Remember Instead of Regret
I wish someone would have told me much earlier in life that we only get once chance at most things instead of some bullshit speech about second chances and doing better next time. Perhaps it is just the commercialization of our “experiences” that makes me feel that way, but there are many things I abandoned or did not pursue early on in my life because I bought into the idea that I would be able to do it different next time. However, as I have grown and matured I have come to realize that we only get to experience our first base hit, goal, kiss, love, individual success, team success, job, fire, promotion, mentor, and so on one time. Not everything in life gives us a second chance or an opportunity to do over. And no matter how much we plan or set out to do it different next time, the fact of the matter remains that once that first time is gone, it is gone for good…
Like many, I have had an attitude towards many things that operated on a false assumption that there would always be another opportunity to do this, a different time to do that, or another place that would be more conducive to my success. I made choices as far back as my childhood that cost me life experiences I can never get back. I didn’t travel to places when I had that chance, I didn’t enjoy things like high school the way I probably should of, I sat home when I should have gone out, I went out when I should have been home, I snubbed my nose at things I thought I was “too good” for or were “too good” for me; hell, I didn’t even go to my prom. Did any of these things have a negative impact on me? Well, that is actually debatable depending on the topic, but I can’t help but wonder sometimes if I had spent less time trying to be “different” how things would have played out. I have spent many hours, days, and even weeks planning to apply all the lessons I have learned in another life that I don’t know will ever come. None of these things have really made me a better person, but instead may me doubt and question many of the things I have done or not done, and the subsequent person I have become because of those choices.
One of the realizations I have made is the fact that I am going to leave this earth one day, and probably with quite a few regrets. Not the usual positive banter you would expect to hear from someone who is passionate and often speaks about leadership, huh? However, the reality is, like most people, there are many things about me and the things I have done that I am extremely proud of, but there are quite a few that I really wish I had done differently. I for one think most people are lying when they say they have lived with no regrets because that is not an observation we are able to make or a mindset we are able to take until we have in fact done things that leave us with regret in the first place! There is a direction we thought things would go, and there is the path that we are actually on. I think it is safe to say that this analysis is fairly common for most people if they really sit down and honestly assess how things are playing out for them. It doesn’t make our lives good or bad, it is just a reality we are never really warned sternly or early enough about in order to make a difference when it really counts.
The path life takes us on can be pretty odd sometimes. Whether your outlook on our existence is religious, scientific, or fate centered, some explanations and situations just don’t add up. Bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. One minute we are on top of the world and the next we are dragging ourselves across rock bottom. If anyone should understand the drastic and rapid turns life can take, it should certainly be people like us who have committed our lives to rescuing others from these very moments on the largest scale possible. For most of us, it is a combination of these highs and lows that makes up our lives. However, the older I have gotten and the more time I have put on the job I have postulated that we tend to use such experiences planning for another life that may never come…
Firsts in our fire service career are very similar to firsts in life as we tend to take them for granted. While I wish I could, I cannot tell you the day I joined my first volunteer department, the day I got certified, or my first fire, code, trauma, extrication, etc. I don’t remember the first time I saw a fatality, the first time I pumped a fire, or even the date of my first promotion. Some people can tell you vividly when all or most of these things occurred and can even drive you to the place they happened. For me, it is mostly just a blur of runs, people, places, and noises. I think I have an idea of when many of those things happened, but I can’t tell you for sure. Why? Well, because nobody ever told me stuff like that would be important to me later in my career. I wasn’t prepared to try to remember these things until I matured and learned how important they really are. I never paid attention until it was too late.
Another part of my firsts is that they weren’t really acknowledged in many cases. Now please don’t take that wrong, I am certainly not blaming anyone it just wasn’t in the culture of the departments I have been a member of. Most of the people I looked up to when I came on were very old school and traditional. Singling guys out for there first time doing this or that was not really on the agenda as much as educating them on their performance and how they could improve the next time which was just as, if not more, valuable than any acknowledgement would have been. And while it may sound like I am suggesting we need to hand out trophies every time one of our guys puts their gear on right, I am just saying a picture, helmet front, run sheet, or roster can go a long way when it comes to remembering our careers as the years stack up and the stress and bad memories tend to prevent us from remembering the good.
Beyond the career milestones are the regrets that can later bite us when we were more worried about fitting in, staying under the radar, not making waves, or “living to fight another day”. It is bizarre how we tend to tell the go-getters, problem solvers, and idea makers to hold onto their thoughts for a better time and place yet sit back and accommodate the trouble makers, apathetic, and loud mouths. It is actually eerie how many conversations we have with others about what we are going to do at our next department, with our next promotion, or in another career. We all walk around with brilliant plans and ideas that we are saving for a time that is most likely never going to come instead of applying this knowledge and expertise in the now. We have stooped to giving up credit, avoiding recognition, and even letting others steal our plans under the guise of bullshit like “the greater good” which we have accepted as justification for allowing others to overlook what is rightfully ours. Although receiving credit or recognition should never be the driving force behind our efforts, we shouldn’t be rolling over to stroke the egos of others because we think it is the only way to get things done. These are precisely the scenarios that lead to doubt and regret days, weeks, and years down the road!
Unfortunately, the idealistic approach of doing what is right and noble doesn’t always work these days. Most of us end up so flawed and jaded that we completely lose sight of how that would even look or feel. Those who produce chaos and destruction are generally rewarded while those who take the high road and put the team first are trampled over by the vultures trying to advantage themselves from the efforts of others. While we could all do more to reduce our regrets, doing so could sadly jeopardize our ability to affect change, move forward, or even take us off the department in some cultures or situations. Not every battle is worth fighting as they say, but sometimes we realize years later that we wish we had fought when we had not. It is the time we gave up because it was the “popular” thing to do or the time we were worried about what others might say that prevented us from taking credit or being proud of our accomplishments. While it is safe to say there needs to be balance in everything, we were not meant, nor programmed, to operate as secret agents within our organizations and we will never make that cultural shift if we continue to do so!
As chiefs, company officers, and senior men it is our RESPONSIBILITY to instill the IMPORTANCE of making memories in this profession in our junior members. Put away this macho bullshit and make them take pictures, celebrate their accomplishments, recognize their promotions, make plaques, reward them with memorabilia, and save dates. It may seem juvenile or unimportant at the time but when we are on hard times or getting ready to hang up our gear for the last time it is the things that adorn our walls and shelves that will allow us to look back on all the great things that came from the sacrifice our profession requires of us. We must do the same in our firehouses as well. The walls of our stations should be a timeline of the history of the station or department. We don’t always recognize or acknowledged the impact of others in the present, but it is amazing how a picture, old lid, or piece of equipment can remind of us events or people which put us where we are today!
Remember, there are many things that can derail our desired track in life from success to failure and everything in between. Not every good experience makes us a better person and not every bad experience brings us down. Sometimes we learn more in failure than we do in success and others times we are unable to overcome our inability to succeed in a certain setting or skill. Some of us can pinpoint an exact event or misstep that really changed our course, while some of us came off the rails so gradually we didn’t see it coming nor do we know the point to focus on to correct it. However, many times the fix is as simple as remembering the things that were once important to us in the moments we have clearly forgotten. The emotions and feelings that take us over from certain memories can be the antidote for correcting our course. The first time doesn’t always seem important until we make the realization that we may be experiencing something for the last time.
We are always going to have regrets, that is part of making choices. But, if we take the time to create cultures and traditions that stress the significance of many events and experiences we seem to take for granted, our list of regrets will be severely reduced. Some of us were warned of this fact and some were not. Regardless, the best way to deal with your own regrets is to make sure others avoid them! Take the kids under your wing, show them the ropes, help them make memories, and record their success! Put the macho egos away and accept that even the toughest bastards on the department will one day be old and worn down sitting in their favorite chair thinking back on the days when they were larger than life being FIREMEN! There is no shame in opening up a little, admitting the little things matter, and giving yourself a record of your life’s work. The only regret any of us should have to live with is that our bodies will give up on this job long before our minds. Enjoy it while you can, but also do the “stupid” things now that will allow you to remember later! We only get one life, one career, and one day at a time to do the things we keep putting off. Stop planning for a tomorrow that isn’t guaranteed and start doing the things that you would rather remember than regret today! Even if it seems like it is too late to do it for yourself (it’s not), do it for the next guy. When you look back, you will be happy that you did!