John Shuff (right) with his instructor Peter Badewitz at Park City Mountain Resort in 1989.

“When it comes to life the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.”—G.K. Chesterton

I was a moody kid, a contrarian, prone to venting my frustrations on my dad. He didn’t let me get away with all that complaining, fixing his steely blue eyes on me and saying time and time again, “I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.”

It is a sentiment that has resonated with me for a lifetime, especially this time of year—16 words that always manage to remind me what I am grateful for. They put my life into perspective, and have helped define who I am. 

In winter of 1988, I made up my mind to learn how to ski. Unable to walk, I joined a program at Park City Handicapped Sports (Known today as National Ability Center). My instructor was a Vietnam vet whose right leg had been blown off by a land mine.

After strapping me into my “sit ski,” he tethered himself to the rear of it and off we went. The run down the mountain’s trails was thrilling and exhilarating. At age 48, it was an experience that I would never trade for anything.

However, what defined this experience was not the run down the mountain; it’s what happened in the locker room afterward. This crowded space was not filled with your typical après-ski crowd. There was a young woman with slurred speech and jerky movements, the result of a head injury, a youngster with cerebral palsy, a smiling, teenage blind girl who was being assisted by one of the volunteers. 

I remember how my instructor exchanged his heavy ski prosthesis for his regular one. The stump left by the surgeons was red and irritated but he never complained about his discomfort as he methodically placed his swollen stump into his prosthesis, his lifeline to walking.

I’ll never forget that day. Parents hugged their kids as they came into the room from the slopes. Everyone acted if they had just climbed Mt. Everest, their sense of accomplishment radiating from their wind-blown faces. 

That day was my epiphany, when I really understood what my dad was telling me with his 16-word admonition. It was the day that I realized that I had made it down that mountain—made it down the slope of adversity—with children and young adults who would never enjoy the experiences I had before being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. It was the day I saw how each of us coped with our handicaps, scuttling feelings of self-pity and concentrating on self-esteem. 

This Thanksgiving and every day you live, thank God you can see the sunlight when you awake, as there are many who are blind. When you sit down to a meal give thanks, for there are many who are hungry. Give thanks for your family and your friends, for many are alone. Give thanks for your job and co-workers for there are many with no job.

Thank God for his most precious gift, your life. Treasure it each day, and take nothing for granted. Find your way down the mountain no matter how difficult.

And cherish the journey. 

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