Making Meaning From Your Past – A Toastmasters Speech
Making Meaning From Your Past
When we were five and seven years old, our father wrote and asked if he could take us for a couple of weeks to visit him. When we went for our visit, we discovered that he had moved to a new place. Our mom didn’t know where we were. Then he started telling us that our mom didn’t want us or love us anymore. He did lots of fun things with us and made lots of promises—he was going to take us to Disneyland, buy us a pony, get us a great big house, etc. And he told us he would get us a new mommy who loved us. He did not take us back to our mother at the end of the two weeks as he had promised he would.
Over the next few months, his true personality started to come out. Disenchanted with the responsibility of caring for two young girls, he neglected to adequately feed, clothe, or clean us. We got sick often. His abuse crossed from the emotional realm into the physical realm.
I know that many people who read this have experienced abuse, neglect, or have been deeply hurt or wronged in some way by someone they should have been able to trust—someone who should have guided, protected, or provided for them—but instead deceived, hurt, or neglected them.
Unfortunately, through his connections and a lot of lies, my father won the custody battle against my mom. At our visits with her, we begged her to keep us, but her attorney told her she couldn’t appeal for two years. Even then, the court rarely reversed a custody decision.
During our long summer visit with our mom, she took matters into her own hands. She kidnapped us. We left everyone and everything behind. We lived in and passed through such diverse places as a Mennonite farm in Tennessee, a Catholic mission house in Texas, an orphanage in Juarez, Mexico, a bakery in Uruapan, Mexico, and many different homes in central Mexico and the southern part of the US.
In both Mexico and the US, we made friends who became like family to us, and we experienced the kindness of countless strangers—men and women of all walks of life whose generosity helped to keep us going.
Through a series of events we wrote about in much more detail in our book, three months after going on the run, we ended up in El Paso at a Catholic mission house run by a bishop named Clifton. We went into the Mexican consulate’s office trying to obtain the paperwork to live in Mexico legally, but the bureaucratic woman behind the counter insisted that my mom needed a notarized letter of permission from our father to get the visas.
Discouraged, we returned to Bishop Clifton’s mission house. The next morning, he called my mom into his office and said, “I’m supposed to help you get to Mexico.”
My mom hadn’t told anyone about our plans. “How did you know we were trying to go to Mexico?” she asked, shocked.
Bishop Clifton said, “About three months ago I had a dream in which a woman and her two daughters came to the mission. In the dream, we were playing with her name, changing it back and forth between Spanish and English—Amigo, Friend. In my dream, I was told that I had to help this woman get to Mexico. I knew you were that woman when you introduced yourself as Rhoda Friend. I have a lot of connections; getting your paperwork will not be a problem.”
Three months ago, he said? But the name in his dream was our alias, and we had only changed our name to Friend a month or two earlier. Three months earlier we had only just taken off.
That’s how we got into Mexico, where we lived for the next five years.
During all of this, my father, bounty hunters, the police, the FBI, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children went on the hunt for us. A state congressman was involved. We were featured on milk cartons and on television. Once, the day before my fourteenth birthday, the police showed up on our doorstep in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I answered the door and they asked for my mom. While she answered the door, my sister and I bolted out the back and ran.
We escaped that day, but a year later, as we left our apartment to visit a friend for the afternoon, the FBI surrounded us. They sent my mom to jail and forced my sister and me to go back and live with the man we had tried to escape from. He hadn’t changed. Still abusive and controlling, he didn’t want us. He wanted to use us to hurt our mom.
Honestly, I feel like I got off easy. Easier than my sister and my mom, who for some reason were the victims of the worst of my father’s abuse. There are people who have been through unspeakably horrible situations, far worse than I could dream of. Me—I had a loving mother who protected me and cared for me. I know others who have, with tears in their eyes, told me that they wished they had a mother who had protected them the way my mother protected me. Not only that, but I also got to travel and learn a new language and experience a new culture. I have a lot to be extremely grateful for.
I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason per se. That’s a bit simplistic and I think it can unintentionally belittle the genuine suffering that people have experienced. What I do believe is that we can create our own meaning of the events in our lives. We can choose what meaning to assign to the things that happen to us. WE decide that—not the people or circumstances who hurt us. The meaning we assign to the events in our lives can either serve us, or it can perpetuate the pain.
On the one hand, we can look back and say, “That event or person has ruined my life. I can never go back and fix it. It’s too late. Nobody understands what I’m going through.”
On the other hand, we can look back and say, “That was really painful, but what can it teach me? How can it strengthen me? How can I take that experience and transform my life and deal with other struggles in the future? How can I use my experience to serve others and rise above this situation? How can I break the cycle of negativity in my past?”
A lot of people hear my story and their immediate response is, “I’m so sorry you had to go through that. It must have been so painful.” I appreciate that—and I don’t mean to dismiss the pain. That grief is real. But the meaning I’ve chosen to assign to my experience is that it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I truly believe that.
My question for you is, what meaning have you assigned to your life circumstances, and how is that serving you today? I encourage you to seek out and take hold of a meaning that will help you rise above your past and move toward a brighter future!
If you’re curious to learn more about my past, you can pick up a free excerpt from the new book, Seven Years Running, by signing up for my book updates! I’ll keep you posted on the publication process and let you know when the book comes out.
Photo credit: StockUnlimited
Did you know I write books?
Just sign up below for free excerpts and updates about my latest book!