This past summer, I went to visit my birth country, Vietnam. While walking down the street with my family, holding the hand of my seven years old son, I fell down a manhole. We didn’t know that the manhole was under construction because it was dark with no signage indicating any construction, and the manhole was covered up with a piece of glass. My son walked over it and was fine. But, apparently I was too heavy, broke through the glass and fell through. Luckily, I was caught by a sewage pipe underneath, and therefore, didn’t fall all the way through. I got cuts, scratches, and bruises all over my body, and had to spend a few hours in the hospital to assess the injury, but escaped with no broken bones.
The entire experience taught me three lessons. These may sound common sense to you, but I think we often forget them. And, therefore, a reminder is helpful.
Lesson 1: Life is full of the unexpected and can be fragile
As human being, we thought we are in control of our life. However, there are lots of unexpected events that may happen anytime and out of our hands. Who would have thought that a peaceful sightseeing walk turns into a life threatening experience for me and my family. My son experienced it first hand, watching his mom falling through the manhole while holding his hand just second before. When I was pulled up out of the manhole, I could tell that his face was completely white. Afterward, he kept on kissing me; he told me: “Mom, I prayed to God twice when you were down there. I prayed that God would keep you safe”. He never prayed on his own without prompting before. When the unthinkable happens, we turn to our supernatural spiritual father/mentor/counselor/guardian and ask for help.
Life is fragile. I cannot control what will happen tomorrow. I can plan for it, and do everything to prepare for it. But once I am done with the planning and preparing, I need to let go and trust God with the result.
The only moment you can control is here and now. So, for every present moment, practicing fully being there, fully being in the present, so that you don’t waste precious present moment to think about the past or worry about the future.
Kids often exhibit this behavior. Whether they are playing a game or reading a book, they are totally engaged in the moment. Did you ever observe a child’s eyes as he looks at a fish tank or a garden? The child can stand there and stare at the fish tank or the flower for a long time, noticing every movements, textures and colors without getting distracted by his/her surroundings. It’s only that as we age, we lose this ability to submerge ourselves in the present moment and to be fully present.
When you are with your children or loved ones, take a deep breath and quietly say to yourself: I am fully here. I am fully experiencing and sharing this moment with you my child (or my husband, wife). My attention is fully on you and for you.
When you are at work, take a deep breath and quietly say to yourself: I am fully here. I am going to focus on this one task and give it my whole devoted attention for this time (either in minutes or hours).
Life is full of the unexpected and can be fragile. By focusing in the present moment, and doing your best at the present moment, you can increase your chance of living a life of no regret. By giving each person and each task your fullest awareness in the present moment, you are doing your best building a better future. Even if the unthinkable happens, you know that you have given life your best.
Lesson 2: Just do it
If you have a limited time to live, let’s say 6 months or a year. What would you do?
First, you will set your priorities straight. You will think of what’s most important for your family, your company and get those building blocks in place.
According to Stephen R. Covey, all of our activities can be divided into four quadrants.
Quadrant 1: Urgent and Important. These are the fires that demand our attentions immediately. If we don’t put out the fire, the house will be burnt down. We must focus on these first.
Quadrant 2: Urgent but not Important. These are the usual disruptions like someone send you a text to say “hello” and thus distract you from what you are doing, or a telephone ring, or an instant chat message that pops up and demands your urgent attention right away.
Quadrant 3: Not urgent and not Important. Examples include mindlessly watching TV or surfing the web.
Quadrant 4: Not urgent but Important. These are tasks that are helpful for us, that make us better, and that build a better future. Examples include weekly planning, strategic planning, exercise, meditating, training and developing.
If you are just assigned to a new role at work, leading a new organization, and you know that you have only two years on the job (or probably four years on the job, similar to our presidential term), what would you do to ensure the success of the organization? Thinking in this limited timeline allows you to put the focus on what’s most important and be strategic about your time and your work. Without this kind of thinking, we presume that we have unlimited time and are trapped into doing many unimportant things while putting off non-urgent but very important projects.
Second, is there something in your heart that you desire to pursue like a career in writing, speaking, or painting, but you haven’t done anything about it, partly because you are afraid, and partly because you think you still have lots of time to do it later. If you only have a limited time to live, you know that you must do it now before it is too late.
Napoleon Hill says: “Life is a checkerboard, and the player opposite you is time. If you hesitate before moving, or neglect to move promptly, your men will be wiped off the board by time. You are playing against a partner who will not tolerate indecision”.
So, if you have an earnest desire and have been very afraid to pursue it, just do it. Take small step, plan for it, but move forward. Moving an inch forward is better than standing still. Without moving, your dream remains just a dream. By moving forward, you either win or learn from your failure. When you fail, you learn, you adjust and you move forward again. By standing still, you worry, get frustrated and declare defeat.
Lesson 3: Live a life of gratitude
From my introduction paragraph, you already learned that the safety standards in other countries such as Vietnam are not the same as what you may see here in the United States. That’s something that never occurred in my mind before. Living in the US, I take a lot for granted. It didn’t occur in my thoughts that I should be thankful for clean water, for sanitary condition in the hospital, for construction safety regulations, or many other things.
During my short experience with the manhole and the hospital stay, I gain experience that touch my heart and change my thinking. I see a little child in the ER with his arm broken for many days, but his mom didn’t bring him to the hospital because she couldn’t afford to take off from work; and as a result, it was too late to save his arm. I see how the bed sheets weren’t changed, cleaned or sanitized between patients. I see the lack of supplies, staffs and resources. I see different treatments between doctors and patients and the rich and the poor. I see how scared my husband and children were when I fell down the manhole.
All of this makes me grateful for the little things, from waking up this morning and seeing my children smile, to the ability to seek medical treatment in a facility with good sanitary condition, to the time spent writing this article with the background noise of my children laughing, playing, and arguing.
Look around you, and notice everything around you: the air, the smile, the sky, the sound of water running from a faucet, your breath…. Isn’t it a miracle to be alive? Isn’t it a miracle to have the ability and the potential to do a lot to give back to others who have less, and to contribute to the community with your talents and resources to build a better future? And, isn’t it a miracle to actually do it!
The unexpected life-threatening experience of falling down a sewage manhole has taught me three lessons: Life is full of the unexpected and can be fragile, so be fully engaged in the present moment and offer your best can help you live a life of no regret. Prioritize your life and your tasks so that you can do what’s most important; take steps to pursue your dreams or desires that you have put off (you either win or learn and win). Be grateful for being alive, for the little things, and convert your gratitudes to actions that contribute to those who are less fortunate and to our society.
I hope these lessons help you in your journey through life. We are but visitors on this planet Earth, and anything we can do to help each other, to help future generation, to build peace, joy, and happiness, let us not hesitate in doing it.
With loving heart,