By Guest Writer, Travis Haney
It’s hard to believe, but it’s been a year since I learned that my contract at ESPN would not be renewed. It was the morning of June 30, 2016. My wife and I were in Baton Rouge, working our way back to Nashville from our friends’ wedding in Texas. After my supervisor told me over the phone that ESPN – my dream employer since I was a kid – would end our relationship, I was in an understandable state of shock. But I gathered myself, as best I could anyway, and walked in the hotel room to tell my wife. We had considered this possibility – but not all that seriously. I tried to explain what I’d just learned and I eventually said something that I feel like was a God-sent message for me in that moment – and the thousands of moments since since then. “How we respond to this will define us,” I told her.
Man, I had no idea how those words would echo through the past year. There’s no way I could have known where my life was headed.
Not only did I lose my job with ESPN, but I lost another in March of this year following a corporate restructure at my new company. I had been there just four months. (These are unprecedentedly rough times in the sports media world.) I’d never been let go in nearly 20 years as a professional, and then it happened twice in the span of nine months. On top of that, my marriage of three years ended this spring; the divorce was recently finalized.
Pretty brutal season of life, huh? Some other, smaller things happened, too, and it had me joking with friends that they should call me “Job.”
Whatever made me say those words last summer, I believe in them even more strongly this summer: It isn’t the circumstances that matter; it’s how I’m responding that defines the situation and, really, who I am.
The response, not the adversity, defines me.
Without intending at all to be boastful, I’m proud how I’ve handled these waves of difficulty. I feel strength that I previously didn’t know I had. Frankly, I didn’t know until now that I am this much of an optimist. It’s important to say this: I do not harbor any bitterness; there isn’t one bitter cell in my body. I’m grateful for the positives and lessons gleaned from these experiences, even if they ended in less-than-optimal ways. I believe in the power of leveraging the past, and past experiences, for a better future. I’m incredibly hopeful about what’s to come, even if I’m not exactly sure what God and fate have for me.
Here are some things that I’ve taken away from the past year as I worked through adversity:
Look in the mirror.
Without question, self-reflection has been one of the biggest breakthroughs for me in the past year. I’d like to think I already did this to some degree, but getting knocked on your butt will force you to evaluate who you are, what you want and what you prioritize. I’ve found this examination to be extremely helpful and healthy, and in ways I couldn’t have imagined.
I know that I struggled to see the whole, big picture of things as they were deteriorating; I was too emotionally immersed in the fight to preserve them. It took those jobs and my marriage collapsing for me to fully assess the situation. I had to step outside it to have an “a-ha moment” in evaluation.
What I learned: These negative things happened to me, yes, but I definitely played a role in the events. I wasn’t a victim. It requires some self-awareness and self-honesty, if that’s a term, to gain that perspective.
As you gaze into the metaphorical mirror, you find things you like and things you loathe about yourself. It isn’t meant to depress you about the negative as much as reinforce accountability in the attempt to avoid future mistakes and alter patterns of behavior. I found that, generally, I liked myself – but I exited with a strong desire to become a better version of myself, using the adversity – and my mistakes – as fuel.
Don’t go it alone.
There’s no expectation that the journey – whether you’re on a mountaintop or in a valley – is a solo mission. I’m so incredibly thankful for my network of friends and family. I’ve never felt more support than I have in the past year.
A steady flow of friends came to visit this spring, and each visit filled my spiritual fuel tank as I worked through every imaginable emotion and thought. They helped me cope, they helped me to remember to have fun – and they reminded me who I am, independent of the trials. They held me up; it means the world to me.
Regardless what you’re going through, or where you are along that path, know that you absolutely are not alone. People care deeply about you and want to help in any way possible. Do not fall into the trap that you’re unloved. Do not isolate yourself. These are the devil’s errands to corrupt and bankrupt you.
Please, please do not be afraid to seek the counsel of a parent … a sibling … a friend … a pastor … a professional. There’s no weakness in asking for help, or confiding in someone. I’ve leaned on about all of these avenues of help, and I’ll continue to do so in the pursuit of rebuilding.
Look the pain in the eye. And then release it, as best you can.
One of the biggest mistakes I could have made would have been to hide from the pain, to try to escape it somehow. There are all sorts of ways to do that – for some maybe it’s a barstool, for others maybe it’s work. There are plenty of examples. There’s therapy in distraction, but only to some extent. At some point, you have to be ready and willing to stare in the eye what you’re dealing with. That’s the only way to truly heal.
I engaged in this the night my divorce became final. I was no longer upset about the legal strain of it all, and I could properly mourn the relationship and its dissolution. So I took my iPhone and, from the beginning, went through every photo – including many from the foundational stages of my relationship with my ex-wife. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. And I cried, hard.
By the way: Crying is not only OK, it’s healthy. It’s all but necessary. But make no mistake that there’s no shame in it, none at all. It’s an expression that allows for healing and release. As I forced myself through more of the photos, writing down some of my favorite memories from the relationship, I realized that the joyful photos became fewer and farther between. It helped me to see the reality of the situation.
By staring down the adversity, I could actually move through it and closer to a place of healing. At some point, I released the burden of pain. Sure, there have been moments of disappointment and sadness since then, but it isn’t something that captivates or controls me in any way. I’m pointed forward, not grounded by the past.
It’s difficult to underscore how important it is to face the difficulty rather than run from it. If you do run, it will catch you; you might as well do the soul work willingly and upfront.
Be a high-road traveler.
This is challenging, because it’s human nature to react emotionally when faced with trials. I’ve come to the conclusion that such a response – a call, a text, an email, a Facebook post, etc. – can be very damaging to your own healing process, as well as to your personal and professional relationships.
Really think about it: What good can come from that kind of reaction? Maybe it provides some sort of release in that moment, but the consequences, perhaps far-reaching, can be far more severe.
Hypothetically, what if a potential employer saw me openly ripping one of the companies that let me go? That does me absolutely no good.
Or, what if I sent nasty emails to my wife during the divorce process? How does that help? There’s no meaningful, ultimate satisfaction in that.
So, whatever your situation, do your best to “buffer” and process what’s going on before responding or addressing the circumstances. Carefully consider the state of your heart as you craft such a message. If it’s negative in tone, think twice about it. If you aren’t sure how the message will come across, ask someone you trust. I did this with an email I sent during the divorce process, and it helped me to land on a healthier message. The high road is the best road. Always.
Exit your comfort zone, and fill time productively.
As I mentioned earlier, I really sought out to leverage the adversity to become a better version of myself. Mentally, physically and spiritually, there’s always room to grow; this was a perfect time for personal growth.
Maybe it’s a new hobby, something you’d always considered but never followed through to do. Maybe it’s a new vocation, a pull deep within you to follow a passion. Regardless what it is specifically, listen to that urge to expand your horizons in some way; adversity can provide the perfect opportunity to move into a new space. If you aren’t growing, you’re dying.
And I know that my life changes brought with them new free time. I watch some Netflix shows, sure – who doesn’t love “Master of None” or “House of Cards”? – but if that’s exclusively how you’re using the time, that’s not likely to be of any real, meaningful benefit.
So find productive ways to occupy the time, whether it’s a new pursuit or achieving better personal health, etc. Sitting around moping, or dwelling on what’s wrong, will not lead to anything positive or fulfilling.
I recently met with a group that helps at-risk children find homes, desiring to become an advocate and a mentor for these kids. I’d never done anything like that before, but I’m listening to a call within me and I’m following through to do something that is productive and, in this case, something that helps others.
Also: The person I met with began working with the program after a bout with a serious illness. He, too, was following a call to exit his comfort zone.
Dig deep into your faith.
I’m not here to proselytize, but being a Christian is central to who I am. It’s my foundation. It’s fundamental to how I have been able to work through adversity.
Heck, writing this very post is evidence of what I believe: What we go through is a vehicle, a mechanism to help others in need. The deeper and darker the painful experience, the greater the opportunity to reach and help others. I know good friends who have been through WAY more than me, and they use their tragedy as a platform for good. What better way to fight evil and difficulty in this world than to rally against the darkness and help others in crisis?
Beyond a living testimony, the Biblical principle of brokenness is a big piece of my belief system. In that moment of pure humility, when all your pride is boiled away, you reach out to God. You may cry out to God. True to His promise, He hears you and restores you so that you’re stronger than ever and more useful than ever to Him and His kingdom.
I’ve become more active with my church family, becoming better friends with my pastor and connecting with some guys via a weekly men’s Bible study. I am seeking healthy friendships with those who generally share my faith structure, those who can help me on my journey to be a better human and friend and son (and hopefully future husband and dad).
Bottom line here: Who you hang out with matters. Negative influences can drag you down and potentially derail your healing process. Choose your friends and even acquaintances wisely.
Actively search for hope. And expect miracles, big and small.
The reason I can be so hopeful is because something happens at least once a day that allows me to see that I am an incredibly blessed person; I see evidence that God’s presence is alive and well in my life.
It often happens through random connections, and it seems like it happens quite a bit here in Nashville. I recently ran into a girl with whom I went to high school about 20 years ago. What’s crazy about that is she graduated with about 35 people in her class, and mine had 21. And the high school is seven hours away in South Georgia.
Now, some people could write that off as a coincidence, but I see it as something more than that. I think there are metaphorical rainbows in our lives, if we choose to look for the beauty of the delicately arranged colors. I’ve also called them “life’s Easter eggs” from time to time.
These occurrences tell me that there’s a greater plan in place. I provided one, small example, but there are much larger things happening in my life. It all works together to provide hope.
There is no more vital word than that – hope – when enduring tragedy and adversity. Hope is all around us, but a certain awareness is required to see it and to fully feel it in a way that propels you forward into the next season of life. There are daily miracles if our eyes are open and we live expectantly for those miracles, big and small.
Stepping back, almost out-of-body, I can be honest and say that there’s very little stability in my life right now. I’m a divorced, jobless 35-year-old. (Wow, ha, that seems worse when you type it.)
But I can be honest and say that I’ve never felt better about who I am and where my life is headed from here. My arms are open wide as I race to greet the future. I know God has plans to prosper and not to harm me. He’s turning my hurt into happiness.
I believe that God will bless you in your fight, regardless what it is, if you allow him that opportunity. With that attitude, the adversity itself will become a blessing – a vehicle by which you and your testimony will become stronger than ever before.
It’s your response to difficulty that matters most.
Travis Haney is a sports writer, author and storyteller. He has covered sports for both the South Carolina Gamecocks and Oklahoma Sooners and has contributed to ESPN and 247sports.com. He resides in Nashville, Tenn., with his weird, little, awesome Australian Shepherd, Kit. You can follow Travis’s journey at his website at travhaney.com.