There is a part inside each and every one of us that just doesn’t seem to sit right. We find a disequilibrium that given enough time and circumstance, can derail us, demobilize us, and at worst, if allowed free dominion—destroy us. We are so preoccupied with the trials and tribulations of life that we feel almost incapacitated at the prospect of tearing into that space inside that we have been so careful to anesthetize, bury, and ignore. But what if we really did take ownership of everything inside us, not just the face we show the world, but the darkness, inadequacy, and fear residing in that place of disequilibrium?
I’m reminded of a quote by Frederick Nietzsche, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” As I sit here writing this, two very conflicting emotions are running through me. There is a deep sadness for giving free reign to a fear in my soul that allowed so many years of an unfilled life to pass by. And at the same time, I have an immense sense of gratitude and optimism for finally realizing the truth in Nietzsche’s words—knowing my “why” in this life makes me superior to any temporary circumstance I may find myself in.
Two years ago I dug into that space of disequilibrium inside me and I began unpacking all the darkness that comes with being a survivor of child sexual abuse and rape. As I pealed back layer upon layer, all I found was fear in all its manifestations. I’d been traveling this geography of numbing and avoiding for decades, and my not so subtle companion this entire time was fear, something that had been lying on the surface like an oil slick—thick, claustrophobic, and dark. We walk around telling our stories to ourselves, and in so doing, not only do we bear witness to these stories but also we internalize these stories as our reality.
The only thing more heartbreaking than living a life of fear, is living a life of regret. I’ve gotten old with fear, and to be honest, it’s overstayed its welcome. Before I can jettison fear from my life, I need to figure out what "fear" really is, and what it isn’t? On one hand, fear is discomfort, anxiety, and disquiet, all of which are feelings that by their very nature are unpalatable, but not crippling.
On the other hand, fear is entwined in expectation—My projection of what might happen, but most certainly hasn’t come to pass. Therefore, if I approach fear with an absence of expectation and simply deal with what’s in front of me and not what I envision might unfold, it becomes much easier to wade through the disquiet and anxiety. By having the fortitude and reliance to wade through these tumultuous moments, it allows us to transform the disequilibrium inside us into personal growth and beauty.
Where I am apt to get hung up is in feeling that the growth and change within me is not moving as fast as I’d like it to move. And once again, I can sabotage my wellbeing by relying on outcomes and desires as my metrics for personal growth. Often we limit our potential, by lowering the bar we set for ourselves, when we allow our fear of not reaching our goals in a timely manner to govern our actions. My way around this mind trap is by aligning myself with a broader vision of feeling whole and of service to my community. It’s an extension of my faith, not in any religious sense, but in a deep communion with an understanding of my true purpose, vision, or what Nietzsche referred to as my “why”.
If the proliferation of self-help books that top the bestseller lists is any indication, selling people on the idea of personal growth and transformation is not really an issue. I think the real question comes down to whether or not it is reasonable to expect to bring anyone along with you, be it your partner or friends and family? Any change that comes from within you is bound to disrupt the homeostasis of the relationships that you’re involved in. Even a recognizable positive change can leave those around you feeling threatened and insecure, both of which are deeply rooted in their own fear of abandonment.
A dance that my wife Mary-Anne and I have had to navigate in our 28-year marriage is learning how to coexist in various periods of extensive personal growth when one partner is in flux while the other has yet to adapt and respond. If I interpret change in my partner as an assault to my contentment, I run the risk of trying to interrupt, and disrupt, that growth in order to hold my partner where she is. I try to comfort myself in that what I may perceive to be an act of rebellion may in fact be an act of creation. Ultimately, it questions the notion of “I love you for who you ARE not who you WILL BE.
The more I delve into that space of disequilibrium inside and begin to acknowledge and transform the fear I uncover there, the more I realize that the most beautiful parts of me, and those around me, are contained within the darkness of that disequilibrium. There is indeed a wholeness in knowing that each of us in his or her own way is incomplete. Like shaking the dead leaves out of tree, it’s by inviting those around us to witness the transformation inside us, that we come to realize and acknowledge who amongst that group allows us the space to grow. Just as there is a deep disquiet in a life left unfulfilled so to is there immense sadness in relationships that never grow. I’ll leave you with the haunting words of Nelson Mandela: “There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.”
No one, and mean no one, walks through the doors of their first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting feeling “happy, joyous, and free.” The prospect of spending countless hours in damp church basements and community centers, in the company of other twitching, coffee-swilling addicts doesn’t do much to warm the soul.
By the time I found my way to the rooms of AA, I was desperate to try anything, but truth be told, I came in looking for a way out. There was no denying I had a drinking problem, but like most people in recovery rooms, my addiction was merely a symptom of a much more deeply rooted problem. Alcoholism is cunning in that it is an illness that continually whispers and enchants by trying to convince the addict that you are different; you can have just one, and this time you’ll be able to control yourself. The irony is that the alcohol never solves anything—It just buries problems and feelings that invariably bubble their way to the surface like a festering boil.
And here in lies the problem—every alcoholic is an unwitting player acting out his or her part not in a tragic comedy, but in a comic tragedy. The best description I’ve ever read about the insanity of alcoholism comes from Dr. Vincent Felitti, who said: “It is hard to get enough of something that almost works.” That is certainly how it played out for me. From the first drink to my last alcoholic binge, I was chasing a solution that never quite worked. It is in this space of “not quite working” that the greatest devastation unfolds in the alcoholic’s personal and professional life. There is not an active alcoholic on the planet who doesn’t cause collateral damage. Like ripples in a pond, the chaotic dissonance is far-reaching.
When I finally reached that point of being sick and tired of feeling sick and tired, I grudgingly agreed to give Alcoholics Anonymous a try. Although I was willing to go to any lengths to get my drink or drug, the same could not be said for my foray into recovery. I’m an addict, so naturally I want the quickest fix possible. I called the 1-800 number in the phone book, and asked the polite lady on the other end of the phone if she could send out some AA pamphlets to me in the mail. At that point, I was still convinced I could get sober simply by reading the “How To Guide”. Surprise… It doesn’t work that way. The volunteer on the phone asked me where I lived, and she told me that there was a meeting just down the street from me starting in a couple of hours.
When the time came, I walked down the street towards a group of men and women smoking and laughing on the sidewalk near the side entrance to the church basement. Careful not to make any eye contact whatsoever, I slipped past the group and made my way to the door, where I was greeted by a guy, who must have been a bouncer in his former life, who said: “Welcome to the Friendly Group. Grab a coffee and grab a seat.”
Many of you may be wondering what an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting looks like, so let me give you a quick AA primer. I’ve been to meetings throughout North America and some in Europe, and generally, they all follow the same format. There are two types of AA meetings: closed meetings and open meetings. Open meetings are exactly what they sound like—They are open to alcoholics and to anyone else who wants to attend. Typically, after the initial announcements, and the reading of the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous, one alcoholic will come up to the front and share his or her story of strength, hope, and recovery. On the other hand, closed meetings are for alcoholics and for those who think they may have a problem with alcohol. These meetings also begin with the reading of the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions, and are followed by a group reading or discussion based on one of the steps or traditions, or a topic related to recovery.
I’ve been attending AA meetings for almost 18 years now, and in that entire time, I’ve managed to stay clean and sober one day at a time. After the thousands of hours I’ve spent in recovery meetings, I can say I’m certain of only a few things. First, despite what many people believe, AA is not a cult. It’s just a group of alcoholics trying to figure out how to stay sober by helping the next guy or gal stay sober. Two, no matter how shitty I feel before walking into a meeting, I always feel a little better after it’s over. Three, going to meetings is like holding up a mirror to your sobriety. It’s impossible to see the changes in me since I’ve stopped drinking, but by looking around the room at others with different amounts of sobriety and encountering varying struggles and joys, I’m able to see myself in each and every other person in the room. And finally, having to sit in a chair for 60 or 90 minutes and listen to other alcoholics as they listen to me, is a much needed lesson in patience.
18 years later, I still have days where I desperately want a drink, but I remind myself that no matter how bad I’m feeling and no matter what problem I have, if I pick up that first drink, I’ll still have that problem, but now I’ll be right back in the caustic belly of my addiction. Today I consider myself a grateful alcoholic, and I now realize that I don’t have a drinking problem—I have a living problem.
For most of my life, I numbed, ran away, and avoided, always hiding on the margins, too afraid to confront my demons and too ashamed to reach out for the help I so desperately needed. But through all that time, I was a seeker—longing to find a way back into a place where I didn’t loathe the feel of my own skin, a place where I could simply disappear because I was normal. I know it’s ironic that I wanted to fit in, yet disappear at the same time, but I knew that unlike the soul-destroying self exile that had governed my life for so long, this form of disappearance came hinged with a warm enveloping feeling of acceptance and communion.
My story has been one of fighting my way back from the margins of society—one in which I never had a clear picture or understanding of what I was doing, what I was moving towards, or more accurately, what was moving through me. One of the champions of the marginalized was Thomas Merton, the American Catholic writer and Trappist monk. I’ve always admired his poetic voice and his strong social conscience that appeared to walk the tightrope of contradiction.
There’s a passage from Merton’s The Asian Journal that I find particularly illuminating in what I’ve come to believe as the purpose of everything I’ve battled through in my life. "I stand among you as one who offers a small message of hope, that first, there are always people who dare to seek on the margin of society, who are not dependent on social acceptance, not dependent on social routine, and prefer a kind of free-floating existence under a state of risk. And among these people, if they are faithful to their own calling, to their own vocation, and to their own message from God, communication on the deepest level is possible. And the deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech and beyond concept."
What I’ve had to accept is that I can’t expect “social acceptance” as a precondition to my recovery, be it from the sexual abuse in my past, my battles with depression and suicide, or my continuing struggles with addiction. Somewhere along the way the bruises I tried to conceal by pushing everyone away, became battle scars I am proud of. In rescuing myself, I began to build bridges to others who trust in my path, and it was in this wordless dialogue, that others began to see hope in my story.
This transition has in no way been graceful, or in any sense self-aware or scripted. Much of the time I’ve spent trying to figure out what I should be like, and sound like. I’ve felt like an actor trying to find a way into his part—trying on this voice or that voice, experimenting with different mannerisms. It wasn’t until I threw away everything I thought a survivor should be, and embraced everything I naturally am, blemishes, missteps and all, that I finally found the voice of hope inside that I wanted to display to the world.
Subtly has never been my strong suit, and I wear the mantle of being a slow learner proudly. For me, substantive change has only come on the heals of repeated roadblocks and a lot of vain attempts trying to jam a square peg into a round hole. In biblical terms, I’m waiting for the lighting bolt or burning bush to signal something demands change.
One such burning bush arrived in my life a little over a year-and-half ago, and like most biblical parables, mine appeared in the beauty of nature through the eyes of an innocent child. I had recently begun an extended medical leave from my job as a teacher in order to deal with some recurring issues related to post traumatic stress. Not only was I unable to function in my normal duties in the classroom but also my complete inability to maintain any form of attention span meant that reading and watching television were frustratingly impossible. My only solace was an Adirondack chair on our front porch that offered a sheltered view of the comings and goings in front of our house. Anyone who has lived in a big city is well aware of the frenetic hum and busyness of urban living. But for the first time, I was now so disconnected from my plugged-in, super-charged life that I became a casual observer, an interloper.
We live in a quaint little pocket of Toronto just north of the eastern beach. It’s a community known for its postage-sized front gardens—a natural oasis amidst the tarmac and concrete. Like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, I sat transfixed to the intricate tableau unfolding in front of me. My cool mornings and warm afternoons were spent sitting on the porch watching the world continue on without me, neighbours heading off to work, dog walkers pounding the pavement, and parents walking their children to and from school.
One sunny morning a father and his young daughter walked by on their way to the elementary school down the street. As is typically the case when parents are in a hurry to hustle their children to school, those little minds are in a world of their own, and are easily distracted by everything and anything along the way. The impatient father decided to try to speed things up, so he walked on ahead. It was at that point, that the little girl stopped on the sidewalk in front of our house, and she reached into a makeshift concrete birdbath that we had at the edge of our garden. Living in an area literally overrun with cats, there was not a hope in hell that any bird in its right mind would venture down to what would more than likely be certain death in our birdbath. As a result, the birdbath became a de facto repository for decorative stones we picked up at the beach and various fallen twigs and leaves that I was forever picking out.
As I heard the father’s increasingly frustrated pleas for his daughter to hurry up, the little girl reached into the concrete birdbath and took out one of the more colourful stones. By that point, her father had walked back to grab her, and then, he saw me sitting quietly on our porch. I knew exactly what was going through his mind, as he was embarrassed because his daughter had climbed in amongst our flowers. He immediately scolded her, and told her “she should stay out of people’s gardens." The little girl turned to her father and said: “Mommy lets me do this every day. It’s my wishing bowl. Every day I take a stone out and make a wish.” The father looked like he just wanted to crawl into a hole and die. I’m sure he felt like crap for ripping into the little girl, who didn’t understand why her father didn’t grasp the magic in what she was doing.
After they had walked away, I felt as though I had been jolted awake—It was my burning bush moment. The words uttered by that little girl kept echoing in my head, and the more I thought about it, the more I believed they were the most beautiful words I’d ever heard.
You have to realize that I’d spent the past few weeks feeling completely lost, purposeless, and alone, but in the simple actions of that little girl, I began to realize the simplicity and power of hope and faith in our world. All I needed to do was to figure out a way of silencing all the noise around and inside of me, and begin to focus on the beauty of a moment, the belief in the wonderful.
I decided to latch onto this idea, so I got up from my chair and I searched around the basement for some old wood to use to make a sign, but all I could find was an abandoned wooden cheeseboard, cracked and warped sitting dusty on a shelf. I grabbed the board and a Sharpie marker and fashioned a little sign to place beside our concrete birdbath. In my squiggly penmanship, the sign read:
Take a stone out to make a wish….
Place a stone in to let go of a problem.
As I look back on this, my only motivation for going through all this effort was to see the expression on the little girl’s face the next time she walked by our garden. What I didn’t expect was the reaction our wishing bowl would have on our entire community. The reaction was immediate; as people were rushing by on their way to work, school, or the store, they would stop and read the little sign, and then they would smile, reach down, and take a stone out of the bowl or place one in. Within a week, people were carting stones from God knows where to place into the bowl to “let go of a problem”. Our little wishing bowl that had started its life as only a few decorative stones was now overflowing with pebbles and rocks from the community.
To this day, if you sit on our front porch or catch a furtive glance through the living room window, you are bound to see people stopping at the now famous wishing bowl. I have to say the most surprising thing for me has been the reaction of the groups of teenagers who parade past our house every day on the way to and from the high school down the street. Teenagers seem to unabashedly love the wishing bowl, and it doesn’t appear to matter that they are doing it in front of their friends. We have one elderly man who stops by every morning and takes a rock out and carries it with him for the day. On his way home, he drops another rock off to our wishing bowl. I’ve had countless parents stop and tell me that their kids love the wishing bowl, and how it reminds the hurried adults to slow down for a bit and appreciate the world through the wonder of a child’s eyes.
I believe that there are angels who come into our world to teach us the lessons we are too blind to take notice of. That little girl was one such angel. She opened up a part of me that had been closed for far too long. She reminded me that underneath all of the noise and trappings of our adult life, lies the one thing that so many of us spend our lives desperately seeking out--the glimmer of hope. As I sit down to write this, I began thinking about the difference between the words wish and hope. Most of us use these words interchangeably, but there is indeed a subtle difference. A “hope” refers to a person’s desires, and it is attached to strong emotion with the expectation that something is doable with a little effort. For instance, I “hope I get the promotion at work,” whereas a “wish” is often associated with magic, sorcery, or a strong yearning. You wish when you blow out birthday candles, or when you hold your breath and silently dream of good fortune. When you think about it, wishes are boundless, and they are magic in that they are not steeped in, nor weighted down by typical adult pessimism.
As I become more comfortable sitting with that voice inside that whispers to my soul, I’m learning that serenity can be found in the midst of adversity by “wishing” more and “hoping” less. If this means going against the grain and continuing to reside in what Thomas Merton lovingly referred to as the “margin of society”, I choose to live a life steeped in magic and optimism, and if that borders on blind naivety at times, then so be it. Our little wishing bowl is not just a neighbourhood novelty; it’s become a metaphor for a more joyous way of life.
I’m not going to lie to you; there are definitely times when I feel that my new way of life is counter to everything that the mainstream world operates on. There are times I feel frustrated, lonely, and utterly despondent, but it’s in these moments that I remind myself that I found my voice and my passion on the margins of society. Once again, I can seek solace in the words of Thomas Merton: "Do not depend on the hope of results. …You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself."
And it is here, in this space of endlessly falling but never hitting ground, where I need the most faith in my direction. When I quiet myself long enough to hear that whispering in my soul, I’m resolute. I intuitively accept that despite wherever we are now in our lives, in the face of what might appear to be insurmountable pain and struggle, deep down we are all worthy of love, and are without a doubt, superior to circumstance.
With the holidays behind us, overindulgence leaving our clothes feeling a little tighter, and a new year underway, we eagerly await what lies ahead. This year I have chosen to forgo the customary list of resolutions for one guiding principle instead—I will work towards removing the word blame from my vocabulary, and hopefully, my actions. Blame, by its very nature, is a dysfunctional word because it implies that we can in some way control the behavior and actions of others. It’s a powerless word that more often than not, traps us in a state of victimization.
2014 was by far the most difficult, but ironically, best year of my life—A tumultuous year in which I finally sought professional help for the physical and sexual abuse from my childhood, and for a violent rape that occurred during my adolescence. After almost four decades of blaming others, and asking why did this happen to me, I realized that I had been asking the wrong question all along. What I should be asking is what can I learn from pain and tragedy? In essence, I was stuck in what was no longer, and as a result, it was impossible for me to entertain what might be. I think Marilyn Monroe, whose beauty often overshadowed her business acumen and her way with words, said it best: “Sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together.”
We are all dealt our cards in this life, but what we often fail to acknowledge is that our trump card is only revealed to us when we stand knee deep in chaotic turmoil, in those times when it feels like our world is crumbling around us. Instinctively, we put our head down and do whatever we can to bury, deny, and avoid the discomfort we are in. It’s a timing thing—we can’t force it to run its course; it just has to run its course. The discomfort of the disequilibrium can feel unbearable, and it can arrive at the least opportune times in our life. As Alan Watts says, “The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.”
If I’ve learned anything this past year, it’s about learning to do the opposite to what my comfort zone brain is whispering to me. Instead of turning away when things appear to be coming apart in my life, this is the time when I need to be extra attentive, a time to be present and seriously take stock of what this undoing has opened in me. We typically look at pain as something to be suppressed; when in fact, it is a direct channel to something that does not sit right with us in our soul. By adopting this new way of looking at pain and sadness, instead of a tragedy, it becomes an opportunity, or even a gift that has unearthed a lesson inside me.
As it’s been said, “Wherever you go, there you are,” so the sooner you make peace with the fact that you are not just the “driver” but also the “passenger”, the sooner you’ll be spending less time escaping from your life and more time living it. My life has become less about distancing myself from painful memories, and more about making space for those memories to ride beside me like wise and faithful passengers. Our pain comes from wanting and expecting things to be different than they are. By acknowledging, “what is”, I am given a choice. I can learn to make space for it, thereby lessening the friction in my life, or invite something else into my life to take its place—Either way, I am fully present to where I am right now.
As the playwright George Bernard Shaw pointed out: “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” I can’t imagine a more beautiful, life-affirming way to begin not just the New Year, but every day of my life. So, in the absence of any resolutions for the year ahead, I will remind myself of these three questions to help govern my actions.
1. How can I make space in my life?
In this, I begin to let go of any negativity I might have about possessions, even people, or myself. If I really believe, as George Bernard Shaw said that I can “create” the life I want, then that means I have permission to leave more space for the people and things that nourish my soul.
2. How can I live in solutions not in complaints?
It was Shannon Alder who said, “The art of being wise is the art of knowing that solutions don’t come from individuals, but rather experiences.” I believe that complaining is the lowest form of communication, and it inevitably fosters more complaining. Far too often I look to others for the solution that lies within the experience inside me.
3. How can I build bridges and tear down walls?
Compassion lies in connection because it reminds us that deep down, all every person longs for is to be seen, to be heard. No matter where I am, commuting on the subway, passing a homeless person on the corner, or even standing in line waiting for my coffee, I have the opportunity to reach out and connect with somebody.
I’d like to leave you with the words of Albert Schweitzer. “In everybody’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle our inner fire.”