I glimpsed at a recent People magazine cover whose main display was the title of an Oprah Winfrey story about important five-minute incidents in her life. Each of these formed a turning point from which there was no turning back.
The cover story made me ask myself: Could I name one or more five-minute episodes in my life that shaped what I would do, or what would happen to me, for the rest of my days? Does everyone have such moments? Can we pinpoint them? Write them down and examine them?
The first five-minute item that might come to mind is the one in which two persons approach — or stand waiting — at an altar. Their stated intent is to marry. As they wait for the clergyperson to begin, they have only minutes to ask themselves, "Am I happy? Am I crazy?" I grant you — not every couple will have those thoughts. But I bet many do.
Another turning point experienced by millions of men (and women) is just before a military official performs a swearing-in ceremony. The script might be paraphrased thusly: "Ladies and gentlemen, it's time. This is your last chance to refrain from promising to serve your country for years to come and maybe get your butts shot off in the process. The exit door is behind you. Feel free to use it. Otherwise, please raise your right hand and repeat after me:"
A five-minute interior monologue might go something like this: "I'm drunk, and I know it. I came to this party dead-sober three hours ago and parked my car outside. I've had a swell time with my friends, but now the party's over. However, if I ask someone to drive me home, they'll think I'm a loser. I don't think I could stand that. What should I do? Drive my car or call a cab?" Our hospitals, jails and funeral homes have been filled with persons who gave the wrong answer to that question.
Turning points can hang by a thread. Split seconds — not minutes — will determine the verdict. Example: a crucial job interview. Harry sits across from a big boss (Cratchit) who has the final vote. Midway in their chat a woman enters. Cratchit says, "Harry, I'd like you to meet my assistant, Ms. Furnell." At that juncture Harry's future is at the edge of a cliff. Does he sit there, smiling, and say, "Hello, ma’am. Nice to meet you"? Or does he immediately rise, extend his hand, and say, "My pleasure, Mrs. Furnell. Did I get your name right?"
Harry gets to his feet and lands the job he badly wanted. Later, a co-worker tells him, "Cool move, man. Cratchit springs that Furnell introduction on every applicant. The ones who just sit there are never heard from again."
My next turning point example is summarized in the Johnny Paycheck song: "Take This Job and Shove It — I Ain't Workin' Here No More."
Few of life's crossroads are more satisfying — or hazardous — than the day we decide to call it quits to a workplace we're fed up with. Five minutes remain until we make our final move. A year or more later we may still be glad we said farewell to a job. Or we may be saying, "I should have had my head examined."
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One day — if we're lucky — we'll reach age 60 or 80 or 95 and look back at our track records, especially at how we handled the turning points of our lives. The retrospective garden we'll see, most likely, will be an array of orchids mixed with skunk cabbages. But before we congratulate or kick ourselves for our choices, keep this in mind: we were only bit players.
The main actors were our parents, their DNA, your DNA, fate, happenstance, good luck, bad luck, dumb luck, and the thousands of bouncing balls that nudge or propel us as we lurch between the cradle and the grave. Even so, we each have that ten percent free will factor, don't we? And that ten percent is probably what our turning points are made of.