Recently, I've been wrestling to attain a semblance of a life balance, and by this I don’t mean the perennial debate about work-life balance. What I’m talking about is that uncomfortable feeling of dissonance that comes with trying to figure out how to thrive doing the one thing that drains you most. This painful dichotomy can rear its ugly head whether you are an entrepreneur, high performance athlete, advocate, or even a parent.
As I try to build resiliency in my life, an important element I’ve put into place this past year is reaching out to like-minded individuals—people who embody qualities I admire, and asking them to mentor me. I must admit that asking for advice is the easy part—taking the time to critically and honestly evaluate the advice, and ultimately adopt it—that’s the challenging part. In the midst of a soul-searching discussion yesterday, one of my mentors provided a succinct metaphor for me to consider taking on as a mantra while I work through this issue. “How can I extract life giving oxygen from the weight of the water trying to drown me?" In other words, how can I continue to be an effective advocate for survivors of childhood trauma, yet not “drown” under the weight of all of their pain and my own memories?
I write openly about my being a survivor of child sexual abuse and how the trauma has reverberated through my life in the form of addiction, battles with mental health, and relationship issues. I have been candid about how the disclosure process has had a substantive impact on my relationship with my wife of 27 years. Much of what is written about trauma, of any form be it physical, psychological, and even political, involves its effect on the individual directly touched by the trauma. But what is often neglected, and something that I am passionate about bringing attention to, is the impact of vicarious trauma on the lives of those individuals who come into direct contact with the primary survivor of trauma. These individuals are by no means "peripheral", as they too internalize much pain, watching a loved one working through post-trauma recovery. This vicarious trauma is often compounded by an immense feeling of guilt because they are reluctant to express their own anxieties and expectations, for fear that they will only exacerbate their loved one’s burden.
I was reminded of this again earlier this week when my wife and I had another authentic, yet difficult, conversation about the importance of not allowing my passion to help others to come at the cost of my own wellbeing and our desire to keep the communication open between us. The fact that we are able to engage in these challenging discussions is not only a testament to our commitment to each other but also the stark reality we face maintaining a relationship after one partner discloses that he/she is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse.
I’ve always been attracted to people’s rough edges—the part they are most uncomfortable with. For years, I assumed this was a consequence of my having to keep what happened to me as a child buried deep inside, and from my feelings of shame that manifest in addiction and mental health issues. The more I think about it though, the more I realize most of us are fascinated by the “contradictions” in people—the beautiful celebrity who struggles with an eating disorder, or a powerful politician risking losing it all over an infidelity.
When it comes right down to it, the discomfort I’m sitting with originates in my reluctance to “surrender” to life on life’s terms, or as Brene Brown would say—embracing the uncertainty. It’s a constant struggle wrapping your head around the fact that positive growth can materialize out of suffering, or that being hurt by a person does not mean that you are not loved by that person, or that the thing that nourishes your soul can also drain you and confound you. I came across this great quote by St. Francis de Sales that sums up exactly what I’m trying to get across here. "When you encounter difficulties and contradictions, do not try to break them, but bend them with gentleness and time."
I like to think of myself as an empathetic person, and that probably has a lot to do with my having to close myself off to people for so long as a coping strategy to get through daily interactions as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I’ve recently returned from a speaking engagement in Ottawa, and once again I was reminded of two things—One being the prevalence of childhood trauma in so many families. The statistics in Canada are that one in three girls, and one in six boys are directly affected by childhood sexual abuse. And the second thing I was reminded of is how uncomfortable we are as a society to openly and honestly discuss and confront this issue.
It was clear from the questions that we panelists faced that there was a shared sense of outrage and anger amongst the audience about how we can protect our children from this trauma. It would be so much easier, and I believe more palatable, were we able to demonize an abuser as some evil “stranger” to be avoided, and ultimately eradicated from society. The stark truth is that 95% of victims of child sexual abuse know their perpetrator. We all like to delude ourselves that we are raising our children in “safe” neighborhoods, but the overwhelming danger comes from within our so-called “safe” communities and families.
As is typically the case when I speak openly about this issue, after the event, I was approached by some of the participants who disclosed the trauma they had lived through as children. I feel so drained and deflated after speaking or writing about my childhood experiences, but I know that I have to somehow find the courage and energy to “be present” to listen to someone who openly shares with me. There are never words to adequately articulate my understanding to a fellow survivor, or a partner of a survivor, but I know from my own experience that the words “I’m sorry”, though well meaning, only serve to perpetuate feelings of shame and inadequacy. I think our deep-seated desire to try to “fix” everything and everyone is a by-product of our post-modern society in which we expect there to be a cure or a “quick fix” for everything. My wife and I often talk about how sometimes the “best thing” is doing “nothing”—simply being witness to someone else’s pain and acknowledging that pain as being “real”.
Despite being surrounded by family and friends who care deeply about me, I left Ottawa feeling an intense loneliness, that to be perfectly honest, has blindsided and derailed me. I was reminded of something I read by F. Scott Fitzgerald, another tortured soul who battled addiction throughout most of his life. “There’s a loneliness that only exists in one’s mind. The loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly.” The tragedy of childhood trauma lies in its disempowerment, and subsequently, its tenacious ability to reverberate and sabotage an individual’s life from childhood through adulthood. There has been much written about how by disclosing childhood sexual abuse, an individual gains his/her voice—thereby a sense of empowerment. But what is seldom discussed is what happens when there is no one there to acknowledge that “voice” or to process all the emotions that come with that disclosure.
During the speaking event in Ottawa, I had the opportunity to raise an important issue that I continue to struggle with daily. As a community, we tend to look at past childhood trauma “theoretically”, something that holds less impact once an individual is older and out of “immediate” danger, and this is why most resources go to helping children who are in crisis, or recently removed from crisis. What we fail to acknowledge is that more often than not, these children, even those who received intense therapeutic intervention, grow up to be “struggling” adults, who enter relationships in which the underlying issue of childhood trauma continues to reverberate. I know far too many alcoholics, addicts, and people with anger issues, who are survivors of childhood sexual abuse. From my own experience, I am aware of the futility of treating the symptoms associated with being a survivor of abuse, rather than addressing the self-esteem and shame issues that lie beneath the surface.
Just as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, I too am feeling very alone, and all I can do is “stare blankly.” Not a day goes by where I don’t get messages from people all over the world telling me how “brave” I am, and how they admire my “resilience”. But as I write this, I can’t help feeling like a “fraud” because the “hope” I profess, and attempt to exhibit, feels like it is definitely in short supply.
Whenever I’ve struggled like this before, I’ve always found it helpful to simplify what I’m facing in order to find a way through it rather than around it. I stumbled upon my next “beacon” late yesterday when a friend sent me a picture with a simple message on it: “Be the person you needed when you were younger.” Such a simple sentence, yet so profound in its wisdom—I believe you would have to search long and hard to come up with a better governing principle. As a child, all I wanted from the adults around me was unconditional love, consistency, and a “soft place to land” when things went wrong.
When I dig deep enough into any uncertainty or discomfort in my life, hiding below the surface fueling this pain is one thing, and one thing only--fear. If I “unpack” that fear a little bit more, I invariably find an absence of connection to those nearest me. It’s ironic that we are purported to be the most “connected” society in human civilization, yet all the text messages and social media, at times, only accentuate the loneliness that many of us feel. I’ll leave you with the words of the poet Christopher Poindexter. “Sometimes, I sit alone under the stars and think of the galaxies inside my heart, and truly wonder if anyone will ever want to make sense of all that I am.” As I end this post, my hope for each of us is that we connect with at least one intrepid traveler willing to take the time to explore, and make sense of, the wonder of the “galaxies inside [our] heart.”
As a long distance runner, I often get asked, why I run so much, and what goes through my mind when I’m running for three or more hours. Throughout the years, running has meant many different things to me—It’s been an escape from my problems, a way to empty my mind of stress, and most recently, a spiritual awakening to engaging in a life with greater purpose.
I’ve met such incredible athletes over the years, who have supported me when I was feeling broken and lost, and who I look up to as mentors and motivators. Yesterday, I had the privilege of running for 13.5 hours as guide for my dear friend, Rhonda on her Envisions Run. Rhonda-Marie Avery is a legally blind endurance athlete who is running the Bruce Trail in Ontario from end to end, 885km in 20 days! The section that we ran yesterday was particularly technical and challenging, and there were many occasions when it was hard to see the “beauty” in such a grueling experience. But once again, feet caked in mud, calf muscles twitching from half a day of navigating slippery, steep terrain, my achy middle-aged body could not help but feel joyful and proud to be a part of such an epic quest.
Running is a metaphor in my life because it engages me with my surroundings and reminds me of what it truly means to “be present” in the moment—It compels me to see the beauty in a forest swarming with mosquitoes, the beauty in the bone-chilling cold of a run in a January blizzard when most people in the city are nesting safe and warm in their cozy houses—but most importantly, running helps me see the beauty in me.
I’m the youngest of five children—born into a marriage that was all but over by the time I arrived. Like far too many children, I had a childhood that was touched by physical abuse at an early age, and later by sexual abuse. I entered my adolescence feeling scared and confused, so I turned to drugs and alcohol to “quiet” all those feelings inside that told me I wasn’t “good enough”. When you build a wall around you like this, it’s next to impossible to see not only the beauty in the world, but also the beauty in yourself. When I look back on my childhood, what makes me feel the greatest loss is not the physical or sexual abuse that I experienced, but the fact that I can never remember hearing the words: “I’m proud of you.”
It wasn’t until I had been married for more than 25 years and had been clean and sober for 17 years, that I finally found the strength to get help to deal with the trauma from my childhood. This past year has been the most painful, yet most liberating and self-affirming year of my life. I feel more alive today than I ever imagined possible. Just this past weekend, I told my wife how grateful I felt that she had the strength and love to wait around all these years for me “to become the man I was meant to become.” She looked me directly in the eye and said, “No, that’s not what I did—I waited for you to discover the man you have always been.”
It was Mark Twain who said: “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” Like my inspirational friend Rhonda-Marie, I have now discovered “why” I was born, and the meaning behind all of the experiences, both good and challenging, that have shaped me into the person I am today. I have tattoos of quite a few lotus flowers on my arm because they are a daily reminder of the fact that immense beauty can from the most unlikely places—The lotus thrives in dark, murky waters, and I believe we can all blossom into our own beauty regardless of where we have come from, or where we find ourselves today. In the words of the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”
So, if you’re reading this and you have someone in your life who may be struggling or seem a little “lost”, I invite you to reach out to that person an simply say: “I’m proud of you.”
We’ve all tried to summon it up before—Maybe you’re stretched out on your yoga mat after a challenging practice lying in savasana pose, or confined in an MRI machine trying to ward off every claustrophobic impulse coursing through your body, or perhaps you’re quieting your racing heart as you talk yourself down from another debilitating panic attack. For whatever reason, we conjure up an image of our happy place, the special place that permits us the space in which to cope, focus, and rejuvenate.
If you browse through the “Self Help” section of any bookstore, you’ll find countless books on how to build, find, or nurture happiness. In fact, we now have “happiness experts” like Gretchen Rubin, who have built a career catering to a growing population of overworked, stressed out, and depleted people in search of the Holy Grail of happiness. What I find interesting is that mindfulness and meditation—once the purview of the wandering souls who went off to “find themselves” in an ashram in India—have now entered the mainstream and are filling a cultural vacuum as witnessed by things like the yoga craze taking hold of North America and Europe, and with the popularity of books like Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love.
I think there is an important distinction to be made about the times in my life in which I “retreat to my happy place” and those times when I “revel in my happy place.” In both situations, whether I’m escaping or simply enjoying, something or someone has initiated the need for me to find solace in this place. When I look closely, I can usually discover that lying at the heart of the journey is my inability to stay focused on the present moment. The essence of this human condition can be found in the words of Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher known as the father of Taoism. “If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.”
So, what is your “happy place”, where will it be, and who has a key? I envision this “space” as not limited to a physical place, but rather as having three elements that help shape it into my refuge—The most conventional component can be what’s around me, majestic snow-capped mountains, a sun-drenched beach, or even a cozy bed while a winter storm rages outside. It can be beside me, and by this I mean the person who brings me comfort or security, and in this way, my happy place is always transportable. Maybe it’s your partner holding your hand as you sit at home waiting for the doctor to call with the test results, or it’s found tiptoeing towards the crib to catch a furtive sniff of the back of your sleeping baby’s neck. And finally, my happy place is found inside me—It’s the memory of my father’s Aqua Velva aftershave, the first time my heart skipped a beat when I was dating the lady who would later become my wife, or more recently, seeing the unconditional love in my wife’s eyes when I sat down to do a television interview in which I publicly disclosed that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse.
As I mentioned earlier, there are occasions in which I escape to my happy place and times when the journey is entirely dictated by choice. What I’m consciously working on today is building resiliency into my life so that my need to “escape” becomes less of an issue. I’ve adopted what I like to call the "GATE practice". As a recovering addict, GRATITUDE is something that is integral to my sobriety and overall wellbeing. I try to remind myself that it is a gift that I have to give away in order to maintain it. Another aspect of being grateful, and to be honest it’s something that I struggle with, is quieting a lot of the anger inside me. The challenge arises because the antidote to anger is forgiveness. As Robert Brault said: “Life becomes easier when you learn to accept an apology you never got.” The next piece of this resiliency strategy is to identify the ANCHORS in my life. The thing about anchors is that they can keep you grounded as you face tough seas, but they also can hold you back when you should be moving forward. This past year, I’ve had to release myself from relationships that were limiting or toxic in some way, but surprisingly, this has made room for new empowering and supportive people to enter my life. The third element requires taking inventory of all the TRIGGERS that knock me off course and leave me vulnerable to feeling anxious or overwhelmed. Triggers are difficult to unpack because they can operate in the background or unconsciously and sabotage your relationships and overall mental health. The easiest way to combat them is to deny them the opportunity to plant themselves in the first place by lessening the times throughout the day where I feel hungry, angry, lonely, and tired—This HALT acronym can be found hanging on the walls of many meeting rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous. Finally, the last piece of my resiliency puzzle is opening the door to opportunities that will allow me to EVOLVE by cultivating passions and leaning in to vulnerability. If I want to get “unstuck”, I have to be willing to do the work. I’ll leave you with the words of Jean-Paul Sartre, “We only become what we are by the radical and deep-seated refusal of that which others have made of us.”
I woke up today in a sea emotions as the realization that the genius of Robin Williams has left us. As a recovering addict and someone who has struggled with the depths of depression, the news of another celebrity's death leaves me feeling both terrified and furious. Until you’ve waded through the waters of dark depression, you’ll never realize what a razor-thin line separates our stability and fragile mental health. Whenever I see an active addict slumped over in an alleyway, or see someone with obvious mental health issues being ostracized on the subway, I quietly remind myself, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”
I think one of the most telling lines from Robin Williams was when he said: “Comedy is acting out optimism.” I don’t think there is an addict out there, either in recovery or still using, who doesn’t identify with that sentiment. We all have our own reasons for numbing our demons with drug or alcohol, but behind each addict’s behaviour lies an individual struggling to find the “optimism” in reality. When we see a celebrity like Robin Williams, who appears to have everything going for him and adored by so many, we scratch our heads and wonder how he could possibly feel such despair. What we fail to realize is that drugs and alcohol can not selectively numb out only the bad feelings—they also erect a barrier to keep out all of the love and support around the addict.
For me, it was always a pointless debate about what comes first, the depression or the addiction. When I was in the throes of my depression about 18 years ago, it felt as though everyone and everything around me was moving at a different speed from me. I was bouncing around the mental health profession trying to find a quick fix out of this hell. I was introduced to the pharmacological world of antidepressants and their unsavoury side-effects that are rarely talked about—cold sweats, loss of sex drive, bloating, pounding headaches, loss of appetite. You’re left wondering if the cure is worse than the disease. I was eventually diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and was put on lithium as a mood stabilizer. I felt like I was walking around in a rubber body-suit in a total haze. Yes, I wasn’t suicidal anymore, but I felt absolutely nothing. I can remember having no emotional response as I had discussions with my wife, who said I needed to get some help or she would take our son and leave.
I am alive today, and sitting down in front of this computer writing for one reason, and one reason only—my wife stood beside me when I directly, or through my behaviour, had pushed everyone else away. I’m now 17 years clean and sober, and I’m no longer on any depression medication. Those who know me understand that I don’t take my mental health or sobriety for granted. Some days are easier than others, but every morning I need to commit to living another day on life’s terms. People often tell me how much they admire my courage and determination for facing these issues head on. Let me be clear about one thing—The real heroes are the people like my wife who stand beside the addicts and those struggling with depression and other mental health issues. Depression and addiction are ugly, messy, and cause immense pain and collateral damage to all the lives they touch.
If you know someone struggling today, simply be there for that person. Offer your unconditional love and hold onto the faith that behind the struggle lies beauty. There is no doubt we will all miss the comic genius of Robin Williams, but I invite you to see this tragedy as an opportunity to look around you and reach out to someone in your life who feels alone, ashamed, and lost.
I’m coming up on the one-year anniversary of launching this blog—a project that I initially started as a way to work through issues that were surfacing as I was undergoing a treatment program for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. I began this as an online diary that would introduce an air of accountability while I was doing a lot of the deep-dive work involved in the healing journey. Writing about what I was going through, in a sense saying it out loud for the first time, allowed me to safely “test out” my thought process in a broader scope. More importantly, it has become a “canvas” on to which I place all of the emotions and words I am unable to share face to face with my wife, my son, and my friends.
I naively jumped into this project having no idea what the impact would be, with the only parameters being that I would be completely honest about the successes and setbacks I met along the way, also, that I would actively pull back the layers of shame, built up from years of hiding what happened to me as a child. In less than one year, this “little blog” has grown to an audience of 150,000 readers, and what began as a monologue on the page has morphed into a dialogue with countless other readers who are on a parallel healing or self-discovery journey.
It’s impossible to devise a metric to measure whether I’m in a better “head space” today having initiated this very difficult journey. What I am certain of is that healing from trauma is by no means a linear process. There are days I feel unburdened and almost “weightless”, and there are others where I am overwhelmed and despondent by how trauma has tentacles that embed deeply into every facet of our life. As soon as I think I’ve sufficiently dealt with an issue, it’s as though another layer of the same issue rises to the surface and demands my full and immediate attention. The American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron says “nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.” With each passing day, I see the mystery of the human brain as it shields us from seeing what we are not yet ready to come to terms with.
What I thought would be a linear three-stage process of reconciling my past, accepting my present, and building my future, has proven to be a circuitous exploration of emotions, relationships, and self actualization. For years, I used drugs and alcohol to suppress emotions I couldn’t bear to look at. Like every other addict, I was naive to believe that I could somehow selectively “numb” only the negative emotions; whereas in actual fact, this numbing behaviour repelled all the joy and love from entering my life as well. As I sit down to write this today, I can tell you that the secret of childhood sexual abuse no longer lies buried deep within me, entombed in layer upon layer of shame. For that, I am eternally grateful. But I would be remiss were I not to tell you that I’m haunted by night terrors that throttle me from sleep many nights. While at the same time, I’m buoyed by the outpouring of support I’ve received; equally, there are many times I feel achingly alone and adrift, not really sure how I am meant to process all these unearthed emotions.
Before I move forward into the next year of my blog, I thought I would share the three essential truths that can be distilled from the first 12 months of my writing.
1. “Until you’ve found pain, you won’t reach the cure.” ~Rumi
I’m anything if not predictable. As you may already know, a great deal of any 12-step recovery program involves coming to terms with “acceptance” and learning to recognize self-destructive patterns. I believe that a lot of the frustration we feel stems from our knowing that, with a little prudence, we could have avoided the mess we find ourselves in. A recurring pattern in my life is my aversion to facing discomfort head on, be it emotional or physical, until the pain becomes impossible to no longer ignore. This behaviour is disquieting on its own, and were I able to compartmentalize these issues and simply ignore them, they may not cause me as much grief. Where I get into difficulty is that I tend to poke and prod at these discomforts. Just as my tongue continually probes a throbbing canker in my mouth, I experience shock waves of pain brought on completely of my own doing. Instead of beating myself up for not addressing problems as they appear, I intend to find solace in the words of Rumi that “Until you’ve found pain, you won’t reach a cure.” I’m loathe to admit that discomfort is the manifestation of a “teacher” in my life, but it’s become apparent that continually pushing it away only delays the inevitable reckoning.
2. “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.” ~Douglas Adams
I’ve always attempted to build a life that is safe and predictable, and I’m not sure if that is simply in my nature or the manifestation of some coping mechanism to deal with the after affects of the childhood sexual abuse. In either case, my life of late is anything but predictable. I’ve decided to leave the comfort and security of my career as a teacher to pursue full-time writing and advocacy. Welcome to the uncharted waters of vulnerability!
3. “Life isn't about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” ~George Bernard Shaw
I love this philosophy because it resonates hope and mystery, as it’s all about projecting, building, and creating, rather than retreating to a place where “you were” in an attempt to find a “you” that was “lost”.
I’m a competitive long distance runner, and for the past 20 years, running has been a metaphor of my vain attempts to escape from a life I was too terrified to live. This year has taught me that no matter how far I run, my fears, uncertainty, and discomfort are resting and waiting to greet me when I eventually stop running. As Pema Chodron would say, they keep “returning with new names, forms, manifestations until we learn whatever it has to teach us about where we are separating ourselves from reality, how we are pulling back instead of opening up, closing down instead of allowing ourselves to experience fully whatever we encounter, without hesitating or retreating into ourselves.”
Namaste. . . and I hope you'll join me for another year.
When asked by an interviewer how we can learn to be less self-critical and more forgiving of our often troubling uniqueness, American contemporary spiritual teacher Ram Dass responded: “I think that part of it is observing oneself more impersonally. I often use this image, which I think I have used already, but let me say it again. That when you go out into the woods and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it. You appreciate it. You see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and so it turned that way. And you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree.” Leaving aside how evocative Dass’ words are, what struck me most about this philosophy on life was how quickly, and unconsciously, I’m able to turn on and off my critical eye and judging mind. All this got me thinking about how I can begin to align my actions towards nurturing my uniqueness while leaving behind the mindset of comparison—one in which emphasis is on “preference” instead of "difference".
The past 14 months has been by far the most transformative period of my life. It began with a disclosure that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, then to an intense period of group therapy and self-reflection, to the place I find myself in today—becoming an advocate for others to find their way out of their own trauma. There has been a very organic feel to this process, and to be perfectly honest, there have been many times where I fought against what was unfolding and where it was taking me. As is the case with many people coming to terms with trauma, disarming emotions become unearthed and percolate to the surface; in essence, they come to a place in which they can no longer be suppressed or denied.
Of all these emotions, the one I’ve found the most challenging is rage, which left unchecked, infuses as a toxin in every relationship in my life. The more deeply I examine this rage, the more I see that frustration is the breath that fuels this rage. I’ve been feeling discouraged lately because despite my best intentions, I periodically slip back into anger. It’s in this space where I need to remind myself that I am reacting to the past from the perch of the present, and as it has been said many times before, “Holding on to anger is like taking poison hoping the other person dies.”
Much of my frustration lies in a self-defeating attitude of Why bother… I’m only one person. How can I seriously expect to change the world? I believe that within all of us exists a darkness—a "feeling" that we spend an inordinate amount of time and energy to bury deeper in us. It’s that part of us that we hide because we want others to look upon us as a “straight, beautiful tree”, not a tree that is beautiful in its own crookedness. So, how do we go about embracing the uniqueness in all of us and softening our judgmental eye? I’ve witnessed this happening in my own life through the power of connecting with others. Bringing that piece of me I’m most afraid of out into the world has connected me to others who are attracted to an experience of truthful vulnerability. This connection helps us understand the darkness in each of us, and we learn that by not passing judgment on another person’s timid exposure, we cast a light, and not a shadow, on that person’s pain. Yes, we are only one person, but each of our faint whispers combines as a voice, and that tremble of a voice has the power to pierce a deafening silence.
The one guiding principle that underpins the bridge that leads to these transformative connections in our life is TRUTH. This can take place when we consciously choose not to wish an experience away, but invite a new perspective to understand a painful circumstance or experience in our lives. All of our numbing and isolating behaviours prevent us from making those connections, and behind that disfunction is “fear”—The fear of having honest conversations. The fear of making changes in our life we intuitively know must be made. The fear that plays like a broken record in our head… “If you knew the real me, you’d want nothing to do with me.” This may sound contradictory, but I’ve come to believe that “truth” is something that is not necessarily an “absolute”—It’s something that changes shape as we gradually peal away more and more of the self-protecting layers in which it is enwrapped.
When I approach it like this, “truth” becomes more akin to a process than to a destination. I can explain this by looking at looking at TRUTH as an acronym. Tenacious because this process is not for the faint at heart. Revealing, in that we may choose to unravel pieces of ourselves as we get stronger. Understanding in terms of our ability to withhold personal and external judgment. Trusting is a critical component because we are experimenting with building bridges where we once had walls. And finally, we arrive at healing, which is the acknowledgment of the transformation acting within us.
Earlier this week I felt as though my life was imploding and that no matter how hard I tried, I could not keep my head above wave after wave of self-doubt crashing towards me. Fortunately, I live a very “public” life on social media, and I’ve become somewhat of a resiliency advocate or adversity adventurer. I’m well aware of the risks of “over sharing” on social media, but at the same time, I’ve always been open about my struggles with addiction, depression, and overcoming childhood sexual abuse. Being “transparent” on social media has contributed an air of accountability in my life, as well as provided the dialogue for others on a similar path to share their aspirations and fears.
My belief in this process was confirmed again yesterday when I received a phone call from someone I consider a mentor, who was responding to one of my posts on Facebook. She reminded me of the importance of being present and true to my vision, and the importance of not battling inevitable resistance, but rather being open to where it takes me. One of my favourite poets E.E. Cummings describes this beautifully. “We do not believe in ourselves until someone reveals that deep inside us something is valuable, worth listening to, worthy of our trust, sacred to our touch. Once we believe in ourselves we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight or any experience that reveals the human spirit.”
I decided to share with you my list of “Essential Life Hacks”—guiding principles that are helping me to step out of my comfort zone and into a life that “reveals the human spirit.”
1. Rise above your limits.
It was Michelangelo who said: “The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.” The easiest way for me to overcome my self-imposed limitations is to ask myself: What’s the worst that can go wrong? It may sound a little pessimistic, but ironically it always gets me thinking about all the things that can “go right”, and that is usually enough to motivate me into setting the bar a little higher.
2. Make your vision your venture.
I wholeheartedly believe that tangible joy in life comes when we you “discover yourself” in what you do. In order to get out of the vicious cycle of comparing myself to others, which inevitably leaves me feeling inadequate, I’ve had to embrace my vision of what success means in my life. For many people, it may be the pursuit of money or power, but for me, it’s aligned with my passion to embrace vulnerability in every aspect of my life. It really comes down to the simple truth that if I make no changes in my life, then nothing changes. I’m surrounded by so many people who hate their jobs, are unhappy in their primary relationship, or are dissatisfied with how they look or feel. You just have to look around you to realize that life is too short to be powerless over your own destiny. Nigel Marsh summed it up best in his TedTalk. “There are thousands and thousands of people out there leading lives of quiet, screaming desperation, where they work long, hard hours at jobs they hate to enable them to buy things they don't need to impress people they don't like.”
3. Ropes can tie you down or help you climb.
Just as a muscle requires stress and resistance to get stronger, so too does adversity act as a sculptor in my life. When everything is humming along sweetly in my day, there is a tendency for me to become complacent, as I spend far too much time accepting the “pats on the back” and listening to to all the ego-boosting chatter around me. However, if I take an honest appraisal of the substantive growth in my life, it always coincides with a period of adversity. It’s during these challenging times of self-doubt that I need to remind myself that although happiness is comforting, it lacks the fuel to propel me like adversity does. This is exactly what the poet Robert Browning was referring to when he wrote:
I walked a mile with Pleasure;
4. Ditch the mañana mantra.
My father was quite a gambler, and I remember watching him sitting around a poker table cradling the cards in his cigarette stained fingers as he smugly declared: “What’s it going to be boys—are you going to piss or get off the pot?” It may be a little crude, but it is a worthwhile mantra to live by. Living a life of indecision can be paralyzing and soul destroying. No one articulates this better than the straight-talking, no nonsense Warren Buffet. “There comes a time when you ought to start doing what you want. Take a job that you love. You will jump out of bed in the morning. I think you are out of your mind if you keep taking jobs that you don't like because you think it will look good on your resume. Isn't that a little like saving up sex for your old age?”
5. Are you trying to build a life or make a living?
This is the question I struggle with most because everywhere around me I’m inundated with the message that acquisition and consumption determine self-worth. I believe that my true worth is determined not by what I acquire, but by what I contribute—my legacy. The path to building that life is clear as long as I place value and respect in my relationships with my wife, my son, and my community. I can think of no better way to end this post than with the words of the late Maya Angelou: “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”