This other student was paraplegic. It must have taken her significant time and effort to maneuver her one slightly functional finger on each hand to painstakingly press the typewriter keys one-by-one. This was in the BPC era (before personal computers). As I first read that letter, I recalled how each of the few times I met her face to face, her infectious smile glowed as she sat in her wheelchair. She always spoke positively with enthusiasm. Her focus was always on those around her, not on herself. I thought, now here is a person who had reason to be bitter about her lot in life—but she seemed to be just the opposite.
I contrast that experience with sulky attitudes over petty things that I see. A former next-door neighbor seemingly became obsessed that the county snow plows piled too much snow in front of his house in our little cul-de-sac. From what I could tell, the snow had never blocked entry to his driveway or cause other real problems. He just didn’t like the sight of the big pile of snow. To remedy the situation, he removed his curbside mailbox from the shared post in front of my house, and installed a new post and mailbox right in the middle of length of curb that spanned his house. His rationale, as I understood it, was that the county workers would avoid blocking his mailbox with piles of snow so they would push the snow with their plows more in front of the three other homes. I thought, doesn’t this guy have anything better to do with his time?
A good friend elsewhere in our neighborhood recently spoke about overcoming bitterness by shifting his perspective. He said that on a regular jogging route, his leg was once scraped by thorns of an overgrown rose bush. On two subsequent jogs, his leg was scratch again by the same bush. Then he got wise and avoided that hazard. However, a few weeks later on a nice summer evening he noticed that the bush was full of beautiful roses. He stopped and his eyes filled with tears. During that same stretch of time, he had been wrestling with his relationship with his father, who had recently been divorced from his mother. My friend had been frustrated thinking about how his relationship with his dad had been rocky for years. At that moment it struck him that like directing his attention to only the thorns, he had been focusing on his father’s perceive weaknesses, faults, and failures. As he stood looking at that colorful rose bush, it occurred to me that he should be focusing on his dad’s many strengths, highpoints, and successes. He resolved to change his perspective by reflecting on and being thankful for good rather that mulling over the negative.
I had a similar experience several years ago—perhaps about the same time my neighbor was moving his mailbox. A therapist once reproved me for ruminating about petty frustrations with a family member. My counselor told me how such negative thinking needlessly burns precious emotional energy and that I should stop it. At first I thought he was dead wrong and I became upset with him, too. I pushed back. However, during the following few weeks as I thought about what he said more deeply, I came to appreciate that he was right-on; I tried to change my thinking patterns. I developed habits of focusing on the good things about people. This practice has made a huge positive difference in my life.
It has been said that “Self-pity is the most negative quality of the human spirit…Difficulties in life are intended to make us better, not bitter.”[i]
If I ever find that old letter from my college paraplegic acquaintance, I think I’ll frame it and place it on a wall in my home office. Seeing it will further reinforce my determination to eschew all bitterness in favor of gratitude.
[i] Jon M. Huntsman, Sr., Brigham Young University Idaho devotional speech, October 21, 2010, http://web.byui.edu/devotionalsandspeeches/speeches.aspx