"Planning way ahead is a silly proposition."
Boarding one of the countless flights I've taken over the course of my career, I had no way of knowing that my seat mate would end up playing a profound role in my life.
As I sat in the aisle seat, I heard the voice of a grandmotherly woman seated next to me. Vanessa wanted to know if she could still use her cell phone. What began after that benign question was a conversation that would change us both in ways we never expected.
You see, at 82 years of age, Vanessa is the most positive, courageous, and insightful person I've ever met.
She's a living, breathing example of how a person who will never have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, or have a tribute concert held in their honor, can still leave a lasting impact on the world — even when they don’t know they have the power to do so.
Since the day we met on that flight, Vanessa emails me on the first of every month. She's done so to ensure that I'm living in a way that will enable me to achieve whatever happiness might be available to me. And guess what? She's keeping on task.
Vanessa, who I now have the honor of calling my dear friend, was born into a devout Catholic, middle class family in pre-World War II America. Even with the tragic backdrop of having lost her mother at the age of one, and losing a son in middle age, she constantly reminds me that we must believe in happiness.
During our flight-long chat, she said to me, "Look at this face. It's the face of an elderly woman who knows that planning way ahead is a silly proposition. If you think you won't get this old someday, you're wrong; it’s inevitable ... if you're lucky enough to live this long.
So, take it from me: you don't want to get here with regrets. Go build the best life you can imagine, given where you are at this stage in your life. Give yourself permission to be happy."
On that fateful flight, Vanessa challenged me to think about my life differently. She assured me that my attempts to make others happy, when they hadn't chosen that for themselves, would never yield the results I'd hope for.
That piece of advice is but one of the numerous nuggets she's shared during our marvelous friendship.
The following are some of the ingredients that compose what I like to call "Vanessa’s Recipe for Life":
- Don't dwell on things you can't control.
- Surround yourself with positive, happy people.
- Avoid gossip.
- Don't accept a partner who doesn't love you above all else.
- Resist the urge to pursue wealth as a way to happiness.
- Help as many people as you can, everyday.
- Do no harm.
- Failure is not to be feared.
- Love passionately.
- Keep your mind and body active.
There are so many lessons to be learned from an experience like the one I had. But I contend that the single most important lesson is that none of us are irrelevant.
We all have the power to alter lives. The simplest interaction with a fellow human being can trigger a course of events that could lead to someone finding their way in the world.
I hope you meet your Vanessa today. Or, better yet, I hope you become someone's Vanessa today.