Happiness is not something that happens to you. It’s something you choose to be. That fact isn’t really a secret anyone’s been keeping from you. But it takes a surprisingly long time for most people to realize it, if they ever do.
Jeremy McInnis learned that powerful lesson at the young age of twenty. And ironically, he learned it from a boy half his age and halfway around the world.
After high school, Jeremy served in the U.S. Army National Guard’s 1313th Engineer Company in Indianapolis, Indiana. In May 2012, his unit was deployed to Israel for search and extraction support during a period of heavy Palestinian conflict. That meant when a bomb blew up and collapsed a building, Jeremy’s job was to go in and pull out victims trapped inside.
One of the first such occurrences after they arrived was in a five-story apartment building in Jerusalem. The 1313th was the first extraction team on the scene. Jeremy described the work this way: “These things turn into something that’s not a building anymore, but not just a pile of rubble either. We used jackhammers to cut our way in until we found a tunnel to move through. Then we put up braces to maintain what little structure was left so we could get out the way we came in. We knew there was fifty thousand pounds of reinforced concrete over our heads ready to come down any minute.”
About six hours into the work, they found a room with a partially collapsed roof. In it was a barely conscious eleven-year-old boy just visible underneath his mother and father. His parents had obviously covered him with their own bodies as the building collapsed, which saved his life. But it cost them their own.
After medical treatment, the boy was taken to an orphanage only a few blocks from where Jeremy’s unit was stationed. Each day for the next four or five days, Jeremy saw him playing in the yard with the other children. Jeremy recalls, “He was smiling, and laughing, and . . . happy. I thought ‘How on earth can that be?’ This kid just lost everything!”
So at his next opportunity, Jeremy stopped to talk to the boy and find out. He asked him how he could be so happy and smiling all the time after what happened. “He responded in impressive but broken English, and in a heavy Israeli accent, ‘Because the sky is blue.’”
That didn’t make sense to Jeremy, and it must have showed. The boy invited Jeremy to sit down and then continued, “It’s something my father taught me repeatedly for as long as I can remember. ‘Because the sky is blue’ can be a reason for anyone to do anything, any time.”
What he meant, Jeremy explained, is “it’s like saying ‘because it’s Thursday,’ or ‘because I’m left-handed,’ or even ‘just because.’” In other words, I don’t really have a reason. Nor do I need one. It’s just how I choose to be.
That eleven-year-old boy had just lost his mother and father and every worldly possession they owned. And yet he was happy and smiling simply because that’s the way he chose to be. That’s the secret Jeremy learned. Happiness isn’t something that happens to you. It’s a decision you make. It may be the most important legacy that boy carries with him from his father. Jeremy carries it as well. And now, so do you.
As with all of these stories, I encourage you to share this with your kids, and then have a discussion about it. Here are some questions to get you started.
1. Are you happy? Why or why not?
2. When are you not happy? What makes you unhappy?
3. What do you think would make you happier?
4. What if everything in your life was going to be exactly like it is
during those times when you’re unhappy, and you couldn’t change it? What would you do?
[You can find this and over 100 other character-building stories in my book, Parenting with a Story.]
Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story, Parenting with a Story, and Sell with a Story.
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