Dental Mirrors, Black Dots, & Attitudes: The Secrets to Living an Extraordinary Life

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Three.

I only spent about three afternoons with the man, and he left an impression on me forever.

Some people are just like that. They leave an unforgettable impression which you will carry throughout your entire life.

There is something different about these people. Try as you might, you can never really put your finger on what it is. They seem quite ordinary when you break it down and look at the facts, but you still can’t shake the feeling that they have a sort of glow about them.

Maybe all of us leave impressions like this on at least a few people throughout our lives, but the really rare people spread this magic to more than just a few.

They invite you into their secret clubs for an afternoon or so, but you leave with the feeling that you have some growing to do. Somehow, they don’t make you feel inferior because of this, either. Whatever it is they know that you don’t, you haven’t yet figured it out. It inspires an endless pursuit of their great secrets.

The man I knew like this told me his secrets.

His name was Rex, and he could make you feel like you were exactly who you needed to be with nothing more than a smile. His skin was wrinkled, but it didn’t take away from the youthful energy overflowing from him. His hair was white with the wisdom of many well-lived years. His eyes shone with that glimmer of “I know a secret.”

I met with Rex and his sweet wife, Jan, who carries the same legacy as him, to have coffee. If my memory is correct, this only happened three times. My dad is a contractor and had worked on their house. The couple heard about my sister and I and decided to invest some time and wisdom into us. Being the influential people that they were, I’m sure there are at least a hundred other people they could have given this time to, but they chose to give it to us.

Aside from his time, Rex gave me three things. Each told me one of his secrets to being one of those extraordinary people.

One. A Dental Mirror.

I keep it in my box of keepsakes on the top shelf of my closet. Rex was a well-respected oral surgeon who founded his own surgery group. He was the Medical Missions Dental Team leader on several trips he took to Nicaragua to give people dental care who otherwise wouldn’t have it. He had a bag of old, extra dental supplies leftover from these trips that he offered to my sister and I. I chose one dental mirror to remember him by.

The great secret found in this is simple: serve. To whom much is given, much is expected. Get outside of yourself. Use the gifts you’ve been given to help others. This is one of the unexpected places that true contentment is found.

Two. “The Black Dot.”

One afternoon at coffee, Rex handed my sister and I each a piece of paper. It had a story on it called “The Black Dot.” The story tells of a professor that handed his students each a white piece of paper with nothing more than a little black dot in the middle. He told them to write about what they saw on the paper. Afterwards, he read the responses to the class. Every last student had written about the black dot on the paper, but no one had written about all the white space around it.

The “black dots” of our lives — the negative things — are what we spend the majority of our time dwelling on. We think about them so much that we don’t even give the white space a second thought. We take all the good things, which far outweigh the bad things, for granted.  One of the great secrets, then, is to take your focus away from the black dots and instead focus on the white space.

Three. “Attitude is Everything.”

The last time I ever visited with Rex, he was 96 and dealing with a painful medical condition that had been going on for a while. You wouldn’t have known it, just by talking to him. His smile was still genuine and his mood was as chipper as ever. He gave me a spiral-bound booklet titled “Attitude is Everything.” He had used the booklet to teach his employees. The principles in it were so simple but so life changing.

Filled with his own scribbled notes, the booklet explains that everything begins in your thoughts. It says, “The majority of people do not understand how important thoughts are, and leave the development of thought patterns to random chance.”

“You are the gatekeeper of your thinking,” Rex writes.

Your attitude about something makes or breaks it, and you are the one in control of it.

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I keep the dental mirror, the piece of paper with the story, and the booklet on hand for when I need a reminder of how to live an extraordinary life like Rex — a man who lived like Christ.

The secret behind it all was that Rex didn’t make an unforgettable impact on the world because of who he was, but because of the God he served.

This was a secret Rex knew was best told.

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The Great Parking Lot Adventure

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It was a few months after I turned sixteen when the golden day came. After a lifetime of anticipation, it finally happened —

I got my driver’s license.

And a car. (Shoutout to the ‘rents!) I was free. Suddenly, I could go to my best friend’s house or meet the squad for ice cream anytime I wanted. I also didn’t have to wait for my parents to pick me up after school anymore. Talk about independence.

When I first started driving, I thought I was invincible. I would fly down the road in my little Toyota Camry, blasting music and feeling like the coolest kid around. I would swing into any parking spot, never doubting that I would be able to fit and make it out like a getaway driver.

This one got me into trouble.

One day after school, I hopped in my car with my Christmas pajamas (it was pajama day–the icing on the cake). I had pulled through, and was facing the car line for the parents. I thought there was surely enough space for my car to turn out of the spot and slide past the parents’ cars.

Only there wasn’t.

I misjudged my turn and scraped my car against my friend Angelica’s car. Not just a little scrape, either. I made it alllllllll the way down the left side of my car. Then, it dawned on me that my car was a little too close to hers. Somehow, I didn’t hear or feel a thing until that moment. It was a very graceful scrape.

I was about to call my friend and explain what had happened, when I saw her walk out of the school with a confused look on her face.

She was in for a surprise.

We examined the damage. Thankfully, her car wasn’t damaged at all (a miracle from above). My car, however, had a huge dent brushed with a million little black scrapes. It was quite the masterpiece, if you ask me.

When I drove home and explained what had happened to my parents, they were very forgiving. But, being that the damage would cost about two grand to fix, they decided it wasn’t smart to get it fixed.

Fast forward to the present (four years later), and I’m still driving my lovely Camry, dent and all.

For a while, I was really embarrassed by it. It was like driving around with a big label saying this girl does not know how to park. Or drive.

I tried to figure out ways to save up enough money to get it fixed, or get a new car. Every time I came up with a plan, I decided I would much rather use that money to go on a cool trip or something. Not that I’m very good at budgeting in the first place.

So, I let it go. I learned to embrace the imperfection.

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Throwback to the good ol’ days, just months before the tragedy of ’14.

For some reason, anytime I meet someone new, my car dent story is often one of the first stories I tell them. I figure they’re going to find out at some point, so I should probably prepare them.

If I forget to prepare them, it’s an excellent conversation starter when I roll up.

You know what? I’ve learned that people love that story.

It shows that I’m human. I’m broken. I make mistakes.

I tend to think people will like me better if they think I’m perfect. I try to make sure my hair isn’t too frizzy and my clothes are in style. I try to get perfect grades, do lots of cool things, volunteer, always say the right things, and get lots of likes on Instagram.

I end up living like I’m walking on a tight rope. And I fall off a lot. 

In reality, people don’t like that girl as much as the real me. The real me who is always running late, has an offbeat sense of humor, and can’t remember if she wore the same t-shirt the last time she saw you. The real me who gets cranky when she doesn’t get enough sleep and sometimes can’t stop laughing about something that happened months ago. In the middle of class.

The real me who has a very dented car.

I’ve also learned that the Lord likes the real me the best.

He can’t use me when I’m not being real with Him. He can’t be close to me when I’m putting on a show. He just wants me to be real. Only then can He help me fix the messes I make.

He loves to hear our stories of brokenness, because those are the stories that reveal our weakness and magnify His strength.

Don’t be afraid to talk about your dents.

I’m willing to bet they’d make the best stories.

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I bet you were waiting for this picture the whole time. Well, here you go. If you see me out driving, feel free to wave.

What Pineapple Cake Taught Me

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Circa 2015, when I was a high schooler who thought it was cool to take pictures with produce at the grocery store.

There’s nothing quite like getting left out and then finding out about it later.

It stings.

Rewind to about a year ago. I lived in a little house with a couple of roommates. One night, I overheard one of them inviting two of my best friends over. I thought it was awfully nice of them to plan a get together for us. How fun.

A day or so passed, and something strange happened.

They didn’t invite me. 

My roommate, my best friends, my own house. And I wasn’t invited?

The night of their little party came. I walked in the door to find them giggling in the kitchen around a bowl of cake batter and a few spoons. Unbelievable. A baking night without me. They even acted like I was intruding.

So, I did the mature thing.

I stomped up to my room like a drama queen and didn’t come out for a couple of hours. That’ll show them, I thought. Once I got done with my “woe is me” speech, I decided to take the high road and join them downstairs.

There was tension in the air, so thick you could’ve sliced it with a knife. I took a closer look at their messy bowls and the icing splotched on the counter. Things got suspicious.

There were some things laid out on a tray that looked exactly like Pringles. Only they were green? I did a double take. Yep, those were definitely green Pringles. “Why are those chips green?” I asked.

They all died laughing, and then refused to explain it.

You can’t make green chips and not explain why.

It appeared that they were using yellow and brown icing. Who uses yellow and brown icing? Not the most flattering color combo, unless you’re the Man with the Yellow Hat or something (Curious George, anyone?).

I noticed a can of sliced pineapples sitting on the counter. That’s when it all clicked.

I had an obsession with pineapples for a while. They’re cute, right? As it turns out, my friends had the idea to surprise me with a pineapple cake that actually looks like a pineapple for my birthday. Brilliant.

Just to make sure it turned out perfectly, they decided to do a test run. Enter the exclusive baking night, which I was never supposed to find out about.

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It’s a good thing they did a practice round. The first cake turned out more like a pineapple landslide.

The lesson I learned that day? Don’t be so quick to assume. Things aren’t always as they seem.

I thought my friends had come up with an evil plan to betray me (or, more realistically, just forgotten about me). In reality, they were going behind my back so they could be the best friends ever and thoughtfully surprise me with a homemade pineapple cake.

Boy, were my assumptions off on this one.

There are two specific ways I try to apply this lesson:

  1. Don’t be so quick to assume things about people. About their intentions, their backgrounds, their flaws. Anything, really. We can criticize people all day — that rude lady in the checkout line or that friend who always cancels plans last minute — but our opinions don’t count until we know the whole story. People are going through hard things. We all do. Show grace.
  2. Don’t be so quick to assume things about your own situations. The future. That difficult problem you’re smack in the middle of and just can’t seem to overcome. We can worry about things all day — if we’ll pass that class or land that job — but our worries won’t get us anywhere. We don’t know the whole story yet. Honestly, this one is really hard for me. I have to remember that there’s a reason Jesus constantly tells us to stop worrying and just trust Him, all throughout the Bible. He is faithful. All we can really do is take it one day at a time.

So, stop assuming the worst about rude people, dramatic people, quiet people, loud people, that situation in your life you can’t stop worrying about, and that problem you just can’t seem to solve.

In the end, you never know.

It might just turn out to be a pineapple cake.

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There we go. A professional pineapple cake. This was months later, and the surprise actually worked because I had forgotten all about it. I love a good happy ending.