One of my various roles is that of an instructor at a state university. I teach a social aspects course. My class is taught in a building that primarily functions as a recreation center. The building has an academic wing that holds labs and classrooms for the university’s Kinesiology Department. One of these labs serves as a physical therapy center for some of the elderly and disabled in the community.

As I was walking from the parking deck towards the building to teach this morning, an elderly woman was leaving. She had likely just finished a therapy session, her every step appearing to be a physical ordeal. While there are often lab assistants that accompany individuals to their vehicles after sessions, this woman had no assistance. It was wet, leaves were everywhere, and the sky was overcast. She was by herself on this brisk fall morning, with everything seemingly against her. Only a few years earlier, I was walking that same path with difficultly; having had surgery performed on both of my knees. I felt great empathy for her, and was debating about asking her if she would like some assistance. Then, the most peculiar thing happened…she began whistling!

Now, the whistling that ensued was not of the type that one imagines immature men imparting upon an exotic dancer as she performed on stage (or, for that matter, any female in any environment). Nope. This elderly woman had class. Instead, she began whistling an upbeat tune of which I wasn’t familiar—a song most likely from a time since passed. As I got nearer to her, I could see that she was joyful. While her body was beaten, her spirit was free.

Almost immediately thereafter—as life has a way of frequently providing natural occurrences of juxtaposition—two female college students passed me as I was about to enter the recreation center. These two women were in workout attire and looked a bit fatigued. I was impressed. It wasn’t quite yet 7:30 in the morning, and these two women had already finished a workout at the gym! Typically, those individuals who work out early in the morning do so as part of a regimented routine. Based on my own observations, these were two such individuals. They were physically fit—the type of fit that requires regular exercise and a good diet. Both were attractive women. Young and focused, I’d have thought the world was theirs for the taking…

Yet, these two young women were complaining to each other about the rest of their days. They seemed anxious and miserable. One had a quiz. The other had to work on a group project with some people with whom she struggled to get along.

See the juxtaposition? I couldn’t help but see it…

George Bernard Shaw is often credited for first saying that “Youth is wasted on the young.” Remembering how I felt about this quote as a younger man, I’d suspect that many young people would disagree with its claim. Though, I’d also reckon that those who have lived a few more years are nodding their heads in agreement; wishing they could go back to those days, knowing what they know now…

As an instructor, I’ve come to believe that there are, for the most part, three types of students. There are the ambitious, “must get an A,” because any sign of failure will suggest that I’m a failure and ruin my already planned future. These students treat life as though they are on Survivor, willing to do whatever is necessary in the real world to keep their reputation (and resume) immaculate in the perceived world. Then, there are the entitled, who believe that “I just need to check all the boxes, and school is one such box. Then I can claim the life that I want.” These students assume that things will work out for them; regardless of their attitude or initiative. Those who benefit from nepotism often fall into this category. Lastly, there are the students that actually enjoy learning and living in the moment; embracing the opportunities that university life avails them. They see the future, and plan for it, but not at sacrifice of the present. Of the three categories, the last category is the smallest. These are the young men and women who I believe “get it.”

They are the individuals in their later years who will most likely be whistling a happy tune regardless of their circumstances…

What I saw in the elderly woman—what she reminded me—was that our attitude doesn’t need to be predicated on our circumstances. If anything, our circumstances should be the last thing upon which we anchor our attitudes. Circumstances can rise and fall like waves in deep waters. Attitude is a matter of appreciation. Joy is a choice.

The elderly woman could have focused on her feeble legs or the depressing weather. She could have focused on the likelihood that she has more years behind her than in front of her. She could have focused on the fact that she was alone. As we get older, more of our friends leave this world, and I’m sure that she had many friends that were no longer with us in this life. Yet, she was joyful, and she was whistling. I would like to believe that she chose to be joyful by focusing on those few things for which she was thankful.

The young, attractive, and healthy college students that I saw leaving the recreation center were focused on the negative—as little as was likely present in their lives. They have yet to see their bodies fail them. Most likely, they have yet to truly be self-sufficient—their parents helping when needed. They benefit from an environment where most everyone is their age and within the same phase of life. They have so much going for them. And yet, they were too busy stressing about the few (minor) challenges in their day…

As an instructor, I can tell my students that grades are never as important (i.e. life and death) as they perceive them to be. I can tell them that, years from now, they probably won’t even remember the struggles they’ve had with particular group projects. I can even tell them that some of the best experiences in life are those that we could’ve never planned. Most students seem to disregard such comments. Given that they are college students at a renowned university, their lives have likely—to this point—followed a thoroughly-outlined plan. I presume that, for most students, the belief is that following their well-thought out life plans will assuredly lead to achieving their intended outcomes. Many of us who have long since graduated from college have experienced a different reality.

It wasn’t until I had finished graduate school (the first time) that I began to understand what I believe the elderly woman understood—the value of moments. How can we reflect joyfully in those moments that represent our history, if we never lived in them when they actually occurred? And even with reminders from individuals—for instance, whistling, elderly women—I too often forget to embrace the present moment.

And while I’m not suggesting that we neglect our futures—there is wisdom in planning–I hope that we all learn to build our futures by properly living in our present.

You know, I feel like whistling…

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