My sister recently opened a fortune cookie, and it read as follows:
The human body was designed to walk, run, or stop. It wasn’t built for coasting.
One of the exercises I have learned to adapt as I continue to recover and cope with my own depression is to carefully consider the way I view the world around me. Whenever I feel anxious, or low, or haunted by some thought, feeling, or memory, I remind myself that those feelings will change how I perceive my life and everything within it. When I read the fortune cookie, I initially dismissed it as trite nonsense, but I have decided that my initial attitude was flawed by the mood I was in.
I was wrong, and here’s why:
Today, I re-read it and found it to be rather profound. I didn’t change my mind, per se; I changed my perspective, and something I once dismissed as meaningless and unhelpful became engaging and thought-provoking.
I coasted through far too many years of my life, uncertain and afraid to commit myself to head in any one direction or the other. I knew I was good with electronics and computers, so I got my first ‘real’ job at Radio Shack when I was 18. I didn’t have a plan, or a goal, or a dream. I got the job and just… showed up for it. I stayed at that company for over five years, and all I really got out of my time there was five years older.
Some good came of those years, but not as much as might have if I had been a bit less comfortable with the idea of settling.
Hindsight is a harsh spotlight, of course, and I think almost everyone goes through a somewhat directionless period in their lives. I recall feeling, at the time, as if I were sitting in the back seat of a driverless car as it slowly rolled down the road, no steering, no brakes, shifter in neutral. I was coasting through life because if I chose to get behind the wheel and take control, it would mean choosing a destination, committing to a route, and taking responsibility for navigating all the twists and turns along the way.
This is the best part of reflecting, this way. I wouldn't have started looking at my past from the perspective of how much of a difference it made when I began taking a more active role in the story of my life if not for a few little words on a tiny strip of paper, otherwise bound for the trash.
Do you know when I quit coasting through my life?
It was when I quit my job at Radio Shack. I did this after they promoted me to Store Manager.
I became a manager after spending eight weeks in management training. I entered management training because… well I don’t know why, but not because I ever wanted to be anyone’s boss. I certainly didn’t want to work for Radio Shack for the rest of my life, and thank God for that because… well… when was the last time you even saw a Radio Shack?
I began to take new and different jobs, learning new and different trades, and seeing the value of variety in my life. I wasn't drifting through life, anymore. I was moving through it on my own two feet, walking through life, even if I didn’t know where the heck I was going, yet, or how I was going to get there. I didn’t know what I wanted, but I learned what I didn’t want.
I was making progress!
I had no goal beyond ‘better than this,’ so I set about moving, in any direction, so long as it took me as far from what I no longer wanted my life to be as possible. I was learning new things, gaining new skills, discovering new talents and rediscovering old joys (like drawing and writing).
It was around that time when I took the initiative to start trying to meet someone special... someone significant. I placed a personal ad on Yahoo, because dating apps and 'swiping right' weren’t a thing back then, and I met the beautiful, wonderful woman who would become my wife… all because I decided not to coast through life anymore.
It wasn’t for many years onward that my path in life began to make a bit more sense. I still didn't know precisely where I wanted my life to go, nor precisely how to get it there.
And that's okay. Those are goals worth revisiting and revising as you get older and your priorities and perspectives change.
Oddly enough, I came to know more about what I wanted to achieve with my life when I helped one of my greatest friends through some of his own darkest moments. He had expressed some concerning, self-destructive ideations, and I dropped everything to get him help and do what little I could for him.
It made me feel better about myself than almost anything I had ever done, helping my friend deal with the depths of his own depression. I knew that I wanted to help people. I stopped walking aimlessly through my life. I had a destination, or at least a rough approximation of one, and though I didn’t know what roads to take, I was prepared to pick up the pace and chase after that goal.
In my late twenties, I decided to go to college full-time. I pursued a degree in communications and eventually got a job as a police dispatcher. On more occasions than I can even fathom to count, in my capacity as a dispatcher, I helped a lot of people.
It was everything I hoped it would be, and thank God for that wonderful little fortune in that bland little cookie because as I sit here, recovering from depression, I can look back and think of all I achieved as a police dispatcher not through the harsh light of hindsight but through the rose-tinted glasses of positive reflection.
I helped first responders get home safely to their families. This was always important to me. My brother was a police officer since the time I was twelve-years-old. I was the family he had to get home to for many of those early years, and it was that perspective that made me care so deeply about the safety of the brave men and women for whom, and with whom, I worked so diligently.
I helped talk a man into abandoning the firearm he had next to him in his barricaded home, going to the door and surrendering. I convinced him that being taken into custody without anyone getting hurt was far preferable to the alternative ideas he expressed earlier during our conversation on the phone. I will never shake the dreadful stress of that harrowing phone call, nor the exhilaration I felt when I heard the call over the radio, translated for your convenience from 10-code: person in custody.
I helped get life-saving medical attention to a member of the town’s animal control department. She was in severe chest pain and I kept her calm and focused on taking the life-saving measures she could while I simultaneously got help on the way. In the aftermath of this incident, about two or three weeks later, this woman came to visit me at the police department carrying just about the cutest puppy I ever laid eyes on. She saw it, thought of me, and brought the little fella in for an introduction. It was her way of thanking me for the role I played in saving her life. That puppy is barking and playing with my wife in the other room as I type this, just about seven years later.
I rushed to the aid of one of our sergeants when he was struggling to peaceably restrain a dangerous man all alone. He had pulled into the bay that led to the department's booking area and as he helped the man out of the back seat of his patrol vehicle, the man suddenly tried to tackle him to the ground. Witnessing this series of events transpiring within the bay via our security cameras, I put out a radio transmission to get every available officer back to the station and, seeing that there were other dispatchers in the room and no other officers available to help immediately, I swallowed my inner fears that I might get hurt or, worse, might hurt someone, rushing into the bay to lend whatever help I could.
I listened to people on the worst days of their lives and did everything in my power to help get them through. I heard some horrifying things, and I still carry those words and moments with me, though I am glad to have been of some measure of help regardless of the way it may have effected me in the long-term. Perhaps I can use this 'trite nonsense' from the fortune cookie to form a new relationship with these events in my mind. Perhaps I will have a few nightmares less, now, because instead of remembering those moments and being brought back to how terrifying it felt as I heard an officer's frantic call for help on the radio, I can remember those moments with fondness because on that day, horrifying or no, the things I heard were less important than the way I handled them. I did my job. I did it well, and traumatic or no, I'd do it again.
I helped assure that all the t’s were crossed, and i’s dotted, to do my part to see justice done for crime victims. Many of the officers, sergeants, and detectives expressed genuine gratitude for the simple fact that I cared as much as I did, both for their own safety and for the integrity of all their hard work. My re-emerging love and knack for writing was put to good use, there.
I did good things.
I helped good people.
I met and befriended so many incredible folks I might never have met if I had stuck it out at Radio Shack, settling for coasting my way through a comparatively dull and unfulfilling life.
I would not have met my wife, gone to college, become a dispatcher or truly helped a soul, unless you consider selling someone a $30 warranty for a $40 product ‘helpful.’ Sure, I could shine the harsh spotlight of hindsight on those years, but why do myself such a disservice when I can appreciate how good my life turned out compared to what it might have been?
If I had discarded that fortune (as I so often do with these things), I might not have had the chance to read it on another day, at another time, when my anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress weren’t conspiring to bathe my perspective in a dull, mirthless gray. I might not have seen its value, and that would have been such a waste of a great opportunity to reflect on my past in a positive way, rather than dwell upon it in a negative way.
I now see that the message of the fortune cookie does resonate with me in a way that I never would have considered if I had thrown it away.
Is that a stretch?
However, I would rather put effort into finding some reaffirming meaning behind a fortune cookie than waste an opportunity to reflect on my life and come away feeling pretty good about it.
For a person struggling with depression, little things like that can mean more than I could possibly explain.
I wonder, then, how many little things like that tiny strip of paper I may have dismissed and discarded over the course of my life. Let me be completely honest, here… I think it’s a lot.
It’s okay, though. I think I will be paying a lot closer attention to those little things from now on.
Next time you get a fortune cookie, do me a favor? Read the words, whatever they are, and even if it seems like trite nonsense today, hold on to it.
It might make more sense tomorrow, when you need it to.