Positive Thinking Tip: Life’s disasters are like forest fires: they release new seeds, and always mark an exciting new beginning.
This is the third installment of my personal exposé that began with “Getting Personal Here” and which continued with “Something’s Gotta Change“.
In my last installment, I ended with:
“It’s nearly 3 am again – I’m eager to share what those extra lessons turned out to be, and you’re probably wondering, ‘so, what about the debts?’ or ‘what are you going to do with your business now?’ but I’ll have to save those details for next time.”
It’s finally “next time” so, here we go…
About those lessons learned, no doubt I haven’t learned all that I need to learn, and I’m sure there are more to come, but to this point I’ve learned a few:
For one thing, I recognized at least one huge blessing that was contained in my timely meltdown. As I said in the first post, I dropped off the map in May. From May through October, my husband and I reassessed our roles, and found a more workable long-term plan for our family.
By November, I was breathing again, just in time to shift my attention to helping my oldest son prepare for a full-time 2-year service mission for our church. He applied to serve and was assigned to a region that includes Northern Colorado and Southern Nebraska/Wyoming, and he was to report for training on February 8th, 2012.
To help him prepare for this assignment, we started gathering some serious winter clothing (seeing as how we didn’t really own any), there was a ton of paperwork to complete, and countless appointments to get all the doctor’s and dentist’s permissions and medical records turned in.
It doesn’t sound all that time consuming in hindsight, but it was a feat of ginormous proportions while I also worked to keep up on all the other children’s activities, needs, Christmas concerts, preparations for Christmas itself, and especially trying to help my junior survive AP Chemistry.
(At the same time, there were some business commitments that I still needed to fulfill, so once Christmas was behind me, those took center stage.)
Once my son was all settled into his missionary assignment, I was able to reflect on the timing of my meltdown and recognize that it gave me the space I needed to have some very special, meaningful experiences with him before sending him on his way. It’s possible that he has left the nest for good, and I feel so much gratitude for the sweet memories we were able to create with him those last few months.
Another lesson I learned had to do with letting go.
To explain, let me share an experience I had with my 16 year-old son:
At the beginning of the school year, I encouraged him to sign up for AP Chemistry because he had enjoyed regular Chemistry, and because he had demonstrated an increased commitment for doing well in school and an increased willingness to study hard.
It seemed like an amazing opportunity, because his teacher had been the recipient of a national award, and so I pictured my son having an experience something akin to what was demonstrated in the movie “Stand and Deliver” with the dedicated and heroic teacher, Jaime Escalante.
I believed that with hard work and with my son taking advantage of ALL the help his dedicated and award-winning teacher would have to offer, my son could pull it off.
What I didn’t bank on were the unexpected challenges. Had we known that these issues were going to be part of the equation, I certainly would have thought twice:
- His teacher is rarely available outside of class. There are two lunch periods, and my son’s lunch hour is during one of that teacher’s regular classes. He was invited to come in at lunch anyway, working independently while the other class is being conducted, with the plan to get some help here and there as time permits… but it never really worked. The teacher often taught right up to the bell and then it was time to go. He couldn’t help before school, because he was busy with an A-hour class. And, he was not available after school, either (I’m not sure why).
- There was a mentoring program at the school where students were paired up with other students who could help with a certain subject… however AP Chemistry was not one of the available topics. None of the volunteer mentors knew the topic well enough to help anyone.
- The students were required to use an online homework assignment program called WebAssign, and sometimes it rejected even the right answers. One time (after beating our heads against the wall for HOURS), we called his teacher at home to get help on a problem, and his answer was, “Oh, yeah, that one is kind of buggy. You got the answer right, but for the online program you have to put in this other number [which was a wrong answer] to get it to accept it.”
- Another time we were stuck and his teacher said, “Have you tried Yahoo Answers?” (That’s where some other desperate, struggling student has copied/pasted the WebAssign question on Yahoo and a kind stranger has responded with an answer. To survive the class, students went looking for the answers on Yahoo, without really learning what’s going on and how to come to the answer… and because our award winning teacher is spread so thin, he even began to encourage the resource.)
- We hired a professional tutor to help my son with the class, but she couldn’t get the WebAssign to accept her answers, either.
- We hired a fellow class member who seemed to be understanding it a little better than the others, to help my son learn as they went. But sometimes he was not available, and ultimately began to get just as stuck as everyone else.
- The teacher told my son, “If you find yourself spending more than x minutes on any one problem, call me!” Well, that’s nice and all, but the fact of the matter is, under the circumstances, my son would have been on the phone with his teacher for HOURS at a time each night if he had had the gall to take him up on it. My son did timidly take him up on the offer a few times, but rather than working to discover the gaps or mistakes in how my son was trying to solve the problems, the teacher just quickly rehearsed the process like he did in class and sent my son on his way. Sometimes he just outright told my son the answer so we could all get off the phone and move on with our lives.
- Oh, and the last time he told my son that he should call him at home, he added, “I’ll probably be grumpy about it, but then I’ll help you get the answer.” Well, my son was already feeling like a huge inconvenience, like he was the one student who was struggling the most in that class, but in spite of that, he mustered the courage to call one more time, only to get the teacher’s voicemail, and days later, the teacher still had not returned his call.
- We recognized that this was a college level course, but at least in college, you can go to the science lab for help when you need it!!
Even though he was in danger of failing, and in spite of all these ridiculous obstacles, he managed to hang in there and keep a passing score. I know it wasn’t an “A”, but the fact that he was passing was enough for me to be one seriously PROUD MAMA!
Then, on one particular day as I was experiencing some massive stress over this class from h***, and just as it was looking like my son was coming out of the woods, I got a phone call from his math teacher. She told me she was concerned because he was failing her class.
MATH?? Seriously?? That was one of his best subjects! Because of his comfort level in math, apparently that was the class that was getting the neglect, just to save his bacon in Chemistry.
I sighed. Here we go...
I asked, “So… are there any assignments he’s missing that he can make up?”
“No,” she said, “we don’t accept late work or retakes. Department policy.”
Well, that was the last straw. My blood began to boil (I was a secondary math teacher in my former life, and could not fathom denying a student of the opportunity to fix past mistakes. After all, if it takes time for them to want to learn it better, thank heavens they want to learn it at all! Let them learn it! Better late than never! If they’re having to do homework-triage to stay afloat in a potentially college-credit bearing class, give them a break!)
She continued, “He’ll just have to do really well from this point going forward. Now, if he would like to come in at lunch to get some help…”
Lunch?? He was already expected to be spending lunches in his Chemistry room hoping for some help from that teacher. He didn’t need math help, he just didn’t have time to keep up.
It was in that moment that the impossibility of the situation sunk in. We had been fighting the Chemistry battle for seven months, always thinking that there MUST be a way to succeed, but suddenly the reality was clear. After all he could do, it was still not going to be good enough. The resources I had assumed would be available to him just weren’t there, and left to himself, it was just too much.
(Because of what I teach, I believed it could still be conquered, but it didn’t matter what I thought, it only mattered what he thought... and he had lost hope. Who could blame him?)
In that moment of peak anxiety, as I stressed like never before over what I could do to help him conquer, an impression came to me, quiet and serene, that said, “Let it go. There’s a better way.”
I caught my breath and pondered the impression. For the first time all year, it suddenly felt okay to consider having him withdraw… that it wouldn’t be the end of the world, and that in every life experience there is a valuable lesson to learn.
Some words from my mother came to me. She had said, “Leslie, if he has to retake a class, even that will be a valuable life-lesson. It’s all going to be okay.”
I realized how attached I had become to the perfect, ideal outcome of his school year. He had chosen to take the public-school path, and I had determined to support him in that. In doing so, I had locked on to the expectation of nothing but success and it only aggravated the matter.
My tenacity (sometimes a good trait when applied to one’s own goals) blinded me to a potentially better alternative within the framework of the path he had chosen.
I was reminded of the principle of agency, and that we are free to succeed but we’re also free to fail. Some of our greatest life-lessons are gained through our failures, and it was being revealed to me that I really wasn’t at peace with my children experiencing failure like perhaps I thought I was… and that needed to change.
A good parent has to detach themselves from certain outcomes in order for the child to experience the full lesson it contains for them. The agency, the accountability, the contrast, the lesson. I was feeling how important it was for me to let go of the outcome, and be a steady force for encouragement and also unconditional acceptance of my son, no matter how he chose to cope with the mess.
The next day he texted me from class: “Mom, this class is killing me, I can’t take it any more!”
So when he came home from school I shared with him the sense of peace that had come over me – how I felt that God was helping me see that it’s okay to look for and find a better path. We talked about what it would mean if he failed the class, what he’d have to do next year to make up for it, what his other options might be, and what it would mean to withdraw and have a study hall for the last few months of school.
His countenance lightened significantly, and after a meeting with his counselor to find all the options and consequences, he, of his own decision, determined to hang on at least for another two weeks until the end of the quarter, and then reassess.
Freedom to choose is foundational to a person’s happiness – and sometimes the fetters we feel aren’t visible. I had been holding him back, without even realizing it. Much of his stress had been coming from my unspoken expectations, and once he felt released of them, he found the strength within himself to make a courageous choice completely independently.
What does this have to do with my May meltdown, and what’s happened since? I think I had been feeling fettered, too. I needed to reclaim my agency and really find out if I still had any.
Like I said, a good parent has to detach themselves from certain outcomes in order for the child to experience the full lesson it contains for them. Perhaps that is what God was doing with me. He let me feel like it was finally okay if I wanted to stop teaching the principles. He set me free, and I truly feel more free than I’ve ever felt before to do what I choose. I feel His encouragement, and His unconditional acceptance, which is now allowing me to feel more joy in the work when I do choose to spend time with it.
That I’m not conducting teleclasses every week, or traveling for speaking engagements twice a month, the business income has declined. We’ve had to sell assets, and are preparing to downsize if that becomes necessary, too. But I wanted to breathe more than I wanted the money. Sure, I still insist that “there’s always a way,” but sometimes the objective, I’ve learned, isn’t always worth the sacrifice.
On the other side of these lessons, as I’m finding my breath again, I’m feeling more joy, too. I’m not numb anymore. There is tremendous joy in lofty achievement, but there’s also a sweet joy to be found in what is, just as it is right now.
I’ve been feeling greater joy again in the little things. I’m getting to know my kids better, too. My days are filled with conscious concern for each of their needs, and my time is spent setting goals and carrying them out for the purpose of addressing those needs.
It’s a leap of faith to focus on my mothering role more than my business roles, but it’s coming more naturally than ever before, and that’s a dream come true. I have no regrets over the way the last 10 years were spent – it was right for us at the time – and this change is right for us right now.
I’ve discovered that my teenagers need my attention a whole lot more than they did when they were little. With that in mind, I’m grateful that the bulk of my work was completed while they were young… a work I can return to more actively as they grow and leave the nest. I still work it now, but only a little bit each week – a perfect pace for our family in this stage of our development.
As for our debts, we started talking again with each of our creditors about what we could do to get them all paid. I was in contact with every one of them, some on a weekly basis, not because I really had anything to work with, but because I wanted them to know of my commitment to making things right. I began calling them faster than they were calling me, and found that most of them were more accommodating than they had been two years earlier, back when the pinch was the tightest.
It was interesting, because more than once I called a creditor to say, “I can’t pay what you’re asking, but I do have ‘x’ that I can send you right now…” and they’d say, “No, keep it… we’d prefer to settle with you when you have a larger chunk to lay down.”
So, I’d tell them what business activities were on the calendar and promised to let them know what we had to work with (if anything) after each event.
Long story short, as with my son’s Chemistry class, after all we could do, our efforts and intentions were still never enough. But once you know without reservation that you’ve done all you can do, and it still isn’t enough, there’s a sweet peace that comes over you and assures you that everything is going to be okay – that there’s a better path, and that it won’t be much longer before you find it. As with my son’s class, maybe it means coming to peace with the idea of “withdrawing” from “class” (abandoning a goal) and finding a more realistic pace you can live with. After all…
Life is not a sprint.
We’re still finding our path, but we’re gathering clues along the way and we definitely feel guided. A refinement is in process and we know it’s good.
Every life lesson is valuable. It’s all about finding joy in the journey. Our successes teach us a little, but our failures teach us the most. In a way, my husband and I are starting over, but this time with more wisdom, more experience, and more clarity on what we really want together. We feel more patience with ourselves and each other. Our long term goals don’t need to be realized in three months… after all, they’re long term goals.
And having reached our breaking point and finding out that we’re still alive, and can still think and do and make choices, we feel greater freedom than perhaps we have ever felt before. The bank account may not reflect financial freedom yet, but we believe it will. We’ve shaken off societal expectations, we’ve unfettered ourselves of the need to “look successful”, and we’ve exposed, identified, and eradicated many of the unfair expectations we’ve had on each other. If it had to take a major financial setback to bring those issues to the surface so we could address them, then how grateful I am for those setbacks.
Life is sweeter, our relationships are more tender, our family is stronger, our future is brighter, and best of all, it feels like our relationship with God is more alive and present. I’ve come to the conclusion that the peace I felt about the prospect of my son failing Chemistry is the same peace I feel from my Father in Heaven about our financial failures: it’s going to be okay.
It’s all just a spider that showed up and is moving us to a place (figuratively speaking) where we can, I believe, receive greater blessings in the long run. As such, it will be fun to see where this leads us.
To wrap up:
I’m grateful that I was able to let go of the impossible expectations on my son, because it freed him up to discover his agency, and enact some new levels of personal leadership. They had been stifled as long as he had *me* to answer to for his performance in an impossible class. Whether he fails or succeeds, it’s okay, because I know there will be another new day, either way.
Just the same, after dropping off the map in May, my Father in Heaven helped me finally feel permission to release all the impossible expectations of myself, and it has opened the door for me to rediscover my free agency, and new levels of personal leadership. (They had been stifled so long as I wasn’t letting up on myself, either.)
Through this metamorphosis, I’ve gained valuable wisdom, and an increase in happiness, especially because I’ve felt the Lord’s assurance that my failures aren’t fatal.
My disasters are simply like forest fires: they release new seeds, and always mark an exciting new beginning.