None of us knows what lies ahead. Of this we can be sure, however, we will be tested.
Some ‘tests’ are quick ‘pop quizzes’—unexpected, easily passed, designed to let us know if we are learning life’s lessons or not. Failure is readily remedied.
Others are like college exams that determine whether or not we qualify for our degree. These tests have serious consequence—they either make us or break us.
The two men in our story were severely tested.
But before we cast judgement to condemn the one for his failure and exonerate the other for his valor, let us imagine ourselves (as best we can) in their shoes and ask, Would I pass their test?
The first, after losing several jobs (through no fault of his own), found a job stocking shelves at a Home Depot. A loving husband and a good father, he worked hard to provide for his wife and three children. Every Sunday he took his family to church. Through the struggle and sacrifice, he pressed on hoping for his big break.
Then one day his number was called. He held the winning lottery ticket. Thirty-one million dollars! Distributed in cheques of $1.24 million annually over twenty-five years! Some who knew him said it was just reward for his years diligence and hardship.
With his first cheque the young man bought a ranch and horses—a boyhood dream. He established a college fund for his children’s future. He bought homes for various family members and donated money to his church. He was financially set to live the life of his dreams.
The second man, born into a wealthy New York family, had life served to him on a silver platter. While attending the best Ivy League schools, he enjoyed the high life. He toured Europe as a skilled equestrian. As an aspiring actor, this young man searched for his big break in the movies.
Then one day his number was called. He landed a leading role in what would eventually become a Hollywood blockbuster movie.
Overnight the young man became a big-name celebrity earning millions of dollars. He spent his fortune on spacious houses, fancy cars, extravagant parties and his passion for riding. He, too, had stepped into the life of his dreams.
Then the unbelievable and bizarre occurred.
In May of 1999, just two years after winning the lottery, Billie Harrell of Houston, Texas, locked himself in his bedroom, leaned his chest to the barrel of his shotgun and shot himself.
A close friend reported Harrell as saying, “winning the lottery was the worst thing that ever happened to me.”
In 1995, Christopher Reeves (the original Superman) fell from his horse during an equestrian competition. His horse balked at a simple jump sending his rider head first over the barrier.
As all riders, Reeves was well-trained how to fall to minimize injury. But with his hands tangled in the reins, he was unable to use his arms to break his fall. Reeves’ 6 foot 4 inch 210 pound body landed on his head with such impact that the top two vertebrae shattered, severing his head from the spinal cord. Doctors declared it a miracle that Reeves survived the hangman’s fracture.
Alone in the hospital, in intensive care, unable to breathe without a respirator and completely immobile, the crushing weight of his injury was unbearable.
Like Billie Harrell, Christopher Reeves stared suicide in the face.
Reeves wrote, “It dawned on me that I was going to be a huge burden to everybody, that I had ruined my life and everybody else’s. My role as a husband and the father of three children would be severely compromised, because paralysis had suddenly transformed me into a forty-two-year-old infant. I thought it would be selfish and unfair to remain alive.”
Turning to his wife Dana, he mouthed his morbid thoughts and feelings, “Maybe we should let me go.”
His wife’s knelt by his bedside, gazed into her husband’s soul and said, “You’re still you, and I love you.”
Her words spoke life and light into Reeve’s despair. The power of death was broken.
Sobering stories from which I take these five lessons.
1. Money—whether the abundance or the lack of it—does not determine quality of life nor does it guarantee happiness.
Either we learn to master it, or it will master us—no matter how much we have or don’t have.
“I have learned to be content, regardless of my circumstances, whether in plenty or in want, whether in abundance or in need.” (The Apostle Paul writing to the Philippian believers.)
2. You are still you.
Hidden deep within is who we really are, and that is shaped by our choosing.
“In 2002, seven years after the accident and in the year of my fiftieth birthday, I look back with almost indescribable gratitude at the moment when Dana knelt by my bedside and said, “You’re still you, and I love you.””
3. Life—regardless of circumstances—is worth living.
“Dana’s intuition about what my state of mind would be two years after the accident proved to be absolutely right: I was glad to be alive, not out of obligation to others, but because life was worth living.”
4. Relationships matter most—they are the safety net that pulls us through when the bottom drops out.
“When a catastrophe happens it’s easy to feel so sorry for yourself that you can’t even see anybody around you. But the way out is through your relationships. The way out of that misery or obsession is to focus more on what your little boy needs or what your teenagers need or what other people around you need. It’s very hard to do, and often you have to force yourself.”
5. Negativity destroys, steals and kills—guard against and avoid it at all costs.
“Not letting negativity get the upper hand is really, really critical. Not only to your mental outlook, but literally to your physical health, because if negativity’s allowed to fester, it causes health problems.”
“I have moments of anger. But am I in despair about it? No, I’m not. Despair is a very bleak word.” When he feels frustrated, he says, he turns his attention to his family, or to the numerous projects he’s immersed in. (The Guardian)
Life will test us. The stories of Billie Harrell and Christopher Reeves hint of some of the topics on the exam. I am determined to prepare.
Are you ready for your exams?