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Life is too Long Not to Sweat the Little Things

August 4, 2012

       Note:  It took me a long time to decide between ‘publish’ and ‘trash’ on this one.  I am more often misunderstood than understood.  This was written in response to the Colorado movie theater shooting, but a few days after I wrote it one of the ‘little things’ came true – a former student was killed while crossing the street I used to live on with her daughter.  At that moment I knew I had to share this.  The pictures I added were taken as I walked home from work in remembarance of Ashley; at the same time I was heading home, a memorial was being held 3,000 miles away.  Understand that I wrote everything after this paragraph before that happened – very scary.

Our time here [on Earth] is limited and it is precious, and what matters at the end of the day is not the small things, it’s not the trivial things which so often consume us and our daily lives. It’s about how we choose to treat one another and how we love one another.  – President Barack Obama in response to the Colorado movie theater shootings

The intersection outside my new school building – errily appropriate.

It is easy to read these words and be touched; perhaps even inspired.  But I can’t help but wonder if this philosophy is what got us into this mess in the first place.

I mean no disrespect to our President or anyone else.  The sentiment is right on, but the premise is backwards.  And if we keep thinking this way, we don’t have a chance in hell.

Everybody is always telling us how important it is to love each other.  We are told it is better to give than to receive.  We are told to be compassionate and sincere.  I completely agree.

But to suggest that loving each other is a choice demonstrates a woeful and dangerous lack of understanding about what love is.  The only person we can choose to love is ourselves.

The theme of a person trying to force or create love is a central theme of almost every book, song, poem and play ever created.  It never works.  We can’t force ourselves to love someone else any more than we can force someone else to love us.  The harder we try, the more disastrous the results.

Let me give an example.

When you see classmates or co-workers on a Monday morning and ask them how their weekend was, do you really give a damn about their weekend?  Even worse, do you find yourself silently praying that they will not actually tell you about their weekend?   And worst of all, have you ever gotten extremely irritated when someone actually started telling you about their weekend – especially if they got really excited and wouldn’t shut up about it?

I believe that to feign love out of fear or obligation is one of the worst things a person can do.  Every bit of ‘good’ that is done without sincerity will always have negative consequences.  Every day our society becomes less receptive to ‘good’ because everything around us is intentionally deceptive.  We don’t believe in anything anymore.  Hate and fear are the only things we can trust.

At roughly the same time I took the picture of a mother and daughter crossing Hope St. in LA, this was the scene back in Springfield MA.

No doubt you have consoled a friend at some point in your life by saying “Life is too short to sweat the little things”.  I know I have, and I realize now that I was wrong.

Life is too long not to sweat the little things. 

I try not to dwell on big things anymore. Big things are difficult to stop and impossible to control.  Big things can cause serious damage but they also bring communities together.  All we can do is try our best to understand the big things and stay out of their path. 

Chances are pretty good you’re going to live at least half of a century, probably three quarters or more.  During that time you will have to dodge your share of big things here and there.  But you are going to have to deal with countless little things every single day.   Little things terrify me.

One text at 30 mph could take a mother from her family.

One bad grade can keep you out of college.

One moment of weakness can lead to a lifetime of addiction. 

One sentence out of context can end a career. 

One “I dare you….” can lead to a lifetime of disability. 

One moment of indiscretion can create a life.

One moment of indiscretion can end a life.

Certainly accidents will always happen but that doesn’t mean we should dismiss them.  Most of these tragedies are preventable.  We have so much more control than we realize.  But that control doesn’t have anything to do with how we treat each other, it has everything to do with how we treat ourselves.  It is tempting to hate and call someone who causes one of these tragedies self-centred, arrogant or even evil.  But the reality is that these are all consequences of people who don’t care about themselves.  These people don’t hate others, they hate themselves.  Drug use, offensive language, reckless driving, promiscuity, giving up on school; these are all signs that someone has given up on themselves, even though they rarely realize it.  We have to stop waiting for them to cause collateral damage before we recognize there is a problem.

This caught my eye as I got to my car.

We have great sympathy for those without the means to feed themselves.  We have pity for those who lose their jobs or homes through no fault of their own.  We provide an education to anyone who was never given the chance to learn.  Why are we so quick to judge anyone who has never learned how to love themselves?  Would you have the audacity to call a starving child who steals a loaf of bread a hopeless criminal? 

You can’t just tell yourself to love someone.  You can’t make someone else happy and you can’t make them sad.  Love and hate aren’t guns that can be pointed at other people.  They radiate in all directions from within.  When we feel love or hate for others, it is nothing more than a reflection of how we feel about ourselves.  To hate another is to hate ourselves, and to ignore each other is to ignore ourselves.  To watch others suffer feeling powerless to help or without compassion is to give up on our own life.

Suggesting that we choose to love each other completely ignores the real problem.

Why do you think teen suicide is such an issue these days?  People who belive children commit suicide because they hate their lives have it all wrong.  People don’t commit suicide because they want to die, they commit suicide to prove that they actually lived.  That is why I am so torn about the media’s coverage of teen suicide – it just makes the idea more appealing to a troubled person who desperately needs to be loved and acknowledged at any cost.

It is so obvious that many never even realize it.  How we feel about ourselves may be the only thing we actually can control.  It isn’t easy – but it doesn’t require any special training either.  It doesn’t cost money and it doesn’t care about race.  It doesn’t require a church, it doesn’t require a partner or a mentor or an education.  It requires us to take a leap of faith – to stop looking outside and start looking within. 

Every ‘little thing’ is a warning.  Every ‘why me?’ and every unintended consequence is a reminder that we are not paying attention to the road and we are headed in the wrong direction.  Sometimes I feel like I have spent my whole life staring into the rearview mirror wondering why the horizon kept getting further away no matter how fast I was going.  

As I drove home in Los Angeles this was the scene in Springfield.

Love drives us.  And when we miss our exit and the tank is low, the only thing we can do is continue heading the wrong way praying that we will find somewhere to fill up before we hit empty.  If that help comes, we need to think long and hard about what to do with it.  When we are so far off the path, do we turn around or just keep heading in the same direction?

It is overwhelming to realize it could take the rest your life just to get back to where you started, but I believe that returning home might have been our destination the whole time anyway.  You can’t help but at the very least understand how someone might decide that it would be easier to continue down the wrong path. 

My heart bleeds for the killer.  It bleeds for his family.  It bleeds for every stranger who crossed his path and ignored the obvious signs that he was lost and desperately needed help.

It bleeds for every person who was told not to sweat the little things – only to wake up wondering if changing a few little things could have fixed everything.

I expect I may be misunderstood by people reading this.  I’m not blaming anybody, and of course I feel for every victim and their loved ones.  And I’m not talking about what this guy deserves as a consequence for his actions.  I don’t care about the months of trials and analysis that are going to stem from this.  It’s all irrelevant, the damage is done.  It was done a long time ago.  What breaks my heart is that nobody even knew he was falling until he pulled others over the edge with him.

I believe that a lost soul is a far greater tragedy than a lost life.

The mascot of Putnam H.S. – where I was a teacher and Ashley was a student – now drives through a new community.

We can’t change what happened but we can change what happens next. Anyone who thinks that putting people who do evil things in jail changes anything risks being the next victim.  Must we fan the flames of hate to make sure everyone knows there was a fire?  Do we have to make people stare over the edge to remind them how far down it is?  Haven’t enough people suffered?

How many depressed children starving for love and attention are sitting in their bedrooms right now while mom and dad watch the television wondering how this could have happened? How many students will choose to repress a little more of their sadness and despair because their teachers and counsellors all said “Look at what happened in Colorado. Life is too short to sweat the little things.”

I am going to wrap this up by sharing something I believe many of you will relate to but may never be able to admit.

When I read about a tragedy like this it scares the hell out of me.  I say “Oh my god; that could have been me”. But I’m not talking about the people who were shot. I am talking about the shooter.

I am not violent. But I know depression and I know what it’s like to feel completely alone. When you are in so much pain that you shut out the world what is left?  Just you and that voice inside your head.  And when he starts hating you too, hate becomes all you know.

Love sustains us.  Without our families, friends, teachers and neighbors we wouldn’t have a prayer.  But at some point in our lives we will be alone.  And at that moment we need to be able to love ourselves unconditionally, because we won’t be able to get it from anywhere else.

We hate people who commit crimes like this not for what they have done, but for the fact that they remind us of what we are capable of.  It is a reminder of how vulnerable we all are; not to the bullet but to the trigger.  It is easy ask how any sane human being could be capable of this, but the reason I believe that this type of tragedy bothers us is because despite our hollow words we know exactly how a person could be capable of this.

There is something amazing at the end of every journey.

I doubt anyone reading this hasn’t at some point considered – even if only for an instant – how easy it might be to lose control.  And we know that if we ever stumble in the battle we constantly fight in our hearts, it could just as easily be us or someone we love with the gun in hand next time.

Our time here on Earth is precious, and what matters at the end of the day is not the big things which so often consume us and our daily lives.  It is all about the little things that we can change – and resisting the temptation to ignore them or misinterpret them.  It’s about how we choose to treat ourselves and how we love ourselves – before we become the very big thing we lived our entire lives in fear of.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. August 6, 2012 10:27 pm

    hi Matt, stranger here

    reading your whole writing is like reading my own mind, and yes, I was thinking about the same thing when I first heard about the shooting: “that man could have been me”

    now, do your dog a treat!

    • August 6, 2012 10:48 pm

      thanks for reading stranger. my dog is actually visiting family on the east coast right now (with his other dad) – I would love nothing more than to send him a treat but I don’t even know the address.

  2. Gianni permalink
    August 8, 2012 2:24 pm

    Hey Wilson, I think I forgot to tell you that I love your writing, so I’m doing it now. I love your writing. I so totally feel you, this is exactly what I needed to hear right now. It also creepaly echoes what I my self, wrote yesterday. Thanks, Gianni x
    By the way, good luck at your new school, they are lucky to have you.

  3. Lissa Masters permalink
    September 14, 2012 8:07 pm

    Matt, Good to hear from you… and keeping you in my thoughts as you move through this challenging time. You write with such heart it makes me almost weep. So true about loving oneself unconditionally…yes that IS the necessary factor before one can really love others. I agree with what you said about teen suicides too, yes a cry for love. This piece is wonderful and you inspire me with your words, and also motivate me to complete this book I am writing which will help children learn about themselves holistically and basically value and love who they are. Thank you for your wise and caring words!

    • September 16, 2012 12:20 am

      Thanks Lissa. My best as always to you and with your book, I look forward to reading it and sharing it with my students!

Every time I get a comment I give my dog a treat!

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