As a writer and a long distance runner, I spend a lot of my day in Starbucks locations across the city, and for years I've had a massive pet peeve about their condiment stations. Anyone who has ever navigated one of these stations knows how poorly designed they are in that you are compelled to reach in front of someone else in order to get a lid or to grab the milk carafe. I've never understood why Starbucks, the masters of uniformity and efficiency, couldn't design a better station.
Having said that, you can imagine my surprise when just last week, this petty daily resentment suddenly left me, and it’s with somewhat of a heavy heart that I admit to you that I’ve come to love this impromptu "milk-lid dance" I participate in several times a day. No matter how much of a rush I’m in or how lost I am in my own little world, this shuffle, reach, and bend dance encourages me to make small talk—fleeting though it may be—and to maintain civility with other folks in my city. Come to think of it, maybe Starbucks has much more business savvy than I gave them credit for.
So what do you think brought about this radical shift in my thinking? Although I’d like to say that it was my “enlightened” choice to let go of a niggling daily frustration, it really is nothing more than a simple shift in my perception. But even more, what this has made me realize is that much to my dismay, I’m actually a “happy person”, not the melancholic tortured soul I’ve always considered myself to be, some romantic ideal of a man making his way along the margins of society.
Like anyone else who makes it to middle age, I haven’t arrived without swimming through my fair share of setbacks, trauma, and disappointments. There was a time in my life when I looked upon these experiences as something that left me broken, fractured, or in some way askew. I now see adversity as something that shapes me and to all account, strengthens me. There is no doubt that in a crisis, you meet a different part of yourself—and quite often it’s in this meeting of yourself, that you truly come to find yourself.
In an age of 24/7 connectivity, we very often feel a desperate need to carve out our own individual space amidst the endless stream of “likes”, “shares”, and “reposts”. In so doing, we erect artificial barriers around ourselves, thereby depriving us of the one thing that can liberate us from much of our sadness—a recognition of the universality of human suffering. Despite the many knocks against social media being nothing more than mindless chatter about the mundanely egocentric comings and goings of our lives, I believe that the flipside to these “superficial interactions” is that they inadvertently open a window to the universal daily grind we all endure. I know that I mine a lot of inspiration from the people I engage with on social media, and this has happened to such a degree that it has caused me to redefine what I think “courage” means. Courage has nothing to do with “not being afraid”. In fact, it’s the complete opposite—It entails all that you will yourself to do when “you are afraid.”
Deep down, we are all in search of a little inspiration, a little hope. I was discussing this with a friend yesterday, and he told me that he sees “HOPE” as an acronym for Hearing Other People’s Experience. I was blown away by the clarity of that concept, and how it perfectly encapsulates the power of connection and its ability to make us reach for greatness. So once again I find myself in need of a slight change of perspective. Instead of railing against the constant influx of digital connectivity, maybe it’s time for me to really listen to and gain insight and inspiration from the experience of others. Today, I strive not to be remembered for making the most noise, but for creating the silence on which others can paint their words. Hope lies in connection, and in connection lies freedom.
By far the most horrific experience of my life arrived the day I woke up with the realization that I had been betrayed by my own mind. The world I had constructed to insulate myself from past trauma had come crumbling down around me. But what I wasn’t aware of was how surprisingly easy it is to live a lie, to convince yourself that your past is not connected to your present, and that you can build a sarcophagus around your hurt with no threat of the radioactive ooze leaching into your life.
What we often forget to acknowledge is that falling apart may in fact not be as catastrophic as we think because in actual fact, what is more than likely happening is that we are falling together. It all comes down to perspective, and believing that nothing falls apart that wasn’t in some way fractured or unstable to begin with. It takes us a while to see things as they really are because we humans are hardwired to either run away from discomfort, or numb ourselves to avoid acknowledging its presence. In either case, there comes a time when we must confront that which doesn’t sit right in us.
After the initial dissidence of coming to terms with our inner demons, we arrive at a calmer place that I like to refer to as an “emotional oasis”. An oasis is an isolated area of abundance and fecundity that starkly contrasts the barren lifelessness around it. We see these in nature, precariously located amidst the most unforgiving terrain, and we can also see these as people, thriving in the most toxic social, political, and even familial environments. For me, running served as my oasis—my reprieve, my haven that permitted me the time and space to thrive until I became strong enough to delve into the work that needed to be done to acknowledge the trauma I experienced as a child, and the fractured and convoluted behaviors I adopted to keep this trauma at bay.
Don’t get me wrong—an oasis can be a beautiful place to be, but there is no denying that it is but a temporary reprieve. Sooner or later, you’ll need to step foot into the inhospitable terrain that surrounds it. In the immortal words of the poet John Donne, “No man is an island.” We long to be connected to one another, to love and to be loved. But how do we go about reconciling with our “brokenness”, and more importantly, how do we give ourselves over to the vulnerability to allow others to witness our brokenness.
For years I was baffled by what it would take to get to a place where in forgiving myself, I permitted others the space to forgive me. True, by inhabiting my own little oasis, I had distanced myself from much of the discord, the haunting of my past, but there is a marked difference between “distancing” and “addressing”. I knew that within the discomfort and the discord, lay the solution. It wasn’t until very recently when I stumbled across something that John Steinbeck wrote, that I discovered what I already intuitively knew. Think of it like the Big Bang Theory, but related to knowledge in general. In the words of Steinbeck, “The flame of conception seems to flare and go out, leaving man shaken, and at once happy and afraid. There’s plenty of precedent of course. Everyone knows about Newton’s apple. Charles Darwin said his Origin of Species flashed complete in one second, and he spent the rest of his life backing it up; and the Theory of Relativity occurred to Einstein in the time it takes to clap your hands. This is the greatest mystery of the human mind — the inductive leap. Everything falls into place, irrelevancies relate, dissonance becomes harmony, and nonsense wears a crown of meaning. But the clarifying leap springs from the rich soil of confusion, and the leaper is not unfamiliar with pain.”
I can’t even begin to tell you how jarred I was by those simple words, “the leaper is not unfamiliar with pain.” It all comes down to learning to inhabit your own world but from a different perspective. You can’t really expect to slip out of your skin, but you can turn it inside out and wear it backwards, or as one of my favorite writers, Henry Miller says, “One's destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”
So if you’ve turned a chapter on a challenging part of your life, and you see yourself standing firmly in your oasis, perhaps you’ve reached the point in which you have fortified yourself so that you are now strong enough to step back into the dissonance and launch yourself towards new growth. It’s a never-ending process of healing and stretching and healing. Every solution we come to opens the door to yet another question.
When it comes to such esoteric subject matter, I am often at a loss for words, so I can think of no better way to end this than to leave you with the words of the great English art critic, John Berger. “The arrival to an answer, to an insight, is nothing more than the demarcation point of yet another question. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.”
It was the great Carl Sagan who said: “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” And let's not forget in that universe, you and I are nothing more than specks of dust dancing around, sometimes bumping into one another, often times drifting our own separate ways. What unites us all is the purpose of legacy—that which imprints our presence on the lives left behind.
Each and every one of us leaves a trace, be it the lives of our children, a stubborn patch of earth lovingly tended into a garden, or even our nascent words or music brought to life on a page. Try as I might, it’s impossible for me to ignore my inheritance, the gnarl of an index finger, but a vestige of my mother, the nervous tick of rubbing my brow, none other than a direct legacy of my father.
There are those things too, that we take with us—we dare not leave them behind. Some are too precious to release from our grasp; others too unspeakable to be breathed into words; and still others left unbirthed and uncharted, from a life unfulfilled.
All of this has got me thinking about my legacy and how I would choose to craft it. I’ve divided it into 3 things I want buried with me, 3 things I want to leave behind, and 3 words I want engraved on my headstone.
I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, “You can’t take it with you.” Well, that might be the case, but selfish as it may be, there are a few worldly possessions I don’t want to let go of. My one-year medallion from Alcoholics Anonymous means so much more to me than to anyone else who finds it in their possession. When I received it 17 years ago, I remember the weight of it in my hand and feeling so upset because they had engraved the incorrect spelling of my name. All these years later, I see the beauty in that imperfection, and how it has come to define my life in sobriety. The second item I would like to take with me is my finisher’s medal from the Comrades Marathon in South Africa. To this day, I’m still in awe at the amount of courage it took for me to step completely out of my comfort zone and head halfway across the world to run 89 km up and down the unrelenting terrain of South Africa. The final item I want to take with me to my grave is my pettiness that has been my undoing on so many occasions in my life—the world would be a much better place with less of that negativity left to linger.
I had a much harder time deciding what 3 things I’d choose to leave behind. My first choice would be my wedding ring, and my hope is that it finds its way to my son. To me this little band signifies all the valleys my wife and I have climbed out of and all the mountain peaks we have reached together. The best advice I could give my son is to not find a partner who “completes you”, but rather, find someone who helps you “find yourself”. My second choice to leave behind is my depth of strength that comes from being a survivor. I honestly believe that in this life, we are only given what we can manage. There are times when we feel that something is beyond us, but those are the times we mine the parts of us that make us superior to circumstance. The final thing I would leave behind is my sense of humor; albeit tinged with irreverence, it has buoyed me through some very tense moments throughout the years.
And last but not least are the 3 words I’d like engraved on my headstone. Every life is marked by two dates and a dash, the year we came in and the year we go out. Today, my life is all about “living the dash”. The 3 words that anchor me to that dash are: gratitude, surrender, and resilience.
I invite you to find a quiet place, sit down, and craft your own list of three 3s.
Even though I’ve been clean and sober now for almost 18 years, without a doubt, I continue to move through life with the mind of an addict. And what I mean by that is much of my thinking over the years has been nothing less than binary. Everything in life was good or bad, black or white, stoned or sober, flying high or crashing down.
I don’t want to live a life like that anymore—a life that comes with an endless jarring as you fluctuate between the extremes. Over the past two years, I’ve immersed myself in the field of mindfulness and mediation, with the expectation that learning to be “fully present”, might just be the antidote I need to escape my binary disposition. By no means has this been an easy practice for me to adopt, as I’ve been struggling with the fact that the more present I become and thus more in tune with what really is, the more aware I am of what really isn’t.
And it wasn’t until a few days ago that I stumbled across a quote by Kathryn Schultz that perfectly explains what I’ve never been able to put into words. “The miracle of your mind isn’t that you can see the world as it is. It’s that you can see the world as it isn’t.” So it’s in this space that I struggle most, the dichotomy of knowing that where you are illuminates and gives you the clarity of where you hope one day to be.
It appears that even mindfulness—something universal in its simplicity—is neither black nor white, but shaded in grays. In fact, it’s the gray areas I inhabit most these days. I’m continually reminded of this fact when I brush up against adversity. It’s the knowledge that any trial or unpleasant circumstance can either destroy you or open you up to growth borne of resilience. What we take from that experience is entirely up to us. Instead of pushing away from the discomfort, I’m learning how to soften into things.
It’s been said that no matter where you go, there you are. The “me” that gets in my way the most is my ego. My ego is definitely a big room I can easily get lost in. It’s a room in which the windows don’t look out, only in. Everything in this room is constructed of grandiosity and self-pity. I may not use drugs or alcohol anymore, but I still suffer from hangovers of my own doing. My ego run amok ensnares everything in its path, while simultaneously pushing everyone and everything important in my life away. For me, learning how to “soften into things” means learning how to quiet my ego, the presence that convinces me that in order to build myself up, I need to tear someone else down.
By getting out of my own way, I open a channel for love to come into my life. What is love other than commitment—It’s having the faith to be present with another person and having a willingness to live with an unresolved conflict. It’s knowing that I didn’t choose to love you just for this moment, but for a culmination of all the moments that have yet to arrive.
This process of stripping away and being present takes an incredible amount of energy, and learning to sustain this way of navigating life requires we constantly replenish our resiliency stores. I always thought I was an extrovert, gregarious and thriving in community. It wasn’t until I heard an interview with Chris Kresser that I realized that even the binary labels of introverts and extroverts can be misleading. Chris described introverts as being people who get their batteries recharged when they are alone. It really has nothing to do with not enjoying being in crowds and being the center of attention. That totally describes why I’ve always thrived when I can strike a balance between quiet solitary restoration and chaotic communal interaction.
So I guess what I’m really trying to say is that maybe the “gray areas” aren’t so bad after all. Learning to “soften into things” is moving me further away from a life of either-or. It’s my ability to sway and sashay through adversity that invites love into my life. In the words of the American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön: “If we want there to be peace in the world, we have to be brave enough to soften what is rigid in our hearts, to find the soft spot and stay with it. We have to have that kind of courage and take that kind of responsibility. That’s the true practice of peace.”