long day.

It took us over an hour and an half of walking through this very rough inclined terrain to reach the summit of Mount Magazine. I’m glad I had the foresight to bring a jacket because it was cool at the higher elevation. My feet were killing me, and we still had to go back down, but the view and camaraderie with my friends as we pushed ourselves was uplifting.

On the descent the rocks were becoming even more painful on my feet. One of my friends happens to be a doctor and I joked that she might have to refer me to a podiatrist when we get back. After three-plus hours of walking on rocks, half of it uphill, we arrived back at the trailhead where we started.

We plopped on a bench and looked at each other in weary silence. There was a sense of “We did it together. We were given challenges and we beat them.” When I got up to leave, the consequences of my poor choice of shoes reached its peak: Everything below my knees was numb and in pain. I was walking like a ninety year old man! Fortunately, I was not crippled for long. The hour and a half ride back to Fort Smith gave me a chance to stay off my feet and by time we got home I was mostly back to normal. I was surprised and grateful that I recovered from that much pain so quickly.

Later that night when I was laying in bed waiting to drift off to sleep, I was contemplating my exciting day. A hike in the woods is more than just hard physical challenges. Nature is a classroom of philosophy and spirituality and introspection. My takeaways were:

1. With the right mindset, challenges can be overcome. We all must walk over the same rocks but how you approach it determines the outcome. Had I worn the correct hiking boots, the trip would have been far less physically painful, but I kept up with the others and finished because I wanted to. There is an analogy to other life situations: If your progress in work or relationships is difficult and painful, it may be because you have the wrong attitude. The difference between those who succeed and those who fail is usually in their outlook.

2. With the right friends, challenges are easier. I would have never walked that trail alone. And the others probably would not have either. The physical pain of aching feet and the emotional pain life sometimes thrusts upon us is greatly reduced when you have friends to encourage you along.

3.  When you succeed in completing challenges as a group, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. When it was over, every one of us felt bigger than just individuals. And none of us would have felt as good had we done it with random strangers. People who think they can do everything themselves usually get lost in the woods. Having friends matters.

Our day on Mount Magazine was far from a high adventure trek worthy of a North Face commercial, yet it was something we will be talking about years from now, and will probably do again (Note to self: Bring appropriate footwear!). Had we decided to bum around a mall or go to a movie that day, I doubt it would have made much of a lasting impression on me. To really understand the world, one has to get out in it, push one’s limits, and share the challenges with a friend.

fate

When Fate Slams On The Brakes.

By: Chris Warren

Most people appeal to God or whatever they believe in to deliver on a big request. When the request is not granted, they are disappointed. It may take some time to realize it, perhaps even years, but in most of these cases being stopped by fate from getting what we wanted was the answer to a prayer.

Back in my younger years I went off to college with the intent of becoming an electronics technician. I had an unbreakable interest in electronics since I was in grade school and was very eager to pursue it as a career. Unfortunately, my passion as a hobbyist/experimenter did not translate into the classroom. By the end of my first year, I was washed out.

I changed direction and decided I wanted to be a high school English teacher. I had an aptitude for language and this time had the grades to prove it, so I thought it would be a good fit. Everything went as planned until I landed a teaching assignment at a small high school in rural Illinois and was given a class of my own. The students liked me, and I was an effective teacher, but I quickly realized that this was not what I wanted to do for the next thirty or so years.

Barely out of college, fate already put the brakes on my life plans, twice. Or maybe I was just clueless. Being stopped from making a bad move is good, but it does not really get you anywhere, either. At some point, you have to release the brakes and find a better route. My story has a happy ending: I went back to college and tried electronics again as more mature and disciplined student. I finished the degree program with excellent grades and ever since have prospered in a field doing what I’ve loved since I was a little kid.

Fate is as much about forcing us to look for a better way as it is about stopping us from going the wrong way. In that regard it’s a double-blessing. Stopping for anything is against what modern culture teaches us. We are conditioned to keep moving and making progress, yet high-achieving people will often say that being stopped from proceeding on one path and diverting to another is a major factor in their success.

What I get out of this is that fate is nature’s, or God’s, or whatever’s, second chance. There is no benefit in avoiding trouble if it does not lead you to something else. And most good things come only after some sort of hardship. Maybe that’s why so many people who are successful without any sacrifice (lottery winners, for example) disproportionately end up with broken relationships, broken careers, broken bank accounts.

I’m at a point in my life where I feel like it’s time to evaluate what my next move will be. I’m not unhappy and I don’t feel like I’m just sitting on the brakes, but fate has saved me from enough mistakes to make me more circumspect. Fate, it seems, is not a mysterious external “power” after all. It’s an intervention, a moment of realization, a warning, and a compass. It forces us to look for opportunities we might not otherwise notice and choose a different path.

tool idiot

You Can’t Fix A Tool Idiot.

By: Chris Warren

Everyone knows a tool idiot, or perhaps are one themselves. I don’t intend the term to be as disrespectful as it sounds. A tool idiot is a wannabe do-it-yourselfer who either grossly overestimates his or her ability to do a job, uses the wrong tools for the task, or has the right tools but does not have any skill using them. Tool idiots deserve credit for at least trying, but in many cases might have been better off not trying.

One recent hot summer morning I noticed the neighbor up the road cutting a tree down. He was clearly having difficulty, which is to be expected when one tries to cut down an entire full sized tree with a small electric saw. I gave a fleeting thought to going over there to help him, but hey, my own to-do list is already longer than the weekend. I also know that property is a rental so I wasn’t interested in working at someone else’s house for free while the landlord collects a rent check every month.

Late the next day I was driving by again and the same guy is hacking on the same tree, and most of it is still upright. My misgivings about providing free labor notwithstanding, I couldn’t take watching him struggle any more. I told him I would run home, change into work clothes and come back with the equipment needed to end his long, hot, miserable weekend of fruitless toil.

Within an hour of my return that tree was down and carved up into pieces small enough to carry. As I was leaving him on his own to clear the substantial mess, I was too polite to mention that for fifty bucks he could have rented a gas chainsaw and saved himself a day and a half of sweating his ass off while getting very little done.

He was both surprised and grateful at how quickly it all happened once the right knowledge and proper tools were applied to the task. Maybe it was divine intervention that he didn’t rent a gas chainsaw because I’m pretty sure he would have ripped a limb off with it, and I’m not referring to the tree. My floundering neighbor is a classic example a tool idiot: Well-intentioned, but hapless.

My dad is the exact opposite of a tool idiot. He owns, has owned, or has used pretty much every tool ever invented. He is the consummate handyman. From attic vents to sump pumps and everything in between, he has always done his own home repairs. Dad can pour cement, wire electric outlets, unclog drains, lay carpet & tile, put up fences, and tear down walls. He’s done several major renovations. He works on cars. Dad not only does it all, he does it with amazing skill. Even the stuff he screws up comes out twice as good as what the average person could pull off.

Guys like my dad are very hard to find now. The days of having do-it-yourself pride has been transplanted with a generation of tool idiots and a false belief that anyone can do it with no experience, no skill, and barely any effort. It’s a naiveté borne by television shows where some dude guts & remodels a whole house without even getting dirty.

People who barely know how to turn a screwdriver and whose garages are devoid of any sign of a homeowner with technical skills will spend a weekend watching HGTV and decide that’s all the “vocational training” they need to be master of all trades. Back in my dad’s time there were very few tool idiots. It was expected that most guys did their own fixes & upgrades because life wasn’t as simple as looking up a contractor on your smartphone and having them appear at your door within a few hours.

I’m not anywhere near my dad’s level, but I have a comprehensive collection of tools and can competently handle most homeowner issues myself. When I get stuck, I call my dad. He always knows what to do, and what not to do. When I look at a someone else’s project and I think to myself, my father would never do it that way,  I feel validated knowing that my daddy didn’t raise a tool idiot.

 

A Master’s Long Journey On A Trail Of Failure.

By: Chris Warren.

If failure builds skill, then I should be an expert at a ton of stuff. The problem with this theory is that failure doesn’t by default make someone better. You have to want to be better, evaluate your shortcomings, and find a way to do it differently next time. Then go and actually do it. Failure is an effective teacher only when the student doesn’t stop trying.

Regular readers of my blog know that I am an very devoted amateur radio hobbyist and work professionally in the communications electronics field. I’ve spent this summer doing a lot of upgrades to my equipment and more than once I’ve been made painfully aware that for all the skill and expertise I’ve collected over many years of working on electronics as both a hobbyist and a professional, there is always something new tripping me up. Even more humbling is when I make mistakes performing easy tasks that I’ve successfully done before with barely a thought but at the moment cannot seem to grasp.

Someone who is admired and respected for their skill in a particular area make it look so easy, yet behind every flawless performance lies thousands of mistakes no one ever sees. Olympic athletes spend years falling down, missing the shot, not making their time, pushing through injury and illness. They take it all in and do better next time, until “next time” is the one single now-or-never Olympic event that is the denouement of their life’s effort.

On a far less Olympian but equally meaningful plane, there are everyday folks working as carpenters, auto mechanics, electricians, musicians, and teachers who are experts in their field and work largely unnoticed. After all, they don’t give gold medals for being the best accountant. The work may not be glamorous but it is important; the world runs better because these people did not quit the first time they failed at what they are now masters of.

failure

Every now and then I am invited to give a public talk about the technical aspects of solar energy and how it can be applied to everyday life. I always bring along some of my equipment for a live demonstration of how it all works. My solar power station attracts a lot of interest and many flattering compliments. The system is a point of pride for me because I designed and built everything myself from the ground up. I want all my electronic projects to say, “the person who made this is a highly skilled craftsman who cares about his work”.  A master does not brag about how good he is. He lets his results speak for him.

What the audience does not see behind me is is the decades-long trail of failure littered with burned out components, incorrectly wired circuits, blown fuses, ruined electrical connectors, a discharged fire extinguisher used on one of my alleged brilliant ideas, and spending hundreds of evenings and weekends in a college engineering lab doing it over and over and over until I had it right. I’m no genius. Usually I was the last to leave the lab because I was the slowest to figure it out. But I did figure it out.

For those who are driven to be accomplished at something, failure to keep trying is worse than failure at the task itself. Nobody wins all of the time. Show me someone who claims to have never been a failure and I’ll show you someone who has also never succeeded, or is a liar. The world rightly places a high value on success and winning, yet there is little talk of all the failure and pain and sacrifice that is the unavoidable price of being a master.

We live in a society that wants reward without risk, recognition without sacrifice, and no hurt feelings. The reality of life is indifferent to what society wants, or perceives as success, or how artificially low the bar is set to create as many winners as possible: Everyone knows which kids showed up early for practice every time, gave it all they had, and really earned the trophy, and which kids just can’t cut it and are being pandered to for the sake of appearances. Whether it’s winning an Olympic gold medal, beautifully playing a musical instrument, or expertly troubleshooting a complex electronic circuit, the hand of the master is guided by wisdom gained from the humiliation of uncountable failure.

forgiveness

Charge It To The Forgiveness Card.

By: Chris Warren.

Every day, often more than once, there is a celebrity, politician, or large corporation making a public apology for something or another. Some of these pleas for absolution are sincerely offered for genuine slights, others are purely for appearances. On an interpersonal level, there are two sides to everything, and the other side of “I’m sorry” is “I forgive you.” Sometimes forgiveness is given as a one-way sentiment when the offending party is not the least bit sorry and is not asking to be forgiven. No matter which way we work this, it’s a lot easier to offer an apology than it is to respond with forgiveness.

Being sorry (usually) carries no price tag other than an implication that the offensive behavior will not be repeated in the future. Forgiveness requires a much larger investment of faith. When we forgive someone, we are basically extending them credit. We are trusting them not to do whatever it is they did that incited  the apology in the first place.

When all is right in the world, forgiveness is given and received in equal amounts. We subconsciously do a little emotional accounting to decide if the offender has enough “credit” to warrant forgiveness. A frustrated parent is not likely to believe any recycled assurances to be on time, next time, when a teenager is caught sneaking into the house late at night after promising many times before to be in by curfew. Meanwhile, the typically punctual kid who slips up once in a while will probably get a pass. A fair person will also take into account their own previous misdeeds: It’s easier to be lenient with others when if you can admit you’re less than perfect yourself.

One of the biggest fallacies about the apology-forgiveness transaction the presumption that the damage is fixed and everything can return to normal. Forgiveness in itself does not really “fix” anything. All it means is the someone has let go of their anger. Some damage cannot be fixed. Compensation, when it’s possible, is at the discretion of the forgiver.

It’s a tiresome but truthful maxim that love is what makes relationships work. Yet no one ever talks about how forgiveness is what makes love work. Every relationship is going to have moments when each side commits some kind of violation against the other. There are only two solutions: Extend forgiveness and move on, or don’t forgive them. Both options may or may not include ending the relationship. Withholding forgiveness but staying in the relationship anyway is a dead end conclusion that assumes living in resentment and mutual disrespect is a legitimate path.

The whole point of my mental hopscotch here is that love cannot exist without forgiveness, and vice-versa. By the way, this concept is a basic tenet of several major world religions, including Christianity. It’s not that difficult to grasp. Apology-forgiveness recognizes that we are all imperfectly human. It recognizes that you can’t be indefinitely angry at someone while at the same time claiming to love them. Forgiveness gives both wrongdoers and the wronged at a path out of their respective dilemmas, even if it’s only a partial path. Forgiveness does not promise a perfect outcome, nor is it an assurance that “everything will be the same,” nor that all damages will be undone.

There are uncountable books and television shows and websites dedicated to the pop psychology of anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise but very few dedicated to forgiveness. Forgiveness is the neglected stepchild of human emotions. A truly wise and loving person kindly gives others a forgiveness credit limit equal to what they expect for themselves. No one wants to be placed in a position to forgive but everyone wants to receive it. Forgiveness exists because it has to.

tomorrow

Set Yourself Up For Tomorrow, Today.

By: Chris Warren.

I consider myself an average person with average problems. Some days are great, most are good, and thankfully only a few are miserable. No matter what goes down in my fairly busy life, there is always one constant: Tomorrow will be another chance to try again.

Everyone has had a bad day but no one has ever had a bad tomorrow. And that is the beauty of a new day. Much pithy wisdom has been produced about tomorrow. In truth, it’s a complete unknown and nobody really knows what it will be filled with. When I wake up in the morning, all I know for sure is I’m not dead. Everything after that is an upgrade. When tomorrow becomes now, I owe it to myself and everyone around me to make the best of it.

When I wake up in the morning, all I know for sure is I’m not dead. Everything after that is an upgrade.

Years ago my parents had a neighbor who had a very well paying job, a nice house, and a circle of good natured friends. He was affable and got along with everyone. Then he abruptly quit his job and started avoiding people. He spent most of his days sitting alone in his yard smoking and drinking beer. He neglected his property. His friends stopped coming around. He would do passive-aggressive things to irritate the neighbors such as leave the radio playing loudly out an open window while he was gone all afternoon; this behavior escalated to the point that the police got involved. What was this dude’s problem? Alcoholism? Mental illness? Just stopped giving a damn? He sold his house and was last seen leaving town in a junky old truck pulling a small travel trailer. I’m guessing whatever he’s doing now, assuming he’s even still alive, involves a lot of beer and cigarettes.

I never woke up in a worse mood than when I went to bed the night before. Part of the appeal of tomorrow is that you have to sleep a little before you get there, and the physiological effect of rest goes a long way in recalibrating our psyches. Setting yourself up for a positive day means deciding that the hours that lay before you are a choice. It’s true that we usually don’t have complete control over what we do with those hours, but we do have control over how to react to them.

Attitudes are a lot easier to control than situations. If you decide now that tomorrow will suck, then there is a 100% chance that it will. At some point my parents’ neighbor decided that it was easier to accept a mediocre today than put any effort into a better tomorrow. I believe he was neither mentally ill nor an alcoholic. There was nothing deep going on with this guy. He just was a bitter, pissed off, lazy old man who gave up on his tomorrow.

My best and closest friend has spent the last two years trying to get out of a demoralizing, low-paying job in a cable TV company call center: Applying for dozens of other positions, going on interviews, and chasing leads. All of it turned out to be dead ends. We talk at least a few times a week and during this whole time never once did I sense he was feeling sorry for himself or letting go of his confidence that there was something else out there, maybe tomorrow. Finally, he got a job offer that was better than expected! He starts next week. He never gave up on his tomorrow.

Every night before lights out, I pause for a moment and contemplate the previous day. What did I do right? What do I regret? What can I carry forward to make tomorrow better, and what bad habits need to go? What must I do to avoid becoming that bitter, pissed off, lazy old man? In the morning the cycle begins anew: When the future becomes now, the attitude we have in the reality of today will determine how we handle…tomorrow.

Career Objective: Make It To Retirement With A Smile On My Face.

By: Chris Warren

I consider myself  to be among the lucky few who has a cool job that is engaging and interesting. A large majority of the time I like what I do, with occasional screw this! moments sprinkled in to remind me that it may be cool but it’s hardly paradise. I think I must have won some cosmic occupational lottery because for my whole life I’ve always seemed to land in nifty jobs as if by accident. Even through high school and college I managed to earn a buck without getting involved with the drudgery of fast food or retail.

51NKZtwI2FL._SY445_Now I’m in that strange zone where I’m certainly not a kid but also not nearly old enough to seriously consider retiring. I’m left wondering what’s next. Or if there even is a “next.”  I would not mind doing something else, but since I’m content where I am I see no point in changing just for the sake of change. I’ve asked the self-analyzing question: If I looked into a crystal ball and saw myself retiring from the job I’m doing now, would the vision be depressing or comforting? Am I ok with this for the rest of my career?

The short answer is yes, I’m ok with it. I still wonder though, is there anything better out there? Is this as good as it gets? I’ve decided not to beat the hell out of myself trying to resolve a question of circular logic. In theory, there is always something better, somewhere. It’s more worthwhile to focus on what’s right and positive about the job I already have.

It’s important to explain that being happy with where I am and being complacent and unmotivated to move forward are not the same thing. There was a period in my distant past where I was in a job that was respectable but well beneath my potential. I stayed there way too long, bullshitting myself that it was good enough. I managed to get out of that trap relatively unharmed and took a lesson with me: Be grateful for what you have but don’t ever assume it’s the end of the line.

Being surrounded by family and friends who are in jobs that are soulless and devoid of any feeling of a higher purpose, on top of paying barely enough to make it worth showing up every day, gives contrast to my own life and blunts the effects of my screw this! days. The workplace headaches I deal with are mild by comparison, and at least at the end of it all I receive a decent paycheck for my hassles. There may be something better, somewhere, but there is also something worse. Being far from the bottom is more important than being close to the top.

I used to have a coworker who was technically competent but by a very large margin had absolutely the worst attitude of anyone I’ve ever worked with. He could not go five minutes without prattling about how unfairly he was treated, had a lame excuse for everything, constantly argued with the boss, thought the whole company was plotting against him, blah, blah, blah. I spent a year trying to be his buddy: Reaching out, having man-to-man talks, pushing him towards a better path. It was a complete waste of my effort. He was officially fired for absenteeism, but the real deal was that management and pretty much everyone else, including me, was far beyond fed up with the pouting crybaby. Your approach to your job has more influence over your career path than everything else combined. Skills can be learned but attitude can only come from within.

No one should allow their career success to be defined solely by how many promotions and raises they can collect before they retire. It’s more meaningful and less stressful to show up every morning believing that every day is a good day, but some days will not be as good as others. I am, on the whole, a happy employee. I flatly refuse to let myself become the guy who bitches about everything. When I reach a point where I don’t feel I can go any further in the job I have, the time to move on will become self-evident.

The Tragedy and Comedy of Senior Summer.

By: Chris Warren.

The fun and fireworks of Fourth of July celebrations are long fizzled out and I count myself among the many who are not ready to admit the unofficial end of summer is only a month away. As the ubiquitous back to school advertisements foretell, yes, the calendar always gets its revenge. It’s the cycle of life we grow accustom to even if we don’t necessarily like it.

For last spring’s high school graduates, it’s much more than a perennial change of the season. It’s their dwindling days of having a legitimate claim to childhood, of not having to worry about anything serious, of living under the close protective cloak of parents and teachers. Within the next few weeks, their lives will change abruptly and things will never be the same. They’ve just completed a major life goal; I can’t really blame them for wanting to party, cut loose, and not give a damn about anything for a month or two.

I refer to the summer after high school graduation as “Senior Summer.” It occurs only once in a lifetime and is both a carefree joy and a sad, long goodbye as friends who have known each other for years and together shared many important experiences drift apart and go their separate ways to college, the military, a job, or mom’s basement. Sincere albeit naïve platitudes of keeping in touch will be offered and accepted, but it’s not going to be anything like the halcyon final scene of the classic hit musical Grease, when the kids graduate and begin their Senior Summer by happily singing about how they’ll “always” be together. The places and people that our young lives revolved around for four years quickly become just photos in a yearbook.

Years ago I had an occasion to stop by my old high school during my own Senior Summer to drop off a library book I forgot I still had. Being summer break, the place was empty and kind of creepy. Even though I knew the physical layout of the building in great detail, an odd feeling nonetheless came over me: “I don’t belong here. Naperville North isn’t my house anymore.” The school where I felt welcome and comfortable as a student walking the bustling halls laughing with my friends just a month or so earlier now made me feel like I was wandering around a stark alien spaceship. I just wanted to finish my business and get out of there. It felt terrible having an aversion to a place that was such a big part of my life and held many warm memories, but I knew I had checked out and moved on.

The emotional pain of leaving a familiar sphere of faces and places does have a big upside: As much as it may upset young people to let go of the only world they know, the opportunity for new and exciting experiences is breathtaking. The errand to drop off the library book was my reality check. It unnerved me at the time, but summer is fleeting and that fall I started college. I had a chance to study topics I liked and not what was chosen for me. In what can only be described as an amazing case of being in the right place at the right time, I applied and was hired for a job at a popular radio station. I had zero experience but it turns out I was a natural for yapping on the radio. No one was more shocked than me when my weekend/overnight program pulled in more listeners than some of the prime-time big shots. New friends, new school, and a new job that was a hundred times cooler than whatever my peers were doing to make a buck. All this happened less than a year out from graduation.

front-of-school

Teens going through their Senior Summer and feeling equal amounts of pain and joy have a difficult time grasping the idea that there is a big, inviting world out there just dying to meet them and give them a chance to make a difference with their fresh ideas. Like nearly all who came before, they will ultimately navigate through the churn of heavy feelings and doubt and learn that leaving the cocoon of high school –even if they don’t think they can handle it– has a higher purpose. It’s an essential part of the self discovery process.

This past weekend I went to visit my adopted niece because she is going off to college in a few weeks and I don’t expect to see her again before Christmas. I’ve known this young lady since she was born and I could sense her worry. “Chris, I’m so nervous about this,” she admitted, nearly in tears as she hugged me tightly. I said the only thing I could think of, unrehearsed from the heart. “You’re going to have a great time and amaze yourself and everyone with all the good you are capable of.” That wasn’t me saying something insincere just to be polite. I really do believe in her, maybe more than she believes in herself at the moment. Next year will be her brother’s turn. He is a highly motivated, dynamic kid and I’m certain he too will do very impressive things once he is freed from the limitations of high school.

It hurts to watch young people stress out over things we older and wiser folks know will pass, but there are some situations we cannot or should not bail kids out of. All we can do is smile and understand and assure them that joy and pain often come as a matched set. In my June 17, 2014 article I mentioned that the greatest trait of strong people is they know they are loved. It’s the most powerful and important feeling we can impart on our kids when we launch them into the world as brand new adults to figure out for themselves that the end of Senior Summer is the beginning of a bright and promising future .

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Graduation Completes The Circle.

By: Chris Warren

Almost every commencement address has the same basic theme: You (graduates) are bright and energetic and will change the world. You have vast opportunities; all you need to do is go and get them. Work hard, get good grades, and success will be yours! The theme is trite and shopworn, but since most of us will hear it only once or twice and at a time when we are excited about completing a big life achievement, no one really knows or cares that it’s been recycled every year for generations.

In fairness to all the cliché artists who are recruited to deliver these hand-me-down nuggets of wisdom, for the last seven decades or so the advice was accurate. It really was true that hard work and serious study was an express ticket to the good life. If a solid job and home ownership is the “American dream,” then a good education is its mother.

It may be for the better that I haven’t been asked to give a graduation speech, because I do not think I could bring myself to stand in front of impressionable young people and feed them a heap o’crap about how hard work and dedication will see them through. The old perennial platitudes are broken. A weak economy and languishing morals means many opportunities that used to be there are gone. There are people with Master’s degrees working at Taco Bell. Where is the big payoff for all their sweat? The world for young people, in a word, sucks.

But this is the Thoughtful, Positive, Relevant blog, so for my hypothetical speech I am determined to come up with something that is affirming, uplifting, and truthful. I won’t be placed in a position where in order to be the best graduation speaker ever I’d also have to be the best liar. It’s very unkind to piss on the hopes and dreams of young people at such a meaningful moment in their life; it’s also wrong to tell a complete lie in deference to their big day. I think I’ve found a way around this untenable situation.

To the Class of 2014:

For your entire lives you have been taught that brains and sweat will take you far. That is still true, except now you will need more brains and more sweat than anyone who came before you to get what used to be considered a standard middle class existence. The average will need to become stronger, and the strong will need to become superlative. The weak are doomed, but not because of the new way the world works. The weak are and always have been doomed no matter what state the world is in. That may be the only thing that never changes.

The fact that you are here at this time and place proves you are not weak. The weak have already quit and left this group. So the question now is not “who among you are weak?” but, “how strong are you?”

Strong people know the difference between confidence and arrogance: The strong know what they are capable of and do not need constant praise. Weak people must always be the topic of conversation, making sure everyone knows they are the smartest person in the room (even if they aren’t).  Strong people know they might be the smartest person in the room, but conduct themselves with a subtle touch of class that needs no big pronouncement and lets the room figure out on their own who is the smartest. Weak people brag about themselves; strong people quietly step aside and let others do the bragging for them.

Strong people are kind even to those who do not deserve it: This might be the hardest part of being a strong person. Being nice to those who are nice to us is easy, even pleasurable. It’s a much different matter when dealing with someone who would be in a lot of trouble if instant karma was real. Weak people think of themselves as judge and jury of all behavior and seek revenge for every little slight committed against them. Strong people choose their battles carefully and do unto others as they would have done unto them, accepting with grace that they will often be forced by their principles to give others a better deal than they received in return.

“And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look
Behind from where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game “

-Joni Mitchell, The Circle Game

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Strong people are grateful for where they came from: No one was born knowing everything, and almost no one succeeds as a solo act. Every one of us was helped and guided by others. Weak people assure their own failure by thinking they can do everything themselves. Strong people succeed because they humbly accept help from those who love and care about them and are going to invest heart and soul into steering them away from failure. There is no greater feeling than having someone behind you and believing in you. Knowing they are loved is the greatest trait of strong people.

There is still much to be hopeful for among all the sadness in the world. New graduates are a clean slate, not yet jaded by the experiences of life. Every new graduation class is God’s way of telling humanity, “This is your do-over. Let these people run the place.” As long the Almighty keeps blessing us with fresh graduates every spring as reliably as blooming flowers, there will always be a possibility that things will get better. That brings me to my last point:

Strong people are grateful for where they are going. We should not overlook that gratitude is a two way street. If graduates are expected be thankful for the wisdom of those who helped them, we older folks also need to thank the young for the bright hope that they will do better than their elders. Weak people believe they will always be ageless and relevant. Strong people know the day will come when their moment in the sun and way of doing things will be over. It will be time for the circle to complete and let the future go to the next generation. We can only pray that our love for them mattered.

(photo credit: http://wholles.com)