It was the last conversation I ever had with my father. Little did I know, that very next day he would tragically die in a plane crash. I would find out in the days to come I was the last one in my family to speak to him. That conversation and those words will forever echo in my mind.
Growing up, I wasn’t somebody who often asked my father for advice. My life experiences and independent spirit had taught me the opposite. As a teenager I connected with the words of a poem by Robert Frost:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
(excerpt from The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost)
Inspired by these words, I set out to blaze my own path, beat to my own drum, and prove to everyone that I could accomplish anything, ‘my way’. To my father, a very disciplined man, learned from spending 20 years in the military, ‘my way’ wasn’t practical, lacked discipline, and was, as he remarked on multiple occasions, “flat out stupid.” No wonder I rarely asked him for advice.
Everything changed three years ago when my 2-year-old son was diagnosed with Leukemia. I spent most of the next seven months living in a hospital room as my son fought for his life. After he completed the intense phases of chemotherapy and entered into the Maintenance Phase of treatment, my wife and I decided it was a good time to move back to San Diego closer to family and friends. Hoping to slow down a little, I took a job we thought would allow for more family time. However, my son continued to struggle with his health, and unexpectedly, my job turned out to be the most challenging of my career. I constantly struggled to find the balance between the demands of work and those in my personal life.
It was at this time, that I was asked to perform a large church assignment that would require significant time and commitment. Already overwhelmed, I fell to my knees desperate for help and answers. My father always taught me to put God first, and to make time to help and serve others. I thought of his example and the burdens of raising six kids, starting a new business, and making time to serve God and others. For the first time in my life, I realized how similar our paths had become. For the first time in my life, I realized how similar he must have felt. I quickly picked up my phone and called him.
Stumbling through my words, I humbly asked him for advice. Calmly, my dad recounted a time in his life when he had three young children, was attending law school, serving in the military, and on the brink of going to war in Vietnam. Similar to me, he had also been asked to take on a significant church assignment and had asked a mentor for advice. His mentor, after listening to my father’s plea for help, looked him square in the eye and said: “So what?! You don’t think everyone else has trials and challenges in their life? You don’t think everyone else feels inadequate, and overwhelmed? We all do! Just do the things you know you’re supposed to do, and you’ll be fine.”
My dad paused for a minute, then told me: “Jim, I’m going to give you the same advice. So what?! So what that you’re going through all of this. Just do the things you know you’re supposed to do, and you’ll be fine.” He expressed his love for me and told me he was proud of me, something I cherished greatly at the time, but even more so after his passing.
I hung up the phone and with tears in my eyes, quietly pondered his words. The last thing I wanted or expected my dad to say was ‘so what’. All I wanted him to do was validate my feelings and give me some secret wisdom that would suddenly make my life easier. Yet, I knew his advice wasn’t meant to be cold, or lack empathy. He knew things wouldn’t magically get better. Making excuses would only add to my current struggles. I needed to keep moving forward. I hated to admit it, but I knew he was right.
Not long after my dad’s passing, our youngest son was diagnosed with the same type of Leukemia that our other son had been diagnosed with just two years earlier. This led to some genetic testing and the discovery that all three of our children suffer from a rare genetic disorder, called Ataxia Telangiectasia. As if having a kid with cancer wasn’t enough, the trials and challenges of life kept piling up. Within a two-and-a-half-year period, we had added a third child to our family, started a new job, moved out of state twice, had my father die in a plane crash, had two children diagnosed with cancer, and all three diagnosed with a genetic disorder.
It’s impossible to describe the pain and struggle of the past few years. If ever there was a time to throw in the towel, this was it. One thing that has kept me going are the words of my father. Every time I’m tempted to give up, make excuses, or start feeling sorry for myself, I hear him saying: “So what?!”
While the road I’m on is indeed ‘one less traveled by’, we all face enormous challenges in life. We all have health issues and feel the sorrow that comes with the loss of a loved one. Many suffer from the consequences of abuse or addiction. Divorce and failed relationships are common place, and even those in relationships often feel alone. Parents struggle with the decisions of their children. Children struggle to find their own path, all while trying to be accepted by their peers, and living up to their parent’s expectations. Whatever the challenge we face, the truth is that we all struggle. No one is immune to the pain that comes from the difficulties of life.
During these difficult times, we have moments where we feel extreme sorrow, hurt, and pain. We feel overwhelmed and our self-doubt is crippling. The reality is that no matter what road we decide to take next, each one will leave us bruised and broken. The healing process takes years, sometimes decades; and still leaves behind scars. Life changes us. We will never be the same person we were yesterday, yet these are the moments that will ultimately define us. The choice is ours whether our struggles make us or break us.
The moment I stopped making excuses, my life changed. Consistently doing the right things every day took me from barely breathing to surviving, from progressing to thriving. I started having great success at work and our team accomplished things few thought possible. I was able to serve at church, and still make time for my family. I still struggled and made mistakes along the way, but I found these words of Ralph Waldo Emerson to be true: “That which we persist in doing becomes easier to do, not that the nature of the thing has changed but that our power to do them has increased.”
This life was never meant to be free of afflictions, sorrows, and pain. It was meant to be full of purpose and meaning. In the very makeup of our DNA, we were given the power to overcome. The ability to endure hard things is within all of us, it is within you. You can climb the tallest of mountains and you can withstand the storms of life, not if, but when they come; because they will certainly come. That is when you, and only you, can decide how to react to those storms, and can decide what path you will take. When you find yourself at those crossroads, I give you the same advice my father gave to me. So what?! Wake up in the morning, shower, eat breakfast, go to work, help others, put one foot in front of the other, and just do the things you know you’re supposed to do, and you will be ok.
When you decide to leave behind the excuses of life, only then will you find yourself. Only then will you find true joy, appreciate the small things in life, and celebrate the little victories. Only then, will you prove to yourself and others, that you can overcome the impossible. So what if our lives are hard?! So what if more challenges are on the way?! So what?!