Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Opinion

Negotiating the U-turns of life

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A few months ago, my colleague John Woodrow Cox told me about a fascinating story he was reporting. A 40-something man, mostly deaf all his life, was going to receive a cochlear implant. Though many deaf people would not choose the procedure, Mike Gray, who never learned American Sign Language and who struggled to succeed in a hearing world, believed it was his best hope.

Mike invited John and Tampa Bay Times photographers to be in the operating room for the surgery, and later to record the moment when the implant was turned on.

What, I wondered, would a man look like at the moment his life changed?

The surgery went perfectly, the implant functioned as the doctors expected it would. Mike insisted he expected no miracle, but couldn't prepare himself for the reality of his new implant.

The first time the doctor turned on the device, Mike could not understand his wife's voice as she told him she loved him. Back at work, he still couldn't get the other guys' jokes. He couldn't sift through the swirl of competing sounds that hearing people must navigate. He even went back to his old hearing aid. But only briefly; he kept trying to use his new implant.

His transformation, as the doctors had warned, would not come in a single moment. Rather, his is a continuing journey of starts, stops and setbacks.

It wasn't the story I had imagined.

It was richer and truer, holding lessons that resonate at a time of year when we look back at the past 12 months, appreciate the gifts of today and look ahead to the future.

How many times have we wished deeply for something that turned out not quite as we'd planned? A longed-for infant, a desperately needed job, a major weight loss, acceptance to a prestigious university, even a national health reform law — all might be anticipated, celebrated, and not at all as expected. They might in reality be better, worse, different, all three in rapid or slow succession or even simultaneously.

You could, of course, shield yourself from disappointment by scaling back your dreams. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, nothing risked. It's a default mode for daily living. Nobody ought to take major life risks during the morning commute on Interstate 275, certainly not if I'm driving in the next lane.

But it's not an exciting or inspiring way to approach life in general or a new year in specific.

Mike Gray's story reminds me that thoughtful risks are always worth considering and sometimes worth taking. But his experience also shows that the first step taken, however big, is only a first step. It's what you do when your dreams take an unplanned detour that can matter the most.

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