Have you ever found yourself stuck? In a bad situation? Crying out for help?
Have you ever messed something up so badly that you felt stupid, like an idiot, as if you had no idea what you were thinking?
Have you ever wanted something badly, very badly, only to ruin it a few hours after receiving it?
Now, imagine doing all the above on Christmas Day and you can appreciate how Walt Disney felt when he wrecked his own Christmas, at age thirteen, way back in 1914.
As Jim Korkis writes in his special Christmas Edition of The Vault of Walt, Walt Disney was eyeing a special gift that year. A particular pair of boots that were all the rage, but far too fashionable and not nearly practical enough for his father, Elias, to agree to such an extravagant expense. His mom, Flora, and older brother, Roy, came to the rescue by working extra, pinching pennies, and saving up the money to give Walt the boots he so badly wanted and seemingly everyone else was wearing.
The young boy beamed when he opened his presents that Christmas morning. Somehow, his dream had been realized. A dream that quickly turned into a nightmare. After venturing out to show off his newfound finery to all his friends, Walt began walking home just after dark. Bored by the long trek back, Walt entertained himself by kicking hunks of ice frozen in the street and angling to see how he could keep things interesting by varying his kicks.
Suddenly, his foot stopped cold after a hard kick into a huge block of ice. Walt had managed to kick right through the ice and into a horseshoe nail hidden deep within. The nail went through Walt’s new boot and into his foot.
Because the ice was so heavy, and the young Walt was so stuck, he was unable to break free on his own. Worse, everyone was now home celebrating the holiday with their family, so no one was nearby to help. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity but was probably only about twenty minutes…the driver of a horse-drawn delivery wagon heard Walt’s cries for “Help!” and stopped to assist. Walt Disney’s Good Samaritan went for tools, chopped the ice loose, and then carried him to a doctor’s office.
The news was not good. Using pliers, but no painkillers, the good doctor saved Walt’s toe and his foot, but not his new boot(s). Following a tetanus shot, Elias arrived to pick up his son and pay the medical bill.
For the next two weeks, Walt spent his time laid up on a couch at home with his foot elevated. No work. No school. At first, only his thoughts occupied his mind. Thoughts about how stupid he was, how his family would never be able to afford another pair of boots, and his fear of being stuck…cold and alone on that Kansas City street on Christmas night.
Fortunately, Walt’s aunt had given him another gift that Christmas. A big sketchpad. Without radio, television, the internet, or even social media to keep him occupied, Walt had no choice but to employ that second gift to keep him entertained.
And the young Walt Disney fell in love.
Before his injury, Walt had only entertained the idea of being a doctor, a lawyer, or maybe some kind of performer. But he lacked the grades and money for college, and the self-confidence for performing full-time.
Before his Christmas Day calamity, Walt Disney’s drawings were sporadic. His few cartoons had only brought a chuckle to himself, his family, and the few who had seen them in Kansas City. Now, he gratefully had time to sketch and draw every day. Now he could incorporate these activities into his daily routine and submit his drawings with his daily homework, receiving encouraging and positive feedback, while he studied and recovered at home. When Walt Disney was fully healed, he made a decision that would change his life and our world.
He would become a professional cartoonist.
As we get ready to celebrate Thanksgiving and head into the holiday season, I challenge you to think about your “boots.” What has life given you that looks like a calamity, a catastrophe, a conflict, or a challenge? Perhaps there is a way to be grateful for what you are facing…knowing that your previous adversities, like what Walt faced in December 1914, eventually turned out in your favor?
Christmas Eve a year ago, I fell down a flight of stairs while visiting friends in Boston. I lost my balance before reaching the landing, resulting in a concussion, broken rib, and five spinal fractures. I spent two nights stuck in the hospital, including Christmas Eve and all of Christmas Day.
Because I wasn’t using a handrail, I couldn’t help but ruminate, What were you thinking? How could you be so stupid? What kind of idiot flies from Los Angeles to Boston just so they can ruin Christmas for everyone else and spend two nights in Massachusetts General?
Nearly a year later, I am grateful for what happened. First, I could have been paralyzed or killed from the fall. Secondly, I woke up on Christmas morning and Who was my nurse? None other than “Cindy Lou” (you can’t make this stuff up). Most importantly, I received a text late in the day from a former student who had heard about my accident and wanted to make sure I was okay: “Merry Christmas, Dr. Barnes. I saw your posts on Instagram, and I just wanted to say I’m praying for you and am sorry this isn’t the ideal Christmas. Lyndsey.”
Ideal Christmas. Eleven months and thousands of texts messages later, Lyndsey is my girlfriend.
I’m learning that life is a lot like that big sketchpad Walt received from his aunt on Christmas morning. Our best gifts may not always be our first gifts, our first choice, or even come from an ideal Christmas. Regardless, we have more power than we realize. Every day you get to decide which pen to pick up. Every day you get to decide what goes on your pad, what does not, and who gets to go with you.
When you decide to draw with gratitude, great stories follow.
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