Motivation / Overcoming Adversity
There’s a Hole in Your Heart
So once upon a time, I was a young man. Stayed up later than I should, hung out with buddies, went to school, did some homework. I did well and ended up going to the United States Military Academy at West Point. Man, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It seemed like everyone there was dead-set on making me quit, seeing me fail. That wasn’t true, but it felt like that.
I remember the first time I was allowed to call home. I’d been there a couple of weeks and was miserable. I was ready to quit. I wanted to call my parents so badly but I dreaded telling them I wanted to quit.
Before I went, my Dad was so proud of me. He’d been drafted and served two years in the Army, but his boy, his boy was going to be an officer! Yes sir! Did I mention he was going to West Point? Everyone he spoke to in my little wide-spot in the road, Summersville, West Virginia knew Jim McMillion’s boy was going to West Point. I was the first and only kid to come out of Nicholas County High School to go to the Academy.
So there I was, 18 years old, in a telephone booth. Those are these little two-square-foot booths you went into to make a phone call. It had a phone that was connected to the wall by wires. I know, crazy dinosaur stuff, right?
But there I was. 18 years old, been a stud in high school, big tough guy, right? And I called Mom and Dad. They had phones in the house that had wires too and each one picked up an extension so I could talk to both of them at the same time.
I was in tears after about 30 seconds. I told them I didn’t like it there, everyone was mean to me, yada, yada, yada. The phone line went silent. I was expecting my Mom to speak up because that’s what Moms do, right? When you were little and scuffed your knee, Mama kissed it and made it better. Dad told you to get up and walk it off. Rub some dirt on it and for God’s sake son, quit crying.
They already knew I was unhappy from the letters I’d written. That’s another thing we did last century. We’d take pens and write words on paper, fold them up, and put them in an envelope, lick a stamp because they hadn’t figured out how to make sticky ones yet, drop it in a box and days later, the other person would get it, open it, and read it.
So they knew I was unhappy but they didn’t know how unhappy I was. They knew now! Like I said, I was expecting Mom to be the first one to speak. I had no idea how Dad was going to take it but I knew he was going to be deeply, HUGELY disappointed in his boy.
But it wasn’t Mom that spoke first. Dad broke the silence. He died a couple of years ago, but I can hear his voice in my head and remember the words vividly. “That’s okay. We’ll come get you.”
Man. I had this huge aching hole in my chest because I was so unhappy. And when he said that it was like magic. He believed in me and he loved me and that was more important than anything else. He communicated that to me with those simple words in a way that no one else could have.
We were able to talk a couple more minutes and I have no idea what was said. What I do remember is that before we hung up, my resolve to stick it out, to keep my eyes on the prize, was back.
His response to a horrible, negative situation with a positive made all the difference in the world. That’s a lesson I learned and have carried with me ever since.
One of my best friends at the Academy was from California and found himself in a similar emotional state about the same time. His father had died when he was quite young and years later, his mother remarried.
We hadn’t met yet and were in different units. Later, we were combat buddies during the “best summer of our lives” as West Point called your second summer at West Point. We bunked together, roadmarched together, ate together, and were joined at the hip. That created a strong friendship which has lasted over 30 years.
When it came time for his first phone call home, he described the experience for me. Like me, he was upset, frustrated, and ready to quit. He called home and his mother and stepfather got on the phone. When he told them he wanted to quit, his stepfather responded, “Where’re you going to go, cause you’re not coming here?”
He and I both graduated and spent a few years in the Army. He left a little sooner than I did, but has done well in the corporate world.
What fascinates me is a similar outcome (we both graduated) from a situation with vastly different factors. My misery and frustration were met with warm, unconditional love. That love filled the aching void I felt in my chest. It gave me strength to move forward on the path I’d chosen, to continue my mission.
My friend’s response from home was the polar opposite. Somehow it renewed and hardened his commitment to finish West Point. Which he did.
I’ve thought about this for three decades trying to understand it. When I taught psychology to cadets, I often used the story to illustrate the power of unconditional love (one of the concepts we taught), but couldn’t explain why the opposite reaction still generated the same outcome.
Part of me has always wanted to simply say my friend was a lot tougher than I was, and that may be true, but I don’t think that’s the answer.
I told my part of the story to a high school baseball team as part of a season kickoff dinner. I’m not really sure if a baseball team can have a kickoff dinner but that’s what we called it. Anyway, that got me to thinking about the situation more deeply.
People run into bad situations all the time. Some people get through them really well, some just get through them, and some people don’t. My parents provided me awesome social support which bolstered my courage. Their support was a critical component of firing my motivation to succeed.
That’s one way people find the strength to move forward. They draw on those social bonds to build the motivation to keep moving. For me, knowing my parents were going to love me and support me no matter what, gave me strength.
My friend showed another way people find the will the move ahead. They transform their reality. I know that sounds grandiose. These people take what life gives them and shape it into something that feeds the fire inside. For my friend, he took that piece of black coal and put it in the oven. He used it to fuel his way to becoming a graduate with honors at a pretty tough school.
This is what successful people do. They take that tough situation and they find a way to look at it such that it gives them fire. Other people look at a similar situation and instead of finding coal to burn, they just find rocks to weight them down. Turn your rocks into coal and fan the flames!