by Daniel D. Maurer
The other morning I awoke to an old memory. It was from May, 1992.
At the time, I was studying for my undergraduate degree at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. A course I was taking—International Business, if memory serves—required that I undergo a practicum month with a business that had connections abroad. Since my father's business Empi, Inc not only had business dealings with customers in Germany, I was also fluent in German. It seemed like it was a good fit.
What was even better is that my dad had planned to go to Germany and Italy during that month anyway to meet with some of the physicians that sold his products. (Note: That's one of my few claims to fame I have—my dad is the inventor of the portable TENS unit from his days working at Medtronic, a biomedical firm based out of the Twin Cities. The company he founded in the 80s (EMPI) produced electrical medical products based off the TENS technology. Also!!!! I just discovered that the Wikipedia link above actually has my dad's name as a reference!)
I decided that, despite any perception of nepotism or favoritism, I would accompany my dad on his business trip to Europe. To my surprise, the professor in charge of the course thought it wouldn't be so bad either. He approved the trip and I'd receive credit . . . but only if I had another supervisor other than my father.
Luckily, an EMPI salesman named John Shipley was also planning to go with my dad, and he said he'd be happy to play the role I needed. He told me that he'd be hard on me, too, because he didn't want to show favoritism.
Undeterred, I bought a plane ticket to Frankfurt. My dad had already travelled there with John Shipley and they were together in Munich. (My dad recalls going to a cheesy beer hall at the time.) It was my understanding that I was to meet him the following day in Freiburg, in the southwest corner of Germany.
However . . .
My dad thought I was supposed to meet him in Munich that day, where we would then depart the next day together to Freiburg.
My memory is fuzzy as to what transpired, but I know that I got to Freiburg that same day and I was excited to meet up with some German friends I had gotten to know when I lived in Germany from early 1988 to late summer 1989. (I was an exchange student during that time.)
Of course, this happened all pre-cell phone and pre-Internet.
Since I didn't think there was any problem, I never tried to contact my dad at the hotel he was staying at. I just went out with my friends and drank beer. I had a good time!
My dad, on the other hand, was going out of his mind.
Now, that I've become a father, I know how not knowing where your kids are and if they are safe is one of the most terrifying and uncomfortable feelings a parent can have.
I interviewed my dad recently about the experience. I asked him what he was thinking, what he felt at the time.
"I was going out of my mind," he said. "I didn't know where you were, and I thought I had been clear that we were supposed to meet in Munich that day. I thought you might be dead, or worse. It's every father's nightmare."
I said, "And I thought we were supposed to meet in Freiburg the next day. I didn't know you were freaking out! What did you do? What were you thinking?"
"Well . . . I couldn't speak German. And I felt a little out of my league in Europe anyway. I thought maybe I had to call Herr Glitsch . . . " (my former German Guest Father) "I thought maybe I'd call Mom and ask you where we were supposed to meet . . . and when. But, I didn't sleep so well that night!"
Today, both my dad and I enjoyed remembering that trip. Of course, it all worked out the next day. I ended up somehow getting connected with him on the phone. He told me how pissed he was! I don't think I realize how stressful it must have been for him.
After I told him I was writing this piece, I asked him how that experience could be a "gift." I don't think he thought of as that at the time . . .
"Well . . . I guess it's a gift, because I didn't want to put myself in that position again! And . . . maybe you learned that you gotta call your dad and tell him you're okay once in a while."
That wasn't exactly the answer I was looking for. I guess I felt that he'd give me some deep piece of wisdom about learning something about himself.
"No. Not then. I suppose looking back on it, I learned how important you were to me. And maybe you learned the same about me," he said.
Maybe that's the wisdom I can get out of that story, that we're important to each other. So often, we take the relationships we have with family for granted. If those relationships are dysfunctional (which in my case, they probably were at several points in my past), we fail to see that the people who should matter to us, really do care about us. It's just that way they show it distorts that care. And the way we receive their love is distorted, too, by the way we want everything to be.
In the moment, none of us ever thinks that problems are gifts we can learn from. In retrospect, with wisdom, we see that problems build resilience and give perspective to our lives.
Of course, I wouldn't want anyone to read my words as a blessing for the problems that YOU have in your life.
Only you can decide that for yourself. No other person can—or should—determine whether or not your difficulties are something that you can "grow" or "learn" from. No . . . to say so is just being a jerk.
But, with my own life, I want to push the edges in my recovery to see how I can benefit from my problems—Lord knows that I don't react in the most positive ways when I'm going through stress!
It's just that, the older I grow, the more I see that when obstacles fall in my path, I can either choose to freak out (which is my knee-jerk, natural reaction to most everything, even minor annoyances, I'm afraid to admit), or I can choose to remove myself from the problem and see that my story isn't yet finished. I can learn to become resilient to pain and, instead weave empathy and love into my response to that problem.
Mark Twain wrote that courage is, "resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not the absence of fear." I think that works with problems too: problems aren't easy, and going through the shit is never fun, but that doesn't mean that they cannot become gifts later on, that I cannot learn and grow from the mistakes I've made.
Just a problem . . .
One last quick story for you.
When I was an ELCA pastor and serving a congregation in rural North Dakota, my parents came to visit my wife, my family, and me at our home. The occasion was for a centennial celebration for one of the churches out in the country I was serving. It was in the summer of 2006. I remember it was blazing hot that summer too.
Good friends of my parents came with them to visit us for the event. Tom and Linda Nyman had known my folks for about fifteen years at that time. They had just purchased an RV, a big, fancy camper. I remember hearing about how excited they were to take it on a cross-country road trip. They planned to travel west after the event, and had a detailed schedule of stops where they wanted to enjoy their new RV.
I never got to see the camper though.
Just when the Nymans turned off the final exit off State Highway 83 to enter our dinky town, another vehicle collided with them. The other car T-boned the camper and completely destroyed it. As far as I remember no one was injured (miraculously), but both vehicles were totaled. It was a complete loss for Tom and Linda and their plans changed dramatically.
One statement I'll never forget Tom saying after all the shit went down: "It's just a problem."
It's just a problem.
Problems, no matter how great they are, do not determine our identity or change the real relationships we have with people we love or our connection to our Higher Power.
I heard recently at a social workers' conference in South Dakota another bit of wisdom: The person is not the problem. The problem is the problem.
Both Tom's response and what I have learned through my own difficult climb into a life of recovery is that the problems we have can be great teachers of courage, resilience, hope, faith, and love.
I sure don't seek them out, but boy . . . I need to hear this message more often for myself so I can continue to grow.
What about you? Do you have an example how a problem was a gift for you?
Note: For another take on this subject, see this previous link here.
About the Author
Daniel D. Maurer is the grand wazoo keeper-of-this-blog. He's got a couple of books out already. Here's one. Here's another. He's writing two more this year, and will soon be writing on a couple of new freelance projects. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota with his family and is owned by one dog and two cats. Did I mention he writes? A lot?
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