It is easy to go through life wishing you had taken the other path, or made a different decision. We spend too much time holding on to the option that we rejected wondering if that would have made us happier, better, more successful, wealthier. We sacrifice the ability to embrace this moment when we hold on to a past that’s gone and a future that hasn’t yet happened. We hold grudges against ourselves, telling ourselves that if we had just done a little more, or a little less, or pushed a little harder, or let go sooner, things would have been different. But here’s the thing. They’re not different. They are the way they are, and we always have a choice as to what we do next.
We have so much more power than we give ourselves credit for. Because we have a say in how we get to approach life.
My brother John (we called him J) died of bladder cancer when he was 42. The adults who knew him well remember him as this gorgeous, charismatic guy who had a magnetic personality, and pretty much everyone who met him loved him instantly. He was a passionate man, powered by things like spending time with his two little girls, playing the drums and making money. He worked in finance for many years and at his peak, J was a successful broker and played in three rock bands at the sametime. He had a lovely home, a beautiful family, a great income, and he was playing gigs. He was living his dream. And he loved life. In fact, he loved life so much that he once told me that as much as he liked riding a motorcycle, he would never buy one because he didn’t trust himself to drive it carefully, and he thought for sure that getting a motorcycle would be like giving himself a death sentence. He wasn’t exactly ready to die.
So it came as a surprise to all of us when J came to visit one fall to tell us that he had cancer. It was already quite advanced. He began chemotherapy, progressed to radiation therapy and by the following spring, there was little that could be done. The doctors gave him between 4 and 18 months to live, and he died just 6 months later, in September of that same year. For many years after he died I was angry with J, because the part of the story I haven’t told you yet is that J knew he was sick long before it was confirmed. He found blood in his urine almost a year before his diagnosis, and in spite of its constant presence for many months, he never went to the doctor until the pain was too much to bear.
Many of us might have made some different choices along the way, but the fact is that J lived his life very deliberately – he squeezed every drop of joy out of every moment. It was one of things that drew people to him. It made him reckless sometimes, and clearly careless with his health. But J loved his life and he loved it the way it was. And so eventually, I let go of my anger, understanding that he wasn’t trying to die, he was just committed to living – in the biggest, fullest way he could. He had two phrases he repeated throughout his adult life – you might remember them.
The first was “make it count”. Make it count means – whatever comes your way – whether it was a challenge or a moment for celebration – give it what it deserves and make your time worthwhile. J seemed to always know that his time on the planet was limited, and he didn’t believe in wasting his time or energy on things that didn’t matter. I mean sure, you could argue that going to the doctor might have been time well spent, but that wasn’t really in line with J’s particular vision of how he wanted to spend his time. You don’t have to agree with J to understand his focus on doing the things that brought him joy. You didn’t find J cleaning out the garage because he had nothing better to do on a Sunday morning – there was no satisfaction in that for him. He would rather mow the lawn – even if he’d already done it the day before – holding hands with his daughter just because she wanted to push the mower… again. Make it count means doing things that bring you joy. Make it count means finding your flow. Make it count means sharing time with people who make you happy. I always knew that J must be talking about someone really special if he told me he had a lot of time for them. But see, J had time for most people. He saw the good in people, and he believed that everyone has something to contribute. That was how he chose to see the world.
The other thing J used to say was: “It is what it is”.
It is what it is. It’s so simple, isn’t it? If it is what it is, then it’s not what it’s not. In other words, life doesn’t have to be quite so complicated. We have a tendency to read into things, to overanalyze, to search for reasons. We allow ourselves to become overwhelmed by things because we hold fast to a should instead of an is. Should comes with blame, guilt, and regret. We hold ourselves accountable to an invisible set of rules that are more likely to hurt us than to help us. If I instead tell myself I should do something and I don’t, I inevitably feel bad about myself. If I tell myself I could or I might, it’s a little different. Could, might – these imply that I have a choice. I could clean the house today, but I’ve decided to do something different with that time. I might clean the house today, unless something else comes up. (A note of caution – I don’t advocate the use of could as a cop out for things that really need to be done – e.g. I could pay the rent… No, pay the damn rent.) Ultimately, the greatest value lies in the almighty WILL because will means you have made your choice. With choice comes forgiveness and freedom. It is what it is. Which brings us back to make it make it count. Making it count is a choice. You choose whether, how and to what extent you will make whatever it is count. And ultimately, it is the fact that we have a choice that we most often fail to recognize.
That feeling can surface anywhere, too. From not doing well on presentation you worked really hard on, to making a mistake and feeling bad about it. From fighting with a loved one to disagreeing with a colleague. The inability to move past these moments of frustration often comes from an unwillingness to recognize that we have a say in how we move forward.
I was divorced when my children were quite small. Every other weekend they would go to their dad’s house, and when they returned to my house, my daughter who was about 4 at the time, would invariably have what we eventually referred to as a “daddy crisis”. She hated that we lived in separate houses and, naturally, she didn’t understand why we couldn’t just all be together. So coming home was hard because it meant she couldn’t be with daddy and sometimes she would, amid tears, take it out on me. She would stomp her feet, and throw herself on her bed and cry – “I don’t love you!”
The first time I heard it, I think I stopped in my tracks, wondering if I had actually heard that correctly. I had no idea what to say, but I knew I needed to say something. I took a breath and prepared to speak, and as I did, it was like I had just stepped out over a massive abyss. I stood there, leg dangling and realized that what happened next was entirely up to me. My options were infinite – I could ignore it, I could scold her, I could contradict her. It was a critical moment, and I needed to get it right. Slowly, I took a deep breath, and stood with both feet on the ground. I turned toward my daughter and said calmly and lovingly “That’s okay. I love you enough for the both of us.” It was a phrase I would repeat many times, and it brought us both peace.
After a few weeks, my daughter stopped telling me she didn’t love me, and ultimately, we moved on – both of us – with grace. I had a choice, and in this case, I made a good one. We are all faced with countless decisions each day that test our character and resilience. And we don’t always get it right. But with each choice we make, there is a second choice – how to face the consequences of the first choice. We don’t realize how many second chances we have to get things right. We have so much more power than we give ourselves credit for.
You cannot control what other people do, but you can control your next move. It’s the difference between reacting and responding. Whereas reaction is quick, and often emotionally driven, responding requires consideration of the consequences. When we weigh our options and consider their potential impact, we make better choices for ourselves and for others.
Regardless of what comes your way, what’s next is up to you. Remember that whatever happens – it happened. As J said, It is what it is. Your challenge is to make it count, by using the one real gift that we all possess – choice.
We have so much more power than we give ourselves credit for.