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I worry about flunking a test.

That hasn't always been the case. If Mr. Melby, my algebra teacher, God rest his exasperated soul, was still around, he would tell you there was a time in my life where I didn't take tests nearly seriously enough.

In my defense, I've lived a fairly full life without being able to find out what “X” represents, I've never suffered because I have only a vague idea where iron is on the periodic table, and it's too late for my editors to take action on my inability to diagram a sentence.

But as you get older, the tests change and the stakes get higher. I've done okay on a lot of life's big tests. I don't cheat on my wife or my taxes. I've never hit a child and I've never written a lie in exchange for a wink and a check. As I get older, temptation, temper, and ambition are all slipping a bit, so I don't worry about the big tests nearly as much.

It's concern about the little tests that keeps me awake, the tests I might not even know I'm taking.

Let me explain.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman, the actor, died of a drug overdose a few years ago. He had addiction issues, but he'd also had many years of sobriety. The night before he died, he called a friend and asked if he wanted to hang out. The friend had something else planned, and even though he sensed there was something a little off about the request, he begged off. Now he's stuck with a lifetime of what-ifs and regrets.

I often think about that story - and others like it. We're surrounded by small tests. Did I take the poem shown to me by a child seriously? Did I make it to the game when my grandchild finally made a three-point shot or hear the solo in the choir concert? Did I ask a friend how they were doing and respond with another question when their reply didn't seem genuine?

Most small tests aren't a matter of life and death, but sometimes I think small tests are the basis for civilization. All those little actions that add some lubricant to the gears of life, those outstretched hands that give young people a start, or the hand on an elbow that steadies aged legs.

The problem with small tests is that you often don't see them coming, and you don't know whether they're important or not. I'm not a particularly mystical kind of guy, but every now and then I feel like the universe is giving me a nudge. I try to pay attention. I've been known to overtip bad servers and spend too much time listening to people tell me about their bad backs or ungrateful children. I've attended funerals where no one cared that I came, and I've spent too much money on Girl Scout cookies and 4-H fruit. Truthfully, I've never regretted it.

Maybe it's just advancing age, but I worry I'm living in a world that’s meaner than it used to be. Too many people are too self-absorbed. Not enough people look around to see who could use a helping hand or a listening ear. It's not hard – every world religion has had the solution for centuries. How would you like to be treated, how would you like your children or grandparents treated?

I'm confident my life would be more relaxing if I wasn't always vaguely concerned I was about to take a test I'd forgotten to study for, but relaxing isn't all it's cracked up to be. Being alert and on my toes makes me feel nimble and engaged.

Mr. Melby would approve.

Copyright 2023 Brent Olson


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