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Our journey toward happiness begins the moment we are born, when we enter the world, innocent and wide-eyed, and hungry for what life has to teach us. You may wonder, what does a child, or newborn, know about what it takes to be happy? But let me assure you: Very young children intuitively reach for the first gateway each time they hold out their arms to be loved, nestle into their mother's lap, or look up, searching, into the faces of the brothers and sisters gathered around their crib or playpen. They instinctively know that the warmth, comfort, love, and security they crave can all be found with the members of their family.
Family is the first gateway to happiness, and it's the only one of the seven gateways that's open to us right from birth, from that magic moment when we first open our eyes as infants and see two (or more) much bigger eyes looking back at useyes that are filled with hope and joy, with tenderness and love. These eyes tell us instantly that we are not alone and begin to form the boundaries of our fragile world. Families give our lives a history and context; we are an inextricable part of a larger unit complete with its own unique challenges and gifts. Families play an incredibly important role in shaping the person we ultimately becomeand, if we let them, they can be an invaluable source of support and stability in our often unpredictable lives.
It is frequently said that the strongest, most unshakable bond between humans is the love of a mother for her child. And it is this special closeness that forms the heart of the family unit. The love our parents have for us usually creates one of the most enduring and rewarding relationships we'llever have. In the best of circumstances, the unconditional love we receive from our parents and, if we have them, from our siblings, provides us with a kind of acceptance and security we can always rely on to help us over life's stumbling blocks and bring us happiness throughout our lives.
This certainly doesn't mean that your family has to be the picture of storybook perfection in order to bring something valuable to your life. In fact, very few families are perfect. They are comprised of human beings, after all, and no matter how good our intentions, there are always going to be bumps along the path. You may be an only child, or have a strained relationship with your parents, or feel infinitely closer to your group of friends than you actually do to your family members. But no matter what your situation, the gateway of family is always open to you, and you can share in the tremendous joy it brings if you are willing to make the effort.
The bond we share with our family members stands out among the rest of our relationships, because, often, our families know us better than just about anyone else. Our parents have watched us grow and change; they know how we respond when we are hurt or scared; they know and accept our strengths and weaknesses. Our siblings share some of our most cherished memories: the silly games we invented as children or the wonderful holiday foods that Mom always prepared. Shared history, although not always pleasant, creates a special kind of intimacy. And as we grow older, we come to appreciate more and more what it means to have people in our lives who know us so completely.
The ties among family members are often so strong that we can't escape them, even if we want to. The familiar saying "Blood is thicker than water" refers to the incredible strength of familial relationships. You may not get along perfectly with one of your siblingsperhaps you were competitive as children, or perhaps you felt as though your parents always spoiled your younger brother without taking your feelings into accountbut chances are, he or she is going to be a part of your life for the long haul. And for that reason, we need to learn to view all of our family ties as budding opportunities that, with care and attention, can flower into wonderful, mutually satisfying relationships. You may think that you have nothing in common with your siblings, or be critical of the choices they have made, but you will be surprised by the good feeling that comes from extending yourself to them and rekindling the connection among you. In the end, families not only offer us memories and a warm bed to sleep in when we pass through townthey provide us with a chance to learn to love others unconditionally, and to discover more about who we are.
Let Your Family Be Your Best Support System
I firmly believe that everything I've achieved in my life thus far is due, in no small part, to the fact that I was born into a strong, stable family. Over the years, whether I was competing in the Olympics or working to build my career as a motivational speaker, my father, mother, brothers, and sister have been an incredible support system for me. They have been there, offering love and encouragement, in my darkest hours and my brightest. And although all of our lives have changed significantly since the days when we sat together regularly at our dinner table in Fairmont, West Virginia, almost twenty years ago, the members of my family have been a constant source of strength that I rely on time and time again.
I'm the youngest of five children, and the baby of the family. I have three brothers, Ronnie, Donnie, and Jerry, and a sister, Shari. There's a seven-year difference between me and Ronnie, who's the oldest, but the five of us had a terrific time together growing up. Oh sure, we squabbled over things just like any other siblingswe fought over the favorite toys and over who got the last piece of Mom's chocolate cake. And of course, being the kid sister, I always wanted to tag along with the older kids. I was a real tomboy back then, and I was constantly trying to get my brothers to include me in their games and adventures.
Around the time I turned seven years old, my parents began exposing me to a wide range of activities, just as they'd done with my brothers and my sister before me. Having grown up running around the West Virginia outdoors, we were an athletic bunch. In addition to taking gymnastics classes, I ran track, swam on the swim team, and was even a cheerleader. It seemed as if all of us were constantly being shuttled back and forth from one practice to another, but my parents never complained. They were just pleased that we were all so active, participating in healthy activities and developing real confidence in ourselves and in our abilities. But when I was twelve, I went to my mother and said, "I want to stop everything else and concentrate only on gymnastics." By that time, I knew two things: Gymnastics was what I loved the most and, clearly, it was what I did best. I had begun competing in competitions and I loved the rush of energy I got after putting on a great performance. My parents agreed that it was a good idea, and my mother was thrilledfrom that point on, she only had to take me to one place after school!
As many opportunities as my parents gave us, they never pushed us into anything, and they never tried to live their lives through us. They let me discover my passion for gymnastics and then let me follow it as far as it would take me. Because of their generosity and unselfish love, I had the extraordinary experience of not only participating in the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles but of ultimately going all the way to win the gold medal in gymnastics as well. Only now, looking back, do I fully realize what an incredible gift my parents gave me when they allowed me to leave home, at the age of fourteen, and move to Houston to train with Bela Karolyi, the greatest women's gymnastics coach in the worldthe man who'd trained my athletic role model, Nadia Comaneci.
I had patterned my athletic training after Nadia's ever since, as an eight-year-old stretched out in front of the television, I was mesmerized by a young Romanian girl and her gold medal performance in gymnastics at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. Even now, I can still hear the words in my head as if I'd spoken them aloud: "I want to be like Nadia." And from that moment on, I absolutely believed that I would do itthat I would make it to the Olympics "like Nadia." But never, not even in the wildest moments of my admittedly vivid imagination, did I expect to have a chance to be trained by the man who had been Nadia's coach, the "mad Transylvanian," Bela Karolyi.
Bela first approached me after he saw me perform at a competition in Reno, Nevada. He walked right up to me, looked me in the eye, and said, "I'll make you into a champion." I was stunned. Did he mean me? And then he sat down with my parents and told them, "I think your daughter's got real potential." If it had been any other coach in the world, I think my parents would have been very resistant to the idea of my leaving home to train. I was their baby, after all, and I was still very young. But because it was Bela, because of his record and reputation, they took his offer seriously.
Back at home in West Virginia after the competition, I took some time off from the gym to think things over. Bela's offer meant the world to meit meant that I actually might be able to go on to achieve my dream of competing at the Olympicsbut I couldn't imagine moving to another city, or being away from my family and friends. The idea was exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. Nevertheless, I knew that I was standing on the cusp of a huge opportunity, and my parents knew it too. So it was during that time, the Christmas break of 1982, less than two years before the Olympic Games would open in Los Angeles, that we really discussed Bela's offer as a family.
I remember sitting together in our living room while the December snow fell softly and silently outside. I also remember that the television was off. That was a big deal. The television was always on in our house, but that day it stayed off because this was such an important decision. My mom and dad, being normal parents, were full of questions and concerns. But at the same time, they understood that this was my dream and my life. And so before they shared their own opinions, they asked me what I wanted to do. We all knew that I was at a crossroads in West Virginia. The coach I had was fantastic, but he'd taken me as far as he could, to a level where I just wasn't improving anymore. I'd made the Junior National Team and the coaches on the National Team had started talking about me: "That Retton kid might have what it takes." At that point, I usually finished fifth or sixth in the competitions; I was good, but very inconsistent. I'd score a 9.9 on vault and a 9.8 on the floor but then I'd fall three times off the beam. Even before Bela recruited me at the competition in Reno, I realized that if I wanted to reach that next level, I'd definitely have to make a change. I knew my raw talent was there, but I needed the focus and discipline of training that only someone like Bela could provide.
Back then, I didn't appreciate the extent of the sacrifice they would be making if they agreed to let me go by myself. As a parent, one of your greatest joys is watching your children grow and learn, sharing in not only their first steps but in other important milestones such as their first A on a math test, their first run scored in Little League baseball, or their first date. My parents would be missing out on some of that joy. They would also be, in a sense, turning me over to somebody else to raise. Mom and Dad had such particular ideas about child-rearing, and they were determined that I grow up with the same strong set of values that my other siblings had been raised with. I can only imagine how hard it must have been for them to even think about entrusting me to someone else's care at such a pivotol point in my life. Of course they could have just said no and that would have been the end of it. But once they heard me voice my hopes, they recognized that, by saying no, they might very well be standing in the way of what could turn out to be the greatest opportunity of my life. I remem-
ber my mom saying that if I wanted her to, she would even move to Houston with me. It was an extraordinary offer. But I said, "No, Mom, I can do this on my own. You've got four other kids at home who need you." I really believed I could do it myself, but I had no clue just how difficult it would be. I was very scared, yet at the same time, I was more excited than I had ever been before in my entire life.
Finally, after several hours of discussion, I took a deep breath and told them definitively that I wanted to give it a try. I was certain of this much: I didn't want to spend the rest of my life wondering "What if?" What if I never made it to the Olympics simply because I hadn't made the brave choice to train with Bela?
And my parents agreed.
Now, I have to be honest. I'm not sure that if either of my daughters come to me at the age of fourteen with a similar request, I'll be unselfish enough to do what my folks did for me. I'd certainly like to think so, but you never know. Either way, my own parents have provided an amazing model of what a family can be for all of us if we let itan unwavering source of unconditional support and love that gives its members a firm foundation from which to pursue their own dreams and goals.
My parents' love for me was the reason I made it to the Olympics, pure and simple. And throughout my life, I have continued to turn to my family for encouragement and understanding as I face new opportunities and challengeswhether they be in my career or in raising my two daughters. The first step in cultivating truly rewarding family relationships is to recognize the potential love and support our family members have to offer, and make a commitment to reach out to them with open hearts and open minds. In doing so, we open the door to happiness, and the security and contentment that come with knowing that someone loves us for who we really are.
What You Make of Your Family Is Up to You
Now that I have my own family to look after and my own children to bring up, I'm making a real effort to provide the same kind of nurturing and supportive family unit for my husband and children that I had growing up. Outside of my relationship with God, the most important thing in the world to me is that my children and husband know that I love them with all my heart and that they can rely on me, whatever situations may arise. I always make time for fun activities with my girls despite my busy schedule, and every day I try to be sure that I hear the details of their days at school, or say their prayers with them at night. I do all this because the truth is that an ideal family is not something that we are simply born intoit's something that every single family member has to work at every day to create.
Even families with very similar circumstances to ours can suffer tremendous strife and unhappiness if family members refuse to treat each other with respect and choose to act selfishly instead of generously. My parents never tried to control me in the way that so many mothers and fathers of young athletes do. They weren't trying to build names for themselves or get their pictures in major magazines through me. They understood that my success was simply that: my success. And they never viewed my success as a key to their own happiness. At seventeen, I petitioned the court to become an adult so that I could assume control over my finances and put more money into a retirement plan. Again, unlike the parents of many young athletes, my parents didn't oppose it for a second because they believed that everything I'd earned was mine. Of course, that always made me want to do nice things for them, precisely because they never acted as if it was my obligation to do so.
The lesson here is clear: We all have a choice in how we treat those who are close to us. Making the right or wrong decisions about how to behave can either draw your family closer together, or drive a wedge between you that may be permanent. In Luke 6:31, Jesus urged his disciples to follow a general rule of thumb, which applies to all of our relationships and not just to those we share with family: "Do to others as you would have them do to you." This means giving the members of your family the same unconditional love and generosity that you seek from them. Think hard about your actions before you take them and look ahead to the long-term results: Will your behavior damage the trust that exists between you or prevent such a bond from existing in the future? No matter the situation, good intentions and kind behavior will go a long way toward fostering the type of fulfilling family relationship that will take you through the gateway to happiness.
From the Hardcover edition.