8 Years Of Learning

I’m going to first apologize for this post…not for its content, but for getting rather personal with you.  My intent is to share with you some very personal and might I say, sacred thoughts regarding my journey over the past eight years. Tonight at 9:50 p.m., will mark eighth year from when Annette and I lost our 21-year old son Reed. While his passing might have by many at the time been considered a blessing, as he had been fighting for five years from the effects of a brain tumor, it came with a considerable amount of introspection and sadness.

Screenshot 2020-05-09 at 8.42.45 AM

On Wednesday night, I had an interesting dream.  It was interesting because I typically don’t have many dreams that really make me think.  In my dream, I was alone in a crowded theater ready to watch a movie.  In an instant, fire alarms started to whine in back of the theater.  The exit signs started to flash as if they were an invitation to a non-seen finish line.  I found myself on the back row.  My immediate decision was to bolt to the exit sign and out of danger.  My body and mind reminded me that self-preservation was my only goal.  I found myself frantically running into, through, and around people in front of me. Their peril was of no concern to me as I was sure that I didn’t know any of them.  I remember wondering why no one else held the same apprehension and urgency to leave the building as I did.  It was if others were reaching out, trying to impede my determined goal. This made me even more resolved and convinced that I needed to quickly obtain my objective of getting out.

As the exit sign grew closer, I found that there were even more people trying to slow me down.  Finally, after exercising all of my strength, I reached for the door and then found myself safely outside.  I stood there for a moment in the cold and dark night quite proud of my escape, but then I realized something was very wrong.  No one had followed me out of the theater.  Had they all been burned in the fire I wondered?  As soon as my strength returned, I tried opening the door to see what was going on inside.  The door was locked.  I suddenly realized that what had just happened now seemed to me as very strange.  Why was I the only one trying to reach the door that would certainly bring with it safety?  Who were those people whose faces I didn’t even try to see?  Why didn’t I see, feel the heat, hear, or smell the fire?  I began wondering now whether the fire was real or not.  It didn’t matter, as it was very real to me at the time.  I returned through the front doors of the theater, showed my ticket to the usher, and returned to the same theater that I had been in previously.  As I entered from the bottom to take my place on the top row, I looked into the audience and realized that every person there was someone important in my life.  I saw friends and family. Work colleagues and those I knew from church.

I soon came to the realization that my perception of those who were reaching out trying to impede my progress to the exit, were actually those who cared about me.  They were trying to give me direction, love, and wise counsel.  My mind though was focused on my immediate emergency.  Had I given it time to consider that there was actually no fire, my reaction would have no doubt been different.  I don’t know the meaning of the dream…or if there even is one, but as I drove back home yesterday from a business trip in St. George, I thought about it more and more.  I thought of times in my life that I have quickly reacted versus methodically responding to what at the time seemed like serious problems, but after a short time, realized that the problem was not as serious as I had originally thought.

I thought of the last eight years and all who have reached out to help me and my family as we struggled through losing a child.  While I had lost my elderly father and grandparents many years earlier, losing a child brought with it new feelings and emotions.

I remember wondering why I had to experience something so difficult. Reed was 21, and was in the prime of his life.  He was studying emergency medicine and firefighting at Utah Valley University, and felt like he was making a huge contribution in his employment at a pain management clinic in Salt Lake City.  I have heard people over time say that no experience should be wasted, that God gives us experience to challenge us, to make us stronger, and more serviceable to bless the lives of others around us.  In my experience though, I have found that experience can either make or break a person.  One thing personal tragedy does do for everyone, is it humbles us and takes us down from what is sometimes an extremely inflated opinion of ourselves and our circumstances.

I have friends and those around me that struggle everyday with
feelings of inadequacy, feelings of doubt, or loneliness, and perhaps most difficult, feelings that I should just be able to fix this and make everything better.  I have learned, that sometimes there is no easy fix, no defined exit sign to take us away from our pain.  What I have learned, is that attitude and perspective, along with keeping an open mind and heart are key elements to how we recover.

Helen Keller, who was born blind, yet became an incredible figure of strength and determination was once asked how awful life must have been to not be able to see.  Her response was powerful and thought provoking.  She said that “What’s even worse than not being able to see, is having sight, but having no vision.”  I will be the first to say that like the fictional movie figure, George Bailey in one of my favorite Christmas classics, I can say that I have had a wonderful life.  That being said, we all have defining moments that can test us to our core.  I will tell you that how I have responded at times of trouble, have been sometimes less than defining and more debilitating to my growth. Sometimes it’s hard to see the vision when our world is spinning around us.

Over twenty years ago, I had one of those debilitating moments in my professional career.  I was contemplating leaving my employer and taking my career to the next level.  While working at Fidelity Investments, there were a number of professional books that I had read, written by organizational behaviorist, Linda Richardson.  Linda was a well-known and extremely well thought of owner as well of the “Richardson Group.”  Her company went around the country conducting employer seminars teaching employees how to become more effective and efficient in the workplace.  My company brought in the Richardson Group to train middle managers such as myself to be better leaders.  After the seminar was complete, the head facilitator approached me and a conversation began.  The conversation went something like this.  “Mark, you had some great insight and ideas today.  Have you ever considered being a facilitator with a company like ours?”  Immediately, her compliment created a seed.  I could really see myself doing this kind of training.  Wow, what a great way of getting out of the call center environment and teaching others ways to become better.  I thought about it for some time, and one day I made a telephone call.

“Hey Cynthia, remember me?”  I reminded her of our conversation
and told her that I was ready to consider another career.  She made the arrangements for me to fly to Manhattan and interview for a position. I was stoked.  I thought of how life would be, traveling to various well-known companies, helping them to become more efficient and effective.  I have to tell you that my body armor was impenetrable.  I remember flying over the World Trade Center not long before that fateful September 11th day.  I checked into my hotel, and did everything but what I should have done (to consider the interview in the morning.) I was pretty high on the fat that I was chosen to interview for this incredible company.

The next morning, I got up and walked to the Richardson Company
office building.  I was greeted and taken up the elevator.  I had a
chance to visit with Cynthia, who I had met a few months earlier while she was in Salt Lake conducting her training.  I was then placed in their board room and asked to spend the next half hour going over some training materials that I would be asked to present in a half hour.  At that point, I began to feel a little overwhelmed.  A half hour later, into the room walked three senior level employees of the company.  A moment later, the door opened again, and in walked Linda Richardson.  I don’t know what I was thinking… what I wasn’t thinking, was that the queen bee of organizational behavior in the country would be part of the interview.  I was then asked to present the material that I had been given just a half hour previously.  I began…I stammered and stuttered.  Within a minute of the presentation, I realized that I wasn’t even close to being ready.  After what I’m sure was a painful 15 minutes of trying to present, Linda stopped the presentation and asked me to sit down.  I did so.  She was kind, but forceful.  “Mark” she said, “I don’t know what you were thinking that this interview was going to entail, but you weren’t ready, were you?”  I had to admit to those there that I was a bit intimidated, and no, I wasn’t really ready.  She then gave me a piece of professional advise that has taken me many years to appreciate and internalize.  She said, “Mark, one thing I have learned, is that you can’t just show up and expect to be successful.”  I wondered what she meant.  I was there wasn’t I?  I had expressed interest.  I was excited about the opportunity.  What I wasn’t, was ready to show that I was the right person for the position.
I remember flying home.  It wasn’t a pleasant flight.  How dare she
figuratively call my baby ugly!  Didn’t she see that I was interested?
Didn’t I see that I wouldn’t have hired myself as the town dog catcher after an interview like that?

I flew home, and life went on.  But it took me a long time to realize
that in life, just like in business, you can’t just show up.  You can’t
expect to go through life and learn from experiences without vision, purpose, and the ability to truly see things as they sometimes really are…even if you are not willing to see things that way.  Many lessons in my life have finally (I believe) been recognized during the past eight years as I have contemplated the disappointment and hurt of losing a child.  Here is a very partial list of ten attributes that like each of you, I am trying to master through my own mortality but often seem to come up short:

- As was already mentioned, you can’t just show up.  Life is about
preparing for the inevitable and sometimes the unanticipated.  I
believe in what the author, Charles Swindoll once said that “The
longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on
life.  Attitude, to me is more important than facts.  It is more
important than the past, than education, than money, than
circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people think or say or do.  It is more important than appearances,
giftedness, or skill.  It will make or break a company, a church, a
home.  The remarkable thing is we have a choice to make every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for the day.  We cannot change our past, we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way.  We cannot change the inevitable.  The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is attitude.  I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me, and 90% how I react to it.  And so it is with you.  You are in charge of
your attitudes.”

·  Second.  Learn to respond versus react.  If I had responded in my
dream versus reacting, I would have seen that there were so many people that were willing to help me realize that everything would have been ok.  That my perception I was experiencing at the time, as difficult as it was, would have brought with it joy in the morning.

·  Third.  Our own worst enemy when dealing with stress, can
sometimes be the armor that is girded around our entire being. Not allowing ourselves to be penetrated by good and willing friends and family.  I know that personally, I have often thought of myself as indestructible, that I could handle my own problems and difficulties by myself.  I have learned that sometimes, a loving and kind Heavenly Father can provide the only relief we seek…if we just let him.  Learn to shed the armor.  Learn that you can’t fix everything and everyone around you.

·  Forth.  Sometimes it’s important to turn off the noise of life.  Open
the car window, play your favorite album up loud from when you were a teenager (for me, it’s Pink Floyd’s “Dark side of the Moon”), and remember, give thanks, laugh, and cry about your journey through life.

·  Fifth.  Spend time getting to know yourself.  It may shock you or
make you smile.  Remember all of the good things about you.  Be
genuine.  You will find this easier as you shed away your heavy armor.

·  Sixth.  And perhaps most important so that you don’t alienate those you love, learn to communicate.  Words are cheap.  Listening and being willing to open up…both on the giving as well as the receiving end, to become more genuine and sometimes vulnerable will endear you and your fears to someone else.

·  Seventh.  Ask yourself, Have I done any good in the world today?
Have I helped anyone in need?  Have I cheered up the sad and made someone feel glad?  If not, I have failed indeed.  Service will heal better and faster than being served.  Learn to trust others as well as God.

·  Eighth.  In Brene Brown’s best-selling book “Dare to Lead”, she asks
an important question.  “Am I reacting through Hurt, or through my
Heart.”  Your reaction to life will be a product of the source of your

·  Ninth. Learn to not fear failure or disappointment.  What I
am not saying is to be numb.  That is the opposite of what I am saying.

This might sound odd, but it’s a true story.  The night after Reed’s
brain surgery in 2006, I received a call from Annette at 2:00 in the
morning.  She was calling to tell me that I needed to get up to the
hospital as it looked like Reed might not make it through the night.  I jumped in the car, drove to Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City in the dark of night.  There were few cars on the road.  I turned on the radio.  The classic rock song “Don’t fear the Reaper” was playing. The words of the title itself should tell you that the message I needed to learn was that stuff happens.  Often, we can’t do anything about it.

Prepare yourself for challenges you will experience in life.  Try to be
ever present and not like the ostrich that puts its head in the sand
thinking your problems will go away if you ignore them.

·  Tenth.   Stop running to the exit sign when life becomes difficult.
Slow down, catch your breath.  Ask yourself if life is truly as bleak as
you think it is.  I promise you that it is not.

Lastly (sorry for my long epistle), before you seek for an answer to
your problem, concern, or fear, first define the problem.  In my life, I
have sought solutions to the wrong problem.  Don’t let it be “Why did God do this to me, versus, What is God trying to teach me from this experience, and am I willing to learn?”  As you more fully understand the real issue, you will find that your ability to act versus react will be a product of your vision and understanding.

May you find joy in the journey and peace in the outcome.

"There is simple beauty in a cairn and the connection it creates with people from the past and from all over the world. It let's us know that we are not alone."

Annette Anderson of Cairn The Load

Don't judge yourself by your past, you don't live there anymore.

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    • annette2020 annette2020 on February 15, 2021 at 8:27 pm

      Thank you

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    • annette2020 annette2020 on February 15, 2021 at 8:00 pm

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