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A Stern and Messy Lesson

Years ago, I had the pleasure of traveling through Europe. One early morning, I was a passenger on a rapidly moving train speeding between Florence, Italy and Rome.

It was the start of a bright sunny day. Puffy clouds hung in front of the blue sky as fog lifted from the horizon. Oh, I was so thrilled to be experiencing this priceless moment!

On many European trains back then, passengers had the pleasure of sitting in small, intimate compartments that accommodated only six people. The outside windows of each compartment could be opened from the top, and people often did that in order to breathe in the fresh air and watch the countryside whoosh by.

As I had my head out the window, enjoying the ride, I could faintly make out a railroad work crew up ahead laying new tracks alongside the main tracks our train was on. The men on this crew were scattered for at least the length of a football field.

Being a friendly American tourist, I waved down at them as we approached. When we got close enough, they wildly waved back at me with big smiles on their faces.

Oh, it was so good to be alive at that precious moment. Here, strangers and I were exchanging gestures of kindness. I leaned further out of the open window and was just about to take a photo of the friendly crew when, at that precise moment...SPLAT!

Suddenly, a huge clump of spit laced with chewing tobacco splattered my forehead, dribbled down between my eyes, rolled down past my mouth, stained my shirt and wound up splashed over my camera. Yuk! What a messy scene.

Those workers, they weren’t being friendly at all. They had set me up so their master spitter could hit the bullseye – my forehead! The whole bunch had merely been setting up this naïve American tourist for that precise shot. I had been had!

With utter frustration, I shook my fist at the whole bunch but by now, my train was already a quarter-mile closer to Rome, careening toward the city at breakneck speed. Nothing could be done about it.

That morning, I had learned a messy lesson.

Since that fateful morning, I have often told this story to others. Why? Because each of us goes through frustrating and trying moments in our lives when there is absolutely nothing we can do. Try as we might, we find that we cannot recover a lost experience that was crushed at the most inopportune time.

For years, I have been a family dispute mediator who often encounters estranged couples who are utterly helpless. They vainly try to hold on to their marriage as if holding a piece of their wedding cake that, once intact, had now crumbled.

Two thoughts come to mind: You can’t change your past, but you can make sure your past doesn’t shape your future.

It wasn’t possible for me to go back in time and dodge the sloppy greeting I received that day. But I could clean myself off and make sure the stain of that event didn’t color the rest of my journey.

This is one of life’s sternest lessons. Don’t allow yourself to be shackled by your past and living in regret. Break free and begin to bloom once again wherever you plant your new life-to-be.

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