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You Are Your Greatest Teacher

I am close to being in this world for fifty-three years, which causes one to reflect. I ask questions like, what is my purpose for being here? Am I living the life that I am meant to, and more importantly, am I living the life I want to? What have I learned along the way? It is important to sit with yourself and ask these or similar questions because they may guide you to getting the most out of your time here on earth.

The last question stuck with me for a long time. What have I learned? We often hear about our parents being our greatest teachers. Certainly they had a part to play, whether their lessons were nurturing or not. Our parents build the foundation of what is to come, and then when we turn five or so, teachers start to lay more bricks on your foundation and you start to develop and grow. Unfortunately, we are so young during these developmental years that we do not really recognize or understand the importance of what is being taught or how it will impact us in years to come. Many lessons I was taught came in the form of cruelty, a lack of understanding, shame, judgment, and never feeling what I do is enough. Then there were other lessons that laid a foundation of being courteous and respectful. It’s no wonder a lack of self-worth is something I have been working on all of my life. Parents and teachers are like artists, they start to shape and mold us. Some of us come out of that time of shaping as beautiful statues, with all of the contours curving in perfect harmony, and many of us are dealing with poor artists and we crack and break.

If you are lucky enough, you may have had a mentor growing up, maybe two. Perhaps you had someone that took you along for the ride and decided that your youthful mind was special enough to be included on their personal journey, so they started to be one of your greatest teachers. I did not have this experience. My sisters brought men into my life that I was hopeful would give me the secrets to being a man. I remember being excited, eager to be around them to see what I could take from them that might be useful as I was coming of age. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much. What I saw was either hard drinking or I sat in the back seat of a car that was filling up with the scent of marijuana. Were these the men I should emulate and look up to? Mentoring bypassed me. The only other men I saw were angry and resentful of their own lives.

There were some teachers that came into my life while in the military and a couple of other broken men who eventually took their own lives who I did learn from, however, the teaching was mutual between us. Again, I took pieces of what they taught but it is difficult to be a good student when the teacher ultimately fails the test.

Where did this leave me? Where does it leave you? I believe that we are the greatest teachers that we will ever have. We can become our own guide, but it will take a great deal of self-awareness, reflection, and honesty. You will have to sit with yourself often and when your life is going well, you must be mindful enough to recognize the joy that is taking place, and then show gratitude. When the storm hits and your life suddenly turns dark, you must not get caught up in self-pity or becoming a victim to your circumstances. Instead, it will be time to try to understand what and why your misfortune is happening. During these moments of suffering is when the greatest lessons will take place, so it is when you must show up for yourself as an eager student, waiting to absorb and comprehend the curriculum that is unfolding before you.

I have shared many of my experiences, both good and bad, and I do so to help others, maybe even be a guide for them. Mostly, I want to offer hope and encouragement to keep moving through the storm and build resilience. We learn the most when we are uncomfortable.

I was recently in an interview talking about mental health. I was asked many questions about children and what they need. One of the things I often talk about is allowing kids to fail. Parents and educators have a tendency to want to protect the child from feeling uncomfortable, but this is a major mistake. We are not doing young people favors by bailing them out of bad circumstances. They need to feel uncomfortable in order to learn and build resilience. Now, we can guide them through what they are experiencing, but we must let them experience it. We must let them face the consequences for their actions in a meaningful and appropriate way. I believe we are seeing what happens when we do not. Young people are suffering from anxiety, freezing or fleeing at the sight of adversity, and falling apart when bad things happen to them. Many think they can do what they want and not have to receive a consequence. This is not preparing them, it’s ultimately hurting them, making them more fragile.

I have seen many young people that I have either taught or been their Dean of Students, that have been incarcerated. Many of them have committed horrible crimes and then they think they should be set free, allowed to harm others and not have a consequence. This type of entitlement comes from the enabling that happened while their foundation was being built. They have been shown throughout the years that if you get into trouble, you will not have to face a consequence for your actions. Even repeat offenders are conditioned to believe they can cause harm, play victim, and be protected. It is why many of these incarcerated individuals ask me to speak on their behalf in court or write letters, even after hurting people or taking someone’s life. I often do not encourage letting them out of their crime because they should be held accountable for their actions, but I do encourage the judge to find them a program to learn skills that will help them develop a different life, one where they will work instead of rob, thrive instead of kill, and grow instead of dwindle. Their wish to not have any consequences is a vicious cycle that has taken away from learning opportunities that could have shaped them to become virtuous, ethical people. Instead, they have been misguided and then left to fend for themselves with little tools to survive in an often harsh world. Perhaps, the greatest gift we can give young people is to guide them to be their own teacher.

I am my greatest teacher because I have had to endure suffering. I have had to figure out a way to navigate the obstacles in my life and absorb the lessons. Some of those lessons have been from trauma, being abused to the point where I thought of taking my life many times as a child. Other lessons have been from the pain of depression, the fear of anxiety, or working through pain that has filled my body. I often wonder if my body is saying, “Karma is a bitch, isn’t it.” Meaning, the things I have taken my body through over the years, the injuries that I have caused, have now caught up to me and have made me start to face them and figure out a way to heal. Figuring out how to heal myself, both physically and mentally, has been an incredible gift. It has made me take a deeper look at my life and how I am living it. It has caused me to adapt, adjust, and become more resilient than ever. What a great teacher I am to teach myself such a lesson. My circumstances over the years, especially in regards to my mental health and my stress, has also caused me to reflect on what is in my control and what influence I have over certain matters, and what I have no control over, and letting those things go. The dichotomy of control alone has been a great lesson and I am a student with ears and eyes wide open.

You want a lesson to give to yourself? Sit in a quiet, uninterrupted space, and ask yourself the following: How many times have I caused my own problems? Have I become a victim in life or have I met it face on, taking responsibility for my own actions? Have I allowed others to dictate my emotions? Am I being honest with myself and the life I want to live? Do I understand what I can control? Can I, and have I, let go of what I cannot control? Am I around the people that give me energy or take it away? Can I let the toxic people in my life go, even once close friends and family?

Start there and be honest because even though many of us try to trick our own mind into thinking we are telling the truth, many times we don’t. We lie to ourselves because it’s easier to stay stagnant, complain about our shortcomings, or relive the past over and over, instead of making the changes that will help us.

We are responsible for ourselves. We are responsible for our actions, our words, and we are responsible for how we care for our bodies. For example, if you eat fast food every day or even every week, and wonder why you are not healthier, well, it is your responsibility to recognize what you are doing to harm your body and then change. If you smoke and then wonder why you feel sick all the time or get cancer from smoking, that is on you. No one told you to light up. Yes, yes, stay calm, I understand addiction, but you are also responsible to get the help you need if you are addicted to anything that is harmful to you.

It is hard for people to hear but no one is coming to save you. It is something I have learned over the years. You can have a circle of support, but you must do the work in order to make positive change in your life. You must be a learner and you must be your own teacher. A little advice for when you become your own teacher, allow yourself to fail. Allow yourself to not get an award for being last place or just participating. Then, reflect on why you failed and learn. Rewrite your life if needed, so when you are laying on your deathbed you can give yourself a passing grade.

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