Several weeks ago I read an article that spoke of a Australian nurse who collects the things people most often say as they reach the end of their lives. No. 1 on the list was, “I wish I had lived a life true to myself, not the life others expected.” I agree with that. It’s the secret to happiness.
The trouble is, how do you know in advance which life is right for you when there are no hard and fast rules? The only rule I know is one I learned the hard way: Go by your instincts; if it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it!
More than once I have seen people who were miserable doing what they were doing, but they just kept on doing it, day in and day out until a loving God relieved them of their burden — sometimes at a young age. I have mentioned this before, but it bears repeating: I knew a pair of twin brothers who were about 40 or so. One stayed at home to run the family bakery. The other left home, worked his way up to the top in the corporate world, and was told by his doctor to go home to his family because he was going to die of a stomach aliment. Once home, he worked in the old bakery to keep busy as he awaited the end. But he didn’t die; he got well. He was never a happy man, but he lived a long life.
I’ve also mentioned this before, but it makes the point so perfectly that it’s worth repeating. I worked my way up to assistant manager in a chain store. They were digging the foundation for my own store. I was just 23 years old and set for life. I re-enlisted in the Air Force even though I would go back in with one lousy stripe because I had stayed out for two years.
My instincts were right. I spent a happy 21 years in uniform.
And here’s the best part: In the main recruiting office they gave us a test. Based on the test results the recruiting officer called me in. A major, he smiled at me, told me I had done “extraordinarily well” on the test, showed me a paper to sign, held up a pair of gold second lieutenant bars and asked me, “Well, what’ll it be? One stripe or an ounce of gold?”
I was very polite, but he was not happy when I said I’d take the one stripe. Maybe they have quotas or something.
Why did I do it? Even at 23 I was beginning to know myself. I’m a natural born peasant. I like to work. I don’t work for money. Whatever the job may be, I try to do it as well as I can. I’m not saying that everyone should think that way; I’m just saying that it fits me. Staying an enlisted man was right for me. Also, I’m colorblind so I couldn’t fly a plane and I could not have spent 20 years flying a desk.
In 1973 when I retired from the Air Force I had learned that it feels good being part of something more important than yourself, something you can devote yourself to. I took degrees in chemistry, physics and biology with plans to teach science in public school. Current pay for a beginning teacher was $9,700 a year. Because my college grades were high I received an offer from an iron mining company of $47,000 to start, with yearly pay raises.
I took a teaching job and spent 22 happy years in the classroom.
Happy years. — What’s more important than being happy?
Once I almost made a bad mistake. I took my master’s degree in educational administration because I had taken so many chemistry courses there weren’t any interesting ones left for my master’s. Besides, my main interest is in education, so I wanted to learn as much about it as I could.
The school district needed someone to run a newly created Magnet Program that had a strong science basis. I didn’t apply. The assistant super for personnel, a good friend, called me and talked me into applying. You know what happened? I got sick. I had a lump in my throat, which I thought was cancer. I went to an ENT specialist who shoved a ladder down my throat, climbed down, rooted around down there for a while, came back up, and told me I had very tense neck muscles, which made me feel like I had a lump in my throat. He asked me if I was under any unusual stress.
What would you have done, Johnny?
I quietly sabotaged my chances during the interviews, stayed in the classroom, and smiled all the way to retirement.
As Dirty Harry says, “A man’s gotta know his limitations.”