As I gaze out my home office window into the bright blue Florida sky, my mind rifles through a list of should-haves—
Our family should have been packing for our spring break trip.
I should have been adding the finishing touches on my upcoming speeches.
During March Madness I should have been checking my basketball bracket to see how poorly my tournament picks performed.
My life has downshifted into pandemic gear, a strange sort of neutral that allows my mind to drift to thoughts of what should have been or what might have been…
Thankfully, life experiences remind me that the longer I linger on the should-haves or the might haves, the longer I postpone seeing all the do haves—the things I often take for granted suddenly become big, like my health and the love and support of my family. Now let me be clear, this knowledge doesn’t mean I haven’t fallen into living in the past trap more times than I’d care to admit.
One should have moment happened ten years ago, the day I visited Luther College in Iowa. As I rolled through the campus, a surreal feeling permeated my soul. While the university I’d attended the previous fall was exactly the same, my relationship to it had drastically changed.
Seven months earlier a football injury left me paralyzed from the neck down. At 19 years old life as I’d known it had been blown to smithereens, reset to ground zero. The break in my neck was so severe doctors said I had a 3% chance—of not walking—but of ever feeding myself, or scratching my face.
However, buried deep in the recesses of my teenage brain I held out hope the wheelchair situation was temporary. I’d apply the competitive mindset I’d perfected through sports to getting better. I would go beyond what was asked of me. I would beat the odds.
After the accident, my mom was my greatest advocate—her sole mission was to help me return to living as normal a life as I could. She contacted the college and secured accessible campus housing for me. They offered half of a spacious, first-floor unit located in the senior housing complex known as “The cluster”, six double rooms surrounding a courtyard. I asked four of my friends—and fellow teammates—to be my roommates in the fall. That day my buddies and I would tour our new apartment to make sure it met all of our needs.
As amped as I was about hanging out with my friends, I was also equally anxious. While intellectually I knew adaptive housing was necessary, the need itself made me feel as if I’d stepped in front of a high-intensity beam that cast a light on my never-ending list of special requirements. I hated being seen as different. I hated sticking out. All I wanted to do was go back to being part of the team.
After the tour, we made our way over to the training facility for the end of the year football meeting. As we settled in, my spirits were high—all the laughing and joking with my friends was like receiving a tank of much-needed oxygen. Breaking free from the rehab hospital that day made me wonder if this is how a prison inmate on a work furlough feels—the surge of joy from simple pleasures like seeing new faces and places as well as a reprieve from the daily indoor grind. I savored every minute—the breeze as it brushed against my face, hanging out with my buddies, and going through mundane tasks needed to get back to life as a college kid.
The summer before, the coaches had tagged me as a rising star. Time and time again I was told my football future was bright. While I was a decent college player I wanted to be great. So my mantra was to always work hard, stay late and iterate. Since I was little my basketball coach father had groomed me to have a competitive mindset. Dad believed in the value of athletics and all it had to teach—sportsmanship, teamwork and perseverance—and as a child I played baseball, basketball and football. By high school, football had not only become my favorite sport but also my badge of honor, my identity.
As the meeting began, the room fell silent. The coach kicked it off with summer workouts before moving on to expectations for the fall season. Then he emphasized how crucial it would be for the younger players to step up and fill the holes left by graduating seniors.
As the coach’s words sank in, the reality hit me like a bullet train at full speed, “He should have been talking to me. I should be the one getting my body and mind ready for next season…”
In closing he said, “Please stand up.” Everyone does, but me. As quickly as my teammates rose to their feet, my heart sank with equal force.
My worst fears had been realized— I was no longer part of the team. Football as I’d known it would never be the same—it would never be part of my plan. I clenched my jaw to keep the floodgates at bay. I could not cry because I was unable to wipe away the tears. The bitter truth was, as a quadriplegic, I was as helpless and vulnerable as a baby. The last thing I wanted was to be pitied, so I took a deep breath, tapped into my competitive mindset training, and pasted on a smile to camouflage my heartbreak.
Back at the rehab hospital that night as I lay in bed, I replayed the football meeting in my mind. Up until this moment with the coach and teammates, I don’t think I fully understood how deeply I’d held out hope that my life would one day magically reset and return to normal. Football had been my everything. The tears streamed down my face as I wrestled with the question, how would I (or could I) ever let it go?
The next morning, as the light slowly filled my room, I stared at the ceiling awaiting the nurse’s arrival to help me get out of bed and start my day. My mind felt serene after a solid night’s sleep, even as the thoughts of loss from the night before began creeping in.
However floating in my rested calmness, instead of feeling hopeless, I felt like a curious observer. Why was I holding on to a life that no longer existed? Could it be that dwelling on all the things I used to have was the very thing that was preventing me from seeing everything I do have?
I could still move my head. I could breathe on my own. I had some movement in my shoulders. My mind is sharp. I am a hard worker. My mom, dad and sisters love me. And most of all, I am still me.
Listing my do haves was like a trail of breadcrumbs leading me back home to myself. While my neck may have been broken, the essence of who I am was not. All I needed to practice was to let go and believe.
While a wheelchair life was not one I thought I’d ever lead, over time I’ve come to realize it has been my single most life-defining gift, far greater than football ever could have been. It opened doors that would have never opened— doors to my heart, my spirit, and my capacity to love. I met my wife Emily at 22. I started the Chris Norton Foundation to support others with spinal cord injuries. My wife and I have adopted five daughters and fostered countless more. As a motivational speaker, I’m sharing what I’ve learned about living life with gratitude and grace with audiences worldwide.
Renowned psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl once said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Like Dr. Frankl, irrevocable loss has been my greatest teacher. It has taught me that all of us will suffer, there is no escape. Once everything you believed was important is stripped from you, you quickly realize the two most important choices of life are, Will I dedicate my life to mourning a past of should-haves? Or will I be grateful for all my do haves, and love my life as it is? Only one choice is guaranteed to end suffering.
However make no mistake, choosing a grateful attitude is not a one and done, far from it. It’s an inner daily practice. As my family and I stay home and do our part to help flatten the COVID curve, I have a hunch I’ll have plenty of opportunities for inner management as I continue turning should haves into do haves.