Happiness is Your Choice. Period.

Your happiness depends on how you respond to life's pain

There’s a man on our street who I know is watching our house, every single day. And even worse, he is constantly leering at our children.

Anywhere else this occurred, you’d call the cops on him. But in Florida, you elect him to the Neighborhood Association.

Maybe it’s because we have teenagers. Anytime my kids park their cars wrong, someone from the neighborhood association (which I believe is made up of people still hiding out from the Nurenburg trials) is calling us up to threaten us. It’s like Gladis Kravitz, the nosy neighbor from Bewitched, lives across the street from us. Every day, he dotes on his manicured lawn and waits for us to do something he can tattle on. I imagine his lair has a control room where a multitude of lawn cameras records 24 hours a day, displayed on stacks on monitors onscreen.

Some people would call him a “grumpy old man”, but I don’t think his age is the problem. You see, I have a theory about old age. I believe it doesn’t make people grumpy, but only intensifies the kind of person they already are. So if you’re sweet and optimistic, you simply become more so with time. But if you’re bitter, that bitterness metastasizes until you reach the rank of full-blown curmudgeon in your latter years.

In contrast to my neighborhood nazi, I saw a scene last week that filled my heart with joy. I watched an older gentleman as he gently and patiently helped his wife get out of the car. He then lifted her wheelchair out of the trunk, then lovingly guided her over to it. He was so careful not to rush her and made sure she didn’t waver or make a misstep. To me, it was the perfect picture of what a marriage should be toward the end of our years.

As I patiently watched the scene unfold, I thought to myself, “That’s the man I want to be when I get older.” And there’s a good chance I’ll get to be that man one day, considering the trial my wife and I went through once…

A little over 15 years ago, my wife had a terrible car wreck. She was driving home from church on Sunday around noon and lost control of the car. She over-corrected, careening off the road and rammed full speed into a tree. She was driving my daughter who was around 5, and my son who was a few months old. Oh, and one other detail – she was pregnant.

I remember coming upon the scene and seeing my family laying in the grass of someone’s front yard, with paramedics working on them. I remember the chaos, the uncertainty of what to do. I remember the huge tree they hit, and the mark our car left on it. I remember our van, and how the middle front section had compacted in on my wife’s right leg. She didn’t even realize her ankle was crushed as she frantically tried to get to our kids, now laying a short distance away in the grass.

I paced outside the emergency room, as teams of people attended to my family. I really didn’t know what to think, and I didn’t want to stop long enough to feel anything. But I remember the face of my pastor when he walked down the hall toward me, and how I buried my head in his shoulder when he embraced me.

The next week was spent in the hospital, going from one floor to the next to check on my wife and kids, all in separate rooms. I remember holding my little daughter’s hand as she lay in children’s intensive care, her head wrapped and her face swollen. They said she had a hematoma on her brain, and there could be serious complications. My infant son was probably in the best condition, suffering only a broken foot.

But my wife was hooked up to machines in the maternity wing, as doctors tried to treat her while monitoring our unborn child in her womb. I spent the night there for the biggest part of a week, rubbing her limbs as they ached, calling for the nurse, hopping from floor to floor.

Thankfully, the hematoma on my daughter’s brain went away without surgery, my son healed up fine, and the doctors determined my unborn daughter was healthy and unaffected by the trauma. However, my wife’s leg would never be the same. We entered into a long and painful recovery process at home, with the extra burden of taking care of our kids. I wasn’t sure how I would meet their needs, care for my wife who couldn’t even make it to the bathroom on her own, not to mention hold down my ministry job.

Two wonderful things happened during this time of trial in our lives.

First, I learned the power of a church. People I hardly knew from our church started showing up to clean the house, mow the lawn and care for the kids…not to mention the tons of food that were brought to our home every day without fail for more than a month. After surviving several tough ministry experiences in the past, God used this painful circumstance to bring healing to our hearts through the love demonstrated by our church. We felt the love of God’s family joining their arms around us to meet every challenge. It was an experience that to this day defines for me what a real church can be and should be.

The other wonderful thing was that my wife and I became inseparably welded together by the experience. Caring for people’s physical needs has never been my forte, but I became devoted to her care during this ordeal. Let’s just say there’s a bond that comes from emptying someone’s Porto-Potty that nothing can sever!

To this day, her recovery period has been the defining moment of our marriage. If there was ever a chance we might drift apart, God drove a stake through its heart that month. My wife still deals with pain every day from that accident, and I grieve when I see her suffer. But in both our memories, that horrific accident is the most sacred, God- breathed experience of our lives.

The biggest lesson we learned was the things meant to destroy you are also the greatest vehicles of God’s power in your life. But the difference is all in how you respond.

When I see my wife suffering still today with extreme pain in her leg, I suppose I could curse God for allowing it to happen. I could be bitter when I see her scars and the atrophy caused by an ankle that no longer bends.

Instead, all I want to do is sing praise to a God at the top of my lungs for putting us through such a painful trial, knowing it caused Him great pain to watch us endure it!

But I see people around me who have gone through painful things – some not half as bad as ours. Yet they respond to these trials with bitterness and anger, resenting their victimizer as well as the God who would put them through it. They demand answers, ask “why me”, and resent those who seem to have it easier. They pity themselves, yet refuse to acknowledge that the rest of the world has its own scars and wounds as well.

I worry for them, because I wonder, “How much more pain must you endure before you learn the lessons of compassion, mercy, and forgiveness? How much more hurting before you lose your stomach for guile? When will you put down the verbal knives you use to strike at others and learn to love again?”

When I watch the old men helping their wives in and out of the car or into a chair at the restaurant, I see fellow travelers in this world who’ve learned beautiful things from some of life’s hardest lessons. There is rarely any bitterness in those couples, but instead a treasuring of every moment they have left together. They are know how to live every day as if it were their last, because they know everything they have now is a gift and not “a given”.

As that worn out cliche goes, “every moment we have is indeed a gift – that’s why we call it ‘the present'”. And while I’m handing out Hallmark Card epigrams, try on the one about choosing to let struggles make you “better instead of bitter”. It may sound trite, but it’s actually the truth. We all have a choice, and that choice makes all the difference.

Every time we’ve returned to that area of the accident, I’ve looked for the mark left on that huge tree. Then one year I noticed the tree looked like it was dying, and eventually someone had to cut it down. Seems like both my wife and the tree had received trauma, but one endured it to thrive while the other one died. Same blow – different response.

Through chaos, pain and struggle, our marriage received the greatest gift life has to offer – a thankful outlook. That gift is waiting for you as well, if you will only decide to cash in your resentment.

In exchange, you might just receive a wheelchair-full of gratefulness when you’ve learned to simply embrace the “better” over the “bitter” and thank God for every moment He gives you.

So…which one will you choose to be – the grateful survivor or the stump an accident left behind?

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