One of my favorite poems is by noted writer Rudyard Kipling. If— is a classic of Victorian literature, full of stoic Britishness and facing the world with that stiff upper lip. I know several folks who hate Kipling for his very British colonial view on the world, and they view the poem as an example of why the Victorians were so horrid.
For me it’s always been a snippet of how I try to live. It’s not about being stoic, it’s about being able to face down the chaos around you, and still find a way to navigate that chaos and come out on the other side. It’s about not taking the view of others to heart. It remains a set of words I turn to when I need to think through a challenging set of future options.
It’s about strength, potential, and possibility.
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:.
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build’em up with worn-out tools;
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
Do what’s right, not what’s easy. If I had to pick a personal mantra this would be it. The easy way results in less major stress in the short term. But over the long haul, it will grind you down hard. Easy eats away at your confidence and undermines your life.
Doing the right thing is often about confrontation. It’s about facing fears. It’s about doing that thing that has your stomach in knots. It’s scary and very high stress. It doesn’t always give you the outcome you want.
It always gives you the outcome that will take you to the next level of greatness. It will take time. It doesn’t happen instantly. But doing the right thing builds a strong inner foundation that makes you into a better person.
I’d so love to coast today. But at some point in time, easy comes back to bite me in the butt. The right thing, facing the fear, makes me stronger now and tomorrow.
So get it done, then move it forward. It’s a much nicer way to live.
Strength comes when you’ve looked at the dark, and no longer fear what you see.
Darkness is the ink you use to write the story of life. The dark ink on white paper is another way of understanding that without darkness and light, stories have no texture, no depth, no life. You must have both. The deeper the darkness you’ve faced, the richer your ink.
What do you see in the dark?
Continuing my theme of personal Advent calender, we come to another personal Christmas tradition- second Christmas.
With a birthday right before the holiday, and the assorted hubbub and build up for Christmas, the holiday season is the high point family celebration for Clan Showalter. We aren’t huge Thanksgiving folks, and there’s no other holiday that brings the family together. I’ve missed one Christmas at home. One. That year was an exercise in misery. I decided to be all responsible and adult that year and start building my own Christmas traditions. It didn’t work. I was lonely, miserable, and generally displeased with the whole event. Lesson learned, I go home for the holiday.
That leads to a second problem. Returning from the bosom of the family after Christmas brings me back to a quiet apartment, and an empty Christmas tree. It’s honestly a bit depressing. To offset this, I created the Second Christmas ritual years ago.
Over the course of the year, I’ll pick up Christmas gifts for myself. It’s usually just a few things which I know won’t end up under the tree back home. I also pick up some gifts for the cats. These all get wrapped and stuck under the tree. When I return from visiting home, I have Second Christmas, and proceed to unwrap gifts with the various cats. I get the fun of seeing my cats digging through the wrapping paper, and help tie Christmas in Texas back to Christmas at home.
The only time of the year I find myself aware of the distance between the family and me is Christmas. Second Christmas is a small way for me to keep reducing that distance.
Around the country people shop for the perfect Christmas tree. They will walk in and out of tree lots, small children in tow screaming, “this one Mommy!” The real trees will have flaws. Holes in their shape, slightly crooked trunk, and a tendency to drip sticky substances around the house. So off they go to the store, shopping for a perfect shape artificial Christmas tree. It comes pre-lit, you just assemble and add ornaments. While at the store a box of perfectly matches ornaments, 100 count is added. Guaranteed to make the perfect Christmas tree, just like you see in a shop window.
So it’s home again with the perfect tree. No wrestling with the tree stand, or arguing with strings of lights that mysteriously tangled over the last year. Nope, this year it’s going to be a perfect tree. That bow has to go just there, no you can’t put it there! That is wrong. It must be here. Otherwise it doesn’t look like the box. No, those beads need to drape just like the picture. It has to match, otherwise it’s not right. Don’t let the three year old touch it! He’ll ruin the effect! Give me that! I’ll do it, you are doing it wrong!
And so it continues, as the perfect tree is created. No sap on the floor, every bow just so. Just like the picture. Out trot the kids in perfectly matching sweaters, sitting in front of the perfect tree. No don’t fidget! Smile! It’s Christmas, this is the family card. You need to look happy! Now SMILE! The bulb flashes, and the kids race off, tearing off sweaters and bow ties as fast as they can. Mom sighs in frustration and wonders why she can’t have that perfect Christmas.
A few houses over, Dad stumbles in with the tree, dropping needles all over the entry way. Into the stand, watch out for the water! Wait, it’s crooked! No, a little that way, no back this way. Hey sweetie, hold it here for Daddy! Perfect! Thank you. Next to the mass of lights balled up in the bottom of the box, plug them in, mutter rudely as you realize you need new bulbs. Mutter again when the four year old repeats what you just said to Mommy. No perfect decorations here. They won’t work with all the holes in the branches. So drag out the ugly parrot missing a tail Uncle Elmer got in Key West a couple years back. Check out how it fills that hole perfectly. Hmm, maybe add some more colored lights to catch the colors in the ugly glass ball Gramma left us. Next the kids talk you into making one of those cheesy paper chains, and Junior makes a mess when he tangles himself up in it!
The night progresses and as a team you work around the flaws in the tree. The slightly crooked trunk, the holes, the slightly flat side. The star is a bit crooked since your eldest was balanced on your shoulders when you guys set it there. The family plops in front of the tree, the four year old covered in glitter, your eldest with tinsel wrapped around her head, scotch tape on Mom’s sweater, and a footprint on Dad’s shirt. After the bulb goes off, everyone piles onto the couch to watch the tree twinkling in the night.
As the kids drift off to sleep in Mom and Dad’s lap, ask yourself- what is perfection?
I’ve got a corner of my own at Denver International Airport. It’s down by baggage claim, close to the door for the shuttle which takes me home to Colorado Springs. I tuck in near a window, sitting on the cheap industrial carpet and watch the world go bye. It’s a primo people watching spot. I see families as they pick up bags, parents hauling kids off the carousel. I listen to the announcements of arriving flights and on days like today, delays. Each announcement raises hopes or crushes dreams. I watch people wheel bags pass, and listen to snippets of family reunions.
I see stress on the faces which pass. Fatigue and anger. Frustration at circumstances beyond their control. Rarely do I see a genuine smile, or hear a kind word. It’s the way of the world, move in your own bubble, ignore others, figure that they will work things out. Life is a trial to be endured.
Sit in my corner long enough, and you will see something else. You will see eyes light up in recognition as “Grandpa” rings through the area, followed by the thump thump of boots as a child flings herself into waiting arms. You’ll watch someone offer a luggage cart to someone, or offer to wrestle a bag from the carousel. You will hear a lone voice belt out a cheery “Merry Christmas” to a startled airport employee. You will her the shocked and grateful “thank you”.
You find small acts of kindness and generosity. You may remember the words of Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol.
Mankind should have been my business.
There’s a choice you make every day. Are you part of the world? Do you offer what you can, even if it’s only a kind word? Do you try making things better through words and deeds? Is mankind your business? Or do you choose to move through the world in a bubble?
When you pass my corner of the airport, what will I see?