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What Your Childhood Memories Say about You ... And What You Can Do about It
By Kevin Leman
TYNDALE HOUSE PUBLISHERS, INC.Copyright © 2007 Kevin Leman
All right reserved.
Chapter OneI Made a Fool of Myself ... and Liked It!
Why your private logic shows in public
Once when I was eight, my older sister, Sally, got the idea to dress me up in my billy-goat sweatshirt as the mascot for her varsity cheerleading squad. My task was easy. I was supposed to run onto the court with the cheerleaders in front of the crowded hometown gymnasium bleachers during a time-out to perform the five-second Williamsville Billies cheer, complete with hand motions. Decades later I still remember that cheer: "Basket, basket, score, score, score. Williamsville Central, we want more!"
Five seconds and a few hand motions-it wasn't exactly Shakespearean acting. Any joker could have pulled it off.
But somehow I managed to mess it up. It was the most itty-bitty part you could ever have, and I got the hand motions wrong. When I realized what I'd done, I froze. Row upon row of kids and adults began laughing at me, turning to their friends and pointing, then elbowing other friends to get a look at the fool up front. In that instant I felt the sharp sting of embarrassment.
But what happened next defines the memory for me ... and perhaps for reasons other than what you might expect. The most memorable part of those seconds on the gym floor was not the initial embarrassment. It was the much stronger-and surprising-feeling that followed. The entire school body was pointing at me and laughing, but as I looked around I thought to myself, Hey, this really isn't so bad.
Believe it or not, I didn't care that others thought I'd made a fool of myself. What was so much more important to me was that I had made people laugh. And not only was playing the part of the joker not so bad, it was great. I loved it! I felt so good giving all those students a laugh at my expense that I probably would have taken my botched Williamsville Billies cheer to the Ed Sullivan Show on TV, if they'd invited me.
In that moment, burned so vividly into my memory that I can still clearly recall it over half a century later, I identified a vital part of who I'd always been and who I would always be: Kevin Leman the Joker. Far from being an ace student like my sister or a star athlete like my brother, I was different all right, having seemingly emerged straight out of the little clown car in our family's three-ring circus.
It wasn't long after that botched cheer on the basketball court that someone egged me on at another home game to attack Williamsville's rival mascot-the Amherst Tiger of Amherst Central High School. I ran up behind the dumb cat, ripped its tail completely off, and went prancing around our gym twirling that tail above my head, whipping the home crowd into a frenzy. I was having the time of my life! Shortly after that game, our school newspaper ran a good-size headline that read, "Demon Leman Defeats Amherst Tiger in Half-Time Bout."
That was me: Leman the Demon. I had found my calling. I was making a fool of myself ... and loving it!
Is What's Private Showing in Public?
You may read that memory of mine and be completely unable to relate to it. In fact, you may even have a similar childhood memory of thoroughly embarrassing yourself in public-yet the way you reacted to your circumstances was completely different from how I reacted to mine. You may remember that same sting of embarrassment upon realizing that you'd messed up a line in the school play, a violin solo at your recital, or a pirouette during a ballet performance. But instead of feeling the euphoria of having people chuckle at you, you were horrified. If that's one of your childhood memories, you may never want to step in front of another crowd again. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld jokes that people are generally so scared of public speaking that they would rather be lying in the coffin at a funeral than in front of the crowd delivering the eulogy!
I once read that Michael Jordan said he was never as comfortable as when he was on the basketball court. I can't fly through the air like Jordan (although I do have a three-inch vertical leap), but I can relate to his feeling of stepping into a well-defined comfort zone. I'm completely in my element the instant the blinding stage lights go on, the floor director of a TV show points at me, and I "go live." In fact, I once stumbled into our kitchen in the early morning hours, opened the refrigerator door, and when the light inside went on, I launched into a monologue before realizing I was there for a glass of milk!
Today, when I stand in front of a crowd of five thousand adults or prepare to walk onto the set of a TV show before a viewing audience of millions, I get a twinkle in my eye and think, Hey, this looks like fun. As amazing as it might seem, I can't wait to get up in front-and the larger the crowd the better. You, however, might look at that same crowd and feel a wave of nausea, break out in a cold sweat, and think, Before I get in front of those people, I'll hang myself with my own shoelaces! There is no way I'm going to do that ... ever! One of my greatest pleasures may very well be your worst nightmare. And vice versa.
But when you think about it, that shouldn't surprise you, because when two people are in a similar situation, there are a zillion and one ways they will not see the world precisely the same. That unique perspective is called "private logic," a term coined by psychologist Alfred Adler. Your private logic encompasses the way you see yourself and your view of life; it includes the way you seek attention or handle conflict. It's revealed through how you complete the phrase "And the moral of my life's story is ..."
It suggests how you are inclined to respond when a waiter spills a drink down the front of your shirt or when you suddenly come upon the rear bumper of an elderly person driving a blistering 43 mph on the freeway. Do you respond by acknowledging that accidents happen and that elderly people are to be shown grace? Or do you see those incidents as direct affronts against you or maddening obstacles that cause you to push back? or, even further, as events in a world conspiring against you?
In short, your private logic is your subjective interpretation of the people, places, and things around you-a perspective that changes over time but that's built upon the solid, immovable foundation of your formative, early childhood years.
As the youngest child in my family, I accepted early on that my role was to entertain people, to have fun, and to push limits whenever possible. The only way I could stand out from my scholarly sister and athletic brother was to cut my own path, which was by being a goof- off. Some children strive for attention in positive ways; others strive for attention in negative ways. But one way or another, all kids strive for attention. And getting a laugh at all costs-even if it meant getting to know the principal a bit better-was how I "logically" understood my role in life.
If you grew up living to make people laugh, as I did, then you'll see yourself as a clown with the world as your three-ring circus. If you grew up as a martyr, believing that everyone in the world is part of some secret underground society sworn to overthrow your success, then you'll continue to view life that way. Your private logic is shaped both by who you innately were when you were born and who you became through your family environment. Even children within the same family-as much as they may adopt similar values, speak a common body language, and understand the same inside jokes-will view the same moment in childhood differently. One might remember Dad's admonitions not to play near the street as overbearing and distrustful. Another might remember Dad's watchful eye as lovingly protective.
The way you respond to each and every moment in your life reveals how you see yourself and the world. And as you examine your collection of childhood memories, you'll begin to discover themes-themes that reveal your own private logic as clearly as the grain in a piece of wood.
Going against the Grain
Did you ever take a woodshop class in school or sit around at summer camp whittling a stick? If you did, you know that if you ever try to carve against the grain, all you'll get is a pile of chips and a handful of splinters. You'll have much better luck if you carve along the grain. Then you can create different shapes, sand it to soften its feel, stain it to change its color, varnish it to protect it, and polish it to make it shine. But guess what? No matter what, the grain of the wood remains the same.
That wood grain is a lot like your personality. Whatever your strengths and weaknesses, you can sand what you've been given to soften your rough edges, add stain and polish to make a beautiful first impression, and varnish it to protect yourself from corrupting influences. But living a life that goes completely against your natural personality will ultimately give you "splinters."
Here's a great example. I should never become an accountant, for the only figure I'm interested in is my wife, Sande's. If I had to spend an hour, let alone my entire working life, with a spreadsheet, I'd give up and join the circus, where my chances for success would be much greater. Numbers are great things, I admit. They help me identify my favorite college basketball and football players during game time and are very useful in assessing how much weight I'm gaining by my pants size. But beyond that, I have little use for them. It's simply not in me to spend hours crunching numbers. By knowing myself, I avoid the splinters of going against my grain.
It's not enough to simply know my grain, though, because we can "go with our grain" in both positive and negative ways. I can go with my grain in positive ways by helping people laugh-I love doing that when I speak, write, or run into some of you in the grocery store line. In some ways I really do see the world as one big stand-up comedy stage. But I can go with my grain in negative ways as Leman the Mischievous Demon, first cousin to Dennis the Menace, getting into all sorts of trouble and occasionally looking at the line drawn in front of me and stepping over it just for fun.
Let me show you what I mean by telling you two stories from my life.
My wife, Sande, loves antiques. This past Christmas she bought some antique ornaments that are beautiful but costly! After I'd gotten over my sticker shock, I couldn't help but chuckle because where Sande saw them as works of art, I remembered target practice. You see, those antique Christmas ornaments took me back to when I was a kid, perched on the living-room steps like a sniper with my BB pistol. It wasn't exactly a high-powered firearm. In fact, the BB's trajectory even had a bit of a lob to it. But I saw myself as the Delta Force point man on Operation Tinsel and made it my mission to pick off as many Christmas tree ornaments as I could. And because I did it from across the room, no one could see me, so they blamed it on the family cat. Who knows how many dollars' worth of ornaments I picked off as a child ... ornaments that would have survived to become antiques but for my sharpshooting practice!
It sounds terrible, I know-just the sort of thing Dennis the Menace and I might dream up in a brainstorming session-but when I chose to follow my fun-loving grain in mischievous, rebellious ways, I sometimes stepped across that line of what is appropriate. And that propensity to play the rebel has surfaced again and again throughout my life.
For example, when I was working as a janitor in the Tucson Medical Center, I met the love of my life, Sande, who was a nurse's aide at the time. I was completely smitten with Sande's beauty, grace, and class, but her boss there told her not to associate with me because "I wouldn't amount to much."
Years later, after I'd advanced at that same university to become an assistant dean of students and gotten the woman of my dreams to marry me in spite of her boss's advice, I was helping with registration one day. I spotted that very same woman, Sande's former boss, standing in line. Out of the thousands who were there on campus registering that day, she had coincidentally appeared in my line to sign up for some ongoing education. I couldn't believe how the tables had turned! Thankfully there were seven people before her in line so I could consider my response to her. As the minutes ticked by, I could feel the little angel and demon on my shoulders locking halo and horns, wrestling it out as to whether I'd be gracious to her or get even!
When she stepped to the front of the line, she clearly didn't recognize who I was. She told me what classes she was registering for, and I looked thoughtfully over her registration cards.
"Sorry," I said as I frowned and shook my head. "You'll need to go to the TBA building to get signatures on these cards. It's located at the very far end of campus." As I handed her back her cards, she thanked me and headed off on her long trek in search of the TBA building ... which didn't exist. I had simply glanced at one of the papers on my table and seen the letters T-B-A-To Be Announced-beside one of the classes and had made the whole scenario up on the spot!
I know, I know. It wasn't a very kind joke. Like all of us, I have my weaknesses. Part of my grain-my propensity to certain ways of thinking or acting, if you will-is to take my fun-loving grain and put a mischievous twist on it. I do this much less today, however (except for tapping on the brake from time to time when someone is tailgating me), for as I matured I came to find that being a rebellious joker began to work to my detriment.
After my run-in with the Amherst Tiger mascot, I took to my role as Leman the Demon with reckless abandon. I threw water balloons in class. I crawled out of a classroom on my hands and knees while the teacher was teaching just to get a laugh from my peers. I carried a dictionary through the hallways with the pages cut out to conceal a water gun that I could whip out, squirt a teacher, then hide. I even set fire to the wastebasket in English class. That was my idea of fun!
But fun only got me so far.
You see, getting people to laugh was an important part of who I was and still am. Kevin Leman was both innately wired and nurtured growing up to be a comedian. But I was also telling myself a lie back then: that I didn't matter in life unless I was making others laugh. With all the brilliance of a frog refusing to jump from a pot of slowly boiling water, I maintained my trickster persona with my crazy antics-and slowly it was killing me.
Finally my high school geometry teacher, Ms. Eleanor Wilson, pulled me aside. "Kevin, I've watched your behavior. I've seen the way you act at school and how you relate to your peers. And do you know what I think? You could really make something of your life if you used the skills you have. I see your potential, but applying yourself is up to you. I can't make that happen."
I was stunned. She was the first person-other than my parents, and parents are supposed to say things like that-who had dared to speak the truth. That interaction with Ms. Wilson literally changed the direction of my life.
Are You Being Deceived?
I've told that story about Ms. Wilson many times before, but I mention it briefly again here because it touches on one of the most important points of this book, which we'll examine in more detail in later chapters: There are all sorts of lies you tell yourself over and over until you accept them as readily as you do your own skin. And it isn't always easy to recognize them as lies. Sometimes it takes a Ms. Wilson, a friend, or a book like this one to reveal the truth.
That's where your childhood memories come in, pointing to what makes you you and providing clues to your strengths and weaknesses. What my memory of botching the hand motions to that cheer and making the student body laugh tells me is that I love the spotlight. I enjoy being in front of people so much, in fact, that I've made a living of it, while helping others learn a thing or two about themselves and their relationships in the process. If I ever forget that lesson and sign up for a career in accounting, I'll quickly degenerate into a miserable jellyfish of a human being. But there's also a flip side to my love of the spotlight: Too much attention may not be a good thing for me. If I hadn't confronted the lie in my life years ago that said I only mattered if I was making headlines in people's days, I might have continued to revert to that negative-attention-getting clown that my early childhood memories reveal I can be.
And that's another lesson that has literally changed my life.
Excerpted from What Your Childhood Memories Say about You ... And What You Can Do about It by Kevin Leman Copyright © 2007 by Kevin Leman. Excerpted by permission.
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