My son was a passionate hockey player when we lived in Canada.
When I moved him and myself to the southwestern United States, he joined a recreational hockey league in Arizona, which, being short on ice, relied upon outdoor sports courts and inline roller skates instead of Zambonis and traditional ice skates for its play.
Practices and pickup games took place on the grounds of a new outdoor facility in the small town where we lived at the time, and parents would routinely bring their youngsters to the complex, drop them off for a few hours of recreation, then return later to pick them up. I always felt a little nervous about doing this, since hockey isn’t the most benign of sports.
As a result, I would often bring work with me and sit in my car in the parking lot near the open rink where I could view the kids’ activities without hovering too conspicuously.
I’m not the first parent to have to manage the stress of getting his kid to sports practices and get work done on the side, but I was finding it particularly challenging to stay focused on the book I was writing at the time and also keep up with getting my son to his activities.
There was one other parental figure who regularly remained for these sessions. He was the grandfather of a good friend of my son. His name was Doyle.
Doyle was a physical tower of Southern charm, warm and sweet to the kids. He had spent most of his life in Oklahoma and spoke with an accent that was thicker than cough syrup.
You might think that as a comedian, entertainer, and speaker, I’d be an outgoing person by nature, but it’s pretty much the opposite. I’m a good measure of introvert, often preferring quiet solitude, internal reflection, and individual creative work and focus.
On this day, as usual, I turned off the social switch and buried myself in my own writing work.
The book I was working on was 7 Rules You Were Born to Break (now published), which is all about breaking one’s own unconscious rules.
Disturbing My Own Peace
As was regularly the case, the grandfather and I were sitting in our separate vehicles while the boys scrimmaged.
I was getting lots of work done, and Doyle, the grandpa, was unoccupied.
I noticed the kind elder sitting patiently, watching his grandson with affection and waiting for the game to conclude. I was often moved by his devotion to his grandson but, quite frankly, did not go out of my way to get into lengthy conversations with him, despite his being the accepting gentleman that he was.
The fact is, I find social interactions themselves stressful. It really doesn’t matter who they’re with. On this day, however, I found my attention being drawn toward Doyle—and I tried to ignore it.
Yet, I was writing about one of the “rules” we follow—the human tendency to “pretend we don’t matter,” and the fact that we need to break this rule if we wish to reach our full potential.
Pretending we don’t matter is a behavior that is built on the belief that we can’t make a difference—perhaps a holdover from childhoods where we were raised to be “seen, but not heard.” It’s not true, of course. Every last one of us matter. Yet, believing that we don’t, hiding out and holding back is tempting, because it allows us to temporarily avoid the stress of showing up in human relationships.
The irony of my position—writing to encourage others to do the very thing I was ignoring—did not escape me.
I looked over at Doyle again. The demonstration of his heartfelt attention on the kids was a shining example of mattering to his grandson.
As I looked over at him sitting in his pickup truck, staring at the rink, a deeper instinct was calling out to me to engage with him, yet the stress involved with connecting left me wanting to stay holed up and just get things done.
I tried to go back to my work, but I couldn’t shake the obvious need to stop writing about this topic and to actually engage it.
I got out of my vehicle the way a four-year-old finally responds to his mother when she won’t stop nagging him to get out of the house and go play.
“Okaaayyyy!” I heard my inner child whining, as I put away my laptop, got out of the car, and walked around the back of Doyle’s pickup to approach him from the driver’s side and say hello.
The Man Whose Life I Didn’t Mean to Save
Strolling up alongside his window, I stood just next to the left rearview mirror and waited for him to notice I was there. But he didn’t. He just continued to stare straight ahead at the rink.
Finally, I tapped lightly on the glass. He then slowly turned to look at me, seeming a little confused. I had to prompt him to roll down the window, which he did, cracking it open enough that we could converse.
We started to talk as I asked him the usual “how are you” kind of questions, and Doyle responded with a run of phrases that were typically hard for me to decipher in the flavor of his Southern delivery.
I managed to keep the conversation going as I caught a few of his words, but as our dialogue continued I realized that his accent was not the only barrier. The actual content of his speech involved some odd concepts and indicated that he was feeling stressed and disoriented.
Indeed, after a few minutes he managed to articulate that he was feeling funny.
Getting a little concerned, I asked him for more details and to roll down the window the rest of the way so I could properly hear him. As he attempted to do as I asked, it became apparent that his left arm wasn’t functioning. He had to bring his right arm across his chest to complete the task.
It then dawned on me what was happening.
I called 911 immediately and explained that the older gentleman I was with might be having a stroke.
As luck would have it, an ambulance that had stationed itself on call at a high school soccer game on the other side of the same park responded immediately. Arriving less than two minutes later, the paramedics confirmed that a stroke had occurred and worked very quickly to get Doyle out of the vehicle and into the ambulance.
He was in the emergency room within ten minutes of his stroke.
He outlived that fateful day by many years, enjoying his loving family as a functional person with minimal damage to his brain and nervous system. Even a minute more of a delay between his stroke and his reaching the hospital would have left him far worse off, and potentially he would not have lived through the event.
Every time I see Doyle’s daughter, the mother of my friend’s son, she credits me with saving her father’s life. In an odd way, however, the credit is due to the intelligence that is hidden in stress and the benefits that naturally flow when we’re willing to stretch ourselves into unfamiliar territory and face our fears.
Growth Waits behind the Door of Disturbance
All 7 of the unconscious rules I have written about in my book are ways we try to ignore the things that cause us stress. Most of us do not move toward things that produce discomfort or anxiety for us, or that pose some degree of challenge to our habits and perceptions.
“And…?” you may be wondering. “What’s wrong with that?”
The small problem we have is that our growth and potential are often hidden behind that door of disturbance. We have to be willing to open the door of challenges, be with the stressful elements, and walk through it to get the benefit of living better lives and futures.
The fact that I had been writing about these rules and studying how we all get derailed by them from time to time is what allowed me to keep moving forward into relationship with Doyle and to serve the circumstance in an optimal manner. There were many moments along the way where I could have succumbed to rule-following and missed the chance to be there for someone who really needed help.
You, too, can navigate the presence of ordinary stress in a way that transcends each of the rules. When we learn how to follow and work with the presence of stress, it can open up hidden purposes for our lives of which we were previously unaware. This requires trusting our deeper senses and the wisdom of the body.
The hidden vision that wanted and needed a response was Doyle’s life—that it last well beyond that unfortunate day. That vision was revealed and served optimally by allowing the intelligence of stress to have a presence in my attention and in my action.
Meeting ordinary stress with mindful action can transform, not only our own lives, but the lives of others as well.
If you’d like to learn more about the hidden cultural rules that cause us stress, you can review and buy a copy of my book 7 Rules You Were Born to Break here.
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