More than a half million results come up on a Google search for coping with tragedy today. In 1985 when a truck crashed through a house in southeast Texas and killed Bobby Petrocelli’s wife those types of resources were not as readily available.
He came home from coaching a game and sat down to a great big bowl of pasta, the second love of his life after his wife Ava. They went to bed.
“The next thing I know, I wake up in my dining room window and parked in the middle of the room is a full-size, F150 Ford pickup truck. A drunk driver crashed into my house,” he tells the crowd.
Ava was under the truck. He learned in the hospital it had taken paramedics 35 minutes to get her out and she had suffocated.
At age 24 he was planning a funeral and service and while he didn’t have thousands of websites to help him cope, he did have people. At the cemetery he looked up and saw more than a thousand of his students standing with him to pay their respects to Ava.
“The most intense thing I’ve ever dealt with in 35 years as an educator, teacher, counselor and coach was the love and the response in the cemetery … for those students to show up on a school day–to be there for me, motivated me to take this message worldwide.”
Trying to synthesize that message is a challenge. Petrocelli’s remarks at a recent Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber learn@lunch, come tumbling out with a mixture of emotion, references to his faith and a sense of humor only an Italian from Brooklyn could pull off. Anecdotes were sandwiched between the points he was making which were plentiful, and his frequent interaction with his audience added to the complexity.
He starts by telling everyone to forget taking life one day at a time. His life was changed in a moment which he defines as about 10 seconds or less. “Moments are what life is about, and every one of those moments has the power to influence us–good, bad, right or wrong; they impact each one of our lives.”
In his book, “You Matter It Doesn’t,” the “it” is anything bad that has happened in the past.
“In the midst of going through that, the friends and the family and the people that surrounded me, the kids at the school showed me, coach you matter more than it matters. In other words what happened to you is not going to define you … You can’t always control what happens, but you can control how you respond to what happens.”
The Treasure Island resident says he had to forgive the man who snuffed out his wife’s life driving at twice the legal limit or it would have defined him. Some things in life are inevitable; others optional.
“In this world pain is inevitable, everyone is going to deal with some form of loss; how you respond to that pain is vital.”
He says people often allow the pain of the past to stop them from being pres- ent in the present. “By holding on to something that somebody did to you, you’re allowing them to occupy space in your mind, your feelings, your emotions, your attitudes, everything you do–they are still influencing you.” He equates it to driving a car while looking in the rearview mirror. You can’t see where you’re going when you focus on where you’ve been.
Everyone has been broken and hurt and people act out because of things in their past. “If I mistreat you, mistreating you is not the issue or the problem, mistreating you is a symptom of a deeper problem.”
“The greatest gift I can give myself is to forgive others and to forgive myself. I drop the ball all the time,” he says.
He believes in treasuring the uniqueness of every human. “I love this country, but the one thing I disagree with in the Constitution is that everyone is created equal. You’re not created equally, you’re created uniquely.
“I grew up around all different ethnicities; I tell people that prejudice and racism is taking your middle finger and pointing it to heaven and cursing God saying, ‘You messed up because everybody is supposed to look like me.’” Another message: What is important in dealing with people is how they feel about themselves in your presence. “They will either feel empowered and valuable and important; they’ll feel they have something to offer. If they don’t, you’ve lost them.
It’s really that simple.” Making sure someone feels valued is particularly important for young people. “Everyone needs to know they matter, they’re valued, and people understand their value and their uniqueness,” He went back to the 30-year high school reunion of the students that were there for him when his wife died. “I stood in front of them crying…I remember seeing them in the cemetery and they rallied around me and saved my life.”
He felt he mattered.
For more info go to www.10seconds.org.