By: T.R. Matson
It was a beautiful Friday morning as I parked at the military hospital. My plan was to finish my annual flight physical and get started on my weekend. The weather was supposed to be great, and I was looking forward to a few days off work. As I entered the waiting area, there were half a dozen service men and women waiting to be seen by the doctor, yet one man who stood out. He was sitting all alone wearing jeans, a polo shirt, and a Vietnam Veteran ball cap. He sat patiently waiting while leaning on the oxygen tank that sat in front of him and helped him breathe. With a quick glance around the room it seemed as if everyone had sat as far away as they could from the gentleman whose eyes looked tired yet still very much alive.
After checking in at the front desk I sat down across from him. I was a young Ensign in the Navy and proudly wearing my flight suit this Friday morning. Our eyes caught each other, he smiled, and I returned a simple nod and “good morning sir.” He took that opening and immediately asked me if I was going through flight training and followed up with asking what I wanted to fly. Our conversation flowed easily, and time passed without notice. He told me that he wanted to be a pilot when he was my age but when he learned of the low success rate, he never pursued it. Before he knew it, he was sent to Vietnam and his life path was set. He asked me why I was in the hospital, and I asked him the same. That is where this went from being just another Friday morning to something I will never forget.
“I’m dying, son. I am just here to say goodbye and thank all the staff that has tried to help me.” I sat there in shock. While he didn’t look exceptionally healthy breathing from the oxygen bottle, he also didn’t look like he was going to die anytime soon. I suppose that my shock was evident on my face, and he immediately changed the subject. He went on to tell me about his wife and children, as well as the friends he had made while serving in the military. Some had already passed and others he still spoke to everyday. He told me about his life after the military, his favorite brand of whiskey, and how he could still smell his wife’s perfume if he closed his eyes even though she had passed years prior from cancer. His spirits lifted as he spoke of her and their life together. He smiled and told me he had a full life and with his days numbered he had only one regret. Before I could even decide if I wanted to ask him what it was, he offered it to me, “I never failed at anything.”
While on the surface this could come across as an overly arrogant man bragging on his accomplishments, I learned the truth was actually very different. Here sitting across from me was a man that undoubtedly had seen some pretty amazing things, both good and bad, during his lifetime. He was facing his own mortality and he explained to me that he never really pushed himself enough to fail at anything. He gave the example of being told that learning how to fly was too difficult, and that he would likely fail, so he never tried. The gravity of that point hit me like a rock as I sat there and hung on his every word. I realized that I was speaking to a man who had lived his whole life and only regretted how he did it. He told me that there were so many times when he would come to a fork in the road of life, and he had to choose whether to take the path that would be comfortable or the one that took him out of his comfort zone. He always took the comfortable one. He ended the conversation when his name was called with a halfhearted joke that he wondered where he would be if he had chosen differently.
As he left the room, I sat there with my own thoughts trying to process the advice he left me with. “Never stop failing.” To this day, there are many times that I sit alone and think of the old man in the hospital. Life has a way of offering challenges when we sometimes least expect it. It is very easy to get comfortable and listen to those around us say our goals are impractical. Today, many years later, I think back on my own life. There have been many highs and lows, and I have experienced things that if you told me I would, back on that Friday morning, I would not have believed you. One thing is for sure, that old man’s words stuck with me more than I could have ever imagined. I laugh at the times that I went for something that seemed utterly impossible only to succeed. Other times I have failed, and sometimes those failures have been huge, but they always lead to other opportunities and experiences that I would not have had if I just took the comfortable road.
So today I want to pass on the words of a great old man who had lived a great life with only one regret. Don’t be afraid to fail. Don’t let the strongest muscle, your brain, get in the way of your success. When people around you say you cannot do something, prove them wrong. Life is very short, and we only get one chance. Don’t waste the time listening to what other people tell you with regards to what you can and cannot accomplish. Listen to your heart, and let it drive your passion. While you may fail at times, those failures will bring opportunities and life lessons that will make you stronger in the long run. In order to be truly successful at life, failure is the only option.