Telling stories is an integral part of the human experience. We go through life viewing the world through our personal lens, making observations about situations and the people we encounter along the way. Oftentimes, when we don’t see the entire picture, we create inaccurate details in our heads that could potentially give way to negative consequences.
My good friends recently told me a story that illustrates what happens when we judge others without knowing all the facts, and how our perception might change for the better when we are given all the facts.
This is their story:
A man paid his tab at an airport bar and then stumbled and slurred his words as he made his way toward the gate to board a plane. Witnessing his drunk behavior, the other passengers in line snubbed him, and the ticket agent furrowed her eyebrows in disgust when he handed his ticket to her. Shaking her head, she informed him that he would not be allowed to board the plane because he was inebriated. When my friends, who were traveling on the same flight, heard the ticket agent ban the man from getting on the plane, they ran up to the airline employee and told her that it was imperative that he get on his flight and promised to watch over him while on route to Aspen. Why did my friends decide to defend the drunk man? The answer is simple: they had heard his backstory.
While their flight was delayed, the man had grabbed a seat next to my friends at a bar across from their gate. Sipping their wine, my friends chatted with the stranger as he drank a beer and a half. During their conversation, the man told them about a near-fatal rock climbing accident that left him in a coma for weeks. Still recovering from his debilitating injuries, which included massive head trauma, he had difficulty walking and talking––but his condition wasn’t going to stop him from getting on a plane to Aspen to attend the funeral of a good friend, who, at the young age of twenty-eight, had passed away from a sudden stroke. With achy hearts, my friends told the man how sorry they were for his loss and how honorable it was that he was attending the funeral in his condition. Soon after, when the announcement was made that their flight was boarding, my friends walked behind the hobbling man toward the gate to witness the ticket agent berating him. Thanks to the kindness of strangers, the man was permitted to board the plane, with a warning to my friends that they had to be responsible for him. The flight to Aspen was smooth, and the man made it in time for the funeral.
If my friends had not been sitting next to the man at the bar, they never would have heard his story, and they certainly wouldn’t have offered to look after him on the plane. Like the ticket agent, they too might have assumed he was drunk and wouldn’t have wanted him on the flight either. Imagine how different our world would be if we all knew each other’s backstories? Would we be so quick to judge the homeless man on the street or the weary single mother who forgot to take our order at a restaurant or the angry bank teller whose wife was just diagnosed with a terminal illness or the school bully whose parents verbally abuse him at home?
I’m not making excuses for those who treat others poorly. I’m just suggesting that we walk through life with our eyes wide open, using caution before passing judgement and trying to be open-minded about other people’s circumstances so we have a better understanding of why people behave the way they do. By doing this, we might encounter a life filled with more compassionate connections––like the ones my friends made with the man heading to Aspen.
Are some people born luckier than others? Is life a series of chance encounters, or do we have more control over our circumstances than we think? And if so, can we turn our luck around? Recently, I had to ponder these questions after having an experience that most people would probably consider unlucky, but as I reflected on what happened, I also had an opportunity to change how I viewed something that, although somewhat trivial, felt unfortunate in the moment.
The other day, I had to drive my son to lacrosse practice in Denver. With a spring snowstorm blanketing the mountains, it wasn’t an ideal day to drive, so we gave ourselves plenty of time. I drive an electric car, which means I need to stop for about an hour outside of Denver at a charging station by an outlet mall in a small ski town. Despite the bad weather, we were making great time. We got back on the road after charging the car and found the highway closed due to a multi-car crash. We were rerouted along a one-lane, windy, narrow pass and got stuck behind a truck driving ten miles per hour. It was frustrating to say the least, but since there was nothing we could do to help our cause, we chose to look at the bright side. Although it took us double the time to get to Denver, we were safe, and thankfully, we were far from the accident. We later found out that my son’s friend, who was also driving to Denver, left after us, and therefore missed the detour. Was he luckier than us? At first glance, it might appear that way. Or, were we lucky that, even though it took us a long time to get to Denver, we weren’t involved in the crash? The jury is still out on that one.
The following day, we were faced with another major obstacle driving back to Aspen. As usual, we stopped along the way to charge the car, and then we drove through a whiteout in Vail. With only an hour and twenty minutes left in the drive, the last stretch of highway that veers through a canyon had closed. The traffic officer standing in front of the barricade told us that debris had fallen on the road and it could be closed for two days. When I asked him how to get back to Aspen, he told us, with a sucks-for-you grin splashed across his face, there was only one other way to get there, but it would take an extra six hours. To make matters worse, my car would never make it without another charge. My son wanted to cry; I wanted to cry. But what choice did we have? Crying wasn’t going to get us home, so we sucked it up, laughed about our ridiculous luck, and drove all the way back to the charging station to try and come up with a better solution.
To alleviate some of our pain, we stuffed our faces with Chipotle and candy from a nearby 7-11 store. Pigging out didn’t solve our problem, but at least we were able to kill an hour while the car was charging. We looked up an alternative route on Google maps, which seemed much faster than the one the traffic officer had told us about, and we decided to check with the man working in the information booth before getting back on the road. It was a good thing we spoke to him because he informed us that the pass Google maps suggested was closed for the winter, so our only option was the long way––the six-hour route. We were not feeling lucky at that moment, but right before we walked out of the tourist office, another man stepped inside who was also trying to get to Aspen. The traffic app that he was looking at stated that one lane had opened on the highway where the debris had fallen. He said there would probably be a lot of traffic, but it would be much better than driving the roundabout route on backroads, passing herds of cattle. So, we took our chances once again, and this time, luck was on our side. We flew home on the traffic-free highway.
Was our journey back to Aspen another case of bad luck? Well, it definitely seemed that way initially, but instead of getting angry, we chose to deal with it as best we could. I had a lot of time on the drive home to contemplate what had happened to us, and in the big picture––a detour, traffic, extra time on the road—isn’t bad at all. So much worse could have happened. We could have been hit by the boulder that had fallen on the road. We could have been hit by another car. We could have slipped off the icy road and landed in a ditch. Had we been driving in a gas car, we wouldn’t have driven back to the charging station, and most likely, we would have taken the long way home. But none of those bad things happened. Why? Because we were lucky. The man who came into the tourist booth a minute before we left to tell us one lane on the highway had opened also added to our luck.
The lesson in all of this is learning how to handle the shit that comes flying in your direction, especially when it makes you feel unlucky. Maybe luck stems from your attitude and the choices you make about a seemingly bad situation. The next time something unfavorable happens, it’s up to us to decide how we want to deal with it. We can either be the victim of our circumstances, or we can dig deep and become enlightened by them. We can laugh, or we can cry. We can be angry, or we can rise above and focus on what we’re grateful for. And I know, unequivocally, that I have a lot to be thankful for––because I am one of the lucky ones, and if anything, believing that is enough to make me feel better regardless of what happens.
Naturally, as my daughter is finishing her junior year in high school, college talk has been dominating much of the conversation in our house, which of course, brings me back to my own college experience, nearly one quarter of a century ago. I know I sound ancient, and even though my memory of much of it has been skewed over time, I still consider those four years to be one of my biggest metamorphoses.
As I reflect on my college days, there are certain things I wish I could do over, if only I had a crystal ball and knew where my life would take me. I remember having to choose a major, even though I had no idea what I wanted to do after graduation. Having been interested in politics, I chose political science, an area of study that did nothing for me as far as pursuing a career. At seventeen, my daughter is expected to get a sense of what she wants to focus on when she gets to college, but does she really know? The idea is to pick a good liberal arts school, and from there, she can figure out what she wants to major in. But again, will she ever really know? I didn’t. Like me, so many people who thought they knew what they wanted in college ended up in jobs totally unrelated to their majors. If you’re one of the lucky ones who knew exactly what you wanted to study and have used what you learned from your undergraduate degree to help your career, then kudos to you––I’m jealous.
I think Israel does this college thing right. Following high school graduation, there is a mandatory draft into the military for eighteen-year-olds. After serving their country for a few years, these young men and women sometimes wait another year or two before applying to college. By then, their brains are fully developed, and they might be better equipped at choosing a course of study that will serve them well in their future careers. What if, instead of sending American students into the armed forces after high school, they head to a community service program similar to the Peace Corps, where they are assigned a station somewhere in the United States or abroad to help communities in need? This type of learning would be invaluable, giving young adults an opportunity to gain firsthand knowledge about human nature, cultural differences, education, the environment, agriculture, and so much more. Upon completing their two- to four-year assignments, these twenty-year-olds might have a better sense of themselves and what kind of career they might want to pursue. From there, they can apply to college, which would hopefully serve as a stepping stone to what they want to do after earning their degree. Instead of rushing to college after high school, with all the mental and financial stress that goes with it before and after, my radical proposal would give students an opportunity to grow as people, connect with the world around them, become more compassionate along the way, and then use that to propel them into their next phase of life.
I know I sound idealistic, and some may think even ridiculously unrealistic, but as I reflect on what I gained most from college, it had more to do with the person I became rather than the subjects I studied. I spent those four years as an undergraduate questioning life, who I was, my greater purpose, what I liked, and who I wanted to be. Even though contemplating the meaning of life was never answered, it was the act of questioning, experimenting, occasionally pushing the limits, and the philosophical discussions I had with my friends that led me to a better understanding of myself. At twenty-one, I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science, but more importantly, I left school sure of myself and more comfortable in my skin than I was when I started.
To this day, two of my college roommates are like sisters to me. Together, we grew up during those four years, and like clay, we softly molded into our future selves, while leaving plenty of room to manipulate our sculpted persona through the years. I am blessed––not everyone remains this close to their college friends so many years later. Unfortunately, since we live in different parts of the country, we don’t get to see each other as often as we’d like, but thankfully, distance has not impacted our friendship. We’ve stood by each other through every major milestone––marriages, childbirths, and family deaths, offering advice during difficult times and cheering for our children’s successes––and we’ll continue to remain in those same roles until the end.
So, wherever my daughter ends up in college, and whatever she decides to study, whether, or not it helps her in her chosen career is irrelevant. In the grand scheme of things, those friendships that I made in college laid the foundation for all my future relationships, teaching me the importance of rooting for the people you care about, always having their backs, accepting and embracing their differences, loving them for who they are, and allowing their individuality to complement who they are. If there’s one thing I would like to be remembered for when my time on Earth has expired, it will have nothing to do with what I studied in college or the careers I’ve had, but rather, it will be that I led an abundant life, filled with long-lasting, beautiful, and loving connections.
I recently came back from touring colleges with my daughter. In two months, she’ll be finishing her junior year in high school, and then she’ll have one more year left before heading off to college. Meanwhile, my son is going to high school next year, and I know those four years are going to accelerate faster than I’d like them to. Each moment in time reminds me of an ice cube, and the more I try to savor and hold on, the quicker it melts.
As my children get ready for the next stages in their lives, I’ve begun to think about mine. For the last seventeen years, I have devoted myself to my family—the anchor, the sounding board, the glue—I’ve held our unit together with love and support. Change is inevitable. And this one is going to be a big one for me as I approach empty-nesthood. The closer I get, the more I’ve been thinking about my own purpose and who I came here to be. I have served many roles throughout my forty-six years of life: student, daughter, sister, friend, wife, mother, teacher, author, etc. And each role has collectively shaped who I am and helped me realize life’s true meaning. It’s about relationships and connections, like imaginary yarn weaving humanity together; without it, the fabric of my world would fall apart.
When my family and I first decided to move from New Jersey to Aspen nine years ago, I didn’t realize how difficult it would be to say goodbye to my friends, who were like sisters to me, and start over in a community where I didn’t know a soul. Admittedly, I was depressed for the first few months, questioning my decision to uproot my family and relocate across the country. Eventually, I did make new friends through my kids’ school and through friends of friends. For example, a series of odd coincidences led me to a woman named Heather, who moved to Aspen a year after me and is now one of my closest friends. Prior to her move, Heather’s mother and my mother-in-law met in Florida and passed along each other’s contact information. Then, our sisters-in-law, both of whom live in Los Angeles and are good friends, also put us in touch. My best friend in Ohio knew Heather’s other sister-in-law, and they, too, connected us. It wasn’t until Heather and I met for the first time that we realized how strange it was that we knew so many people in common, all of whom, separately, introduced us. Three sets of women in three different states went out of their way to bring Heather and me together.
Close to a decade later, part of the reason why I’m so happy in Aspen is because I have these wonderful relationships. The other day, another good friend decided that she and her family are going to move to Puerto Rico. After swallowing the sad news that she would be leaving, I called an old friend who had moved there a few years ago and introduced them. Hopefully, their friendship will blossom, and my Aspen friend will have an easier time meeting new people when she gets settled.
Networking goes hand in hand with connections. Along with helping me make friends, it is also one of the most valuable tools for business relationships. A while ago, I sat next to a woman on an airplane. She and I talked nonstop for the entire three-and-half hour flight. When the plane landed, we said goodbye and exchanged numbers. For the past few weeks, my daughter has been actively seeking an internship in NYC this summer. To help her find one, I reached out to some of my friends and asked them to pass along her resume. Suddenly it dawned on me that the woman I had met on the airplane worked in marketing and fashion, so I sent her a message to see if she or someone she knows could help my daughter. She graciously offered to hire her—proving the extraordinary power of networking.
I’m still not sure where I’ll be or what I’ll be doing when my kids are out of the house. But what I do know is the importance and value of meeting new people, forming bonds, and socializing. Relationships are everything and will carry us through life. Sometimes they will be difficult and may not be mutually beneficial, but hopefully, the good ones will guide us to the next opportunity, to a beautiful friendship, or open the door to a new experience. So, as I turn the page to another chapter of life, I will keep my arms wide open and welcome the amazing people I meet along the way, because, after all, I am who I am in relation to the vast network of human connection surrounding my world.
Want to know what Aspen locals like to brag about? It’s the common denominator that sets us apart from the visitors, and to some extent the part-time residents. It’s our favorite response when a tourist asks where we live. We simply state, “We live here,” with a sense of pride bubbling from our chests.
The reactions are often priceless. “You live here? Like all year long?” they ask, wide-eyed.
“Yep, we sure do. Our kids go to school here.”
In lieu of sounding too obnoxious or boastful, we try to keep the next line to ourselves: That’s right, my friend, your vacation is our life!
Don’t get me wrong. Our lives are far from perfect. We stress about the usual stuff: money, relationships, health, work, our kids, etc. But the best remedy to clear our clogged minds and help us reset to our natural state of peace is to get outside, preferably with some local friends, and let the mountains heal us. It’s the greatest medicine of all time, and it’s in our backyards.
Similar to the popular children’s book, The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, the majestic landscape that surrounds us gifts us with an endless source of entertainment and pleasure. And our mountains want us to be happy, encouraging us to climb up and down them, enjoy their beauty, take photos, gaze meditatively, and just be—in the moment. Since life is about give and take, in return we need to treat our land with respect and reverence by doing our share to protect our environment: lowering our carbon footprint, recycling, buying local food, remembering to bring our reusable bags to the market, saving our electricity, and so much more.
Sometimes life makes us feel like we’re spinning on a hamster wheel, heading nowhere. Many of us are on a perpetual quest of acquisition, sucked in by our consumer culture, always wanting more. If we pay careful attention to the mountains, we’ll learn to grasp their wisdom and understand our own greater purpose. Always still, they absorb mother nature’s flow as snow blankets them and then melts; rain pours down and saturates; droughts stifle and choke; winds blow fast and furious; and the sun shines brilliantly. Through it all, the mountains remain steadfast and quiet, allowing the cycles to pass. Consciously and subconsciously, we locals understand this. Like a magnet, the mountains are ultimately what attracted us here, and when we play on them, we can hear them whispering to our souls.
It doesn’t matter whether you live in a studio apartment or a 20,000-square-foot mansion on Red Mountain, when a local gets outdoors, we’re all one. We’re the same. We’re striving to be enriched by the abundant, natural beauty that surrounds us. When our time on Earth expires, or when it gets close, our material items won’t serve us much good, but our memories, our experiences, our relationships are what will give us true meaning. Here in Aspen, that’s how we roll.
Yesterday, to celebrate a friend’s birthday, a group of us got together and hiked Highland’s Bowl, a boot-packed ridge that leads to an over 12,000-foot peak of stunning panoramic vistas, with our skis strapped to our backs. While trekking up there, we fought through a ferocious windstorm. Upon reaching the summit, we high-fived each other and took selfies, and then we skied down, carving through knee-deep fresh powder to Cloud 9 restaurant, where we made toasts with glasses of champagne and danced on tables surrounded by tourists. We giggled all the way home. In the end, this is what life’s about. So, you bet we have a right to brag. We live here––all year long.