Ten at Fifty

Posted: Oct 07, 2014 12:01 AM

This month, I turn fifty years old, which is surprising to me. At twenty-five, I never thought I would see thirty. I also never expected this period of life to be the best – but it is by a long shot. Perhaps that is best explained by the fact that, over the years, I have made some very serious mistakes that have taught me some very important lessons.

Among the most important lessons I have learned is that personal happiness is not possible without a concerned effort to focus on two key factors: gratitude and encouragement.

If one makes a concerted effort to be grateful for one’s blessings it becomes virtually impossible to be overwhelmed by resentment over life’s shortcomings. Resentment and gratitude cannot coexist. You must choose one or the other.

Similarly, if one makes a concerted effort to provide encouragement to other people then it becomes very difficult to be overwhelmed by your own circumstances. The happiest people are always those who provide encouragement to others, rather than seeking it for themselves.

As I approach the half-century mark, I thought it would be good idea to take some time to express gratitude to the people who have most impacted my life to this point. There are many of them but ten people come to mind immediately. They are listed below, alphabetically by first name.

David French spent over a third of his legal career defending me. But long before that he taught me a valuable lesson by reminding me that the times I was taking the most flack were the times I was most likely pushing the right buttons and doing the right thing. When I began to talk to him about the possibility that I would pay a price for criticizing the university culture of censorship he provided even more encouragement. He assured me that if they ever came after me I could fight and win in such a way as to provide help to others similarly situated. How right he was. And he was there defending me every step of the way.

David McMillen was the first person to tell me that I had the talent to succeed in graduate school. So I took his advice and enrolled in the spring of 1988. That first semester I took two of Dave’s classes. Within one week, I decided that I wanted to become a college professor and to model my style after his by a) always telling people exactly what was on my mind, b) always allowing the opposition to speak, and c) occasionally reminding folks that they need to lighten up. The most important lesson Dave taught me was: “If they can’t take a joke, fire-truck them.” In other words, don’t waste your time on pretentious jerks inclined to take themselves too seriously.

Frank Turek is from New Jersey, which means that he’s occasionally, umm, assertive (bless his Yankee heart). Thank goodness that he got really assertive back in 2008 and started to insist that I go speak at a place called Summit Ministries in Colorado. I had never heard of the place. But when Summit founder David Noebel finally called to invite me to speak at a summer conference I said “yes” just to get Turek to stop hounding me. Thank goodness he did because it changed my life in a big way. Of course, Summit changes a lot of people’s lives in a big way. And so does Frank Turek. Over the years, I have learned that there are numerous speakers and apologists who get regular phone calls from Frank. He just calls them to check in and offer encouragement. Whenever I have a problem, Frank Turek is one of two Summit speakers I call. The other one is also on this list. More on him later …

Henry Thornton believed in me even after I failed high school English for the fourth year in a row. That was the year I plummeted to a ranking of 734th in my graduating class of 740. Mr. Thornton always offered encouragement and invested much more time in me than I deserved. Later, when he was in his late 70s, my former high school principle ran across a column I had written. Shortly thereafter, he sent me an email asking if I remembered him. Unbelievably, he was still working in education – as he continues to do even in his eighties. We have talked on the phone a few times in the years since we reconnected. Not long ago, he took the time to write me a long handwritten letter reminding me that no matter how much my students irritated me each one had a nugget of gold buried somewhere deep within all the garbage. He reminded me that it was my job to find it. He was gracious enough not to remind me how long he had to dig in the dumpster to find something positive in me.

Joe Adams can’t go for long without talking about the importance of getting a good education. Usually that takes the form of encouraging people to get a formal education. However, when I as a teenager, he encouraged me in a different way by telling me to read a book a month. I ignored him and instead spent all my time playing sports. However, after I tore my Achilles I could not run and needed a new hobby. That was when I started to hit the books with the same passion I once put into hitting the jogging trail. Later on, dad told me I needed to start reading books by people who held views contrary to my own. I took his advice and (while I was still a liberal) read a book called Illiberal Education by Dinesh D’Souza. That was how I learned about campus speech codes and ultimately joined the campus free speech movement. Now, I often help college students find lawyers and mount legal challenges against outrageous speech restrictions. The decision to turn on my colleagues in higher education and instead defend these students did not happen overnight. It began when I decided to take a first step and start to question the people I once called my political allies. That never would have happened without my father’s encouragement.

Next week, I’ll finish the column with an installment paying tribute to my mother, her best friend, my grandmother, my step-grandmother, and the greatest pro-life speaker in America. But for now I’ve got to go finish reading Hillary’s latest biography. Somebody do me favor and shoot me in the head. But please wait until after my birthday.