By R.P. Nettelhorst
Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem entitled “If” in 1899. First published in a collection of short stories and poems that appeared in 1910, it is one of my favorite poems. In it, Kipling writes about what it means to be an adult. In fact, it sounds like the sort of thing a father might give his son or daughter who asks, “how will I know when I’m all grown up?”
One of the important qualities that Kipling argued for in his poem was that of perspective: learning to recognize what is actually important, and what is only an illusion. He wrote, “if you can meet with triumph and disaster/And treat those two imposters just the same...” Learning to keep the events of our lives in proper perspective is largely something that develops as a consequence of experience. We tell people not to cry over spilled milk, a cliché that teaches the obvious truth that while a baby may believe the loss of a glass of milk is an unmitigated disaster, when we get older, it is merely an annoyance that means we have to get out a rag to wipe it up.
More than fifteen years ago the foster son that my wife and I cared for—the younger brother of my now youngest daughter—died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, what used to be called “crib death.” Soon after, the biological family sued us for 31 million dollars in a wrongful death lawsuit. It took two years and many large legal bills before that lawsuit was finally dismissed and thrown out. The very day that our attorney called us to let us know that it was all over and we could finally get on with our lives, the transmission in our nearly ten year old van died. The repair bill was 1800 dollars.
Ordinarily, an 1800 dollar unexpected car repair bill would be an unmitigated disaster. I would have groused at the expense and worried about coming up with the money, especially since at the time we didn’t have much (all those legal bills, after all). But somehow, after having been freed from a 31 million dollar threat, 1800 dollars didn’t seem like much of a problem. I was, for once in my life, able to keep one of life’s not uncommon problems in its proper perspective.
I was able to tell myself that if God had taken care of a 31 million dollar problem, then an 1800 dollar problem shouldn’t be too much trouble. And indeed it wasn’t. We got the van repaired and were able to putter along with it for another few years while we gradually recovered financially and emotionally from what we had just gone through. We adopted our three daughters out of foster care and have raised them as best we could. Our oldest is finishing up a degree in psychology and intends to pursue a master's degree. She currently works as a teacher's aide. The middle one was just accepted to university and intends to study molecular biology; she just got a job working in a hotel. Our youngest one suffers from severe mental illness, but is mostly stable at the moment and doing relatively well, working toward finishing high school.
Each day, I consider the blessings I have in my life. I especially try to consider the things I might just take for granted. Having needed to replace the hot water tank and the hot water pipes in my home not all that long ago, every day I consider how thankful I am to have running water that arrives in a variety of pleasant temperatures. I am thankful for my continued health and the health of my family. I’m thankful for a happy and successful marriage that has endured for over 31 years. I’m thankful for my education, and for the very interesting opportunities I’ve had over the course of my life, ranging from working on a kibbutz in Israel a couple of summers while I was in college, to getting to participate as a volunteer with the X-Prize Foundation during the successful launches of SpaceShipOne when it won the Ansari X-Prize, to becoming a published author of multiple books.
Some days it is easier than others to look on the brighter side of things. There are moments when I face a challenge and the challenge is all I can see—until I step back a moment, blink, look around and realize that, although the challenge is there, it is not the only thing that exists in my life. Even during the biggest problems I’ve had to go through, the blessings were still there, whether I was able to see them or not. Sometimes we won’t be able to see anything but the crisis. But that’s okay. The blessings haven’t gone away. Finding perspective is always a challenge but it seems to be getting easier the older I become. As Kipling concluded at the end of his poem:
If you can fill the unforgiving minuteWith sixty seconds' worth of distance run -Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,And—which is more—you'll be a Man my son!