I was recently in the hospital for a simple procedure that turned out not so simple…in fact, it was life-threatening. I had a virulent infection moving in the direction of my heart. The fix required heavy-duty antibiotics and a gruesome five-inch surgical gash in my chest, a wound that had to be kept open as it healed in order to prevent further infection.
About the third day in the hospital, a male nurse was pulling a yard of yucky gauze out of my wound and stuffing clean new gauze in (not as horrific as it sounds). He was a tiny Asian man at the edge of old age. His name was Shen, I think. Nice guy. Also a wise guy—wisdom, not sarcasm. We talked as he worked on me. Here’s what I remember of the conversation:
Shen: “Is this hurting?”
Me: “No. Thank you for being careful.”
Shen: He paused…thoughtful…penetrating old eyes peering at me over half-lens glasses.
Me: I squinted back at him, curious…“What?”
Shen: “You have strong eyes.”
Me: My turn to pause. “That’s an odd thing to say. What do you mean?”
Shen: “You are happy. You are strong. I see it in your eyes.”
Me: I was taken aback, and even more curious…“What makes you think so?”
Shen: “The man in the next room, he is sad. His condition is not as bad as yours, but he is sorry for himself. Sad eyes. You have a bigger problem, but you are okay. I see it in your eyes. You are happy.”
Me: “You’re right, I am happy, but it’s not strength. Things happen. You deal with them. You move on. It’s not strength, it’s just life.”
Shen: “Not for him.”
I thought a lot about Shen and what he said. I wanted to believe him. I wanted to think of myself as strong. But it’s not really strength. It’s attitude. Or maybe it’s both, but the attitude comes first.
I think I have a good attitude. I really do. It keeps me motivated and carries me through a lot of challenges. It keeps my self-respect intact, even when I’ve done something stupid or failed at a worthwhile endeavor. It keeps me looking ahead to good things in life, while always aware that bad things can happen (notice that I’m writing these words from a hospital room with a big surgical gash in my chest).
I can’t claim any credit for this attitude. I think it was built into me by my Mom and Dad.
You would probably think of my Dad as a loser. He was a heavy drinker…high school dropout…occasional street fighter…your classic bad boy. He tried one career after another, never quite getting it right. In the Army, he would rapidly rise to the rank of Master Sergeant (he was a natural leader), but then his bad boy would take over and he would do something stupid and get demoted. That happened more than once.
But here’s the thing. Dad never quit. He never felt sorry for himself. He would always, as the old song used to say, “…pick myself up, dust myself off, and start all over again.” Dad didn’t win very much, but he had the attitude of a winner. He was always ready to start all over again. You could see it in his eyes…strong eyes.
In Dad’s last year (he died in 1980 of lung cancer) he and my mother were operating a crude gold mine in the Arizona desert. Just the two of them. The mine yielded only a single gold nugget, which Dad fashioned into a necklace for Mom. Shortly before she died at age eighty-five, Mom told me that the necklace was her most prized possession, and that her last year with Dad, in the desert, living in a battered old RV, was the best year of her life.
Attitude is everything, isn’t it?
I’m no stronger than anyone else.. Surgery scares me and I hate it, but surgery scares everyone. A lot of things scare us, but when they’re necessary, we just do them. The difference is that some of us do them with an expectation of good things to come, while others get mired in despair or self-pity. You see it in their eyes.
Think of the people you know. Think about their eyes.
Shen was right, wasn’t he? Somehow, eyes really are the windows to the soul.
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