Bible teacher and author Chuck Swindoll is credited with saying, “I am convinced that life is 10 percent what happens to me and 90 percent of how I react to it. And so it is with you. We are in charge of our attitudes.” When I was younger, I liked this quote, but I quibbled with the numbers. Surely, we are in control of our reactions and attitudes. And our circumstances don’t determine our lives completely. But just 10%?! What about those whose circumstances are overwhelmingly tragic?
I thought of some of my father’s experiences, and it seemed as though what happened to him in four short years should have had a greater impact on his life. During the four short years that my father was in high school (1945-1948), his family experienced at least three tragedies. Dad grew up on a farm. His dad was a dairy farmer, as was his grandfather. Dad grew up expecting that he would, along with his father and brothers, spend the rest of his life as a farmer. But then, everything changed. First, Dad’s oldest brother was drafted into the Army at the very end of World War 2. Though my uncle was not in combat, he was badly wounded in Germany, as his unit was sent in to find unexploded bombs and land mines, and ordered to clear out rubble. Dad had lost one cousin in the war, and several others had come home wounded or changed, but this was post-war, and unexpected. It meant more work for my grandfather and the two younger sons, even as they were still in school. It meant uncertainty, as they waited for word from thousands of miles away over several months.
Uncle Jack recovered and returned to the farm. But then, on Christmas Eve, there was a house fire. While the family escaped without major injuries, the house was a total loss. Furniture, clothes, pictures, heirlooms, farm records and financial papers– all gone. Dad moved in with his aunt and uncle to continue his education. But two weeks before graduation, his father died suddenly from complications from emergency gall bladder surgery. My father’s world had been turned upside-down in just a few short years and at a critical juncture in his life.
However, as I’ve matured and thought about it over the years, those events, among other tragedies and triumphs in Dad’s life, really DID only amount to a small percentage of his life. Even numerically/chronologically, those four years were less than ten percent of Dad’s time on earth. Dad couldn’t control the events of those years. He couldn’t have predicted them, and he couldn’t erase them or go back and undo them. But he chose how to respond and react to those events. He learned from them.
Circumstances in our lives, whether tragic or terrific, present us with choices. Will we turn to God, or away from Him? Will we become better, or bitter? Will we seek to assign blame, or seek solutions? My dad and his brothers were not able to continue the dairy farm their father had built up. Without the records and registration papers for the various cows, without their father’s experience and acumen, without money to upgrade their facilities and equipment, they had to sell most of what their father had built up. Uncle Jack kept the farm land, but he took a second job. Dad was drafted and sent to Korea for his own post-war odyssey, and came home to work at the local feed mill, and later in a factory job. He passed away several years ago, partly as a result of complications from gall bladder surgeries.
My dad’s life was impacted and shaped in part by tragic circumstances. But Pastor Swindoll is right– at least 90 percent of my dad’s LIFE was shaped by his attitude and character. My father was a man of faith and integrity. He cherished his family and his role as a father– partly because of the loss of his own dad; but also because of the lasting legacy his father had passed on. He spoke often of his wonderful memories growing up on the farm. He lost out on his dream of being a farmer. But he also made wonderful memories with the life he chose to pursue off the farm– picnics and vacations, family reunions, family devotions, watching baseball (live or on TV), sharing laughter and tears, and making sure we knew we were loved and protected. He ministered to people in the community, mowing lawns for widows, or visiting shut-ins. He taught us to love music, baseball, and animals. He taught us the value of prayer, reading the Bible, and living a life of faith. Dad could have been bitter. He could have chosen to wallow in self-pity or anger. He could have become obsessed with rebuilding the life he “lost” to circumstances. He could have decided that God had “robbed” him of the future he had expected to have. But he chose to believe that God had a plan for his life; one that was bigger than his boyhood dreams and bigger than his expectations. Dad didn’t rise to great wealth and power. In the world’s view, his life was not a great success. He never became rich or famous; he wasn’t powerful or important in politics or business. But the memories he treasured and the relationships he developed were far more than 10% of his life!
As I get older, and look back on the circumstances of my own past, I am encouraged and challenged to think that they represent only a small fraction of my life. I can’t control many of my circumstances– health setbacks, financial struggles, accidents and tragedies. But I can control my attitude and my response. I wanted to marry young and have children and raise a family. But that never happened. I married late, I was barren, and my step-children were already grown. I wanted to live in a big farmhouse; instead I live in a small apartment. But I would not go back and undo the circumstances that have shaped my life. I have marvelous step-children and grandchildren. I have had opportunities that were only possible because I was single for so long and because I was childless. I have a better appreciation for the family I have– including nieces and nephews and cousins– than I might have had if I had been wrapped up in my own smaller family. Dad taught me to trust God’s plans for my tomorrows. That’s what he did. And I choose to do the same– after all, God controls 100% of my future!