That’s what my dad told us when we were kids.
It is not the cards you are dealt with, but it’s how you play the cards you have.
You see, my parents and their parents grew up in a time when there were a lot of fighting and changes of government in Vietnam. We were occupied by the France, then Japan, and after that, the US declared war with the North, dividing the country in half. All of that fighting created a lot of miseries for the people of Vietnam – many lives were lost, and wealth was either destroyed or changed hands. The cards that my parents and their parents were dealt with during that period were not good, and yet, not only they survived but made the most out of it.
My parents frequently told us kids not to get attached to the material wealth or the social statuses (they called it the external things outside of self), but focused on building our inner self. I remember their words:
Anything that is outside of you can be taken away any time, only what is inside you is yours; using what is inside you, you can create everything that is outside of you. So, enjoy your material things, enjoy your social status, but don’t get attached to it, and don’t lose heart when those are gone. If you focus on growing your inside, that means building your character, your attitudes, your knowledge, you can recreate everything that is outside of you. All that material wealth and social status can be regained if you have a solid wealth inside of you. Everything outside of you can be lost, only what inside you is yours and cannot be taken away.
Having lived through such turbulence time in Vietnam, experiencing deaths of their loved ones, seeing the materialistic wealth and personal social status either destroyed or changed hands (and changed hands again and again), their words carry great wisdom.
They did a good job of teaching this concept to me that I have used it throughout my life whenever I felt that I too was dealt with a bad hand or that it was an uncertain time.
When I first came to the United States, I could not speak English. The relative that was supposed to take care of me abused me and kicked me out. I had $300 in my pocket; it was all the money that my parents had borrowed from friends and relatives back in Vietnam. I had to make a choice then: either to go back to Vietnam (and that means forgoing the opportunity to study abroad and create a better future, forgoing the possibility of helping my family back home), or to stay here and do all I can to be successful (even when I didn’t know how).
There were so many times that I thought of quitting and of going back to Vietnam. There were many times I cried when I saw my friends in high school who had nice clothes, nice makeup, and nice cars, while I was wearing second-hand clothes, no makeup, and with just a bus pass that I had to work really hard to earn money for. There were so many times that I stood at the corner of school yard, watching my friends being picked up by their parents, and I cried wanting my family with me.
Those times, my parents’ words came back to me. I realized that everything that I was yearning for were outside of me. I had no control over the external things that happened around me. I didn’t know how to get the money for the nice clothes, makeup, cars, or how to get my parents to be with me. But, I knew how to grow my mind, my knowledge, and my attitude. As my mind, knowledge, attitude grow, all the external things will come. I put my head down and study, study, study. I studied 24 hours per day; I had a headset on even when I slept so I could listen to the English conversation; I hoped that while I slept, my subconscious mind would still be learning English. I decided to always look for the positive things even in the darkest situation. I decided to use loving speeches, and to smile even when things don’t look great. I learned that with inner strength, perseverance, and a consistent focus on learning and improving our internal mind, we will always overcome any storm of life and excel.
My parents’ teaching was useful to me then, and is useful to me today. As a professional working person, I have been through many organizational changes. At times, things could be uncertain- will I have my job tomorrow, will I be doing the same thing or be in a new role, will I …. ?
In these uncertain times, their words come back:
Thanh, it doesn’t matter what hands you are dealt with, it’s how you choose your attitude and react to the situations that count. At all time, focus on growing your internal self and focus on adding value to the present moment. You’ll be okay.
Their words not only give me courage and stability to deal with the changes that sometimes feel like out of hands, but they also motivate me to go where I haven’t been before, to volunteer for new assignments, to accept new responsibilities, and to embrace changes. I know that regardless of what situation I get into, I will succeed with the right attitude, character and knowledge.
And, the words of John F. Kennedy sounded in my head:
Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.
With loving heart,