This week, I interviewed Dr. Mehmet Oz about his mother’s recent Alzheimer’s diagnosis. As his friend, it ached me to learn that he and his family are now confronted with this mind-blowing disease. Long after the interview was over, though, I found myself thinking even more about something Dr. Oz had said to me about himself. I found myself thinking about how he said he felt shame and guilt that he had missed the warning signs of his mother’s health.
Dr. Oz told me he couldn’t believe that he, of all people, missed those warning signs. He couldn’t believe that he and his siblings hadn’t compared notes, or spoken to one another about what they saw, felt, or might have been covering up. I felt for him because I’ve been there before myself. Far too many families have been.
The truth is, we all miss warning signs in our lives — be it about a parent’s health, about our own health, about our children, our friends, or our relationships. We also miss warning signs in our work, in our communities, in our politics, in our country and in the world. (Think about how many warning signs we have that Planet Earth is in danger, and yet people continue to ignore or deny them.)
There are warning signs everywhere, so why do we often miss them, discount them, or lie to ourselves about them? I’ve certainly done this myself in the past, but today, I must say that I pay attention when something doesn’t feel right. Today, whenever I encounter warning signs, they get my attention. It’s easier for me to spot them now that I’ve re-shifted my priorities, re-focused my attention and found my stillness.
The other night, I stopped when a friend told me she felt she was in trouble (her words) now that she’s dealing with her newfound empty nest. In the past, I would have said, “It’s going to be fine. Don’t worry about it.” But this time, I paid attention. I heard her out. I assured her that I would be there as she paved her new way forward.
Another friend spoke to me about her son’s depression. She said she was beating herself up that she’d missed the signs in high school, and that now she felt like she was treading water, unsure of what to do and terrified that something bad might happen. I paid attention and made a note to keep checking in.
Another friend spoke to me about her husband’s crippling mental health challenges and the impact it’s had on her and their marriage. The warning signs had been there, she said, but she was still taken aback by the severity of the illness. She wondered whether she could have done something earlier, so we talked through some options for what she could do now.
Dr. Oz is hardly alone in missing warning signs in his family, and I know there will be more stories like his unless we collectively slow down and really start to pay attention. There will be more unless we use our voices in our families to compare notes and to say out loud what we are seeing, feeling and noticing. We need to use our voices to advocate for those we love because, let’s face it, doctors also miss warning signs.
And it’s not just medical signs that we miss in our lives. Every time I watch another White House firing or resignation play out on our national stage, I think about all the warning signs we are witnessing as a nation — as a larger collective family.
Regardless of your party affiliation, you must admit that we’ve had a lot of warning signs about the instability of this administration. Not only do we not have a permanent national security adviser, but we don’t have a permanent Homeland Security secretary, secretary of the Army or secretary of the Air Force. We also don’t have a director or a deputy director of national intelligence. And that’s just today…
If you run your own company, or if you work for someone who does, you know in your heart, gut and mind that this kind of turnover, upheaval and chaos is a warning sign that the board should act. I write this because I see the warnings signs. As part of the larger American family, I’m raising my concerns and wondering if you notice what I’m noticing. I’m wondering if you’re feeling what I’m feeling.
Over the years, I’ve missed or ignored warning signs in my life and the world around me, and I don’t want to let it happen anymore because they can tell us a lot about what we should be paying attention to. I’ve also come to realize that not all warning signs should be viewed as bad and/or dangerous. Some are simply a window into what you need in your life. They are often a gateway to change for the better.
I distinctly remember looking into the mirror many years ago and feeling like I didn’t know the woman looking back at me. It had nothing to do with my physical appearance. It had to do with my interior life. It was a defining moment in my life, a moment of meaning. It made me realize certain things needed to change.
So this morning, look in the mirror. Do you like and admire the person staring back at you? I hope so, because you should admire yourself. You should respect yourself, value yourself and love yourself. The encounter you have with yourself should bring you joy, not pain.
If lights are flashing — if you feel like you are lying to yourself — then take a beat and write down what your soul is saying to you. Pay attention to what you are seeing and feeling, even if you aren’t ready to say it out loud. Doing so is the first step toward acknowledging the warning signs. Speak truth to yourself and sit with that truth, then ask someone you trust to support your efforts to make a change.
The good news is that the warning sign you notice might just save a life — be it yours or someone you love. I hope you take notice of your parents (if you are lucky enough to have them and be in conversation with them). Do they repeat themselves? Is their personality changing? I hope you take a beat and look around at others you love as well. How are they really doing? Are they merely surviving? Are they masking their pain and struggles? Look deep within. Be courageous enough to speak to a friend that you might be worried about. Ask your kids if there are kids in their schools that exhibit any warning signs.
As I said, I have missed plenty of warning signs in my own life. I’ve lied to myself in the past and I’ve not spoken up when I should have. We’ve all done this, and we’ve all been there. So, if you find yourself worried that you may have missed a sign — be it within yourself or in someone you love — fear not. Don’t feel guilt or shame about what could have been. Use the warning sign as a sign that you should pay attention now. Take a breath and get in touch with yourself. Listen to yourself and those you love. After all, every moment is a new opportunity to pay attention to ourselves, and to what is unfolding all around us.