89: Eight Thousand Miles

89: Eight Thousand Miles

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Reboot Your Life

Eight Thousand Miles

You cannot tailor-make the situations in life but you can tailor-make the attitudes to fit those situations.

~Zig Ziglar

Desert winds blew sand devils around us as we trudged behind a donkey cart loaded with our backpacks. We had arrived in Mali, West Africa, to visit our youngest child, Mary, who was serving in the Peace Corps. Since Mali was a Muslim country, I’d followed Mary’s advice and left my cross necklace at home, but now I felt vulnerable without it. What if my husband’s fears came true? What if we were kidnapped by terrorists and held for ransom, like those tourists we’d heard about on the news? Or what if we were lost forever in the Sahel’s barren landscape? There wasn’t even a road to follow. We were putting all of our faith in Mary, who had only been in the country for two years.

Suddenly, a dark slender man in army fatigues appeared. He shouldered his ancient rifle and discharged a mighty blast. Mary quickly explained. “He is just alerting everyone that you’ve arrived. You’re the first volunteer’s parents to visit.”

Soon, we were surrounded by some four hundred singing and dancing villagers. They insisted that we lead what had become a parade into their village. When we arrived, the generous Malians gave us small, handmade gifts. Tears rolled down my cheeks. I felt honored and appreciated — the opposite of what I’d felt nine months earlier when I’d felt pressured to resign from my job.

For twelve years I’d worked at the hospital. One day they told me I was no longer needed. I understood that it was a cost-cutting move to replace me with someone with less experience and a lower salary. But my understanding didn’t excise the wretched pain of feeling discarded and useless.

At sixty-two, what opportunities existed for someone my age? In the past, during similar budget cuts, I’d watched as other employees left, awash in bitterness. I refused to behave that way, no matter how scared I felt.

My mother often said, “Act like a lady.” Despite my concerns, that is what I did. For a month, I cleaned my files and wrote detailed notes. I made it easy for my replacement to do my job. The program would continue, but I wouldn’t. The most painful part of all was that no one would even notice my absence.

“Dear Lord,” I prayed, “show me the way.” As He so often does, He answered through someone else, a fellow health educator at another hospital. When I shared my worries about my future, she told me about a conference she had attended recently.

“I’ve just learned the most helpful tool,” she said. “No matter what the situation is, there is an opposite, a benefit. Our typical response is to focus on the losses of job, marriage, home, or even health. Instead, the speaker told us to concentrate on finding what we gained with our loss.”

At first, I resisted her advice as I grieved. I didn’t care about “opposites.” I wanted my job back. I missed my office, my co-workers, the routine. I missed the meaningful challenges of organizing health education classes for sick people. But as time passed, I grew tired of my dreary sorrow. Maybe I should try my friend’s advice and seek some opposites.

The reverse of loneliness would be friendship. I called a neighbor and asked if she would like to take an exercise class with me. Soon, we became good friends. Although I missed my busy hours at work, I now had more personal time. I had choices. I tackled cleaning projects I’d delayed due to my long work hours. I volunteered at a mental health program.

Yet it wasn’t until our trip to Africa that I understood the power of opposite thinking. We had cashed in our frequent flyer mileage and flown eight thousand miles to that village. We brought many presents — deflated soccer balls, Frisbees, pens, scarves, and inexpensive watches — believing that somehow we could improve the villagers’ lives. Instead, they taught us the opposite. Our lives were the ones that needed improving.

Despite living in mud huts without modern conveniences, running water, or sanitation, the villagers appeared content. Frequently laughing and greeting each other, the beautiful Malians truly cared for their neighbors. Although we slept on the ground in our daughter’s tiny courtyard, I felt a peace I hadn’t known since I left my job. I admired the Southern Hemisphere’s brilliant stars and thanked God for bringing us here. I had expected we would spend our time helping the poor villagers. Instead, they were teaching us that having less meant less to worry about and more time and energy for each other. These wonderful people of a different faith taught us an important lesson.

When we returned home, we decided we didn’t need a large house. We sold our house, gave away or stored most of our belongings, and left town in our twenty-two-foot trailer. It felt so freeing to have less to care for and so good to have more time for family who needed us. We traveled to Illinois to attend to my mother-in-law, who suffered from dementia. After we arrived, the nursing home staff decreased the numerous medications they’d administered to control her behavior. Family and friends once again enjoyed visiting her.

After she died, we traveled. For a year we lived happily in our tiny trailer, as we looked for a new home with fewer expenses and lower state taxes. Eventually, we found a small mountain cabin in Colorado, near our grandchildren.

After my job loss, I thought my life work had been stolen from me. In seeking opposites, I discovered new opportunities that enriched my life. As I age, I still mourn when a new loss occurs, but soon, I seek its opposite. I am always rewarded.

~Carol Strazer

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