The Line Game

untitledIf you’ve seen the highly acclaimed film Freedom Writers, you may remember a specific scene in the movie where Hillary Swank (who plays the role of Erin Gruwell) asks each of her students to stand in two single-file lines, facing each other (see clip below).  She then proceeds to share several statements, some of which are quite personal, and asks the students to stand on the line if the statements are true for them.  The primary purpose of the activity, which is known as “The Line Game”, is to create a sense of community by breaking down perceived barriers. 

This activity happens to be the very first thing I do with any group of students I work with, young or old.  It also happens to be something they enjoy doing more than any other activity.  Considering the fact that I’m asking them to be vulnerable (i.e. Stand on the line if you lack self-confidence), this might surprise you.  Why is it that so many students, regardless of age, are so eager to share what would otherwise be considered un-cool things to talk about?  Why is it that a large majority of the thousands of students I’ve worked with are willing to admit that they often make decisions just to fit in?  Why is it that an even larger majority have no problem admitting that they lack self-confidence?  Because it provides them with a safe opportunity to remove the many masks they tend to wear. 

Below is an excerpt from a poem written by Charles Winn in 1966, which beautifully captures the power of the mask.

                 Don’t be fooled by me.  Don’t be fooled by the mask I wear.  For I wear a mask, I wear a thousand masks, masks that I’m afraid to take off, and none of them is me.  Pretending is an art that is second nature with me, but don’t be fooled.

                … I give the impression that I’m secure, that all is sunny and unruffled with me, within as well as without; that confidence is my name and coolness is my game; that the waters are calm and that I’m in command and I need no one.  But don’t believe it; please don’t.

                I idly chatter with you in suave tone of surface talk.  I tell you everything that’s really nothing, nothing of what’s crying within me.  So when I’m going through my routine, don’t be fooled by what I’m saying.  Please listen carefully and try to hear what I’m not saying; what I’d like to be able to say; what, for survival, I need to say but I can’t say.  I dislike hiding.  Honestly I do.  I dislike the superficial phony games I’m playing.

                I’d really like to be genuine, spontaneous, and me; but you have to help me.  You have to help me by holding out your hand, even when that’s the last thing I seem to want or need.  Each time you are kind and gentle and encouraging, each time you try to understand because you really care, my heart begins to grow wings.  Very small wings.  Very feeble wings.  But wings.  With your sensitivity and sympathy and your power of understanding, I can make it.  You can breathe life into me.  It will not be easy for you.  A long conviction of worthlessness builds strong walls.  But love is stronger than strong walls, and therein lies my hope.  Please try to beat down those walls with firm hands, but with gentle hands, for a child is very sensitive, and I am a child.

                Who am I, you may wonder.  For I am every man, every woman, every child…every human you meet.  

If you are a teacher, or work with groups of young people in any capacity, I encourage you to play this game with your students.  Contact me by leaving a message below and I will send you the list of statements I use with various age groups. 

 

I just want tools!

imagesWhen I sit down with a pre-teen or teen for the first time, as part of my leadership coaching service, I’m often greeted with body language that portrays a message of – Who is this guy and what is he going to tell me to do?  It’s common for young people to see me as a counselor or therapist, both of which can have negative connotations.  Having said this, the first fifteen minutes of our initial meeting is absolutely critical as I attempt to create a safe, nurturing atmosphere. 

Several weeks ago, during an initial meeting with one of my coaching clients, I stopped briefly to ask him what he was thinking.  I knew he had been through several traditional counseling sessions and had grown increasingly frustrated with the process, so I was prepared for a variety of answers.  His response blew me away.  He simply said, “I just want tools.”  He wasn’t interested in talking through things, rather he was asking me to equip him with tools and strategies that would help him to be resilient in difficult situations.  

Whether they are able to express it or not, I can’t help but think that this is what ALL kids want.  They don’t want theory, they want tools.  They don’t want to be talked to, they want to be talked with.  They don’t want to be told what NOT to do, they want to be empowered to do what’s right. 

Below is an excerpt from my upcoming book, which will be available for purchase in the next few months.  It outlines one of the tools I share with all of my students (and parents) that I work with.  I invite you to read it with your child.

Daughter:  Okay, so what’s Tool 2?

Father:  Your circumstances don’t define you.

I think my brain still hurts from the last tool we discussed.  What do you mean by that?  I don’t even know what circumstances are.

If your brain is hurting, that’s a good thing.  It means that you’re getting a good mental fitness workout! 

Think of your circumstances as the stuff that’s going on in your life.  Your grades in school right now are a circumstance.  When I ask you to clean up your room, that’s a circumstance.  From the moment we wake up in the morning until the moment we fall asleep at night, we are surrounded by circumstances.

Okay, so what do you mean when you say I’m not my circumstances?  They’re mine, aren’t they?

The easiest way to answer your question would be to use an example.  Do you remember last week when you came to me complaining about how your friend said something rude about you? 

Yes, that was really mean.

I can understand why something like that could be hurtful.  For the sake of this example, let’s label the rude comment as a circumstance.  The lens that you use to think about the circumstance is completely separate. 

Dad, you never said anything about a lens!

I didn’t?  Silly me.  Now’s as good a time as any, I guess!

We’ll explore the idea of lenses a little bit later, but for now I want you to think of a lens as the way you think about your circumstances.  The machine in your mind has a thought for every circumstance.  Having said this, I want you to consider the fact that the rude comment is not what caused your hurt feelings.  It was the way you thought about your friend’s words that hurt your feelings.   

But dad, it was rude!  How can you say that her comments weren’t hurtful?

Please understand that I am not trying to discount or diminish the fact that you were hurt.  In fact, I can still see the hurt in your eyes as you tell the story.  What I’m trying to do is to help you understand that circumstance and interpretations are two entirely different things.  The circumstance is what happened and your lens is how you interpret what happened. 

Despite all of your efforts, you can’t go back and change the circumstance—in this case the circumstance was her words.  What you can change, however, is the way you choose to see it.  Remember that the majority of our thoughts are subconscious?  Well, this is an example of your habitual thoughts taking over.  In fact, it’s common to respond the way you did.  The only way to change these habitual thoughts is to create a level of awareness that will allow you to catch them.  

Home Run

I wrote in the past about what I believe to be the single most important question you can ask a student – Who are you?  How many times have you met someone and the first question you asked was – What do you do?  Kids are often asked a similar question, yet in a different context – What do you want to do when you grow up?  

When was the last time you actually considered who you were?  No, I’m not talking about your name or your profession, those don’t define you.  If you’re not quite sure how to answer this question, let me give you a little exercise that I share with my students.  

Each of the questions below is designed to help you understand what makes you unique.  I invite you to answer them as a means of discovering who you really are.  

  1. Describe a time or situation in your life when you experienced the most joy or happiness.
  2. Who is one person in your life that you admire the most?
  3. If you had a chance to interview anyone who has ever lived (past or present), who would it be?
  4. If I asked your best friend to describe you using only three words, what would you want those words to be?
  5. If you were asked to teach something to a group of your peers, what would you teach?
  6. List your top five strengths or talents.
  7. If you were could change one thing about the world today, what would it be?  Why?

You may not have realized it, but by answering these questions, you were essentially uncovering who you really are.  Your unique answers are insights into your distinct nature.  Sadly, we often lose track of our uniqueness in search of trying to be someone we are not.  

Last week I did this exercise with a second grade boy that I mentor.  He is only seven years old, so when I asked him the question “Who are you?”– he looked at me like I had lost my mind; however, after spending some time discussing the answers to the above questions, he came up with a statement that so beautifully captures who he is (see picture below).

Imagine a school full of students who walked the hallways knowing full well who they were or who they were choosing to be?  The current culture of competing and comparing would be non-existent.  Students would seek to align their choices with who they are, not who their friends have told them to be.  

I invite you to sit down with your children and complete this exercise.  Once they have answered the questions, encourage them to come up with a one-sentence statement that can be used as a personal mission statement.    

This hangs on the wall in his bedroom.

This hangs on the wall in his bedroom.

The Gift

photoIn a recent blog, I talked about true freedom, which is the power to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.  As teachers prepare to return to their classrooms tomorrow (at least in Arizona), I couldn’t help but think of the ebb and flow of a typical school year.  To say that teaching is an emotional profession would be an understatement.   

Below is a poem I wrote, titled The Gift, which is designed to empower teachers in those moments when they may feel powerless.    

THE GIFT 

On Monday morning they will enter your room.

Most filled with excitement, some overcome with doom.

With their school supplies in tow, they will fill the empty spaces.

Your room will quickly transform into a community of fresh new faces. 

The rules will be read, their folders carefully organized.

Typical first day procedures will be flawless, just as you surmised. 

The first few weeks will likely be fueled by adrenaline and zest.

The honeymoon period for the students will have them behaving their best. 

As the year progresses and the pressure to perform is heightened.

The energy in the room may not be as enlightened. 

The bright smiles your students possessed on that first day of class,

May very well be replaced with a look of anxiety or stress. 

You may even experience these exact same feelings,

As the amount of work on your desk begins to reach the ceiling. 

Each new mandate will consume your time.

You’re proverbial teacher plate will be unable to hold the weight of a dime. 

I’m well aware that academic expectations are higher than they’ve ever been.

The pressure to “Race To The Top” has encouraged a culture of “we need to win.” 

It’s easy to get swept away by the data that constantly surrounds you.

The list of students who are not meeting the standards may nightmarishly hound you. 

If you reach the point of burnout and experience feelings of overwhelm. 

I have a suggestion that will transform these emotions and put you back at the helm. 

You see, there is so much more than teaching to a test.

In my opinion, it’s more about teaching your students to be their very best. 

Sure the grades and test scores are things we should address.  

But their character and values are more accurate tools for measuring success.   

So, let me introduce you to a skill that is often overlooked.

It’s called emotional intelligence and it’s something you won’t find in your students textbooks. 

Unlike school-smarts, which relies heavily on one’s IQ.

Emotional intelligence is your self-smarts, or what you know about you. 

Despite the high-stress environment you experience each year,

You really do have the power to influence your emotions by learning to steer. 

The road conditions of life are out of your control.

The steering wheel; however, should be your primary goal. 

Take the time to learn to manage your mind.

When you do, it’s greater happiness that you will find. 

You are well aware of the power of teaching to learn.

So, commit to teaching your students about self-smarts while their desire still burns. 

They are eager to learn more about themselves.

It’s a gift you will give them; more powerful than any book on your shelves. 

At the end of the year when your students leave your room.

It won’t be their test scores that your mind will consume.  

Your focus will not be on the amount of information you imparted.

You will likely ask yourself, “Did they leave here a better person than when they started.” 

I believe in each of you and the remarkable difference you make for our youth.

The greatest gift you give to your students is YOU, please remember this truth. 

I invite you to share this with every teacher you know.  

Fuel your passion

imagesWhat is your passion? 

This may seem like an easy question to answer, but it’s actually more difficult than you think.  Why?  Because our minds have been conditioned over the years to believe that a passion is something that is found, not fueled.  

Merriam-Webster defines the word passion as a strong feeling of enthusiasm or excitement for something or about doing something.  Simply put, it’s a feeling, NOT some mysterious destination that only a few people are able to achieve.  The truth is that each of us possesses inherent passions, yet we tend to bury them in favor of blending in to the status quo, hoping we will someday find our true passion.  I would argue that it’s already within you, waiting for the necessary fuel to bring it to life. 

Let me give you an example. 

Shortly after we had our first child (almost seven years ago), my wife (Ruth) quickly assumed the role of Super Mom.  As is often the case with a lot of first-time mothers, she willingly put aside many of her personal needs so that she could be present at all times with our daughter.  She knew that being a stay-at-home mom would be a short term sacrifice for a much bigger gain.

Fast forward a few years and Emerson was now in pre-school, which meant Ruth actually had some “me time” on her daily agenda.  I remember frequently asking her what she was going to do with this new chunk of time, and her answer was always the same, “I don’t know.  I guess I need to find something.”  After a while, she grew increasingly frustrated with this apparent void in her life.  So, she went on an elusive search of finding a new passion.  As her loving husband, I often encouraged her to try new things in an effort to help her find this passion.  In retrospect, it was one of my bigger mistakes as a husband.  I was a victim of the status quo I mentioned earlier.  All of my suggestions were things that other moms were doing.  Essentially, I was forcing her to fit in.  Meanwhile, her inherent passions were begging to be unleashed.     

Fast forward another two or three years and our family had grown with the addition of Ivy.  Super Mom was once again in full force.  This time; however, Ruth was determined to end the self-sabotaging patterns that were accompanied by thoughts of “What should I do?” and commit to fueling her true passions.  You see, Ruth had always had an affinity for both painting and poetry.  However, in her effort to be the best mom she could possibly be, it just seemed too daunting of a task to do either of these.  After all, where do you find the time?

I vividly remember the day she ceased looking for a new passion and began fueling those that had been with her for years.  A few weeks before Ivy’s first birthday, she decided to purchase a plain white canvas and dabble with some acrylic paints.  Her ultimate goal was to create a tree with branches so that each family member present at the party could stamp their thumbprint on a branch.  Each consecutive morning, I would wake up to her sitting at the kitchen table adding new, delicate details to the tree.  What I began to notice more than the painting itself was the energy she now possessed.  There was a vibrant, fulfilled nature to her that I hadn’t seen before.

Fast forward again to today and Ruth continues to fuel her passion for painting each morning before both of the girls wake up.  She has also fueled her passion for poetry and has written two children’s books, one of which is currently in the publishing process.  I share this not to brag about my wife, although I am a very proud husband, but rather to illustrate the power of fueling your inherent passions. 

I invite you to sit down and answer this question right now.  “What are you doing when you feel the most fulfilled or excited?”  Maybe it’s painting or poetry like Ruth.  Maybe it’s storytelling or creativity, which happen to be mine.  Maybe it’s working with numbers or coding new computer programs.  Society will always tell you what your passions should be, but only you can reveal what they really are.  

Once you have revealed your passions, start doing the things that fuel them.  It really is that simple. 

One of Ruth's recent paintings.

One of Ruth’s recent paintings.

True freedom

untitledA few days ago I had the great fortune of working with a fabulous group of 8 to 11 year olds in one of my Lenses of Leadership workshops.  As is often the case, many of the students showed up with a look of apprehension, wondering what exactly their parents had signed them up for.  I began as I always do by encouraging the students to choose a new lens with regard to the word leadership; a lens that would empower them to embrace their inner leaders.

As the workshop progressed, there were occasional light bulb moments on the students’ faces as we continued to add depth to our conversation.  As I scanned the room to assess for understanding, I noticed Jeremy (not his real name), who was sitting toward the back of the room, with his proverbial wall up and obviously unwilling to mentally accept what I was teaching.  Trying to be open to his apparent look of anger and frustration, I continued on, hoping that his light bulb moment was just around the corner. 

As we neared the end of our time together, I knew I had one final chance to reach Jeremy.  It was time to introduce the most powerful tool in my curriculum; the Head, Heart, Feet model.  Normally I would ask the students to choose their least favorite subjects in school and use them as their emotional triggers, or circumstances.  Then I would walk them through the process of choosing new lenses, which would in turn influence their emotions and actions.  Today I chose something different.  I was determined to break through Jeremy’s wall, so I decided to ask the students the following question. 

“What makes you angry?”

As they wrote down their responses, I couldn’t help but notice Jeremy writing feverishly on his paper.  Clearly, he was writing more than one of his emotional triggers.  Here is the conversation that ensued.

“Okay, who would like to share their trigger?  Jeremy, let’s start with you.”

“I have a few of them, but the one that angers me the most is when kids make fun of the way I look.”  He then explained to the class specific examples of the teasing.

“I can understand your frustration.  I too was teased when I was your age.  However, I want to share something with you—all of you—that just might change your lives.  It’s not the people teasing you who are making you angry.”  I paused at this point to let this thought resonate.  Jeremy was clearly frustrated. 

“How can you say that?”

“Look at your Head, Heart, Feet model (see diagram below).  Notice the clouds labeled “My Circumstances”.  Between the clouds and your thoughts is a space.  I like to call this space “freedom.”  You see, people are going to say mean things to other people.  These are circumstances.  True power, however, is recognizing that we will always have the freedom to think about our circumstances in any way we choose.  So, the next time someone teases you, I want you to pause for a minute and think about how you are going to respond.  Are you going to give your power to this person by getting angry, or are you going to keep your power by recognizing that his words do not define you?  Someone could walk into this room right now and tell me that I am the absolute worse teacher he’s ever met.  While it would certainly be natural for me to feel upset, I could also choose to keep my power by focusing on all of the people who believe in me.  You are a beautiful person Jeremy and NO ONE has the power to tell you otherwise.”

His wall was broken.  Jeremy’s anger was replaced with a look of confidence and hope.  It was if I had given him a gift and he had finally opened it. 

Victor Frankl’s quote is one of my absolute favorites.  As someone who used this emotional freedom to persevere through the atrocities of The Holocaust, he certainly provides hope that it is possible, regardless of your circumstances.

I invite you to identify your emotional triggers and consider the fact that you really do have the freedom to respond in any way you choose. 

head, heart, feet  

Start your engines

imagesTX6D5NCNJust as automobiles need fuel to operate, we also need various types of fuel (physical, mental, etc…) in order to operate our lives.  As you know, there are several types of fuel available for purchase at a gas station.  Whether it’s just regular ol’ unleaded or the super charged variety that makes for a smoother running engine, the fuel you add to your gas tank ultimately serves as a reservoir of potential energy.  

Let’s imagine that our self-esteem is symbolized by an invisible fuel tank that resides in our heart.  A full tank would represent an extremely high self-esteem and consistent positive thinking, whereas an empty tank would represent a rather low self-esteem and consistent negative thinking.  If you’re like most people, then I’m sure your fuel levels tend to vary from time to time.  What you may not be aware of; however, is the type of fuel that you are adding to your tank each day. 

Imagine going to a gas station and seeing a sign for “toxic” gas that is designed to erode or burn off all of your good fuel.  Would you choose to put any of this into your tank?  I’m assuming your answer is no.  Well, what if I told you that the primary reason for a consistently empty tank is the “toxic” fuel that we choose to add, consciously or unconsciously, every day?  The fact of the matter is that each one of us is either adding toxic or super charged fuel as a result of our daily thoughts and actions.  Only one of them, however; contributes to improved self-esteem.  

Below are a few examples of each type of fuel.  These may seem like common sense, but as you know, common sense isn’t always common practice.   

SUPER CHARGED FUEL – Positive Energy 

BE HONEST

We are the only ones that know the real truth.  Furthermore, when we tell the truth, we free ourselves from the burden of buried lies.  Perhaps equally important to honesty with others is the ability to be honest with ourselves.  In other words, each time we try to be someone or something that we know we are not, we add toxic fuel and therefore lose positive energy. 

KEEP PROMISES

Not only do we make promises to others, we also make countless promises to ourselves.  Think about all of the times you’ve said things like… 

  • This is the day that I start working toward my goal.
  • I am going to get up early and go to the gym.
  • I will forgive him/her and move on.

There’s a reason why we make promises to ourselves more than we do to others.  It’s much easier to break them.  After all, we can easily justify, blame, or make excuses when no one else is involved.  Furthermore, we convince ourselves that we are “right” in our justifications and fail to recognize how these actions impact our fuel tank.   

OWN MISTAKES

We all make mistakes.  It’s part of being human.  However, it’s what we do following a mistake that ultimately affects our fuel tank.  Owning our mistakes simply means that we take full responsibility for them.  Regardless of the level of outside influence, we still have the ability to own our part of the mistake.  Each moment we spend deflecting the responsibility to someone or something else, we are essentially missing out on an opportunity for good fuel. 

TOXIC FUEL – Negative Energy 

LIES

Unfortunately, it’s very easy to lie and get away with it.  As I mentioned before, we can justify and reason why a lie was okay, but the fact of the matter is that each of our lies acts as toxic fuel and therefore sucks our tank dry.  While the outside world may never know of our lies, our fuel tank always pays the price. 

BROKEN PROMISES

In my opinion, the personal promises we break (i.e. I’m going to the gym tomorrow no matter what) have a bigger impact on our fuel tank.  While no one else is aware of the broken promise, we certainly feel it. 

BLAME, JUSTIFY, MAKE EXCUSES

We’ve already established the fact that blame, excuses, and justifications are toxic to our fuel tanks.  Don’t waste your fuel.

Here’s to a full tank of super charged fuel.  I’ll see you on the road.

 

 

Happy school year

untitledWith the start of a new school year fast approaching (at least in Arizona), I wanted to take a moment to address a critical skill that most students fail to practice.  It’s called mindset and believe it or not, it’s equally important to student success as the letter grades they will receive at the end of the first quarter. 

Parents, you know the drill.  The first few weeks of school, otherwise known as the honeymoon period, are relatively painless for your child as they celebrate the opportunity to be around their friends and the workload is manageable.  Unfortunately, in the weeks that follow, it might be common for your child to return home each day complaining about a certain class or teacher and how things just aren’t fair.  This is where the power of mindset can literally change their entire experience of school.

Below is a letter I’ve written for a pre-teen and teenage audience.  I invite you to share it with anyone who you think might benefit.

Dear Student Extraordinaire,

Whether you are ready for it or not, a new school year is upon us.  The desks are polished, the carpets are cleaned, the pencils are sharpened, and the chairs sit empty, waiting for you to occupy them on that first day. 

By the time you read this letter, you may already know your class schedule and/or your assigned teacher(s).  You might even find yourself dreading the one class or teacher that everyone has warned you about. 

“Oh, that class is so boring.”

“He/she lectures all of the time and is so unfair.”

“You are going to hate that class.  I am so glad I’m done with it.”

These are just a few of the statements that may be fighting for space in your mind as the first day of school draws near.  Despite the fact that you know these are simply OPO’s (Other People’s Opinions), you can’t help but wonder if they really are true. 

I have something I want to share with you that may just cause you to have the happiest school year yet.  Are you ready?

The classes you take and the teachers who teach them DO NOT determine your levels of happiness.  Your mindset DOES. 

Let me explain.

It’s common for students to ride what I call the emotional roller coaster throughout the year.  Depending on their interest in a particular class or teacher, their emotions can either be empowering or not.  Take for example, the class that your friend has warned you is extremely boring.  Chances are, the moment you walk into that class you will prepare yourself for boredom and look for all sorts of reasons to prove that it actually is boring.  Guess what?  The class itself is NOT boring.  Boredom is always a product of our thinking.  Having said this, you really have two choices.

  1. Spend each day being bored and blame the teacher or class for your mood.
  2. Change the way you think about the teacher or class and take ownership of your mood.

If you’re looking for the easy route, you are welcome to blame the teacher or class.  However, despite your best efforts, blaming will never change anything.  If you’re looking to be happy, I invite you to be curious and creative about the way you see this experience. 

Here are some examples.

“This class is teaching me the importance of patience.”

“My teacher may not be teaching the way I would, but the information they are sharing is valuable to me.”

“When I walk into this class, I’m going to choose an attitude of gratitude.”

The choice is yours.  Your thoughts can literally change your experience with regard to school.  Don’t let school dictate your emotions.  You have the power to do this yourself.

Here’s to your happiest school year yet.

Sincerely,

Mike Sissel – former teenager

 

Friday with Mimi

10525837_10204153372222613_4240702497158384353_nIn his 1997 best-selling book Tuesdays With Morrie, author Mitch Albom recounts the precious time he spent with his 78-year-old sociology professor Morrie Schwartz, who was dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).  Each Tuesday, he would visit Morrie at his home in Massachusetts and listen to one of his many lessons on the meaning of life, eager to absorb the profound wisdom that Mr. Schwartz possessed.  Embedded in each of his lessons were themes of communication, love, and happiness; each of which would change Mr. Albom’s outlook on life.

Perhaps you have your own Morrie, someone who has lived a full life and is willing to share their insights with you from a place of love.  Each time you talk with them, you may walk away feeling refreshed and invigorated as a result of their wisdom. 

My Morrie is my 94-year-old grandmother Marjorie, affectionately known in our family as Mimi.  This past Friday, I had the great fortune of spending an afternoon with her at her new senior living center in Albany, Oregon.  As is often the case, in just a few short hours together, she taught me so much about the meaning of life.  

She taught me the power of connection. 

After living by herself in an apartment for over 35 years, you can imagine the difficult transition to a home which she now had to share with fifty other people.  My concerns about this transition quickly diminished the moment we walked into the dining hall for lunch.  We were immediately greeted by a room full of smiling faces, eagerly watching our every move.  As I sat down, I quickly scanned the tables that surrounded us and noticed that a large majority of the people were still looking at us.  Feeling a little uneasy, I redirected my focus toward Mimi and noticed that she too was smiling at a gentleman who had just walked in.  Then it dawned on me that the eye contact and smiles served as a powerful form of connection.  You see, instead of having their eyes glued to a cell phone or iPad, each of the people in this room were gazing into the eyes of each other.  Even though the verbal conversation was minimal, the power of their nonverbal communication was evident.  Once I realized this, I decided to scan the room again, but this time with a giant smile on my face.  I was eager to connect with a group of people I had never met. 

She taught me the power of perspective.

After lunch (which they actually call dinner), we walked back up to her room and sat next to each other on the very same couch I sat on as a young child.  As a six-year-old, I was probably more concerned with the movie that was playing on her television, but on this day, as a forty-one-year-old, I simply wanted to be present with her.  Knowing that she had recently had a fall and was still in pain, I asked her about her recovery.  Shortly into the conversation, she looked at me and said, “You know, if I ever get down about things, all I have to do is look around this place and see that there are people who are much worse off than I am.  I’m pretty lucky to still be alive.”  It would have been very easy for her to play out the entire saga of the fall and belabor the fact that the pain still existed, but instead she chose to see her circumstance through a lens of gratitude.  While she attributed her longevity to good luck, I can’t help but think it is a product of her empowering perspective.   

She taught me to celebrate the small things.

With only a little bit of time left, we decided to drive to Safeway as she needed to pick up a prescription.  To save time, I handled the transaction with her debit card and tucked the receipt away in the bag.  Just as we exited the building, she asked me how much the charge was.  When I told her it was only $1.64, she was initially dumbfounded.  Expecting to pay at least $40.00, her eyes eventually lit up with excitement, thrilled about this tremendous savings.  It was as if she had won the lottery.  As we walked back to the car, I thought about some of the “big” things that I was experiencing and the emotional weight they carried.  It was clear to me that I wasn’t taking the time to celebrate the “little things”, but rather I was allowing my thoughts to drift toward negativity and all that was wrong. 

Unlike Morrie, Mimi didn’t actually teach me these lessons in a pointed conversation about the meaning of life.  She taught me by simply living her life; a life of powerful connection, empowered perspective, and genuine celebration.          

I love you Mimi.  Your wisdom continues to shape the way I live my life. 

The burning match

untitledImagine that I handed you an unlit match and asked you to hold it firmly between your forefinger and thumb.  Now imagine that I lit the match and asked you to keep it in this position for as long as you could.  Suffice it to say that most of you would hold on until the very moment you felt a burning sensation in your fingers, at which time you would probably throw it to the ground. 

Now I want you to think of the last time you were angry with someone.  Perhaps it was your boss who failed to honor your vacation request, or maybe it was the person who cut you off on the freeway.  While you may not be able to pinpoint exactly how long you held onto your anger, I’m guessing you have had moments when you chose to keep the match in your hand (anger) despite the fact that it was burning you.  In other words, you continued to manifest feelings of anger long after the circumstance had passed.  While anger is a natural human emotion, the suffering that occurs as a result of holding on to the anger can extremely costly.

So, how can we learn to let go of the burning match? Below is an incredibly moving story of a man whose life serves as a beautiful illustration of the power of letting go.  

At the age 19, Louis Zamperini ran the 5,000 meters at the 1936 Olympics, falling just short of a medal.  Determined to represent the United States once again in the 1940 Olympics, Zamperini’s dream was cut short with the outbreak of World War II.  He enlisted in the Army Air Corps and became a bombardier on a B-24 Liberator.  In May of 1943, he and his crew embarked on a search mission for a fallen pilot.  Unfortunately, his plane crashed into the wide open Pacific Ocean.

What followed was a 47 day struggle for survival.  With only a meager raft, Zamperini and his crew spent days without drinking water and were exposed to extremely hot weather conditions.  Sharks would often circle beneath their raft.

Zamperini drifted for almost 2,000 miles before he washed ashore on a Pacific Island.  From there, he was taken as a prisoner of war by the Japanese.  As a prisoner, Zamperini was fed poorly and was often abused by countless prison guards.  Perhaps his most notable tormentor was a Japanese sergeant, nicknamed “The Bird”, whose beatings were so fierce that Zamperini often wondered if the next one would lead to his death. 

Against all odds, Zamperini survived and was liberated at the end of the war.  Clearly overcome with intense anger toward his tormentors, especially “The Bird”, he wrestled with countless moments of rage and depression.  He resorted to alcohol as his emotional escape, but nothing could erase the terrifying memories of his experience as a prisoner. 

Several years after his return, Zamperini attended a Billy Graham sermon, a moment that would shape the rest of his life.  He embraced Christianity and his spiritual walk helped him to uncover the tremendous power of forgiveness.  Shortly after hearing the sermon, he began writing letters of forgiveness to the very people that almost took his life.      

In 1950, Zamperini returned to Tokyo and requested a visit to a Tokyo prison where several of his tormenters were serving sentences for war crimes.  He even planned on forgiving “The Bird”, though he refused to meet with Zamperini. 

The anger that once consumed him was now gone.  Why?  Because he was willing to let go of the match.  He realized that by holding on to the anger he was creating more and more turmoil in his own life.  He learned to acknowledge the fact that anger itself wasn’t going to change the people who inflicted all of this pain.  You see, by choosing to forgive his tormentors, those who tried to take all of his physical and mental power from him, he was taking back the steering wheel of his own life.  No longer would he allow a circumstance to govern his emotions.  Not surprisingly, he dedicated the rest of his life to spreading the message of forgiveness.     

Sadly, Louis Zamperini passed away on July 2, 2014 at the age of 97.  Below is a segment from his appearance on CBS Sunday Morning, which will give you a glimpse into the life of this amazing man.