Have you ever heard the story about the man who lived by the river?
It’s a parable about a devout Christian man who refused to evacuate his home after hearing a radio broadcast warning of an impending flood. “I’m a good Christian,” he told himself. “God will save me.” When the rains fell, and the river surged, someone in a rowboat floated by and implored the man to escape with him. “I’m a good Christian. God will save me,” he insisted and stayed put. The water rose higher still as a helicopter buzzed overhead and dropped a rescue rope. But the man again refused to budge. “God will save me,” he shouted. Minutes later, the house was swept away by the flood, and the man drowned. At the gates of St. Peter, the man confronted God and demanded to know why He did nothing to help such a devout Christian.
“Nothing?” God replied. “I sent you a radio broadcast, a helicopter, and a guy on a rowboat. What are you doing here?”
There are many variants of this story, but they all have the same moral: God helps those who help themselves. If we don’t read the signs, if we refuse to change, we have no one to blame but ourselves when we fail.
I’ve been thinking about that parable a lot recently—and about all the signs I’ve missed over the years. About ten years ago, I was playing golf at a charity tournament with my good friend and mentor, Scott Bemis. As we teed off, we heard rumbling thunder in the distance. A siren went off from the clubhouse alerting all players to find shelter. Scott and I looked at each other and shrugged it off. It wasn’t even raining, we figured; why go through all the trouble? Well, a few minutes later, as I was pulling a five iron from my bag, a bolt of lightning exploded barely five feet from me, leaving a massive hole in the ground and showering us with mud. If I had been standing a few feet to my right, I would have been killed instantly.
I should have listened to the signs.
After I graduated college, I lived in Japan, teaching English. During a semester break, I traveled to Thailand with a buddy of mine named Brad Harker. Before I left, everyone I talked to said, “Don’t fall for the gem scams.”
“Don’t worry,” I said, “I’m not the kind of guy who gets scammed.” Brad and I had a blast backpacking between Chiang Mai, Phuket, and finally, Bangkok, where I had always dreamed of visiting Wat Arun Ratchawararam, known as the Temple of the Dawn. Seeing the morning sun reflect off the surface of the temple in a beautiful pearly iridescence is one of the most beautiful sights in the world. In Bangkok, you get around using three-wheeled taxis called tuk-tuks. After we flagged one down, the driver mentioned that we were in town during a very fortuitous time. It was gem week, and we could purchase jewelry for no added tax. Later, as we were touring the temple, a monk mentioned we should take advantage of the special tax holiday. “I shouldn’t tell you this, but you can resell the gems overseas for triple what you paid,” he whispered. The monk even let slip which shop to buy from. If both the tuk-tuk driver and the monk told us the same thing, miles apart, I figured it must be legitimate. Well, a day after buying the gems from the shop, Brad and I realized they had charged our credit cards for thousands of dollars over the agreed price. And the gems were all fake. The tuk-tuk driver, the monk, and the gem shop were all in on the scam—and we had fallen for it hook, line, and sinker.
I should have listened to the signs.
A few years ago, just before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, I traveled with my children, Caroline, and Tate, to Maui for New Year’s week. “Let’s go body surfing, Dad!” Tate shouted when he saw the waves crashing on the pristine white-sand beach of Lahaina. I didn’t want to dampen Tate’s enthusiasm, so I reluctantly agreed, even though the waves were massive. After we rented the body boards, I passed by a giant sign that said, WARNING: DO NOT BODY SURF IF YOU ARE INEXPERIENCED.
Whatever, I figured, how hard could it be? It’s not real surfing, anyway. Tate immediately jumped in and effortlessly paddled past the break while I struggled to keep up. Exhausted, I stopped to catch my breath just as a giant wave crashed overhead, slamming me against the sandy seabed. The next thing I knew, I was being carried off the beach on a stretcher and a neck brace and rushed to the hospital. I was diagnosed with a dislocated shoulder and a couple of broken ribs, and the doctor explained that I was inches away from becoming a quadriplegic.
I should have listened to the signs—in this case, a literal one!
Like that man in the flood, I ignored all the signs. In my case, they may or may not have been sent from God, but they were all there. I refused to believe that lightning could strike me. I refused to believe I could fall for one of the oldest tricks in the book. I refused to believe I wasn’t cut out for bodysurfing. I’m blessed that instead of ending up dead, broke, or paralyzed, I ended up with a learning experience. A lot of people aren’t so lucky.
This past weekend I facilitated our 10th annual Men of Faith Retreat at the Metropolitan Club in Washington DC. Twenty-eight incredible leaders all there to learn how to become better husbands, fathers, heart-led leaders, and men of faith. In our last exercise, I ask the guys to write a “love letter” to their wives. Twenty-seven of the guys wrote a beautiful letter to their bride. Except one. A friend and banker named Jackson McConnell decided to write his “love letter” to me. When I read his three-page handwritten letter later in my room, I cried like a baby. Jackson thanked me for changing his life, his marriage, his daughter’s life, and his teammates at Pinnacle Bank. Told me that he is my biggest fan. Told me that my books have inspired him to love and lead differently. Told me he loved me. And then he asked me a question that nobody ever has asked me before, “Do you love yourself, Tommy?”
That question brought me to my knees. Jackson asked that question because he saw something deep inside of me that I have been hiding for years. At fifty-two years of age, I still hear my tenth-grade typing teacher’s voice in my head. “You are stupid, Tommy. And there is no college that will ever accept you.”
I have spent a lifetime trying to prove Mrs. Dizzine wrong. A career traveling to 250 cities a year, trying to change the world. Trying to make an impact on the lives of others. Trying to prove to myself that “I am enough.”
Jackson’s letter to me was a gift. And it was also a sign. A sign for me to find my worth in my family and friends and not my fans. A sign to spend the rest of my life letting the people who know me the best love me the most. And a sign to never listen to my typing teacher or anyone who questions my worth ever again.
Think of all the signs that you’ve blown past over the years. Sometimes we’re too lazy to look up; other times, we’re too caught up in our own hubris to listen. But eventually, all that negligence catches up with us. Because at the end of the day, no matter who you are, ignoring the signs in our lives is the easiest way to end up dead, broke, paralyzed…. or wasting half our lives trying to prove to the world that we are enough.