My sister Janine has Down syndrome. At 54 she has conquered a serious health condition, survived a life-threatening illness, and has endured several painful losses. Yet somehow, she remains happy and continues to bring joy and laughter to the lives of many.
Every opportunity to spend in the shadow of Janine's joyful spirit is an occasion to learn valuable life lessons. It is these simple qualities and beliefs that return her to a state of happiness, no matter how complicated or difficult life gets.
1. Be considerate of others--always.
Janine is consistent in her caring attitude and consideration for others, even during the most trying times. This really hit me when she was in the hospital in critical condition. Every visitor received a smile, and when she was strong enough, she would ask how they were doing. In some cases, she even consoled her friends. For Janine, there's always time and energy to be kind.
2. You don't need to meet social norms to be happy in life.
Marriage, having children, and total independence are out of the question for Janine. While from time-to-time she has fanaticized about having a "normal" life, she finds contentment and happiness in her reality. A loving boyfriend, good friends, and the people who care for Janine and her peers are like family. This is enough for Janine, she doesn't need to lead the life she witnesses others living to be happy and fulfilled. Just be you.
3. Be bold.
When I last spoke with my sister she came right out and said, "I miss your zucchini bread, can I have some?" Yes, Janine asks for what she wants. My sister has taught me to step up and speak up boldly. Never feel self-conscious about being honest about your needs and desires. Oh, and yes, I shipped a care package including homemade zucchini bread within a couple of days.
4. Determination and grit pay off.
This summer, doctors gave Janine only the slightest odds of survival as she battled a life-threatening infection. Our family helplessly stood by as she spent a week in an unconscious state, but we all know she's a survivor and kept reminding her of that fact. Janine opened her eyes on a Sunday and announced that she was ready to go home. She worked hard in physical therapy to regain the use of her limbs and was home within two weeks. If you remain determined, as entrepreneurs are, you can conquer even the toughest odds.
5. Hugs are priceless.
We grew up in a household of non-huggers. It took me years to overcome the awkwardness of hugging others as an adult, but Janine knew the value of a hug from day one. Witnessing her ability to connect and express caring through hugging taught me to do the same. If you ever meet my sister, expect a hug--one that comes from the heart.
6. Forgiveness trumps anger and resentment.
Janine and her friend had been inseparable throughout their entire adulthood until difficult times tore them apart. It was devastating. What some may find unforgivable, Janine and her friend were able to set aside within weeks. Janine does not like feeling angry, so she chooses not to. Instead, she forgives and moves on. I believe that her ability to release the burden of anger is one of the reasons that she lives a happy life.
7. Don't let life's struggles keep you down.
We are all equipped with an ability to heal emotionally, but a burst of first-time losses within a short period of time challenges one's endurance. There is no time limit on grief, but I wasn't sure about Janine's future happiness when she encountered three devastating losses within 2 months' time. Silly me. Janine assimilated her losses and, while she still grieves, as any of us would, she found happiness again in no time.
8. Embrace your skills and talents, rather than focus on your weaknesses.
My sister knows where her limitations lie, but she doesn't focus on them. She goes to a workshop daily to perform her job and is proud of her work. Although it's simple work, she finds it rewarding and never longs for something that's too far beyond her reach. Do what you're best at and let others do the rest.
9. Grieving is healthy.
Like most anyone, Janine still mourns the loss of our parents. If I mention our mother in a conversation Janine will sometimes cry and express that she wants mom back. It's gut-wrenching in one moment, then laughter fills the next moment. It's not necessary to hide your grief; like Janine, we can all find the strength to face it head-on without shame or embarrassment.
10. We all make mistakes, it's what happens next that's important.
Everyone makes poor choices from time-to-time, but the self-admonishment that sometimes follows can be more damaging than the mistake itself. When Janine acts out or her stubborn resistance sets in, she will be the first to say, "I blew it." She apologizes when appropriate and works on changing her behavior. Then, she lets go and gracefully slips right back into her happy state. Embrace your mistakes, learn from them, and move on.
Remember, when life and business challenge you, it's not the pain of the struggle you should focus on. It's how you find your way through it and what you take away from the experience that matters most.