It was two days after Christmas 1998, and my son, Caleb, and I were sitting in front of a roaring fire with cups of hot chocolate and we were reminiscing about previous Christmas days – those memories that made us laugh or cry. And I said to Caleb, “And what during all these years (Caleb was then 23) was your favorite gift from me?” My brain was actively wondering whether it was his first bike at eight, or those Nike shoes (they probably cost more than the bike) at ten or the Star Wars Space Station when he was six.

When I shared this thought, Caleb looked at me, raised one blond eyebrow and said, “Mom, you have got to be kidding!” I was really stumped. I couldn’t imagine what he was going to identify. I knew it wouldn’t be this year’s presents; they were all practical and geared to his senior year at the University of Oregon and included clothes, art supplies, books, etc., except for a hand-crafted set of dominoes from Venezuela. And while they were beautiful, and I knew Caleb appreciated them, it couldn’t be that particular item. Caleb continued, “ You know, Mom, it is interesting that you would bring this up. I’ve been thinking about this subject myself. Give me a minute to collect my thoughts and then I would like to share them with you.”

Long pause

So after two or three minutes with the fire crackling and popping, Caleb shared the following with me. I wish now that I could have had a tiny tape recorder taking down every word but here’s what I remember. “The most important gift, Mom, was your unconditional love. I don’t mean willy-nilly acceptance, but even though you sometimes, maybe even often, didn’t approve of my choices, you were always there for me – a steady and available listener. And when I was through talking, you would provide constructive criticism, your own learned lessons, and always encouragement. It was from this support that I built a backbone that would allow me to be a risk-taker and demonstrate my own courage. Second, and this may be even more vital than the love because I think most mothers love their kids, somehow you always managed to build or remind me to build a chain of optimism vs. negativity or pessimism. You taught me positive self-talk and hope for the future. I want to build my life on this point of view and make it my legacy for future generations.”

Let me explain that Caleb has probably had more than his fair share of adversities. The first that I can remember were his “night shoes.” When he was seven or eight months old, Dr. Cook, his pediatrician, said his legs were too straight; they needed to bend more at the knees. We went to an orthopedic specialist who prescribed special high-top leather shoes screwed onto a metal bar which would keep his legs apart and help the bones grow and develop in the proper way. Caleb was to wear them every night. Obviously he didn’t like them, crying when I put them on, waking up in the middle of the night and bellowing, and being so joyful in the morning when they came off. I remember saying to him frequently, “Caleb, this won’t be forever – only six, five or four more months.” Or, Caleb, aren’t you glad it’s only your feet? Just think if you had to have ‘night gloves’ as well.” And, “Caleb, you can make a difference by doing this every night and not taking a “night shoe” vacation and by being consistent about this opportunity.”

Biggest challenge

However, the biggest challenge so far that Caleb had to face occurred when he was ten. The father whom he adored became heavily involved and addicted to cocaine and made several inappropriate moral decisions. One of the final results was that because of the above choices, Caleb’s father was diagnosed as HIV-positive.

This adversity was a major one. But I found myself repeating the lessons learned from the “night shoes.” “Caleb, this crisis is isolated. Yes, your immediate family is dramatically affected, but we still have Grandma and Grandpa, Uncle Pat and Aunt Tami. And Caleb, you have so many loyal and supportive friends. Caleb, this will not last forever; time will ease the disillusionment and the pain. Caleb, we can grow and become stronger if we look at this as an opportunity rather than a total disaster. And Caleb, I know you can find the courage to face this problem.”

This is temporary

Optimism and a belief in the passing of adversity is vital to our well-being. They are two positions I have to work on myself continually. I always say I am a ‘recovering pessimist.’ 😉

I am delighted that no matter my own challenges with this, my son has taken these two life lessons to heart. That he can weather hurdles with hope and forbearance, with a sense of optimism and a perspective of transition.

I very much hope that you can too for a life without challenge is nigh impossible but a life of growth, rebirth and hope is a gift.

Happy Holidays!

Update: November 2011

Caleb and his girlfriend, Ollie Stone are currently living in Los Angeles with their dog, Daphne.

Caleb works for Quiksilver and is in charge of denim for boys/men. First he designs them – and then follows them through every stage – from production to the store shelves. He credits emotional intelligence for his current successes.

Anabel continues to have her fingers in multiple projects. She is still President of Six Seconds, which now has representatives in 10 countries. She is a full professor at Notre Dame de Namur University. She maintains she will be teaching her psych class forever.

And she is CEO of Synapse, an independent school for gifted learners in Menlo Park, based on neuroscience, emotional intelligence and constructivism. She hopes it is the first of a string of similar schools around the globe.

What do you think? What do you find most successful for handling adversity? Please tell us in the comments!

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