July 16, 2018
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The big life lessons I learned from Travis Mills

By Alex Steed

“If you think you’ve got it bad, snap your fingers and wiggle your toes. Stop complaining.”

Staff Sgt. Travis Mills, the Maine veteran famous for being a quadruple amputee and for his advocacy for wounded and maimed soldiers, said this jokingly to my team last week. While it was a joke, it has stuck with me.

My company recently volunteered efforts to the Travis Mills’ Foundation. Mills was headed out west to appear on Ellen Degeneres’ talk show to tell his story, and the foundation realized they were in need of a fundraising plea video. This is where where we stepped in.

My team has had the great fortune of working with Mills on two occasions, and what is striking about him is his good humor. The “snap your fingers and wiggle your toes” quip was one of many outtakes he was eager to get into the video we were producing. While it didn’t make the cut, the foundation gave us the enthusiastic OK to release a short outtakes video.

Perspective, right? I’m the sort of person who constantly has to keep in check my tendency to let small things derail my mood and affect my day. Then, here’s Mills to remind you that you don’t have it that bad — and even if you do, perspective, hard work, community can go a long way in getting you through it.

Of course, I realize there are barriers to all of these things and for some more than others. These aren’t the only tools for working through difficult times, but it is inspiring when confronted with those who exemplify their importance.

This was one of those weeks where the temporal nature of this reality was overwhelmingly evident. A friend was recently sharing her experience caring for her mother who, too young, is living with a terminal illness. On that same weekend, my beloved 5-year-old dog woke up paralyzed from the waist down and required immediate intervention to ensure she would not die.

It’s cliche, especially since I am of the eldest millennials and we are now entering middle age, but one day you’re fine and the next day you’re terminal. One day you’re eager to catch a ball endlessly for hours, the next your legs don’t work. One day you can snap your fingers and wiggle your toes, and the next day you can’t.

It’s easier than ever to feel overwhelmed by the scary and unpredictable elements of the world, and I fall into that mindset all the time. I get wrapped up so tight and obsessed with what is wrong. Border walls that have nuclear waste pits? The only way to engage North Korea is through military might? Catastrophic rates of opioid addiction? I’m worried that being non-white literally remains hazardous to one’s health.

And I don’t want to undercut the severity or import of any of these realities, but in Mills I am reminded that outlook and attitude are two of the few things over which I do have control, both while things are going swimmingly and even when life takes you down an unexpected path.

I realize I am starting to sound like that song in which the dude goes sky-divin’ and rocky mountain climbin’ and something about a bull named Fu Manchu, but despite it being pop country I’ve always thought it was a good reminder, and I have appreciated the reminders this week has brought to me. It’s why my company volunteers our time in the way we do. It actually often serves as a means of putting us in proximity to those who inspire us to be better.

I’ve been trying to turn away from the news when it is overwhelming more than it informs or empowers, I’ve been being more pleasant to strangers — and, admittedly, the emerging spring might also be helping that along — and I had some extra boxes of Girl Scout cookies I shipped to a friend I know has been craving them.

Because I’m human, I’m sure I’ll benefit from another reminder of the aforementioned temporal nature of life soon enough. We are defined by our imperfection, and the ease with which we are distracted from what truly matters. It takes a good deal of discipline and hard work to turn these reminders into a healthier approach to how we live. In the meantime, though, I’m grateful for — and I look forward to acting on — the sizable reality check I received this week.

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was a teenager. He’s an owner-partner of a Portland-based content production company and lives with his family, dogs and garden in Cornish.

 


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