The Best Gift Ever

Gifts come in all shapes and sizes, and accompany a variety of different occasions in our unfolding lives. They often come wrapped in brightly colored paper to add cheer, and have a ribbon tied around them. Sometimes a card is attached to add personal sentiment. Gifts warm us, make us feel loved and appreciated, and teach us something important about the relationship we have with the giver. Some gifts, though, aren’t always packaged in the customary manner, making them virtually unrecognizable at the time of their presentation. These particular gifts might seem curious, perplexing, or even frustrating in the moment. Gifts in this latter category have to be digested over time, perhaps for months or even years, before we begin to develop enough perspective to really understand their significance in our lives. When we’re willing to be patient with the process, we discover that these unexpected gifts plant something deep within us, and they often turn out to be the best gifts we ever receive.

I was about 21 years old, in my final semester of college, and feeling a measure of pride and excitement that, in retrospect, probably wasn’t justified. Nevertheless, I was feeling it, and I wasn’t too concerned about it’s legitimacy. I had recently, for the first time in my young life, rid myself of the eye glasses I’d grown to hate since I first started wearing them in second grade. No miraculous healing preceded this blessed day, but rather, I had finally secured my first set of soft contact lenses. I’m guessing that my parents bought them for me, but I don’t really remember. Most importantly (to me at the time) this dramatic development enabled me to wear fashionable aviator sunglasses like normal people. No more flip-up shades attached awkwardly to my very thick, heavy, embarrassing lenses. No more dents and cuts on my nose from playing contact sports with geeky glasses strapped tightly to my face. No more summer sweat dripping off my forehead onto the lenses, making it impossible to see anything clearly for months of the year in my southern home. I had contact lenses, and all was finally right with the world… briefly.

It didn’t take me long, at all, to discover that soft contact lenses, particularly the super-comfortable-90%-water-kind that I had chosen, were highly susceptible to tearing. I think I tore my first one a couple of weeks after purchasing them, while removing it from my eye. It was a semi-devastating blow, and after I quickly surmised that walking around with a contact lens in only one eye was actually risky, I reluctantly dug out the old glasses, about which I still held a grudge. I learned within minutes of this personal disaster that a replacement lens was going to cost me about $60, which pretty much accounted for my entire net worth at that point in my life. I couldn’t imagine any reasonable way to remedy the situation on my own. But, not to worry, I was headed down the road to my parent’s house for the weekend, and given the fact that I was still in college, I felt confident that they’d not only be willing, they would want to buy me a new contact lens. I arrived wearing my stupid glasses, moped around a bit, complained about how fragile the new contact lenses were, and generally dropped enough hints about “poor me” that even our pets were feeling sorry about my plight that afternoon. But my parents, remarkably, weren’t biting. I realized that it was time to stop beating around the bush with these suddenly inattentive people and simply make my convincing case. Sometimes, I thought, older people just need a more direct approach.

As I helped my dad sweep out the garage, I blurted out the sad story of my defective lens, emphasizing the fact that it wasn’t my fault. My dad paused, looked me in the eyes, and quietly spoke the words that I’ve never forgotten:  “Ken, what are you going to do about that?” I was stunned, flabbergasted, and caught off-guard. I wanted to say something like “Come again?” but the necessary stimuli weren’t making it from my brain to my vocal chords. He had gone off-script. Where had this strange, uncharacteristic response come from, and why did it seem like he emphasized the “you” in his question. It quickly played through my head once again; “What are YOU going to do about that?” I’m sure I eventually collected myself, mumbled something about figuring it out somehow, and began the necessary head-scratching process that probably continued for a few weeks. It wasn’t immediately evident to me that my dad had said something brilliant that would change not only my thought process about how to replace that lens, but also, much more importantly, the course of my life. I had to slowly mature into a more complete understanding of his words and their impact. I had to sit with it over time, combine it with other important life experience, and then reflect back on that critical day in our Tulsa, Oklahoma garage. I’m not sure when it finally dawned on me, but at some point I knew, beyond any doubt, that my father had done me a wonderful favor. In the meantime, I quickly realized that if I wanted to retire my ugly glasses once again, it was up to me, and no one else, to make this happen. In this situation, there would be no rescue, no enabling, no dependency. This was my problem, and it was my responsibility to find a good solution. I was my own agent of change, and little did I know, that reality would be forevermore.

The end of the story validates that fact. I returned to school, fumbled around and soon found some way to earn the necessary money to replace the lens. Somehow, I managed to not tear another one for a couple of years. And I’ve been mostly standing on my own two feet, taking good care of all things precious to me, ever since. I stumble from time to time, for sure, but that lesson learned long ago has served me me well, 100% of the time. This critically important, strategic gift from my father certainly didn’t feel like a gift when it was offered, and I didn’t come close to recognizing it as such at the time. But, as I’ve considered it many times over the years, I’ve realized that only a few things in my young life were more important than those deeply penetrating words. Here’s the takeaway for anyone searching for good ways to create independence, confidence, grit, and security in their children (in case it wasn’t entirely obvious):  Get out of the way from time to time and let them struggle to solve the problem. Healthy struggle makes us stronger. If the situation at hand isn’t a certain set-up for failure and heart-wrenching defeat, it can be the best gift ever.

Warm regards, Kenny Pannell