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Live Life Fully: Defining moments tell us who we are

By Linda Arnold

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When I realized this column would be published on Sept. 11, I immediately thought of the 10-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and Flight 93. While much has been written about this topic (and necessarily so), my mind took another turn around these events.

Sept. 11, 2001, was a defining moment for our country. And it got me thinking about defining moments in our individual lives.

A defining moment is described as "a point at which the essential nature or character of a person, group, etc., is revealed or identified." According to the book "Self Matters," there have been moments, both positive and negative, in every person's life that have defined or redefined who he or she is. Author and psychologist Phil McGraw explains that these events entered your consciousness with such power they changed the very core of who and what you thought you were. Here are a few examples:

  • Serious accident or illness
  • Job layoff
  • Marriage
  • Divorce
  • Birth of a child
  • Death of a loved one
  • Financial crash
  • Addiction/recovery
  • I often say things happen in our lives -- and "we wouldn't have scripted them this way." Yet, that turning point may have been the very thing we needed to propel a necessary change in our lives. I'm not talking about senseless tragedies that don't seem to have any explanation. I'm focusing more on those things that give us the momentum to get out of our comfort zones and into action.

    Many times these can be sudden, devastating events. And they require us to stop our lives in their tracks. They can even give us "permission" to make wide, sweeping changes that we would not normally have the courage or willingness to do.

    A friend of mine admitted this when she got her cancer diagnosis. She immediately quit her job and uprooted her family to travel with her for aggressive in-hospital treatments for the next year. Nobody saw this coming. Within 24 hours their whole world -- and that of their extended families -- had changed. As she put it, "the C-card trumped everything else" and gave her permission to focus solely on herself and her health, while learning to be vulnerable and to receive anything and everything from others.

    Thankfully she recovered and has been in remission for several years, having made lifestyle changes along the way. We've talked about her insight of external permission to make such changes. It sounds strange, although it's not so easy to make wholesale changes in our lives without some pivotal point.

    I realize this is not the case with everyone, and I'm certainly not saying there's always a silver lining. Every situation is different. I'm reminded of one reader's comment that "cancer is an insidious disease and is certainly not a gift." Obviously, I respect everyone's perspective. There's no right or wrong way to look at these situations. They're all personal journeys, and it's not up to any of us to judge another person's experience.

    My research turned up an interesting resource. At www.definingmoment.tv, you can find videos on such topics as defining moments around healing, marriage and family, social issues, education, youth-at-risk, leadership, smart ideas and world peace, among others.

    On a somewhat lighter note, I ran across a list of cultural defining moments. See if you agree.

    Defining moments of the 2000s

    10. Literature: "Harry Potter"

    9. Television: "American Idol" (and the advent of reality shows)

    8. Film: "Slumdog Millionaire"

    7. Sports: Boston Red Sox win World Series after 86 years

    6. Music: iPod

    5. Technology: Facebook, smartphones

    4. Economics: The euro becomes second most widely used currency in the world.

    3. International affairs: terrorist attacks on the United States

    2. Nature: Indian Ocean earthquake/tsunami kills 230,000 people

    1. Politics: U.S. presidential election of Barack Obama

    Getting back to individual defining moments, the book "Self Matters" explains that you can trace who you've become in this life to three types of external factors:

  • Ten defining moments
  • Seven critical choices
  • Five pivotal people
  • Ten defining moments: A part of you was changed by these events and caused you to define or redefine yourself to some degree by your experience of that event.

    Seven critical choices: There are a surprisingly small number of choices that rise to the level of life-changing ones. Critical choices are those that have changed your life, positively or negatively, and are major factors in determining who and what you will become. They are the choices that have affected your life up to today and have set you on your path.

    Five pivotal people: These are the people who have left indelible impressions on your concept of self and the life you live. They may be family members, friends, teachers, bosses, coaches or mentors, and their influences can be either positive or negative. They are people who can determine whether you live consistently with your authentic self or, instead, live a counterfeit life controlled by a fictional self that has crowded out who you really are.

    We all play out our lives according to the life script we've written for ourselves. Whatever your fixed beliefs are, you have practiced your script for so long you believe what it says about you and your potential. That's why we resist change. Here's the good news, though: You can rewrite your script.

    Which reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by Dr. Wayne Dyer: "When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change."

    Linda Arnold, MBA, is a certified wellness instructor and chairwoman/CEO of The Arnold Agency, a marketing communications company specializing in advertising, public relations, government relations and interactive marketing. Reader comments are welcome and may be directed to Linda Arnold, The Arnold Agency, 117 Summers St., Charleston, WV 25301, or emailed to livelifefully@arnoldagency.com.


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