Commentary: A vacation to the mountains turns out to be a life lesson on keeping your cool


A treacherous journey reveals my not-so-pretty side.

I recently returned from a ski trip to Colorado. While I managed not to break anything or freeze to death, there were several moments when I was motivated to contemplate my own mortality.

On the morning we set out the Midwest had just been walloped by one of the biggest snowstorms in recent memory. The highways were clear, but we still had to navigate snowy patches and icy bridges.

About an hour into our journey, my friend hit the brakes hard. Up ahead, we watched as a semi-trailer clipped a pickup, which hit the inside guardrail and careened to the righthand shoulder. We rushed to help, and discovered the driver slumped over the wheel, his face bloody. His wife was screaming. The pickup had caught fire, and the bashed-in driver's side door was stuck shut. One friend helped pry the door off the pickup and extract the driver. Another friend, an emergency room nurse, administered first aid. Soon paramedics and firefighters arrived, and eventually it seemed all would be OK—the driver's minor facial lacerations and probable concussion notwithstanding.

We, however, were shaken. Continuing on, we drove with extra caution. Fortunately the roads improved as we continued west through Kansas. Once we reached Colorado, however, more trouble.

I was driving when another semi kicked up a huge piece of ice, which hit our car with a terrific bang. Soon the car began pulling and drifting. We pulled off at the next exit—the tire was flat. So off with the flat, on with the doughnut, and over to the nearest tire shop. One hour and $136 later, we were on our way with a new tire and giving ridiculously wide berth to any semi.

Finally, we found, with relief, that we were only 40 miles from the ski resort. Little did we know. It was dark. The road was snow-packed, icy, and composed of hairpin turn after hairpin turn. White-knuckled and praying we arrived with everything but our nerves intact.

Why am I telling this story? Because the process was personally enlightening. As we made this trek and our problems accumulated, our moods shifted from lighthearted to tense and our words from jovial to sharp. I found myself fuming, internally criticizing my friends, other drivers (especially semi drivers), people we stopped to ask for directions—anyone who crossed our path.

Fortunately I recognized this stress-induced shrewishness for what it was and managed to keep my mouth shut. If I had let loose verbally, it would have put a damper on the rest of our vacation, not to mention my two friendships.

In veterinary practice there is no shortage of pressure cooker situations. We can't control how other people react under stress, but we can control ourselves. And we can choose graciousness. Yes, we're going to slip up and the poison-tipped arrow will fly from our lips. And then, of course, we have the occasion to request the other side of grace: forgiveness and reconciliation.

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