Dear Huhana and Kāhu ō te Rangi,
Firstly, if you haven’t already, then please read part one of this letter.
Part one makes up the first and most important lesson I learnt while trying to stop my life crumpling up like the bonnet of the car I crashed.
I talked about happiness, because that’s something you need to own and control every day, it’s the umbrella you need to hold on to, sometimes with a white-knuckle grip, and always intentionally. Difficult times and adversity will push against it like the southerly gale smashing whitecaps against Kapiti Island. And those winds are when it’s easiest to lose control, so I wrote you what I learned about perspective and shifting reality, in the hope that it helps you face that storm with a stronger footing.
This second lesson is about the difference your words make to your perspective, and the difference perspective makes to your reality.
2. CHOOSE YOUR WORDS CAREFULLY, EVEN WHEN YOU’RE TALKING TO YOURSELF
Alongside the obvious emotional and physical pain, there was financial stress after the accident too. The now-useless scrap metal car I was driving, wasn’t insured, and because I crossed the centre line, I arrived home from hospital to a neatly typed letter from the insurance company, politely letting me know I was liable for the money they had paid out to the woman’s family, and to please make arrangements to pay that money now.
It was around $45,000
That was more money than I had ever earned as a twenty-two-year-old Marine Biology student. So I saved every fortnight. That sum was the one cost of my actions that I could actually pay back. So even though I was paying money to a global insurance company (it meant nothing to them in the scheme of things), I was pretty motivated to clear it.
I chose my perspective and talked in a way that made it real. Even with that fortnightly, statement, a reminder of the hurt I caused, whenever I talked about the debt with my friends or family I placed it in the perspective of how lucky I was to survive. So the negative outcome of paying a house deposit to a huge insurance company for something I didn’t remember doing, turned into a small price compared to the alternative of me dying. A tiny dollar figure compared to the pain and hurt I’d caused.
I saw those automatic payments as a reminder that I was only alive to own a bank account because of my seat-belt and the angle my head hit the steering wheel.
I chose the same wording to avoid talking about the accident in a way that made me feel worse. I showed off my scars (I was a young dude, what can I say), but there was never any “poor me” in my explanation to others or myself.
- I was never a bed, or wheelchair, bound patient; I was the lucky survivor of a high-speed head-on crash, with a four-month opportunity to focus on how I best right the misbalance I’d caused in the universe.
- I wasn’t crippled by debt I couldn’t imagine ever seeing the end of; I was paying off what I could, and while I didn’t know when I would clear it, I had a plan and told myself it would happen one day (I paid it off nearly two years ago).
- I don’t complain about the Arthritis I have in both feet or the pain from too much walking; the doctors told me I could have easily never walked again.
- I don’t think about how I can’t open my jaw wider than three centimetres or get self-conscious about my changed eating technique and how messy it gets when I’m in a rush; I think about seeing the surgeon a year later and him telling me they thought they’d lost me at one point on the table. Who cares if I make a mess.
For the first five years after the accident, I had the newspaper clipping of the crashed car I was driving (the picture in part 1) stuck to my desk at work. It had the words “it could always be worse” penned in red at the top. The words were there to remind me that whatever I’m going through today, is not that bad comparatively.
The caption under that dotted ink photo could have easily said ‘both drivers dead at scene’.
Instead of my comfortable seat, in my comfortable job with a comfortable future, I could have been sitting in a jail cell.
You won’t always have a say in the things that happen to you, but you will always have control over the way you react and respond to them, nobody owns that but you
How I process causing the woman’s death is different because there’s no optimistic way to think about taking someone’s life away from them and their family. I give her memory the respect it deserves by grieving and making the most of the life I was lucky enough to keep. The anniversary of her passing will always be a sad day for me. And so it should. But I choose how and when I do that grieving so it doesn’t affect the parts of my life when I should be smiling. Your crashes won’t always be something you can explain away through your choice of words, sometimes you’ll need to process them and grieve. That might mean hours or weeks depending on what or who it is you hit. What’s important in those instances is that you DO process it and that you grieve on your terms and keep smiling outside of that process.
I’ve been especially grateful for that lesson over the last nineteen months since you arrived in this world, ladybird backpack full of smiles for me and your mum.
I talked about Martin Seligman’s explanatory style theory in a post here (this one wasn’t addressed to you but it’s worth reading). However you decide to talk about your reality, that’s what your reality becomes. If you tell yourself today is the worst day ever; that’s what it is. If you tell yourself you’re too sick to move; you are. Visualisation is when you picture the end outcome of something you want, in order to make that a reality. When you’re learning to ride a motorbike, one of the weirdest things you notice is that when you’re turning, the bike goes wherever you look. It’s the same thing. If you visualise, imagine, and talk to an outcome being the way you want it – those sub-conscious actions and decisions you make, will move you in the right direction. The opposite is true if you talk about negative outcomes.
Don’t hurt yourself with your own words. They carry more weight than you might realise. Use them wisely.
3. FACE TODAY FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF TOMORROW – WHEN YOU CONTROL YOUR PERSPECTIVE, YOU CONTROL YOUR REALITY
From my perspective, based on the experiences I’ve had in my life, that Saturday was the worst twenty-four hours in the last eleven years. But there are people who have experienced much, much worse. They would love for a car crash like mine to be the worst thing that happened to them.
Truly putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, or imagining challenges from a perspective other than your own is hard. Doing so while you’re in the midst of your own challenges, is even harder. But the way you look at those problems doesn’t just make a difference, it makes your reality.
On as many days as I could, I tried to keep that perspective. Having props like the picture helped. But it only worked because I made the decision to use that perspective to create my reality, and took intentional steps like putting the picture up. Decisions without actions are just thoughts. I decided before you were born that I wanted to write down these lessons that I learned, so you wouldn’t need to pay the price I did. But it took the actions of me buying the book I talked about in my post about journaling, writing my first page, then buying this blog and hitting the big publish button on the right, to turn that decision into reality.
Before you tell yourself today is a write-off, a nightmare or a car crash, take yourself out of the picture for a minute and ask yourself what it would look like to future-you from 5 years forward. Make the decision, take action and own your perspective.
Don’t look at barriers, look at solutions that can be solved. Those are two different pictures.
PS don’t learn to ride a motorbike!
The third and final part of this letter
Books to read:
Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life
Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor Frankl