Dealing with an unhappy birthday surprise

  • Posted: Sunday, September 8, 2013 12:01 a.m.

As I approach my 56th birthday I can’t help but recall some unforgettable birthdays, like the surprise party my wife planned for my 50th or the dozen cupcakes I devoured and then threw up just prior to my 7th birthday party.

But the birthday I’ll never forget was my 45th when my Air Force supervisor came into my office at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., wearing a strained expression.

“I’m sorry to have to tell you this,” he said, “but your name didn’t appear on the Air Force promotion list to major.”

I was unsure how to interpret the news. The pessimist in me said I’d just been fired. If my optimist was saying something, I couldn’t hear it because the pessimist was screaming too loudly. I knew that I had only six months before I would be unemployed and stranded 3,000 miles away from my California home.

The only reaction I offered my supervisor was, “And this is my birthday.”

It was about that time that a colleague presented me with a helpful book, “Who Moved My Cheese?”

The authors, Dr. Spencer Johnson and Ken Blanchard, seemed to be proclaiming that change was the only certainty in life, so deal with it. The book uses a parable format to depict talking lab mice that work to outsmart the scientists who are constantly moving their cheese into an unfamiliar part of their maze.

Somebody had indeed moved my cheese and the military maze I’d known for eight years became an unfriendly place.

I spent the next hour hunting through the pages for help. Then about halfway through the book, I stopped, taken aback by a particularly evocative question that the mice characters found written inside their maze.

“What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”

I stopped and looked away, paraphrasing the conundrum aloud in a slow and thoughtful repetition.

“What would I do if I weren’t so afraid of change?” I asked myself.

It was abundantly clear what I normally did when I felt afraid. I got upset, I fretted, and then became a generally rude person toward those who loved me.

But the authors were insisting that I answer the question: “What would I do if I weren’t afraid?”

I stood and went to the copy machine where I enlarged the quote into a mini poster that I placed above my desk.

A few weeks later, as fear melted from the equation, I came to know exactly what I would do. I would return to my California home and to the most rewarding ministry of my life: I determined to resume my previous career in hospital chaplaincy.

No, the question didn’t work magic. It didn’t totally suspend my fears. I was still scared, but I was determined to keep fear from obscuring my goal. I printed my resumes, scheduled hospital interviews and kept pressing toward the goal.

Three months later, I had six job offers for hospital chaplaincies and I returned to part-time military life as an Air National Guard chaplain (twice since promoted.)

Eleven years have passed since that harsh announcement. But that day continues to remind me that whenever I’m uncertain, fearful or just plain indecisive, I can reach into my resiliency repertoire for the refrain of that birthday question.

When I think about it long enough, the answer usually floats to the top.

“What do you do if it doesn’t work?” you ask. That’s easy. I eat a dozen cupcakes.

Norris Burkes is a syndicated columnist, national speaker and author of “No Small Miracles.” Recorded comments are welcome at 843-608-9715. You may also send your comments to or P.O. Box 247, Elk Grove, CA 95759. Visit

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