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Tue, Jul 22, 2014 09:29 AM
Issue of July 16, 2014
A hope note
A hope note
Dr. Wayne Willis reflects on life and hope.

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July 16, 2014 | 11:34 AM

"The self-made man."

Was it Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Horatio Alger or Andrew Carnegie who first claimed to be self-made?

The critically-acclaimed television show "Shark Tank" introduces its panel members as "self-made multi-millionaires and billionaires."

Henry Clay may have introduced the term in 1832 when he spoke of "enterprising self-made men who acquired whatever wealth they possess by patient and diligent labor."

Whatever its origin, it has come to stand for Americans who achieve great things without much help from family name or inherited wealth. Andrew Jackson is often cited as the first self-made American president, the first one not "well-born."

Can everyone with a work ethic and a positive attitude make it to the top? I know several individuals who, trying to get ahead, work long hours at several jobs but still live modestly and barely make ends meets.

Some, like Mike Myatt, believe that the concept of the self-made man is largely bogus. Myatt, regarded by many as America's top CEO coach, tells executives: "Other than in a Rambo movie, there is no such thing as an army of one."

Young Columbian author Juan Gabriel Vasquez writes in "The Sound of Things Falling": "No one who lives long enough can be surprised to find their biography has been molded by distant events, by other people's wills, with little or no participation from our own decisions. Struggling against their effects is all I can do: repair the damages, take best advantage of the benefits."

Moses said to the Israelites on the verge of entering the Promised Land: "Beware lest your silver and gold increase and you say to yourself when you have become successful, 'I'm rich, and I've earned it all myself' " (Deuteronomy 8).

If you have "made it," do you give any credit to anyone else?

Dr. Wayne Willis

Overcoming our odysseys

July 09, 2014 | 12:14 PM

"No quest is worth pursuing that does not require you to pass many tests and take numerous risks. The hardest tests of all show how determined you are to live your dream and how strong your heart really is." —Robert D. Ballard

Ballard speaks from personal experience. He is history's most successful underwater archaeologist. He led expeditions that finally found the Titanic, the Bismarck and John Kennedy's PT-109.

History's most famous story of a hero overcoming obstacles is Homer's Odyssey. After fighting the Trojan War, it took Odysseus 10 difficult years to make his way back home.

One of his daunting challenges was getting past the island of the Sirens. The Sirens were beautiful singers who were so seductive, so beguiling, that no man could resist them. Odysseus devised a plan. He ordered all his crew to plug their ears with beeswax (so they could not hear the Sirens' irresistible songs) and to tie him securely to the mast and ignore any pleas he might make to untie him until the ship had passed the island.

When the ship got within earshot of the Sirens, Odysseus (who didn't plug his ears because he wanted to hear the Sirens sing) became a man possessed, totally captivated. He ordered his crew to untie him immediately or be executed, but they couldn't hear him because their ears were full of beeswax. As he struggled to free himself from the ropes, strong men lashed him even tighter and re-knotted the ropes' ends.

The captain and crew sailed safely beyond the island.

Why has this story endured 2,500 years? Its message is clear: When we face a huge trial on our individual odysseys, we should draw up a strong plan and enlist the aid of our crew in staying the course.

Independence, indeed

July 02, 2014 | 10:31 AM

Three memories come to me when I think about Independence Day. The first two you would expect from an old history buff.

The 1776 Declaration of Independence seemed foolish, if not crazy, to most of the world. How dare 13 upstart governments declare that they are no longer subjects of the invincible British Empire! But Jefferson's statement that "all men are created equal" and "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights" including "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" became the moral standard for freedom-loving people throughout the world, but only after the colonies won a Revolutionary War.

The 1863 battle at Gettysburg, "four score and seven years" later, tested "whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure." More than 40,000 men were killed or wounded at Gettysburg. On July 3, the failure of Pickett's charge up Cemetery Ridge secured the survival of the one-nation dream.

I'm grateful that teachers made me memorize Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and the first few sentences of the Declaration of Independence.

My third Independence Day memory goes back to 1962, when I was working my way through college by selling books door-to-door in West Texas. I sold more books and made more money on July 4 than on any day that summer. Farm families were at home cooking out and feeling good, good enough to fork out cash for a new dictionary or Bible to this Tennessee boy who convinced them he had a book they should not be without. I collected more than $500 cash that day, enough for my college tuition that fall. They may have bought because they felt sorry for me, having to work on a holiday, but I smiled all the way back to my little rented room.

Is this a great country or what?

Dr. Wayne Willis

Life happens

June 25, 2014 | 10:19 AM

Robert graduated from high school at the top of his class and won a scholarship to Dartmouth. Bored, disappointed and missing Elinor White, his fiancé and high school co-valedictorian who had enrolled in another college, he dropped out of Dartmouth after one semester. Returning home, he tried to convince Elinor to marry him immediately. She insisted that she would have to finish college first and that he would first have to have some success at writing poetry.

Robert began to hear reports that she was dating other men. One letter from her convinced him that their relationship, already very tense, was over. Depressed out of his mind, at age 20, he took a train and then a steamboat to the most depressing place he had ever heard of, the Dismal Swamp on the border of Virginia and North Carolina.

It was dark when he arrived, but he started wading into the Dismal Swamp, full of vines and logs and water moccasins, not caring whether he lived or died. Ten miles into the swamp, he came upon a boat of duck hunters who transported him back to civilization.

Surviving that suicidal period, Robert Frost became one of America's greatest poets. After she finished college, Elinor married Robert. Their personal lives were full of grief and loss. Four of their six children died young.

Robert Frost died full of years, at 88. Inscribed on his tombstone are these words: "I Had a Lover's Quarrel with the World."

When we were young, most of us had some "wish to die" days. Possibly all the grownups reading this are glad that they did not act on those feelings.

Beware of any behavior that is permanent and irreversible. 'Tis far better to carry on a lover's quarrel with the world.

Dr. Wayne Willis

True tales

June 18, 2014 | 02:52 PM

This is the true tale of two mothers and two sons.

For this mother's son, school was from the beginning a disaster. However hard he tried, reading, writing and arithmetic were unfathomable mysteries to him. He may have been dyslexic. His parents and teachers were confounded, but his doting mother believed in him unconditionally. "If you become a soldier," she told him, "you'll be a general. If you become a monk, you'll end up as the Pope." Her son was Pablo Picasso.

The other mother's son, Robert Benchley, beginning with the Harvard Lampoon and then through many articles published in Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, achieved fame as an author, humorist and actor. The future did not look very promising for Robert when he was 9. His older brother, Edmund, the apple of his mother Maria's eye, not long after he graduated from West Point, was killed in the Spanish-American War. When a bicycle messenger delivered the notification telegram to his mother, Robert, who was standing by her side, heard her cry out, "Why could it not have been Robert?" Mrs. Benchley repeatedly apologized to Robert and worked hard to atone for that unfiltered, grief-stricken, straight-from-the-gut utterance.

We all carry internal, invisible wounds or gifts related to sentences spoken to or about us when we were young. How can old sentences control us?

When we take curses to heart, we can allow them to script us for life. "You are unloved" may be the most toxic script of all to overcome; however, many people consider the source — and the circumstances — and move ahead.

A parent's sincere, prostrate apology and appeal for forgiveness, as with Maria Benchley, sometimes can help us move ahead.

Affirmation, like that of Dona Maria Picasso to son Pablo, can become a guiding blessing that lasts a lifetime.

Dr. Wayne Willis

Happy Father's Day

June 11, 2014 | 08:27 AM

This is the true tale of two fathers and two children.

I once worked with a highly moral, highly successful woman who, for more than 30 years, had sought her father's approval. He had never molested or abused her. He had provided well for her material needs. He was a good citizen and an active church member. But he had never found it within him to say directly to his daughter, in any arrangement of words, "You're a good daughter, and I'm proud of you."

The night before he underwent a high-risk, potentially lethal surgery, sitting on the side of his bed holding his hand, his daughter summoned up the courage to ask: "Dad, do we have any unfinished business? Is there anything you'd like to say to me?" She waited — the yearning of her soul etched on her face — and, after a long pause, heard these words: "You know where my insurance papers are. And you know where my will is. And you know I love all my family." Dad missed the prompt; daughter missed the blessing she craved.

Sam Keene, popular professor, philosopher and author, delivered this tribute to his father as his father lay dying: "Dad, you have always been there whenever any of us children needed you. And across the years you have given us the best single gift that any parent could give: you took delight in us! In all sorts of ways, you let us know that you were glad we were here, that we had value in your eyes, that our presence was a joy and not a burden to you."

If you have trouble expressing love for a child or a parent, I have the game plan for you:

1. Memorize nine words: "Have I told you lately that I love you?"

2. Go deliver.

Dr. Wayne Willis

Attitude is everything

June 04, 2014 | 11:29 AM

He was adopted when he was 6 weeks old. At age 2, he came down with a mysterious mal-absorption syndrome that caused him to stop growing for several years.

Scott Hamilton's life took a turn for the better when he discovered ice skating. He loved hockey but preferred figure skating. Compensating for his small frame (5 feet, 2 inches tall), he competed with Herculean energy and determination. He won four consecutive national and world titles and then, in 1984, the Olympic gold medal.

In 1997, Hamilton was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Years after recovering from that, he came down with a brain tumor that was surgically removed. An artery was nicked during that procedure and physicians had to use another procedure to remove an aneurysm. One side effect of the whole ordeal was the loss of two-thirds of the vision in his right eye.

At 57, Scott Hamilton lives in Franklin, Tenn., with his wife and two children. He runs the Scott Hamilton CARES program that shares online information about chemotherapy and provides one-on-one mentorship for cancer patients. He works as a volunteer with Special Olympics. In 2009, he published "The Great Eight: How to Be Happy (Even When You Have Every Reason to Be Miserable)." The "eight" are his eight principles of living positively.

Two things I heard him say in interviews I wrote down and memorized as soon as I heard them. Coming from him, I thought, made them "keepers." Once, when he was being interviewed, someone used the cliché about seeing the glass half empty or half full, and Hamilton interrupted: "As long as you are alive and kicking, as long as you have another day, you have a full glass."

The second insight is like the first: "The only disability in life is a bad attitude."

Dr. Wayne Willis

Do you choose hope?

May 28, 2014 | 10:39 AM

"Hope is rooted in the spirit" —Mark Hertsgaard

The ground was so saturated from rain that, when I pulled on the dandelion plant, the entire taproot slid out. The slender white root was 11 inches long!

Human hope, like the dandelion, has deep roots. Hope reaches down to our core. It is our nature, as is the nature of every living thing — from bacteria to whales, from the sequoia to the dandelion — to do everything it can to live and thrive.

Albert Schweitzer summed up his reverence for life philosophy in one sentence: "I am life that wants to live, surrounded by life that wants to live." We, like all that lives, are hardwired for hope.

"Hope is chosen by the heart" —Mark Hertsgaard

Unlike the dandelion, we humans vote daily, consciously or unconsciously, for or against hope. Each year, about 50,000 Americans, in a population of more than 300 million, complete suicide. Many more of us choose risky behaviors — poor eating habits, under-exercising, tobacco use, alcohol abuse, road rage, tanning booths, distracted driving — that fight our innate hopefulness. Scripture says: "I set before you life and death, blessings and curses; choose life" (Deuteronomy 30: 19). Hope is a choice.

"Hope is guided by the mind" —Mark Hertsgaard

A dandelion does not lie awake at night strategizing how it should behave tomorrow, but we use our minds to choose whether to fly off the handle or extend a hand of friendship, to care only about No. 1 or jump in the water and rescue the perishing, to spoil the land or plant an orchard, knowing that we will not live long enough to taste its fruit.

Milton wrote: "The mind is its own place and in itself can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven."

Dr. Wayne Willis

Like the song says ...

May 21, 2014 | 11:47 AM

There are two song titles I hope you have in — or will add to — your repertoire.

One is the theme song from the hit Disney movie "Frozen." My granddaughter and I saw the first showing of it on opening day. At an elementary school talent show I attended recently, "Let It Go" from "Frozen" was the most performed song.

Fun words for little children to sing, "Let it go!" can become a mantra for adults bent on leading healthy, happy lives. We inevitably fail, flop and fall many times along the way. After giving ourselves ample time to grieve and lick our wounds, one day we must say to ourselves: "Self, enough! Let it go!" Neither could we nor should we forget the experience. We need to learn from it. But, after a while, it is time to dispatch its grip on and power over us.

We are bound to make enemies along life's way. Some people are going to hurt and wrong us, but part of being a responsible adult is recognizing that coddling grudges hurt us more than anyone. Some fine day we need to tell ourselves: "Self, that's enough; let it go!" We may have to say it more than once.

A second mantra to consider adding to our quiver of song titles is "Let It Be." Paul McCartney, when he was going through hard times in 1968, had his mum, who had died 10 years earlier, appear to him in a dream and speak calming words like, "It's going to be all right. Just let it be." Out of that sweet dream came the classic Beatles' song.

I hope you are unable to put "Let It Go" and "Let It Be" out of your mind. Repeating three words might even change your life.

Dr. Wayne Willis

Clawing and scratching

May 14, 2014 | 10:44 AM

"Success is counted sweetest for those who ne'er succeed."—Emily Dickinson

Did Alexander the Great really sit down and cry because he had no more worlds to conquer? We will never know for sure; however, many famous people tell us that achieving success is not all it is cracked up to be.

No one has expressed this more poignantly than Tennessee Williams. Three years after his smashing success with "The Glass Menagerie" and four days before "A Streetcar Named Desire" opened on Broadway, he submitted an article to The New York Times titled "The Catastrophe of Success."

Williams spills more than 2,000 words on how, "snatched out of virtual oblivion and thrust into sudden prominence," he had come to hate being one of the pampered elite.

"The sort of life that I had previous to this popular success was one that required endurance, a life of clawing and scratching along a sheer surface and holding on tight with raw fingers to every inch of rock higher than the one caught hold of before, but it was a good life because it was the sort of life for which the human organism is created ... You should not have too many people waiting on you; you should have to do most things for yourself. The sight of an ancient woman, gasping and wheezing as she drags a heavy pail of water down a hotel corridor to mop up the mess of some drunken over-privileged guest, is one that sickens and weighs upon the heart ... Nobody should have to clean up anybody else's mess."

The one theme of this cry of disillusionment from Tennessee Williams is, in his words, "the vacuity of a life without struggle."

Be careful what you wish for.

Dr. Wayne Willis
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