“Life is happening for us, not to us.” – Tony Robbins
January 7, 2010. I rushed home from work a few minutes early, wrapping up an otherwise quiet Thursday. The sun had disappeared by 5:30pm but the snowfall was beautiful, and something about the moisture left the temperature feeling just a bit warmer than the dry, frozen tundra to which we grow so accustom in Chicago. I made it to my Lakeview neighborhood just in time to run a quick errand before settling in for the college football national championship game between Texas and Alabama. I dropped my work bag off in the apartment and ventured back out to pick up some long overdue dry cleaning.
Moments after passing two kids on the sidewalk of an otherwise empty and eerily quiet block, I was abruptly grabbed from behind and pushed into an alley. I turned around to see those same two kids, sweatshirt hoods over their heads making it difficult to ID them, and one with a gun pointed at me from a couple of feet away. After forcing me to get on my knees, they demanded that I hand over my wallet as I tried to calm them down as best I could. While obviously alarmed, I didn’t feel truly frightened until the unarmed kid started yelling in the other’s ear, urging him to “…cap this mother-f***er!”
Admittedly, I’ve wrestled with the idea of “privilege” quite a bit in recent years. It’s difficult to express this in a way that doesn’t seem in itself ungrateful, but while I couldn’t be more thankful for the way I was raised and the environment in which I grew up, there is a small part of me that sometimes wonders how things would be different had I been forced to face a true hardship and an ongoing fight from day one.
It’s always been easy for me to get caught up dreaming of some grandiose ways of changing the world, and I’m always inspired by history – the stories and the legacy of our presidents, great military leaders, titans of industry, even our “Greatest Generation.” But one common thread among so many of them is an incredibly difficult set of circumstances they were forced to overcome, and obstacles they turned into advantages to achieve greatness and affect history. From Lincoln growing up in poverty and without any formal education, to MLK Jr. risking prison, violence and death in his quest for Civil Rights, or (a more current example) a guy like Tony Robbins building an empire helping millions of people after growing up without a father and being raised by an abusive mother. When forced into great challenges and difficult circumstances, their struggle helped define their greatness.
Obviously those are extreme examples but I also wonder, “what if they never faced those circumstances at all?” And as someone who grew up in a loving home, with access to a quality education and most of the small comforts that can easily be taken for granted, I would sometimes ask myself, “what’s my fight destined to be?”
Today marks the seven-year anniversary of the robbery, and more than ever I find myself reflecting on its significance, and in a strange way I look back on it with gratitude.
In the grand scheme of things, my incident was small potatoes; more awkward than anything else. These kids couldn’t have been more than 18 years old, they didn’t strike me in any way, and they weren’t even interested in the most valuable thing I was carrying, my phone. Way too many people are facing violent crime across Chicago every day . I lost $20 and had to renew my driver’s license.
But regardless of its severity, more than anything it left me wondering what circumstances these soon-to-be men were raised under – circumstances that would influence them in such a way as to commit such a dangerous but ultimately petty crime like this.
I didn’t necessarily connect the dots in the months following the incident, but these kids provided a catalyst for me to join Mercy Home for Boys & Girls, an experience that has been one of the most rewarding and fulfilling of my life. While obviously misguided and unintentional, they provided me with a cause – one for which my involvement is certainly small-scale, but one that provided guidance when I truly needed it.
More importantly, I like to believe that because of my experience at Mercy Home, the legacy of the kids who committed this crime has been transformed into a positive one. That their misguided actions are, in an indirect way, making a positive difference on other children dealing with the same obstacles they were faced with, and the same influences that drove them to violence and crime. And what a powerful thing to consider, that I have the ability to control what the end result of their crime will be, and be a vehicle to ensure their legacy doesn’t end with a gun in-hand and violence in-mind.
So the point isn’t to share my story as any sort of special or noble thing. But it did open my eyes and make real this idea of taking a negative event, and flipping it on its head to create an equal and opposite impact for good. It empowered me with the idea that we all can take control of what the ultimate impact of our most vulnerable moments will be, and of those individuals who might be responsible for our pain.
And it reminded me that there are opportunities in front of us every single day to “flip the script” on our moments of struggle. Maybe they aren’t on the grand scale of the Lincolns and MLK’s of the world, but I love how this idea can open us all up to very specific ways of instilling positive change. Because it shouldn’t take extraordinary challenges to strive for extraordinary impact. And no matter how great our childhood or “privileged” our situation, we’ve all faced our own battles and witnessed our loved ones go through theirs.
In this case, I feel a sense of peace in knowing that the crime these kids committed drove someone to act in a positive way. That their misguided influence could be transformed, and their legacy isn’t solely destined to be negative. And however cliche or corny it might be, I like to think that turning our most difficult moments into positive ones for someone else can represent a small but tangible victory for love over hate, and right over wrong.