I have a friend who says he is going to change his telephone voice
message greeting. He wants to say, “Thank you for calling. I’ve been
making some changes in my life. Please leave a message. If I don’t
call you back soon, you’re one of the changes.”

I don’t know if he ever got around to it. But I do know that making
personal changes is often what life is all about. We’d better learn
how to welcome change if we want to live fully.

Do you remember this story? Two men came from similar backgrounds.
They both grew up in “dysfunctional” homes. An alcohol-addicted
parent raised them both. They both endured numerous hardships as a
result of the many problems brought about by their unstable home

As adults, however, their lives looked quite different. One of the
men couldn’t seem to keep a job for long. He was frequently let go
for alcohol-related problems. He was married for a while, but his
wife could not live with him any longer and eventually left. He felt
hopeless and believed himself to be a failure.

A reporter interviewed him as part of an article she was writing on
the effects of alcoholism in the home. She asked him, “To what do
you attribute your present circumstances?”

“Given my background,” he replied, “what do you expect?”

The other man held a steady job. He enjoyed a stable marriage and
home life. He was involved in his children’s lives. Overall, he felt
productive and useful.

“To what do you attribute your present circumstances?” the reporter
asked him, referring to his obvious success.

“Given my background,” he replied, “what do you expect?”

Naturally, our past will shape our present. Our backgrounds are
crucial in determining the kinds of decisions we will make as

But in this case, both men were shaped in different ways by their
past. One slipped into those old, familiar patterns and recreated
them as an adult. The other was determined never to repeat what he
had experienced as a child. The first man felt helpless to change.
The other used his background as motivation to make needed changes.

It’s true that we are products of our past. We are shaped by our
parents, by our backgrounds and by pivotal people in our lives. We
are products of our past. But we CAN make changes.

Like someone said:

“You may not go back and make a brand new start, my friend –
But you can start right now, to make a brand new end.”

Psychologists now tell us that our difficult backgrounds can
actually make us more resilient. (Check Steven and Sybil Wolin’s
fascinating book The Resilient Self.) Hardships can make us strong
and give us needed motivation to be different in the future. A
difficult background can actually be no less than a marvelous gift.

It comes down to one question: do I use the hard times in my past as
an excuse or as a gift?

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