A few weeks ago, I had the great honor of being asked to provide the commencement speech for the graduating class of 2009 at Gloversville High School.
I graduated 20 years ago from Gloversville and was humbled to be asked.
Unfortunately, I am in Denmark on vacation with my wife's family.
So I decided that I would dedicate this week's article to the graduating classes of 2009.
I remember the excitement of graduation and planning to go off to college. I had absolutely no idea what to do with my life, so I decided to go to school to play basketball. I am not recommending this strategy for anyone out there, but it turned out to be a very smart choice for me.
My first year at college went "very well."
I hated my classes. I was not getting enough playing time on the team, I got injured, I had no girlfriend and no real close friends like I had from high school.
But looking back on it, I say everything was perfect.
I made a lot of what I called mistakes back then and struggled quite a bit in all areas of my life.
Yet, intermingled in the struggle were glimpses of ease and lots of fun.
I say now that I tried everything I could that was outside of me to find happiness, but nothing ever lasted and often things got downright difficult.
I know, I know it sounds very encouraging so far.
Back then, it seemed that a lot of my life's events were problems. I realized this fairly early in my life and it confused me because I really tried to be a good person. Even though I could see it, I couldn't seem to change it. Believe me, I tried a bunch of different ways to make my life "better."
That's when I started "working on myself." I read a lot and found teachers who taught me that instead of noticing the problems, I should focus on solutions.
So that became my life. I found solutions.
In fact, I was an expert and even told others that I was a "problem solver." I recently realized that this, too, was destined to fail.
A few months ago, it occurred to me that in order to find solutions, I had to find the problems first.
So in reality, I was still finding problems, but now I put a cherry on top and called it good.
When I look back on life and when I am really honest with myself, I realize that this is in fact what I have done with most things I haven't liked. I have called it different names and temporarily made myself feel better - until finally I realized that every event of our life is an opportunity. When things aren't going quite the way I expect, I have the opportunity to choose the path I want or to be open to realizing that the path "I want" is not necessarily the path "I need."
Back then, I saw these problems as negative. Now I understand that the events of life are neutral: how we interpret them is what gives them meaning.
It is sometimes hard to understand how situations can be called opportunities. When you are in the middle of them, they definitely don't seem that way. It is this sharp contrast in our lives that compels us to find some kind of meaning or at least some way out of the life's struggles. I am returning from a course in Denmark as I write this and my teacher said that the reason we have these difficult events is so we can recognize how wonderful it is when we are out of the mess.
This is the very fuel that drives us to seek freedom from the struggle.
I have learned that my life has a flow to it when I am on track and it gets very bumpy when I am not on track.
So now, I genuinely consider the bumps as signposts to me directing me back towards my life's purpose.
My path is as unique for me as it is for everyone reading this, and yet we share the bumps as ways to redirect us back to our own paths.
These bumps come in the form of financial hardships, relationship difficulties, physical ailments; the list goes on and on. I have come to see there are no problems, just opportunities, and the greatest gift of all is that if we make a "mistake" we get another chance to look at the situation again. This is why we seem to be right back to where we started from over and over again.
We do in fact repeat the same mistakes until we finally learn from them.
So when you find you seem to choose the wrong boyfriend/girlfriend again and again, it is an opportunity to look at yourself very closely. Instead of blaming the other person, be honest with yourself.
If you are struggling with money "again," then perhaps this is your opportunity to be really honest with yourself and your choices with money.
Instead of blaming your boss or co-workers, look in the mirror first.
If you find yourself struggling with eating/exercise habits then maybe it is time to stop blaming stress and "not enough time to exercise."
The bumps are redirecting you back onto your path no mistakes and no problems here, just a whole bunch of opportunities to find your direction again.
A huge turning point for me came at the Wellness Center.
I had this feeling inside that I was being called to come back to Gloversville to start a physical therapy practice.
So I made arrangements to move back and start my practice, except I doubted myself and instead I took a job in Rome, Oneida County. This was a "mistake," right? No, actually what it taught me was to trust my purpose over my self-doubt.
Well, when I took that job in Rome, I lasted a month.
My whole world was turned upside down. I had problems everywhere I looked. In fact, I can't remember a part of my life that didn't have a problem in it.
I somehow plowed through it and made plans for building the Wellness Center, but things were not getting any better.
If anything, things were even more difficult because my focus was on "what else can go wrong."
Like I said earlier, I was really good at solving problems because I was even better at finding them.
This proved to be a pivotal point in my life. Things were literally falling apart at the seams and I was barely keeping my head above water.
Then in a moment of grace, I went to Denmark with my family.
It was on the beach at my mother-in-law's that I realized there has never been a time when things haven't worked out for me. I remember thinking things don't necessarily work out how I expected but without fail they worked out every single time.
This moment of grace helped me shift my perspective to see that my hardships were merely opportunities to test my character. Was I the man I wanted to be? Was I walking the walk? My answer was a resounding "No."
So the questions then became, "Why not? and "What am I waiting for?"
This was a very important lesson that I learned the hard way.
I learned that the events themselves were not the problem.
My interpretation of the events was the problem. When I stepped back I could see how things always work out, so instead of getting caught in the mess, I decided to learn from my situation. I decided that urgency was an illusion. What matters is living my life's purpose. I had to follow my call. This became my focus.
So now, I genuinely see events as opportunities.
I get to use events as barometers to see where I am in my life. If I am on track, there is a flow- no resistance. When I am feeling bumps, I have to look at myself honestly and make sure I am walking the walk. Freedom matters more to me than getting what I want.
My hope today is to plant a seed for the graduating class to take the time to really be honest and investigate their life situation.
If you are surrounded by problems, it is because you are very fortunate. Some of us have our whole life fall apart so we can recognize how truly fortunate we are and to test our character. These "problems" are really opportunities in disguise.
If you have a hundred problems in a day, you really are blessed with a hundred chances to make sure you are on the right path.
These "problems" shape who you are, or rather, how you learn from these problems shape who you are. But from someone who has been there and done that, I recommend being gentle with yourself because beating yourself up only stresses you out and when we are stressed, we make horrible decisions.
We ultimately get the opportunity to try again, but I have learned that stopping to step back is much wiser the first time around
Take a step back and be honest with yourself. If you think you are making a wise choice, then life will support you. If you are talking a good talk but walking a different walk, then life will bonk you on the head so you can stop and regain perspective.
I found that the events that stand out in our lives are our defining moments. We all like to talk about how important it is to be open and kind to one another, but it is entirely different to actually walk the walk and practice this kindness. For me, the struggles are there as a way to "call us out." It's as if God is saying, "OK, you talk a good game, but let's see how well you are walking the walk."
I have seen how "problems" and "mistakes" are merely opportunities to redirect my life back on target.
Those struggles I had in high school and beyond were all gifts that built my character and confirmed my life's purpose.
I see very clearly how each event was necessary for and beneficial to me in becoming who I am today.
Being authentic and true to who you are may not be the most popular choice you make, but I promise you that being true to who you are is worth way more than popularity.
My life has changed dramatically since I realized this and committed my life to it.
Good luck to you all. If there is something I can ever help you with, please ask. If I am able I will be happy to help in any way I can.
Matthew Goodemote, a Gloversville native, owns Community Physical Therapy & Wellness. His Health & Wellness column will answer your questions and discuss topics that are relevant to your everyday way of life. If you would like to ask a question, e-mail Matthew at firstname.lastname@example.org.