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Wake-up calls - 11/6/2015

How many times have you heard about teenagers having to be called countless times or shaken, fussed or screamed at, before they’ll wake up in the morning? They’re able to totally block out even the loudest, most noxious-sounding clock alarm and aren’t at all fazed by your threats or ultimatums. That phenomenon, however, isn’t unique to teenagers.

My favorite story is about a man who lived on a small outer-bank island off the east coast of North Carolina. One morning, he and all the inhabitants of the island were warned to evacuate, because of an approaching hurricane. His retort: “Absolutely not. I am a good, righteous religious human being. I have followed G-d’s words throughout my life, and I know He will never let anything harm or hurt me.”

That afternoon, a neighbor came by in a small motor boat and said, “Come with me.” Later, a friend in a sailboat and the crew of a police rescue boat did the same. Finally, a Coast Guard helicopter came to warn and rescue him, but he was adamant about staying.

To make a long story short, the storm hit, and he died. Later in heaven, he furiously ranted at G-d: “I lived a faithful religious life, and you broke your promise to take care of me and to be there for me.” G-d listened patiently and calmly replied, “That’s not so; I sent you a motor boat, a rescue boat, a sailboat and a helicopter. What else could I have done for you to have heard my wake-up call?”

Perhaps, G-d should have told him about a patient of mine. Let’s call her Elizabeth. She was a very bright, attractive, strong-willed individual. She also was an extremely self-centered, ridged, narcissistic person, who perceives her world in a highly judgmental manner. Consequently, she was critical, irritated and rejecting of others, all of which makes it difficult for people to deal with her, unless they never criticize, disagree or find her at fault.

Ironically, she was as much a victim to her ridged and disgruntled view of the world, as are those who care for or love her. For the most part, she was blind to their affection and blames her actions and attitude on the behavior of others. Consequently, the last thing you ever would hear her say is, “My world is of my own making, and I seem to be doing a poor job of making it work, because nothing is going the way I want it to.”

As a result, it is extremely difficult to be sympathetic toward her perceived difficulties. You even might suspect that she served as the primary role model for Shakespeare’s play, “The Taming of the Shrew.” Inside her was a basically good person who doubts her own worthwhileness, fears rejection and lives her life according to the axiom: You can’t fire me; I quit.

One day, she came home after being irritated with a sales clerk, annoyed by traffic and angry at the housekeeper/nanny, who hadn’t finished all her chores. To teach her a lesson, she sent her home. Then, exhausted by all her emotional upset, she lay down on her bed and went to sleep. Her child, lacking anyone to care for her, crawled through the doggie door in the utility room to the backyard and fell into the pool.

Fortunately, Elizabeth was awakened by her scream and frantically searched the house for her child. She finally discovered her in the pool. She jumped in and screamed for help. A neighbor heard her and called 911; a firetruck came to the rescue. By the grace of G-d, the child began to respond. Some spittle appeared on her lips, she coughed, water was expelled from her mouth and she began to cry. Her crying, which would have irritated Elizabeth hours earlier, now seemed like music to her ears. All that mattered was that her daughter was alive.

In retrospect, Elizabeth realized how tragic the situation could have been, and the awareness that her daughter might have died had a profound impact on her. Although she felt emotionally and physically exhausted, she paradoxically felt acutely sensitive and almost at peace with the world. She held the child to her chest and cried.

Sometime later, she realized that the stress she normally experienced was radically diminished or gone. Her level of anger and irritation seemed absent, and her appreciation for her life increased twentyfold. It was as though she received a message that said, “You have to put things in perspective; view the big picture and recognize that the irritation, upset and anger you feel inside is of your own making. You can choose to magnify these emotions or cause them to shrivel up.”

When I saw her a week later, the incident still was very fresh in her mind. She seemed more introspective and willing to look inside to determine where her previous anger and upset had come from. She left with wonderful intentions of staying that way, which absolutely delighted me.

Nevertheless, I questioned how long she would continue to hear the “wake-up call.” It’s similar to individuals who have heart attacks. Initially, they begin to exercise, eat healthy, get sufficient rest and eliminate stress. But, on far too many occasions, after time passes, you see them stressed out, not sleeping, eating poorly and disinclined to exercise or practice their previous healthy living habits.

Why? Because people are creatures of habit, and habits are hard to break. To do so, you have to fight your tendencies to blame others. In contrast to letting your emotions rule your life, you have to take responsibility for who you are, how you act, what you say and what you do. You have to recognize that you can’t change others and that at best, the battle you must wage and win is primarily with yourself. Your feelings won’t change, but you can alter how you behave. It is then, that you will begin to influence the lives of others.

I hope this article will, in part, be your wake-up call and that you will hear the message I’m trying to convey: that you color your world with your own Crayolas and then you react to the colors you created. If you can keep that in mind, perhaps you’ll choose to color yourself with contentment, appreciativeness, kindness and care for self and those you value in your world.

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