We all know someone who appears to have walked straight down a pathway to the unfettered fulfillment of dreams and goals. From the outside looking in it may even seem as though certain groups of people have more access to lives uncomplicated by roadblocks and disappointments than the rest of us. In truth those whom we believe glide effortlessly through life are the exception rather than the rule. Most of us mere mortals are faced with multiple challenges that change the courses of our journeys or sometimes even create almost intractable roadblocks. It is in how we choose to face down the limitations and difficulties that beset us that determines our mettle as human beings.
I am quite naturally drawn to interesting stories that speak of determination. I’m fascinated by the extent to which some humans will work to be their best selves regardless of the discouragement that they may encounter. Their unwillingness to resign themselves to bitterness or self defeating behaviors serve as inspiration, but all too often we neglect to truly analyze just how much courage and effort it may have actually taken for them to succeed.
It was most unlikely that Abraham Lincoln would one day become one of the most admired and best loved presidents of all time. He was born in the backwoods of Kentucky and had the bad luck of being poor and not particularly attractive. There was little of great merit to recommend him as a leader, and besides he suffered greatly from recurring depression and thoughts of suicide. Nonetheless it was his moral code of honesty and compassion, along with his gift of speaking that slowly propelled him into history. His life was continually beset with tragedy and his melancholy produced tremendous suffering for him, but his sense of responsibility somehow overcame all of the adversities that befell him. It was as though he understood that he had a destiny to follow, so he soldiered forward even as he considered and feared his ultimate fate.
I heard a writer speaking of Franklin Delano Roosevelt recently. I had always thought FDR to be a brilliant, confident and almost aristocratic man who altruistically devoted his talents to the betterment of the country. In fact his had been a rather unsure and disappointing beginning. As a young man his appearance was somewhat awkward and his academic record was rather average. Even though he was admitted to Harvard he struggled to fit in there. He was not as wealthy or intellectual or talented as his peers. In the early days of his political career he lived in the shadow of that other Roosevelt who had been a charismatic adventurer and president. When he was diagnosed with polio it appeared that his career and possibly even his life was over, and yet it was at that watershed moment that he found an aspect of himself that would ultimately define him as one of the greats in the pantheon of history. He turned one of the biggest disappointments of his life into a lesson in humility, courage and empathy. He willed himself from the depths of despair and used both his strengths and his weaknesses to lead a nation through one of its darkest moments.
The annals are replete with story after story of individuals who seemed doomed to lives of soul crushing tragedy and lack of fulfillment who through sheer persistence found their better selves. Such was a post on Facebook about a little girl with Down’s Syndrome who told her mother that she wanted to become a model. In spite of having all of the odds stacked against her, she never gave up on her dream. She worked out and practiced her walk and sent her photographs to hundreds of places hoping that someone might provide her with a moment to demonstrate what she believed she had to offer. Her grit eventually paid off. She has been featured on runways across the globe and in multiple fashion magazines. She has shown the world a new definition of beauty and grace. Mostly though she has demonstrated that not one of us has to wait for opportunity. Sometimes we have to go out and create it.
J.J. Watt was just named the Man of the Year by the NFL for the good deeds that he continuously performs when he is not working as one of the premier defensive players in professional football. A fan wanted to know what J.J. had been doing at the age of nineteen, and was stunned by the answer. J.J. noted that his first run with college had not worked out well. He found himself at home again with his parents, taking classes at a community college and working at a nondescript job at night. Nonetheless, he was not done. He worked out and trained so that he might try out for a walk on spot as a player at the University of Wisconsin. Even at a young age J.J. was demonstrating the characteristics that would ultimately make him a superstar as a player and a human being.
Our society can be harsh and ugly at times. We often hear the word “No” more than we receive encouragement. We are ranked and categorized from the time that we are very young. Test scores and economic measures often serve as arbiters of our future. People with small minds tell us all of the reasons why we should not be able to accomplish certain things. Our system sometimes seems designed to push us down rather than lift us up. We are told that our qualifications are inferior, our physical appearance is wrong, our talents are mediocre, our profile doesn’t fit the norm. It is easier at times to just accept the judgements and settle into an uncomfortable rut. Then we hear of people who have constructed their own destinies by building the roads they need or following winding and adventurous paths. They show us that there is always a way and that it is never too late to be who we want to be.
We may not be famous or even find riches as we inch forward, but we will experience the happiness and sense of well being that comes from finding the spark inside our souls that ignites the joy that comes from a sense accomplishment. Each of us has the capacity to make the most of our lives. We only need begin.