My dad could fix anything, whether under the hood of a car or under the kitchen sink.
And I was always right there with him.
Holding the flashlight.
Never once did my dad attempt to teach me any of what he was doing. Instead, mopping perspiration from his brow with one of those old-school red print handkerchiefs, he’d say, “You’re lucky. You’re gonna work with your head, not your hands.”
Turned out he was right. Well, half right. I’ve worked with my head for more than 50 years. But I’d feel a lot luckier if I also could fix a leaky faucet.
My un-handiness around the house aside, however, the career I was drawn to, particularly the last 30 years as a college professor, has required me to fix more important things than faulty light switches and wobbly chair legs. I fix broken hearts. Or at least I try to.
I can’t tell you how many students, and occasionally friends or colleagues, have come to my door seeking comfort. This is not a role I’ve sought. But it’s one I’ve embraced. Mainly because I’ve been in their shoes, all too often. Which means not only can I empathize, but I also have a lot of experience to draw from. And also a lot of debts to pay. Because others have been there for me, I also must be there for others.
That’s one of the best lessons I share with someone who’s hurting. Reach out to your friends. I once carried a heartache alone for the best part of a year. I kept it to myself because I believed, perhaps foolishly, that we were going to work things out and I didn’t want anyone thinking ill of the girl who was hurting me. I finally shared it with a trusted friend and his first reaction was, “Thank, God.” As soon as he heard himself utter those words, he knew an explanation was necessary. “Not ‘Thank God’ that you’re nursing a broken heart,” he said. “Thank God that you’re not mad at me. You’ve been so different, I thought I did something to you.”
That was an eye-opener. I thought I had been being my old self. I soon learned he was not the only one who had noticed the change in me. I was surprised at how much better I felt after talking with him. It wasn’t so much what he said, but simply that he listened. I had been carrying this heavy weight all by myself for so long, it felt good to have two more hands helping me.
I make it clear I am not a trained counselor and it would be wrong of me to pretend to be, I tell a hurting student. But I can offer non-judgmental listening, and often that is just what the person needs. I do look for red flags, mind you. I may even ask point blank if the person has contemplated suicide. Then I am obligated to contact a professional. Fortunately, that is rarely the case.
A friend once advised me, “The best revenge is living well.” I hesitate to use the word “revenge,” but I will tell a student to be the best you can be and make that girl or guy regret the day they dumped you. “Dress well, throw yourself into school, get in shape, be awesome.”
I also tell them to be their own best friend. That’s advice that served me well.
And because I firmly believe there is positive in every negative situation, I share a line from the song “Help Me” by Joni Mitchell: “We love our lovin’, but not like we love our freedom.” I tell them to embrace their new found freedom.
I must add, though, that my world is not merely one of broken hearts. It’s also one of young love. When two smiling faces appear at my door to announce they are now a couple, I tell them I don’t want to see one of them come back crying. “You be the couple that makes it,” I say. “You be the couple that invites me to your 50th wedding anniversary celebration.”
That’s way too ambitious, I know. I didn’t start teaching until I was 40 years old, so the chance of being around 50 more years, especially now, is pretty slim. But after 30 years on the job, I can point to a pretty good handful of success stories. Three of those young couples at my door have been married for more than 20 years. I was best man at one of their weddings and had the honor of giving the bride away at another.
And because of an online opportunity afforded by The Universal Life Church, I’ve also officiated at a few weddings. So far, they are all going strong. I’m batting a thousand.
One of the grooms, by the way, was once a kid who’d sat in my office with a broken heart. We fixed him real good.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.