"Be bold in doing the rest of your life."
That’s what Gail Sheehy wrote in my copy of her groundbreaking book Passages in 1976 when I interviewed her for a daily newspaper in St. Louis.Such rich wisdom, so freely given in a simple autograph!
In the past 39 years I have often heeded this advice, choosing the challenging option instead of the safe one.
Sheehy's words became one of my mantras. I've got others, too: catchphrases offered from friends and strangers alike that have made a difference in my life over the years that deserve to be shared.
A crusty production editor at a newspaper where I worked uttered that gem. No doubt I was trying to convince him how much I loved my reporting job and how I planned to keep it forever. This man knew that change was in the air (to put it mildly) and he was trying to warn me and protect me from my expectations.
A mentor and friend, an older woman, gave me this gift. For a long time, I thought life was all about striving and struggling to make it big. Or even medium. She pointed out one day over lunch that what life really is about is being happy. With that single sentence, she gave me a quick and easy route to real joy.
I adopted this philosophy (and paid to put it on bumper stickers) 20 years ago after being diagnosed with breast cancer. It’s a common theme among people who have survived a serious illness. In his autobiography, Born to Play, baseball centerfielder Eric Davis writes about undergoing 46 chemotherapy treatments and then getting right back out on the field. Asked what he had learned from cancer, Davis replied, “I never put off anything until tomorrow.” Yep!
Five years ago, after receiving a second breast cancer diagnosis 14 years after the first, I found myself about to ask the surgeon how this bad news might affect my longevity. Then I remembered the scene in Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back when Han Solo tries to steer the X-wing fighter through a field of asteroids. The droid C-3P0 starts to tell him the odds of success. Solo snarls, “Never tell me the odds!” I decided to go with Solo’s approach. When I shared all this with the surgeon, he grinned. Instead of spouting statistics, he gave me this gift: “Head for 90.”
When an exterminator said this to me in 1971 just after I had moved into a house new to me but old to the neighborhood, I was mystified. I replied, “What’s a baseboard?” He pointed them out, trying hard not to laugh. It never would have occurred to me to wax my baseboards. Ever. It still hasn’t. Plus, I have expanded on the exterminator’s advice to get out of other silly household chores.
Ranting to an older co-worker about changes at the office (see No. 1), I was surprised when he declined to join in my outrage. “The system was in place when you got here,” he said, “and it will be in place long after you are gone. You get to decide how you spend your time here, either banging your head against a brick wall or making the most of every story assignment.” Don’t you hate it when a good rant is wasted? Yet his words showed me how to accept things I could not change.
Actually, that sentence should not be in quotes, because the woman on the treadmill next to me at the gym didn’t say it. This woman, a stranger, had a story to tell, a story about how a young woman had come into her grown son’s life and completely taken him over, changed his very personality and turned him against his mother.
The woman went on and on, excoriating her son’s true love with every word. I found myself wondering about her son’s side of the story, and that of her soon-to-be daughter-in-law. Then I decided I didn’t really care, but I did learn how important it is to love the people our children choose to love.
Have a mantra of your own? Feel free to share it in the comments below.