Do you ever have a day when you think “Why me?” Self-pity isn’t the most attractive human trait, but I get it, it’s, unfortunately, one that’s unavoidable. We all have wallowed in it from time to time. The words from an old Rod Stewart song are painstakingly accurate:
Some guys have all the luck
Some guys have all the pain
Some guys get all the breaks
Some guys do nothing but complain
Something as trivial as a flat tire or a traffic jam can trigger the feeling. Other times, it’s an understandable reaction to life’s hardest moments: the death of a parent or grandparent; the cancer diagnosis of a loved one; a job loss; or trying to help an adolescent child going through depression. I’ll admit, I’ve fallen victim to it as well. Just yesterday, I was awash in disappointment when a planned trip this weekend to see my new granddaughter fell through.
Self-pity is natural. But we can’t let it dominate our lives. Negativity is a self-fulfilling prophecy and living in it unnecessarily limits our potential and destroys our dreams.
Last week, I attended the Texas Association of School Board’s Governance Camp with some of our school board members. The keynote speaker, Merlyna Mathieu Valentine, captured my attention from the moment she walked on stage. I noticed she needed a little assistance as she climbed the steps to the platform. Once there, her gait was a little slow, slightly stiff, like an aging athlete whose body suffered the effects of years of challenging effort. She began to tell her story — an inspirational, award-winning educator from Louisiana who was serving as principal of a New Orleans area school when Hurricane Katrina hit. I was already enthralled, in part because her maiden name Matthieu reminded me of a former colleague, Troy Matthieu who served as Dallas ISD’s director of athletics, I remembered that he too was from Louisiana. But could not have imagined where Mrs. Valentine’s story would go.
Soon after Katrina, Mrs. Valentine became sick. She learned she had a kidney stone. Her doctor scheduled her for a procedure but told her to come into the hospital if the pain became too much to bear. A day or so later, she was so ill she could barely stand and went to the hospital. What she couldn’t know was that that sepsis had set in. She soon slipped into unconsciousness and, when she awoke several weeks later, she learned doctors had been waging war against her own body to save her life. They had amputated both arms and both legs to rid her of the infection.
That’s when I realized that slow gait was because she walked on prosthetic legs. That slightly stiff way she moved her hands, was because from the elbow down, they were made of state-of-the-art carbon fiber, not flesh and blood.
Who is more deserving to ask “Why me?” To feel sorrow, desolation and loss. To believe their life was essentially over, their purpose destroyed. Yet, that is not how Mrs. Valentine chose to react. She didn’t choose change, but change chose her. She did choose one thing, her attitude! And she decided there must be a reason and a purpose for that. Our true character is revealed, Mrs. Valentine said, by how we respond to adversity. How we refuse defeat. How we make the impossible possible.
Now, Mrs. Valentine, who is happily married to her true “Valentine”, a man she was engaged to when she lost her limbs, is a nationally renowned motivational speaker who operates a successful education and leadership consulting firm. Her favorite quote is one by Nelson Mandela:
“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
At the conclusion of her incredible presentation, I went to her to let her know that I had just met a person with such a great “handle” on life, yet was a quadruple quadriplegic. I then said, “I know a Troy Matthieu from Louisiana.” Before I could finish saying his name, she excitedly said, “That’s my Brother!” Immediately she asked to take a picture. While we were taking the picture, for some reason I impulsively reached to hold her hands. They were plastic, cold, yet soft. Her cold hands give way to her warmest of hearts. The world indeed is small, and time flies fast. She proves the impossible can be possible with the proper frame of mind!
I thought of Mrs. Valentine and that Mandela quote just yesterday when I spoke to teen parents and expectant parents at Round Rock ISD’s 2020 Young Parent Expo. I thought about the incredible challenges these young people face and how easy it would be to use their situation as a crutch. To say, “I would if only…..but I can’t because…..”
Instead, I implored them to let their babies be their motivation, their inspiration. Change chose them, but it doesn’t have to limit them. Of course, their path will not be easy. Neither is Mrs. Valentine’s. Each morning, her loving husband applies her makeup, styles her hair, and gets her dressed. I can only imagine the effort it takes for her to remain positive to focus on her “mission possible” rather than resigning herself to a “mission impossible.”
We all have setbacks to overcome, obstacles that may seem insurmountable. But with the right attitude and perseverance, anything is possible. I looked up Mrs. Valentine’s website and read some of her client reviews. I identified with this one in particular because I left Mrs. Valentine’s presentation feeling the same way:
“I have not entertained the notion one day since her visit to our campus that there was something I could not do, something I could not achieve. Every day of my life since then I say the words to myself and several others EVERY DAY: Don’t tell me what you can’t do, tell me what you CAN do.”
I want all of us in Round Rock ISD, no matter our role, to come to work every day with that attitude and to make it contagious so our students embrace it as well. What can YOU do? What can YOU achieve? The only limits you face are those you place on yourself.
Humans are amazing. Yes, we may have the propensity for self-pity, but we also have the capacity for unbelievable resilience. Stories like Mrs. Valentine’s are a powerful reminder of that. I hope it provides some inspiration for you as it did for me. Sometimes the only difference in impossible and possible are the letters I and M. I challenge you to take those two letters and own them by saying, “I’m in control!”
Thanks for reading. I’ll write again soon.
Steve Flores, Ph.D.
Superintendent of Schools