Suddenly realizing what had happened, a burst of laughter sprang forth.
“She was happy!” I exclaimed. “Truly and sincerely happy!"
The night before—mere hours before the tragic news—I was alarmed to receive a phone call from my mother. She never called at that hour. It was late. Or was it early? It was a phone call during the in-between hours when most people would normally be sound asleep.
But I was still wide awake, dreaming of happy memories and what dreams may come. Just the day before, I had returned home from a weekend away with Stephanie—a mini celebration in honor of our engagement. How could I sleep? Happy thoughts were dancing merrily through my mind—for life had become a dream.
But this phone call gave me pause. Only bad news comes at this hour. Answering the phone, I braced myself for the worst.
But rather than bad news, I instead heard my worried mother’s voice who was simply calling to check in on me. Mothers tend to have a “sixth sense" and my mother is especially one to be ethereally sensitive loved ones. On that night, those feelings moved her to make a connection.
I should have taken this as a hint—a foreshadow of things to come—but instead I simply put my mother’s worried heart at ease and told her of all the wonderful things that had transpired that week: the engagement, the trip, and the euphoria of sincere life-giving happiness.
The concept of happiness originates from words meaning chance, fortune, and luck, and is often used to communicate feelings of pleasure, gladness, and contentment—qualities that surely pointed to how I was feeling that September night in 2007.
My mother could hear it in my voice. "I'm so happy for you, my son!" she exclaimed. She had never known me to be happier.
The next morning (while standing on the porch where Stephanie and I had our last kiss goodbye) her mother told me of the pure happiness she saw in her eyes, when just the night before Stephanie recounted her own rendition of the week we had together.
"She was happy," she consoled, holding me tight, unable to hold back the tears. "Truly happy. You made her happy, Jonas."
My constant prayer for Stephanie was her happiness—that she would be happy for the rest of her life. I should have been more specific, because while this prayer was answered swiftly, it turns out her life was to be incredibly short—for the night before (during the in-between hours between late and early) quietly, in her sleep, Stephanie died.
It is not despite the contrast between the highs and lows that we are able to experience joy, but rather it is precisely because of this contrast.
When the Whos down in Whoville woke up Christmas morning, despite the absence of packages and bags—and despite not having their Who pudding, roast beast, and even the very last can of Who hash—they looked around and realized they still had what neither rust nor moth could destroy: faith, hope, and Love. Ah! but the greatest of these is Love.
These highs and lows provide opportunities to renew our commitment to what truly matters most—because without happiness, life can become arid, empty, and meaningless. All the more so when we deprive ourselves of happiness with words like "I’ll be happy if…” or “I’ll be happy when…”
These are dangerous words, because ifs and whens won’t always come to pass, and making happiness conditional to variables outside of our control will deprive us of experiencing the fullness of life. Better, then, to source our happiness where neither moth nor rust can destroy.
All of these thoughts sat in my mind like a simmering stew when Stephanie's mother released her grieving embrace. Life had become a dream where all sincere poems, prayers, and promises can be realized—and realizing what had happened, a burst of laughter sprang forth.
“She was happy!” I exclaimed. “Truly and sincerely happy!”
It brought a smile to my face, just knowing Stephanie was happy for the rest of her life.
Even when chance, fortune, and luck don't smile upon us—when all pleasure, gladness, and contentment are gone—it is still possible to laugh and smile in the face of despair. Even through the tears, joy is possible because of how sweet it is to love someone and how right it is to care.
The experience of happiness and the memories they lend can provide the fuel to get through tough times—so long as we store our happiness where neither moth nor rust can destroy: in faith, hope, and Love. Ah! but the greatest of these is Love.
Up until now, how often have you delayed happiness with ifs and whens? What might you do to remove artificial conditional barriers so you may experience sincere life-giving happiness
“I just spoke to your brother. He doesn’t understand why you won’t speak to him. He says he’s not upset with you.”
“Of course he’s not upset with me!” I replied to my mother, “I’m not the one who did anything wrong. He’s the one who wronged me!”
When you jump into a cold pool, at first the temperature is unbearable; but after just a short period of time, you get used to the temperature and can endure the situation with relative ease. But by the time I was 18 years old, I had little ease dealing with the shenanigans of my relative and decided to cut my brother out of my life.
I felt right to cut him out. Just because he’s family, that doesn't mean he has a free pass to treat me however he wants. And just like jumping into a cold pool, it didn’t take long to get used to not having him in my life.
But after five years of the silent treatment, and not long after our grandmother died, I started to wonder who the grudge was really hurting.
Him or me?
Or perhaps our mother?
“What if he died?” I wondered. “Would I still feel right about the silent treatment?”
Perhaps it was time to give forgiveness a try.
When the 10 million people of the Incan Empire were conquered by only a few hundred Spanish conquistadors in 1572, the general population didn’t hold a grudge. Instead, they accepted their situation as “what was done.” Like jumping into a cold pool, within a relatively short period of time they got used to the “turning over of time and space.” This “turning over” is a situation they referred to as pachakuti—an epoch-changing event they believed was supposed to happen periodically through the ages.
Forgiveness can be hard—especially when you feel justified in your grudge—yet picking up hot coals to throw at others will do far more harm to you than the person they are intended for. Perhaps, like the Incas, it was time for me to accept what was done, give forgiveness a try, and turn over a new leaf of time and space.
I did eventually forgive my brother, setting myself free to experience the joy of the present and empowered with the understanding that to err is human and to forgive is divine. After all, he is my brother, and when he is gone, he will be gone—and I am my brother’s keeper.
What grudge are you holding? What might you do to put down the poison, forgive, and turn over a new leaf of time and space?
“I have to be honest with you folks—I have 0% left to give.”
Julie and Ricky didn’t say anything; probably because they knew I had no other choice but to go on. As adventure guides, they probably hear exacerbated remarks like this all the time.
I looked to the others in our group. Amanda, Jason, and Kathleen all bore a striking resemblance to how I was feeling. Completely exhausted.
Julie finally spoke up. “Well, the good news is we’re already more than halfway there.”
She highlighted a great point, and it provided some valuable insight. About an hour earlier, after eight hours of walking, we had crossed the Colorado River—the halfway point in our traverse of the Grand Canyon.
“That is a very encouraging point,” I replied. Her comment reminded me of an article I read just before hopping on the flight to Arizona:
“I read a fascinating article recently that said after giving our all, when we think we have nothing more to give, we’ve actually only done 40% of what we’re capable of.”
“I’ve heard about this,” Ricky replied. Ricky’s done his fair share of ultra endurance challenges, so to hear his testimony was further encouragement.
“Yeah! And studies have even been done to demonstrate this,” I continued. “Scientists studying the neuromuscular system found that nerves will send signals to the brain signaling that we are tired—when in reality, what is actually tired is our nerves, not our muscles! We are literally stronger than we think!”
Ricky interjected, “Your body is an avatar and your mind is in control telling it what to do.”
Amanda, Jason, and Kathleen were now sitting and leaning on rocks themselves, nodding in mindless agreement. Julie was itching to keep moving forward.
“Don’t you see?” I continued, “This means we are surely capable of making it the rest of the way. We’re already more than halfway there, and I feel like I’m at 0%—but that means I actually still have 60% more to give! Therefore, I have more than enough strength to make it to the other side of the canyon!”
No one seemed nearly as excited about my science and math rationale as I was, but I didn’t care. I was armed with the confidence and motivation I needed to stay resilient and keep moving forward.
The whole conversation lasted no more than a minute or so before we all got up and pressed on. And after a total of 16 hours and 23.5 miles—climbing down the 4,380 foot wall of the south side of the canyon at sunrise, trekking through the scorching heat inside the canyon, and then climbing up the 5,781 foot north wall of the canyon after sunset—we finally made it to the other side of the Grand Canyon.
To this day, the experience of finally making it to the other side of the Grand Canyon, even after my body told me I couldn’t go another step, is one of the most remarkable and exhilarating moments of my life.
“What else am I capable of?” I wondered.
That night at camp my body let me know I had truly pushed the limits of my capacity, as my legs couldn’t move without cramping up. I couldn’t even take off my hiking boots! I felt helpless.
But there was little time to feel helpless, because before sunrise we were all dropping back into the canyon to hike back to the other side. Everything we had just done, we were going to retrace our steps and do it all again.
“How am I going to do this?” I wondered? “I can’t even move!”
But I already knew how I was going to do it. I had already done half of the double traverse and I felt like I was at 0%—but that meant I actually still have 60% more to give! Therefore, I had more than enough strength to make it to the other side of the canyon again.
After dinner, before quickly falling fast asleep in the tent, I wondered: “If I can be resilient and do what I just did today, what else am I capable of?”
When we choose resilience, by facing challenges rather than running away from discomfort and pain, we discover we are capable of far more than we realize.
Sometimes life throws us challenges and we have no choice but to deal with them: a broken down car, a break up, a lost job, the death of a loved one, and any number of other challenges we’d rather not face.
By occasionally putting ourselves into uncomfortable situations voluntarily when the stakes are low, we can effectively practice for facing uncomfortable situations that are forced upon us when the stakes are high.
Without resilience, even minor challenges can become roadblocks that discourage us from moving forward. And yet, when we are resilient, we become empowered to continue moving forward even in the most difficult of times.
In the words of T.S. Eliot: “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”
Up until now, how have you demonstrated resilience? And what are you doing today to challenge your beliefs about yourself and what you’re truly capable of?
The disappointed choir walked off stage to thunderous applause.
They had just performed their rendition of God Bless America for an audience of over 600 people composed of peers, leaders, and invited dignitaries—including Governor Deval Patrick—and sensing a mixture of disappointment in their performance and relief that it was now over, as their director, I took the opportunity to offer some concise words of encouragement.
I had little time to do so, however; the next presenter was already at the podium about to speak, so as they walked off stage I simply looked them in the eyes and, with a gentle whisper, said, “Good work.”
Though these words were meant to lift their spirits, they were instead met with a glare from one of the students who turned to me and said, “Don’t lie.”
My heart became heavy with compassion for the seventeen-year-old who didn’t yet have the contextual awareness to understand what I was saying.
The encouraging words did not refer to their performance; after all, their performance was awful and their knowing eyes betrayed dread for having to face the music. But I was not referring to their performance; I was referring to their decision to boldly step forward and perform.
Growth doesn’t happen by accident; it’s the result of deliberately using what you know to try something you’ve never done.
Choosing to boldly step forward and grow through life rather than to simply go through will reveal both what you’re capable of and what you can improve upon—but without this effort, you become blind to your capacity.
When the students arrive at the intensive week-long youth leadership program, no one knows each other—they can be nobody or they can be anybody—and the choir is just one activity they can choose to participate in. They can choose to step forward into the unknown, get involved, and be somebody, or they can choose to step back into safety, merely observe, and be nobody.
At the start of the week, I encouraged the students to take their time in the program as an opportunity to challenge their understanding of who they are, try new things, and explore who they might be if only they took a chance.
In this spirit, I invited them to join the choir—whether or not they had any prior choir experience. Out of the over 600 students in attendance, only 15 people stepped forward to perform, and most of them had no vocal training. It takes guts to do something you’ve never done before, to risk erring even with the sincerest of effort.
As President Theodore Roosevelt reminds us: “It is not the critic who counts,” but rather the ones who are actually in the arena—the ones who dare valiantly, fail valiantly, and keep valiantly striving again and again, “because there is no effort without error and shortcoming.” Glory belongs to those who keep growing until they triumph; and if they fail, they do so while daring greatly, so their “place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
No, my encouraging words “good work” did not refer to their performance; they referred to their courage to boldly step forward, let go of the known, and reach for the not-yet-known: who they might be. For though change can be painful, nothing is as painful as staying stuck where you don’t belong.
Just as a caterpillar is not meant to die a caterpillar, you are also made for something more, so long as you stay encouraged to continue betting on yourself.
What are you doing today to encourage the good work that reveals your true capacity
I'm a mirror (and so are you).