NAPLES, Fla. – Life is a continuous series of choices. Big ones are obvious. Go to this college. Marry this woman. Break off the engagement. Take that job. Start a business.
Buy that company. Have children. Move to this city. Have the operation. Buy that house. Make this investment. Retire now. Retire here. These and other major decisions alter outcomes in ways hard to see at the time.
What if you’d married your high school girlfriend? Chosen to start in another city? Gone to a different college? Majored in something else? Stayed with your first company? Remained single? Questions. Roads not taken.
The possibilities are inexhaustible. If only we’d known the thousands of outcomes available to us when we were laying out the blueprint of our lives and making our choices.
Where do good choices come from? Experience plays a big part. Healthy people want more of the good and less of the bad. We learn at an early age that choosing bad behavior has consequences. That it’s better to be praised and hugged than scolded and punished. Our choices influence the quality of our life and the lives of those around us.
While growing up, I saw plenty of good choices and plenty of bad. My father could be tender and pleasant to be with – until something snapped and he turned dark. We never knew when Mr. Hyde would show up and all hell would break loose.
I figured that was just the way it was and navigated around his tantrums. My mother’s reaction was to lock us in the basement or pack us up in the car for a quick getaway until the storm blew through and Good Dad returned.
My mother was the main target of his vitriol. He hated and loved her, but with an infantile love. Like a child with a temper railing against his parents, he enjoyed being the “enfant terrible.” We were led to believe he was mentally ill, with a split personality.
While a reasonable explanation at the time, it confused me because I also observed him at work and out in public. Mr. Hyde never showed up in those places. The safety and security of our home was his private stomping ground. There, he frequently gave in to his lower nature. He possessed the ability to behave otherwise, but allowed self-centered, sinful urges to take charge. Bad choices.
It wasn’t until I was married, and saw milder versions of the same patterns in my behavior toward Sandy, that I got it. I saw in myself some of the urges my father must have seen. The choices with which he was likely confronted, and the lower road he took.
Fortunately, with the help of my wife, I learned to see the wisdom of a different path. She’s gentle and loving in every respect and hates conflict of all sorts. She let me know in no uncertain terms, however, that disrespectful, rude and childish behavior had no place in her life and our home.
This was announced early in our third year of marriage, while we sat with my mother on our screened side porch with a spread of corned beef, Swiss cheese, mustard, rye, full-sour pickles, potato salad and mixed fruit salad – courtesy of my mother.
I’d just made up my sandwich and plate. It was on my lap. I gave thanks to God for the food, but not to my mother. Sandy prompted me to thank her too. Simple enough, wouldn’t you say? Not for me. Not back then. It made me feel like a child being scolded, rather than a husband being reminded.
My Old Man pride and caveman defenses kicked in, coming out as, “I’ll thank her in my time and on my terms. But thank you (sarcastically) for the lesson in manners.”
Bad choice! As soon as the words were out of my mouth, my life flashed in front of me. I knew I’d crossed into the dangerous territory I later came to know and refer to as “Sandy’s Red Line.” This is a place you don’t want to go. One reserved for those rare instances in which she’s provoked to a point of no return. And there I was. I knew it. She knew it. My mother sensed it.
After a few seconds, which seemed like minutes, Sandy calmly got up, walked over, tipped my well-prepared plate all over me, and walked into the house.
I was speechless. My mother was dumbfounded. I’m sure she was also privately pleased, wishing she’d done the tipping.
I just sat there. Food dripping. Mustard staining. Lunch lost. Utter absurdity. Foolish behavior met by an appropriate response. I knew I had met my match.
That incident stood out as a declaration of war. It might as well have read, “WARNING: From this time forward, all nasty behavior will be met with a proper response.” Like a defiant child, I crossed that line all too often in our early years and was justifiably smacked down. Sandy showed me the consequences of my bad behavior, of choosing to indulge my Old Man.
I’ve wised up over the years as my New Man has occupied more real estate in my life. I’ve discovered that living with love and harmony is sweeter than snarling from the doghouse. That enjoying a good sandwich with my wife is better than cleaning up a tossed one.
This has been more than a Pavlovian response to punishment avoidance. It’s been a conscious preference to live out of my New Man, to choose and continue to choose, day by day, sometimes minute by minute, my higher nature.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Steve Silver is a retired business executive, author of “New Man Journey” (newmanjourney.com) and founder of Men’s Golf Fellowship (mensgolffellowship.com). This column is an excerpt from his book “New Man Journey.”)