The Greatest Lesson
One of the greatest lessons sports can teach us about life is, “Life is not about what happens to us, it’s about how we respond to what happens to us.” The key word being, “respond.”
You’ve probably heard the quote, “10% of life is what happens to us, and 90% how we respond to it." Although it sheds light on an important truth, the percentages are inaccurate. I believe a more accurate representation is, “.01% of life is what happens to us, and 99.99% how we respond to it,” because most, if not all, of what happens to us in life is out of our control. With that being said, instead of trying to spend even 10% of our energy and focus on things that are completely out of our control, let’s spend as close to 100% of our energy and focus as we can on things we can actually control. One of the things we can actually control is our perspective (or, our attitude) of our current circumstance. Another is how we respond to our current circumstance. Again, the key word being, “respond,” not “react.” There’s a difference between responding and reacting, and it’s not just verbiage.
A lot of times when things happens to us - especially, things that are not planned, or things that go against our plans - we react based on the initial emotion(s) we feel. For example, when someone disrespects us, or says something rude to us, our initial emotion is anger. Then, our initial reaction is to return the favor.
Another example is when someone cuts us off in traffic, our initial emotion is rage; hence, the term, “road rage." Then, our initial reaction is to flip them off and yell a whole bunch of curse words at them; none of which they can hear… but our child(ren) sitting in the backseat certainly can.
Another example is when someone we love does something to betray our trust in them, our initial emotions are sorrow and confusion. Then, our initial reaction is to push them away or cut them off completely. Or, it’s to silence ourselves and bury how we feel deep inside, until it eventually boils up and comes out of us in a fit of rage.
A final example is when we get caught doing something we know we shouldn’t be doing, our initial emotion is shame. Then, our initial reaction is to lie (to protect ourselves). You see this a lot in children. They lie because they’re afraid of what the initial reaction of their parents will be. Then, when they get tempted to do the same thing again, they do a better job of hiding it. And what happens when we hide things? They get worse and worse and worse… until a dirty little secret turns into a deadly habit that destroys our lives. We allow our hidden porn addiction to spiral downward into cheating on our spouses, until we’re caught and forced to respond to divorce. We allow our hidden shopping addiction to spiral downward into crippling debt, until we’re forced to respond to foreclosure or bankruptcy. We allow our hidden sadness and shame to spiral downward into depression, until we’re forced to respond to suicide.
The reason why we do this is because we were taught and conditioned to. We hide things from our parents because of their initial emotions and reactions to us breaking the rules, or doing something they don’t like. And our initial emotions and reactions are more than likely the same initial emotions and reactions that our parents (or, whoever raised us) have, because they’re the most prominent examples in our lives. Essentially, we’re just imitating what they do. Furthermore, they didn’t teach us how to effectively deal with our emotions, because their most prominent examples didn’t teach them.
Personally speaking, my initial reaction when something goes wrong, or I make a mistake, is to hide and isolate myself, because my initial emotion is shame. I’m already very self-critical, and when I make a mistake on top of that, I feel like a disappointment; especially, to the ones I love the most. The reason why I feel this way is because I grew up in a house that dealt with all of their issues the same way; except, my parent’s hiding place was in alcohol. As it is with most people who struggle with substance abuse and addictions, my parents used manipulation and guilt to get me to act the way they wanted me to. Additionally, I grew up with low self-esteem (that’s an understatement), because they had low self-esteem (also, an understatement). I didn't know where my worth comes from, nor how valuable I am, because they didn’t know. Naturally, I searched for my worth in areas a lot of us search for it - in the things we do; more specifically, in our performance in the things we do. That thing for me was baseball, and the moment I started having a little bit of success in it, I clung onto it tightly until it defined who I was. When my career ended, and my identity and worth slipped through my fingers like sand through a clinched fist, my initial emotion was shame and embarrassment, and my initial reaction was to go back to where I was as a child - hiding and Isolating myself. This led me down a dead-end road that ended in me trying to take my own life multiple times.
It wasn’t until I met someone who had a similar childhood as mine, who was also an elite athlete, and who was able to show me where - or I should say, Who - my identity and worth comes from, that I finally figured out how to respond wisely to my circumstance. Up until that point, I was so emotionally damaged, that I couldn’t see beyond my past, my failures, my pain, and myself. I needed to walk alongside someone who had been through what I was going through; someone who could help me see my emotions for what they truly were, help me discover where these emotions were coming from, and most importantly, help me realize that my emotions have no control over my actions. Simply put, I needed to walk with the wise to become wise (Proverbs 13:20).
Wisdom is the difference between responding and reacting.
Since the difference between responding and reacting is wisdom, our first objective to responding wisely to our circumstance should be to obtain wisdom. The problem is, most of us don’t know how, because we’ve lived most of our lives reacting, and making decisions based solely on our emotions. And that’s because we’re imitating our most prominent examples. Or even worse, we’re believing the foolish things we’ve been taught, like “trust your gut,” or "follow your heart”; even though trusting our guts probably got us into this circumstance. And our hearts? Our hearts are deceitful (Jeremiah 17:9). I’m glad I didn’t follow my heart when I was 27, because I would have married someone who would have eventually broke it. I wish I didn’t follow my heart when I was 18, because it would have saved me from a year of hell at the first junior college I went to. Our guts and our hearts are attached to our emotions. As we all know, and have more than likely experienced, our emotions lie to us. They change every day (really, every moment of every day). Therefore, they can’t be trusted.
Wisdom and emotions can’t coincide.
In order to gain wisdom, we must eliminate emotions. Mathematically speaking, in order to add wisdom, we must subtract emotions. In order to do that, we must gain clarity and insight about the emotions we’re having through someone else’s objective lenses. We all have blindspots in our lives. We may not even know how we’re reacting to certain things, and how our reactions are impacting our lives (and the lives of those around us), until someone else shows us; someone who has been through what we’re going through; someone who has lived in a similar season of life that we’re living in right now. The only way to find this someone is to vulnerable enough to admit we need help, and remove (or subtract) another thing that’s synonymous with our emotions - our pride. This is critical, because our pride will tell us that we don’t need help, and that we can figure it out on our own. It will also turn us away from wise people, because they said something to us that we didn’t agree with, and it hurt our feelings. Worse yet, it will encourage us to connect with fools, because they believe what we believe, and they agree with and justify our actions. Misery loves company… and so does foolery.
Speaking of connections, relationships are one of the biggest factors in how we make decisions (whether we respond or react to what happens to us). Relationships are the essence of life. We are relational beings. We were created to have relationships - the first and most important relationship being with our Heavenly Father (He wants to walk with us, just like He did in the Garden of Eden), and the second relationship being with fellow human beings, because God said in Genesis 2:18, “It’s not good for us to be alone." As a matter of fact, God talks about relationships a lot in the Bible, because He knows how they deeply affect our choices, our thoughts, our attitude, our well-being, and our lives, overall.
We were created to need each other. Most importantly, we were created to help each other.
Apostle Paul wrote in Ecclesiastes 4:9-10, "Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls, and has no one to help them up." (Fun fact: This is where Mr. T coined the phrase: "I pity the fool!")
Here’s the hard part: At some point in our lives, we’ve all fallen down and felt like no one - not even our loved ones - were there to help us up. Even worse, they may have been the reason why we fell down; they either broke our trust in them, took advantage of us, said hurtful things to us, or constantly took from us without giving us anything in return. There’s an underlying theme to every single one of these stumbling blocks, and that theme is unmet expectations. And at the heart of unmet expectations is control.
The only reason why someone has ever broken our trust in them, taken advantage of us, said hurtful things to us, or taken from us without giving us anything in return is because that was the choice that they made. And the only reason why it hurt us is because they failed to meet our expectations of them, or they failed to act the way we want them to act, or they stepped out of the box we have put them in.
Expectations ruin relationships.
A little over 5 years ago, on January 1st, 2014, I made the decision to stop drinking completely. This decision was made shortly after I started seeing a counselor after years of struggling with depression and suicide. During this time, there were many changes I needed to make, and the first one was drinking. Up until that point, I had kind of cut back on drinking; I’d have a beer every once in a while, and I’d drink to the point of getting drunk maybe twice or three times per year (which is a lot less than when I was in college). My counselor challenged me to cut out drinking entirely (no compromises), to prove to me that I could do it and that alcohol is not an option when it comes to dealing with stress and struggles. Over 5 years later, I can proudly say I haven’t had a drop of alcohol since. The only reason why I’ve been able to do this is because I never want my future children to go through what I went through, and live in the same environment that I lived in growing up. Plus, I want to show them that there are much better ways to respond to problems than to numb them and drink them away.
This was a very hard decision for me to make, because drinking was all I knew. It was how we celebrated everything. It was why we came together. It was what we did every weekend. It was what I thought was normal. It was engrained in me and my DNA.
A large part of me thought that by making this decision, I would inspire those around me - mainly, my parents - to join me in sobriety. I also thought that at the very least, I would get some sort of support. But unfortunately, none of the above happened. Actually, the opposite happened.
Have you ever been to a bar or a party, and you were the only one there that wasn’t drinking? If you haven’t, it’s the perfect illustration of misery loves company. In fact, if you ever want free drinks, just go to a bar or a party and tell the people there that you aren’t drinking. I guarantee you’ll be offered more free drinks or shots than you ever have before in your life. That’s exactly what happened to me, except everyone at the bar or party was one of my family members, or one of my close friends who I grew up with. No matter how many times I explained to them why I was choosing sobriety, they just couldn’t comprehend it. Because of their lack of understanding, they - or I should say their insecurities - interpreted my choice as me "up on my high-horse, looking down at them for drinking." That’s not what I was trying to do at all. I was just trying to improve my life, and make sure I never want to kill myself again.
All of this came to a head a few years ago, when we were all at a wedding together. When it got later into the night, and when more alcohol was consumed (and the more liquid courage they got), it seemed like they all lined up one by one to air out their grievances towards me, and tell me how they really felt about me. At one point in the night, one of them threatened to shove a shot of tequila down my throat, because he was offended that I wasn’t drinking at the wedding (keep in mind, this was the same person who told me that he hates being sober, even though he has a beautiful wife and child, and a job that 99.9% of people in his field have failed at attaining).
Side note: if you ever want to find out how miserable some people are, hang out at a bar or party completely sober after midnight. You’ll hear depressing things from people that they’ll never say when they’re sober.
Needless to say, that night was devastating to me. I couldn’t believe some of the things I heard from people who I grew up loving and admiring. My initial emotions were resentment and anger. Then, my initial reaction was to fight back, and scream out, “f@#* you all!" (To this day, I still don’t know how I restrained myself in that moment).
When I got back to Tulsa the next day, instead of going home and isolating myself, I went straight to one of my mentor’s house to tell him about what happened (because when you walk the wise, you become wise). Two incredibly wise things came out of our conversation:
He helped me realize that the reason why they were acting the way they were was because of their insecurities, not because of my decision. I was finally doing something that they’ve always known they need to do, and I finally had something they’ve always wanted - freedom. On top of that, they acted the way they did because they were losing the control over me that they thought they had. For decades, they knew me as the Riley who agreed with everything they did, and acted the way they wanted me to act, because I desperately wanted their approval. But I wasn’t that Riley anymore, and they didn’t know how to respond to that, so they reacted instead.
He encouraged me to respond with empathy. He told me, “It’s not about you, it’s about them. The reason why they tried to hurt you is because they’re hurting. Hurt people hurt people because it makes them feel better about themselves and their circumstance… temporarily. That doesn’t make what they did ok, but it does make them human... just like you and I. Here’s the thing, we’ve hurt people too. We’ve broken people’s trust in us, we’ve taken advantage of others, and we've said and done things that we regret. So, the next time someone hurts you - which will happen - instead of reacting with emotion, respond with empathy. We don’t know what they’re struggling with internally. Instead of trying to control how you want them to act, show them how, by treating them the way you want to be treated, and giving them the same amount of grace and empathy you want to be given.”
We can’t control relationships, we can only contribute to them.
Instead of trying to find great friends that meet our expectations, or manipulate the friends we have into fitting our mold of a great friend, we need to be the friend we wish we had. That starts with treating people the way we want to be treated by saying the things we wish we heard, and giving the things we wish we had more of. Yes, this is the Golden Rule. But throughout history, we have misconstrued the Golden Rule to fit our selfish desires, and we have essentially replaced it with, “Treat others how you wish to be treated… only if those others can do something for you in return." We fail to realize that it’s not about what we can get, it’s about what we can give. It’s not about what we can control (which is a lot less than we think), it’s about what we can contribute (which is a lot more than we already are).
Speaking of control, another one of the biggest factors in how we make decisions (whether we respond or react to what happens to us) is tragedy; AKA when something unplanned happens in our lives, like a life-changing diagnosis, a horrific accident, a death, or a loss. Since these tragic things are unplanned, that means they’re out of our control. And as desperately as we may want to, we can’t go back in time and change what happened, but we can change our perspective of what happened.
The problem is not the problem, the problem is our perspective of the problem.
Too many of us live our lives thinking nothing bad is ever going to happen to us, and when something bad does happen, we don’t know how to respond to it, so we react instead. That’s when we become blinded, and the problem gets worse. For me, I had no control over the future of my baseball career; I couldn’t force any team to sign me. However, it wasn’t about my baseball career ending the way I didn’t plan on it ending, it was about how I was going to respond to the ending. My initial emotion was embarrassment, then confusion, then anger, then depression, which led me to react to suicide. Fortunately, I had someone care enough to intervene and teach me wisdom on how to respond to what happened. That response was me finding purpose in my pain, and turning my mess into a message; a message I share in my book, Pitching Against Myself; a message I share with the athletes who are a part of Coachability; a message I share to athletes all over the country that I wish I would have heard when I was going through what they’re going through, because we don’t go through what we go through for ourselves, we go through what we go through in order to help others who are going to go through the same thing.
The next time something unplanned happens to you - which, it will - instead of asking yourself, “Why did this happen to me?" Ask yourself, “Why did this happen for me?" Because things don’t happen to us, they happen for us. There’s a lesson to learn in every situation we are in, and the lessons we don’t learn repeat themselves. This is why we struggle with the same things over and over again, we climb the same mountain over and over again, and we make the same regretful choices over and over again. We constantly react, instead of making time to pause, reflect, subtract emotion, add wisdom, and respond.
Please don’t misinterpret this message: I’m not saying that having emotions is not ok. It’s absolutely ok to get angry. It’s absolutely ok to be sad. It’s absolutely ok to show pain and “weakness.” It’s absolutely ok to cry. Actually, it’s absolutely necessary to have these emotions, because they make us human beings, not the robots we try so hard to be. However, we must realize that our emotions have absolutely no control over the actions we take and the words we say.
This is why we need to give ourselves time to process these emotions, discover where they’re coming from, and talk about them with someone else (walk with the wise), so we can respond wisely to them. Otherwise, we’re going to keep reacting our way through life, keep imitating our most prominent examples, keep repeating generational cycles (and curses), and keep making emotional decisions that we’ll eventually regret.
48 Hour Rule
When I started seeing a counselor, one of the best things she had me do was write in a journal on a daily basis. One of the exercises she had me do in my daily journal was to make a list of all of the initial emotions and reactions I had to things that happened to me throughout each day of that following week. When I saw her the next week, she had me make a second list. In this list, instead of writing down reactions, she had me write down how I should have responded to the situations/events that occurred the week before, as opposed to how I reacted to them. This exercise was so eye opening for me! It showed me how much my emotions affected my decisions; which was a lot more than I was aware of. Plus, it forced me to be patient with myself (which we all struggle with) by making me take time to think and reflect. It also forced to me seek guidance from those who are wiser than me.
This exercise created the 48 hour rule; which is a rule I have for myself that declares that when an event happens that incites emotion, I can’t respond to it for 48 hours. Throughout the years of implementing this 48 hour rule, I have found that the things that we often perceive as urgent or significant, are not really that urgent or significant at all. Plus, this rule forces me to have two nights of sleep before I can make a decision and respond. Not many things improve a bad mood or a negative emotion more than a good night’s sleep. Scientifically speaking, our mood is directly affected by our circadian rhythm (our sleep cycle). I know I’m not the only one that reacts terribly to things when I’m tired.
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