The toothpaste won’t go back into the tube.
I learned this important fact when I was about 6. I don’t remember how I managed to get the toothpaste out of the tube and all over me, the bathroom, and my new shirt. But I sure do remember that there was no way to get it back into the tube before my mother asked the question all mothers ask. ‘What in the world do you think you are doing?’ Since even at 6 I knew that telling her that I was putting the toothpaste back into the tube was not going to cut it, I used every child’s standby reply, ‘Nothing!’
I have since come to understand that the toothpaste principle applies to more than toothpaste. It also applies to harsh words, ill considered actions, bad decisions, and a lot of other opportunities that come and go, not to return. There are those times when we only get one chance to do it right. When we do it wrong with our families, friends, neighbors, and people at work, we can’t take it back. The best we can do is to try not to have too many things we wish we could take back or undo.
Almost anything is easier to get into than out of.
This is the deep water principle. Here is what happened.
I was 14 and at that stage where I was very interested in girls but not sure what to do about it. A couple of my buddies and I were at the beach and decided that impressing 3 nearby young ladies would be our best approach. After a bit of adolescent posturing, we started swimming toward a floating platform 200 or so yards out. About halfway to our goal, the lifeguard swam up to me and told me that I could not swim well enough to go further. To add insult to injured pride, she swam beside me all the way back to the beach where the girls were very amused but not at all impressed.
This was very heavy stuff at 14. Mostly, it was embarrassing if not down right humiliating. The main thing I learned was that it is not a good idea to get in over my head whether the goal is to swim further than I can or to impress girls or anyone else for that matter. If for no other reason, there isn’t always a lifeguard to rescue me and I can no longer use being 14 as an excuse.
Since that day at the beach, I have learned that the deep water principle applies to more than swimming and girls. It also applies to things like going into debt, conflicts with people at home and work, bad habits and all those times when that little voice inside tries to warn me but I casually ignore it and dive in anyway.
The best shells are gone by 6:30.
Lest you think the only good stuff I’ve learned is about what not to do and being cautious, you also need to know about the sea shell principle. I was 32 by the time I learned this important truth.
I was visiting my grandfather in Florida and mostly enjoying the winter sunshine and good company. Grandpa showed me an exceptionally fine sea shell he found on the beach.
I said, ‘That was a bit of good luck, your finding that shell.’ He smiled and replied, ‘Yes, it was good luck for a guy who was already on the beach and looking before 6:30. All the good shells are gone by then.’
This was an important lesson. Luck plays a big part in a lot of things. Luck has a role in whether our marriages work out, whether our children do well, whether we succeed with our jobs, and in almost every other aspect of our lives. Stuff happens and we cannot control everything.
At the same time, we can improve the odds. We can work on our marriages, look for opportunities to encourage and support our children and be alert for those chances to improve our situation. We can be on the beach before 6:30 and we can make the effort to succeed. We cannot control everything but can control a lot of what happens in our lives.
Mess with anything long enough and it’ll break.
I came by this insight the other day. Possibly you have known it all along. I either didn’t know or maybe I just keep forgetting. It does look like I would have already known since I still break things from time-to-time.
I find myself tinkering with this or adjusting that and you know how it goes. Tinker with it long enough and it’s time either to toss it into the trash or find someone who actually knows what they are doing. This is usually my wife. She can fix nearly anything and usually does not ask me, ‘What in the world do you think you are doing?’ Let’s call this notion of messing with things until they break the ‘I’ll fix it myself principle.’ We know that it applies to stuff around the house. I wonder if it also applies to relationship problems, troubles our children are having, conflicts with friends and to other personal difficulties we may have. What do you think? How often do we mess with our lives until they break instead of finding someone who knows how to help us?
A brief suggestion.
Based on these things I have learned, you may want to think about this. Try to keep your toothpaste in the tube. Try not to get in over your head into the deep water. As often as you can, be on the beach looking for sea shells before 6:30. And for those things that really matter, ‘I’ll fix it myself,’ may sometimes be worse than doing ‘Nothing!’