A few days ago, I spoke with the CEO of a medium-sized company who shared with me a [confidential] story about a group of unethical people who he felt were trying to ruin him and his company. He was distraught, and he asked for my advice.
The first thought that came to mind was a story from my childhood. It felt awkward sharing it with a person dealing with very adult matters. But afterward he let me know it was exactly the story he needed to hear, and he suggested I share it with others. So…
When I was thirteen years old, I often picked up my younger sister, Becky, from preschool. One day, I arrived to see her eyes full of tears. I asked what was wrong. She was so emotional that all she could do was puff out her lips.
I found a teacher, and asked what happened. The teacher explained that a boy had been picking on Becky. The teachers separated the boy, but instead of harassing my sister directly, he spread a false rumor that she’d pooped in her pants.
I felt my own heart race, as the teacher continued explaining that Becky’s friends then refused to touch and play with her because they said she was “dirty”. I tightened my fist and asked if the boy was still around. Fortunately, he wasn’t.
I took my sister’s hand and invited her to ice cream. As we walked to the ice cream parlour, I fumed inside… but chose to share funny knock-knock jokes so Becky’s tears could dry. I wanted her to know her brother would always be there for her.
When we got to the ice cream shop, I told Becky to order whatever she wanted. She asked for a banana split. As she sat and began to eat, I relaxed…. because I saw my sister feeling better; I saw her smile even.
Eventually, I asked what had bothered her most. Even though she was just four years old, I knew my sister to be stronger than most adults. She didn’t often cry, and she usually wasn’t so concerned about what others thought.
“I didn’t poop in my pants,” she explained. “But one stupid boy lied… and everyone believed him. Or if they didn’t believe him, they also didn’t believe me. Now I have no friends.”
Again, tears formed in her eyes. It was heartbreaking. I could feel Becky’s pain. I felt I knew that pain in my life too. So I decided it was time to teach one preschool boy a lesson he’d never forget. “Here’s what I say we should do to him…” I began.
“If you instead feel good and help others feel good, you win. It’s always a choice.”
But in that moment, an old woman interrupted me, pulling up a chair next to us. She had brown eyes and many wrinkles. She looked at my sister and spoke:
“I couldn’t help but overhear your story,” she said, with sympathy in her voice. “Do you mind if I share some advice?”
My sister looked up at the woman and nodded. The woman brushed a piece of hair out of Becky’s eyes, and said:
“That boy wants to make you feel bad. If you feel bad, he wins. If you instead feel good and help others feel good, you win. It’s always a choice. And there’s always a winner.”
The old woman smiled, gave my sister a hug, stood slowly, and then left. Becky looked at me. Her face opened up with a huge smile. She said, “Thank you for the ice cream. I feel good now. And I win.”
That old woman’s wisdom has stayed with me a long time: Regardless of where we are in our lives, there are people who want to take us down. Sometimes they are competitors, sometimes current or former colleagues, sometimes that kid in preschool…
But just as “evil” business people and “evil” preschoolers will always exist… so will we always get to choose how we react to them. Do we let them win by making their pain our own? Or do we choose to win by transforming that pain into learning, growth, and strength?
It’s never easy to make wise choices. But when we choose to win and transform pain into learning, growth, and strength… we aren’t just improving our lives, we’re improving the lives of people we care about, and people we wish to teach.
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