I love to be surrounded by beautiful things, and I find myself being seduced by material objects that I equate with increased happiness. We are flooded by messages of the cult of consumerism. Advertising comes at us from every direction and in every possible media. I’m now facing an internal dilemma, an act of consumerism blasphemy. As I have embarked on a year-long quest to “be a better me”, I’m struggling with my connection to my possessions and my desire to live a “simple life”. In her book Happier at Home, Gretchen Rubin refers to this nostalgia for a simple and less-cumbersome life as Waldenlust (coined in honor of Walden’s own search for simplicity).
I intuitively know that having a connection to possessions creates a two-fold problem. First, it makes me equate my happiness and contentedness with external objects rather than internal peace. Also, objects can always be taken away from me, and that in turn leads to fear and discomfort.
This got me thinking about my connection to the material things around our home. Like most people today, I’m always pressed for time, and feel like I’m merely treading water on most days. There is no denying that having possessions takes a lot of time and energy. I’ve got to earn money to pay for them, then I have to house them, and quite often clean or maintain them. That’s precious time that I could be spending on much more meaningful pursuits. Having the mind of an addict, I have to admit that most of the time, these possessions don’t satiate my happiness void for very long because they usually leave me wanting more and feeling anxious.
Gretchen Rubin articulates this beautifully when she says: “It was a matter of engagement. When I felt engaged with my possessions, I felt enlivened by them, and when I felt disengaged from them, I felt burdened.” The trick for me over the next year will involve being honest with myself about which possessions I own actually engage me. The easiest way to get at the heart of this is to turn to that old AA slogan that I use as a guidepost in other areas of my life: Keep it Simple. I’m starting to ask myself what importance a particular object has in my life, and how I would feel were I to lose it. This seems to be clearing out all that “white noise” in my brain about what I “need” and what I “want”. Take for example the thousands of books we’ve been carting around from house to house for the past 27 years. Will I really ever read Paradise Lost again? How about the 10 books I have on the now disgraced Lance Armstrong? I don’t want to divest myself of all the books around me, but some serious culling is in order.
This got me thinking about what possessions I really hold an emotional investment with. It’s not our album of wedding photos, but simply one picture I have of my wife and I shortly after we started dating; we look so young and in love. It’s a beautiful hand knit green and purple sweeter that my wife made for our son when he was just a toddler. It’s an old, worn signet ring that my father wore when he was alive that now sits in my wife’s jewelry box. I can still see that ring on his finger as the cigarette smoke plumed up from his muscular hand. It’s a letter I wrote to my wife one Christmas that was a series of vignettes of important moments of our life together. She later had it framed, and now it’s hangs in our bedroom. I have a wall with over 100 medals from all of the marathons and ultra marathons that I’ve run, but the only medal that holds emotional significance to me is the small gold Comrades medal I got when I did the 90k race in South Africa last year. I was terrified to do that race, and I almost let my fear stop me from trying. My wife was so supportive and she convinced me to live a “bigger life” and to go for it. I can still remember entering the cricket stadium in Durban, South Africa after 9 hours of running and seeing my wife’s face when I ran past her. She looked so proud of me, and she reminded me that joy in my life is meaningless without someone to share it with. Our friend Joanna took a picture of my wife hugging me at the finish line, and you can see the tears welling up in our eyes. And yes, that picture is one more possession that holds priceless memories for me.
[I welcome your comments and suggestions below.]
One of the definite downsides of living in a self-induced protective bubble for most of my life is that I’m not very good at empathy and making connections with certain people. My default position has always been to push you away and focus on our differences rather than our commonalities.
During the past four months as I’ve excavated deeper into myself, this empathy void has continued to niggle me, and sit as an impediment to my living a fuller life. This fact became glaringly obvious again today when I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts The Good Life Project, and this week’s interview was with Katherine Preston, who has been struggling with a severe stutter since the age of seven. Five minutes into the podcast, all those knee-jerk reactions in me started to bubble to the surface. I began telling myself that this episode will be “stupid” and that I would have nothing to learn from Katherine’s experience, so maybe I should just skip to the next episode. Interestingly, something inside me that began as a very weak whisper and quickly grew into a scream of urgency told me “boredom” was not the problem at play, but rather my “discomfort” with the podcast’s subject matter. Then I made the most important decision of my morning; I decided to listen to the entire episode with a new ear of empathy.
Many of you, who are much more attuned to empathy, already see where this is going. Katherine discussed how she spent the early part of her life living in denial of her struggles and avoiding anyone associated with the field of stuttering. By the age of 24, she no longer could live 'half a life', so she quit her position in the financial sector and set out on a quest to “find a cure” for her stuttering problem. She threw herself into a 12-month project that lead her to all of the research and medical literature, and eventually to conversations with other people, such as GE CEO Jack Welch and actress Emily Blunt, who have battled their own problems with stuttering.
What began as a “quest to find a cure” became a journal of discovery in which Katherine learned that when people interact with someone who stutters, they don’t see an affliction, but they see courage and resiliency. During the interview, Katherine was asked what we should do when we are talking with someone who is stuttering and we see the person struggling to get a word out. Should would interject and finish the word? Katherine said it varies from person to person, but for her, it’s all about "finding and releasing her voice", so she prefers that people just maintain patience and eye contact with her. The interviewer also remarked that when Katherine is stuttering and struggling to get a word out, the most enchanting smile comes over her face. He asked where this smile comes from and Katherine responded: "I think it’s a compassion thing – for myself and for my listener. I do it subconsciously, but it stems from a desire to remind myself that I don’t need to be scared of stuttering. Beyond that, I do it to put my listener at ease, to let them know that nothing terrible is going on, that stuttering does’t need to frighten them or make them feel awkward.”
By the end of the podcast, with tears streaming down my face and other subway passengers looking at me suspiciously, I realized that life had taught me an important lesson today. By quieting that voice inside me that says “you’re different from me” and opening my heart through empathy, I was able to see how similar I am to Katherine. Four months ago when I decided to seek help for childhood sexual abuse, I too was on a “quest for a cure”, the magic formula that would make all those painful memories go away. The elixir to make me feel “whole” again. The panacea to make me “the same” as everyone else. Like Katherine, I too believe that the thing I sought a “cure” for is in fact the most wondrous “gift” in my life. Instead of being the dark secret that pushed me away from you, it has become the pathway to open empathy within me, and that is the best way to make me closest to you. I am growing to realize that discomfort and disease are nothing more than “un” ease in my skin. By learning to “sit” with that discomfort in a nonjudgmental way, I open my heart to you, and I can’t imagine a more meaningful “quest” in life.
[I welcome your comments and feedback below.]
Just as our body’s immune system is strengthened by exposure to germs, so to is our emotional and psychological growth dependent upon our willingness to face personal struggles. We often hear of “comfort zones”, what we feel willing or able to tolerate. My greatest personal growth has always arrived when I’ve been willing to stretch the boundaries of my comfort zone and step into something scary and new.
In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg offers a rallying cry for women and provides practical advice to “lean in” to achieve goals by arguing that gender bias is surmountable. Psychologists have their own jargon for this process referred to as leaning into the discomfort. I spent most of my life doing the complete opposite by avoiding the discomfort and masking it through my various addictions. What I failed to realize is that by trying to suppress emotions and discomfort through drugs and alcohol, I not only squashed the bad feelings but also dulled all that was good around me. All these addictions whether they are drugs and alcohol, shopping, gambling, eating, or even working to excess, leave us walking around in an anesthetized state.
The question that I frequently face is “how much leaning into the discomfort should I do?” Anyone who has attended a yoga class or an aerobics class has heard the instructor say push towards the discomfort, but don’t push too far. Learning how pliable my comfort zone is has been an ongoing process, and it certainly appears dependent on my mood and willingness. We forget that pain is a natural signal sent from our brain and that it is “telling us something”. Becoming attuned to that frequency can be simultaneously terrifying and rewarding. My therapist encourages me to learn to “sit with” the discomfort and not give it a power, but recognize it for what it can teach me. I’m also slowly learning how to be with other people who are facing their own hardships and learning how to not “fix” them, but simply “be with them” as they come to terms with discomfort in their lives. It’s been my experience that being present with someone else in discomfort is far more difficult than summoning all my resources to analyze, suggest, and jump into action.
When I sobered up over 16 years ago, I took up long distance running to get healthy, and develop a sense of commitment. It didn’t take long for me to use this new drug, “exercise”, as another means to dull the discomfort in my life. The more I ran, the more I ran “away from myself”. When I’m out on a 4-hour run every Sunday, I do manage to turn my mind off and distract myself from whatever is concerning me. Now that I’m actively trying to be mindful and learning to lean into the discomfort in my life, my running will need to evolve to incorporate that philosophy. The way I see it, I spent 16 years running away from myself, so now it’s time to run back towards my “true” self.
[I welcome your comments and suggestions below.]
Have you ever wondered what that little indentation above your lip is called? That space between your lip and your nose is called a philtrum. According to the Jewish Talmud, an angel is sent by God to each womb to teach the baby "the entire Torah." Sadly, just before the baby is born, the angel returns and touches the baby between the upper lip and the nose and all that was learned, is now mysteriously forgotten; the philtrum is the mark left by the angel "shushing" the baby to cause her to forget her holy knowledge.
I love this concept so much more than the tabula rasa, or blank slate, proposed by the ancient Greeks and still widely subscribed to today. I know so many people my age who are still struggling with figuring out who they are and what their true path in life is. As I embark on my own path of self-discovery, I’m comforted by this Jewish mythology in that it reminds me that what I’m “searching” for does not lie in a far away land, is not contained in some academic or theological tome, but rather lies inside me to be “rediscovered”. It’s as though we are all nascent flowers, and our inner beauty is gradually exposed as we open and lean toward the light.
We all can agree that children are so adept at picking up a new language or adapting to the latest technology. When I contrast the way I interact with my environment and the way a young child does, I quickly realize that I lack the wonder, the joy, and the humor that children operate from. I can see how life has “hardened” me and how cynicism, rather than wonder, has become my default mentality. I just read the other day that babies are born with around 10,000 taste buds, far more than adults. Unlike adults', babies' taste buds are not just on the tongue, but also on the sides, back, and roof of the mouth. Eventually these extra taste buds numb and disappear. To me, that’s a perfect analogy of what I feel in so many facets of my life. I need to remind myself to slow down and be present so that I can intently hear what you have to say, feel joyous in my skin, taste and smell all that is beautiful, and most importantly, look at the world with wonder as through a child’s eyes.
Let me give the last word to Shakespeare when in Julius Caesar, Cassius contends that it is we humans, not the stars, who control our destiny.
"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings."
I was watching a Ted Talk the other day by Pico Iyer entitled Where is home? The theme of the lecture was what really defines what we call home, and can have more than one home? And, that got me thinking…
For me, my home has never been made of brick and mortar. It’s not a place where I keep my things, or even where I sleep. My home is a place where I have an intense sense of belonging, and that feeling of belonging is nurtured in self-acceptance and an intangible essence that I can feel comfortable in my skin in this place. Talk to anyone in a 12-step program for addiction and (s)he will tell you that running away from your problems by relocating your place of living, known amongst addicts as a geographical cure, is doomed to failure. The first thing you discover in your new place is that you packed your “old self” with you. The writer Marcel Proust expressed this a little more eloquently when he said: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
As an ESL teacher in Toronto, arguably one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world, I see first hand the struggles that newcomers have adjusting to their new environment. If you ask these people what their home is, they overwhelmingly identify it as they place they have come from, fled from, or escaped from. I think that fact illustrates the sense of “belonging” that I equate with home. It would be interesting to note what their responses would be to the same question three or four years down the road, hopefully after they and their families have integrated into the new culture.
In her book Daring Greatly, Brene Brown cites some shocking statistics regarding American soldiers serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. For these soldiers, “coming home is more lethal than being in combat. From the invasion of Afghanistan to the summer of 2009, the US military lost 791 soldiers in combat in that country. Compare that to the 817 who took their own lives over the same period.” I was absolutely astonished when I came across this. I don’t think we can overstate the importance of feeling integrated, self-worthy, and accepted in our community.
So, if my home is not composed of a physical structure, be it a house, apartment, or condo, what is it? I live in many homes simultaneously. When I’m sitting with my wife, son, and my new daughter-in-law, I’m definitely home, and it doesn’t matter where we are. When I meet up with my running buddies for a long run or sit down with them for a coffee, I’m in a different home. The moment I walk into an AA meeting as take a seat amongst other men and women struggling with their addiction, I feel a sense of inner peace and spiritual calm that lets me know I am indeed at home. Most recently I have been working through some issues related to childhood sexual abuse, and the first time I opened up to other members of my group about the shame that I had been lugging around for 35 years, I saw empathy in their eyes and a feeling of benign acceptance; there was no denying, I was home.
Today I feel grateful that my home does not consist of something that can be taken away from me in a natural disaster or financial downturn. My homes lie inside me where they are constructed of family, love, belonging, passion, and honesty. Where do you call home?
Fear is defined as: "an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat." I've spent most of my life living in fear. People who are close to me know that I've had my share of struggles with depression, addiction, and childhood sexual abuse. On the outside, you saw the class clown, the irreverent extrovert, or manic runner.
What you didn't see was a man who was terrified you would find out his dark secret... that he was unworthy of your respect, kindness, and love. Like many survivors of childhood sexual abuse, I carried a millstone around my neck forged of shame. I was the high school athlete embarrassed to go into the showers, the boyfriend who never let you get too close, the hyper-vigilant new father who never let his young son out of his sight, the husband who never wanted to expose his entire soul.
I'm currently reading a book on vulnerability by Brene Brown, and she includes an except of a speech delivered by US President Theodore Roosevelt, on April 23 1910, at the Sorbonne in Paris, France:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
I've decided that over the next 12 months, I will strive to be that man "in the arena", a man who strives to "know great enthusiasms", ultimately a journey of "daring greatly". Coming to terms with the abuse in my past, has allowed me to dream of a full life again. I've explained the feeling as spending your entire life inside a house only to discover one morning that there is an entire room in your house you never knew existed. The thought of this extra space is indeed daunting, but the prospects are endless!
I welcome you to check in with me throughout the year as I learn to navigate my new life. I will attempt to surround myself with positive people and practice mindfulness and willingness to explore what it means to form authentic connections with those in my life. I'll be sharing insights I encounter through reading, group therapy, and anywhere else I can grasp a roadmap to a better life. Like all things in life, there will be inevitable setbacks, but I promise you'll witness my life changing before your eyes.
“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” ~Rumi
I’ve spent far too long ruminating in self-doubt and comparing myself to what others around me have or represent. I have the brain of an addict, so my default way of thinking is to always want more, rather than appreciate what lies in front of me. This distorted thinking cascades throughout my life to such a degree that I can be standing looking over the most beautiful mountain ranges in Cape Town, South Africa and all that I can think about is what will I being doing later tomorrow on our holiday, will I be bored, will we have enough time?
We live a society where we are bombarded by images of excess, where we call into question our material, emotional, and spiritual being. From the moment our alarm drags us out of bed in the morning, thoughts of not enough course through our brains…. “I didn’t get enough sleep”, “I didn’t spend enough time with the kids at breakfast”, “I didn’t leave myself enough time to fight the traffic to work.” Everywhere we turn we are faced with images that make us question: “Am I thin enough”, “Am I handsome/pretty enough”, “Am I rich enough?” Hell, our national leaders espouse that “You’re either with us, or against us”…. So, “Am I patriotic enough?”
In her book Daring Greatly, Brene Brown suggests that this feeling of inadequacy is rampant in our modern society, and that it is tied to three elements: shame, comparison, disengagement. As I evaluate my own actions, I see all three components at work in my interactions with others. Looking at shame, I’m prone to pointing out others’ inadequacies before acknowledging my own. As a teacher, when it comes to making comparisons, I’m often guilty of pigeonholing students and seeing differences as weaknesses. Disengagement is all around us. The prevalence of social media is a byproduct of a community that struggles to be seen and heard. It’s so easy for me to avoid taking risks and trying something new by simply telling myself “what difference will it make” or “who even cares?"
For the next 24 hours, I’m going to try a little experiment in my life. I’m going to reframe how I approach people and things today. Instead of waking up and pointing out deficits in my life, I’m going to accentuate the beautiful things that lie within and around me. Gratitude will replace those toxic words “not enough”. I’d love to hear how your day is going, and how you dull those "not enough" voices.