The problem with a comfort zone is that it is inherently self-destructive. Like your favorite pair of old worn jeans, eventually it will become threadbare, you’ll have no choice but to go in search of a replacement. Earlier this week, iRun Magazine published an article I wrote about “Why I Run”, and this got me thinking about how running fits into my comfort zone.
Running has always been present in my life, but it wasn’t until 15 years ago when I entered AA to address my alcohol addiction, that I became a hardcore runner. I used to head out with two friends I met in my AA group for our long run every Sunday morning. It became more than just about running; it was a time to unwind, and embrace a cleaner, healthier lifestyle. Since that time, running has morphed into a huge foundation of my sobriety, happiness, and freedom.
I run every day of the week, and my weekly mileage hovers around 170 km rain or shine, winter and summer. Recreational runners and non-runners are never really sure how to react to that, so the responses range from: “God, I don’t even drive that far each week!” to “Why would anyone do something so extreme?” Though I’ve tried many times over the years to articulate my love for running, the words have always failed me.
I really believe we’ve become such a society of consumers and quantifiers. We need things to be measurable and definable. When I talk to other long distance runners about this, there is a shared consciousness that is ephemeral and is usually articulated through a knowing glance, or an intense focus as we dig deeper in the latter stages of a marathon or before we crest a steep climb. Something has shifted in our society in that we are no longer entranced by the pure spirit of adventure as something worthy in itself. Everything we do today is only legitimized by “what can be gained” or “what the deeper meaning is”. In short, we’ve lost our sense of adventure for adventure’s sake.
To give you an idea what I’m talking about, in 1922 George Mallory was responding to the press about his attempt to summit Mt. Everest. At that time, adventure wasn’t about collecting data for research about climate change, or about the impacts on the human body, or even to support a worthy cause. “The first question which you will ask and which I must try to answer is this, ‘What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?’ and my answer must at once be, ‘It is no use.’ There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever… We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron. We shall not find a single foot of earth that can be planted with crops to raise food. It’s no use. So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for.”
So, when you ask me what is the use in running for 3, 5 or even 12 hours, I can try to tell you what it’s like, but you’ll never know what it’s like. This brings be back to the idea of my comfort zone I started off with. The magical thing about running is that it allows me to operate within my comfort zone while simultaneously stretching the boundaries of that comfort zone. Discomfort lies on the edge of this zone, but what keeps me extending the boundary is knowing that after time, my body and mind begins to acclimate to the pain and discomfort. For me, long distance running is not about jumping into an unknown abyss, but rather strategically climbing into an uncharted territory in my mind to a place filled with the riches of personal growth in the guise of acceptance, vulnerability, and freedom.
I came across this great quotation today by the American peace advocate Marianne Williamson: “Children are happy because they don’t have a file in their minds called All the Things That Could Go Wrong.” This idea resonated with me because it beautifully illustrates what I’ve been trying to articulate recently. In my effort to simplify my life and be more mindful, I’m discovering that I really have space for only one idea or feeling in my mind at a time. It sounds so simple, but it is at the heart of any change I can expect to cultivate in my life. It begs the question, “If I have space for only one feeling, why would I choose that to be something painful, negative, or self-deprecating?” Before you accuse me of being “naive” or living in some kind of “fairyland”, let me explain a practice that I’ve found to be so helpful.
During the past 15 years, I’ve learned many valuable life tools in AA that have helped me not only stay sober but also take personal inventory of my behaviors, triggers, and emotions. The further I delve into any of those, the more I realize that fear is the underlying issue to most unhealthy behaviors, feelings, and relationships. The antidote to fear is gratitude, and I believe this is the key to clearing my mind of all the negative noise that keeps me stuck. Gratitude is not a thing, but a practice. There is nothing magical or mystical about gratitude because it lies inside each of us, waiting to be tapped into.
When we think about people who are happy and who radiate positivity, we tend to label them as saints or Pollyannas. What do these people all have in common? They all actively nurture gratitude in their lives and embrace even the little things as gifts. So where can we begin? The harsh reality is that it is so much easier to be negative and pessimistic than it is to find the bright side of life. I was challenged to a little experiment recently, and I was astounded by the results. Next time you find yourself in a conversation when one or more persons is complaining, don’t feed into the negativity. Instead, either redirect the conversation or interject by adding a positive comment. For example, if a colleague at work is complaining about the extra work your supervisor has assigned, instead of feeding into the negativity, say something positive like: “Yah, I’ve always admired the way she can delegate tasks.” You’ll quickly notice that the conversation ends, or is redirected because the negativity feeds on negativity. When we don’t add fuel to the fire, it snuffs itself out fairly quickly. The same works with any negative thought percolating inside us. Operating from a feeling of compassion and understanding allows us to be grateful for everything that appears before us. When asked what his greatest fear in life is, The Dalai Lama responded: “My greatest fear is losing compassion for the Chinese.” For me, it often comes down to focussing on our similarities rather than on our differences.
There are many practices we can follow to bring gratitude into our mind. Some of the more common ones are keeping a gratitude journal and giving thanks at the beginning and end of each day. I don’t want to discount the importance and efficacy of those staid practices, but I am a hands-on type of learner who requires more of a tangible guide to nurturing gratitude. I like to mark special milestones in my life apart from the traditional ones of birthdays and anniversaries. My wife and I always acknowledge our first date anniversary and reflect on how far we’ve come together. Another important milestone that I give gratitude to is my dry-date every year I stay clean and sober. Recently, I’ve tried to express how thankful I am for my friends every time we’re together. So many of the conversations over the years have stayed fairly superficial, so now I want them to know how much I honor our time together. I think we can all agree that life is “busy”, and we frequently just go through the motions of our day. In the past month, I have made a conscious effort to acknowledge the servers I interact with in restaurants, the barista at Starbucks, or even the crossing guard I see every morning. Instead of simply saying “hi”, I stop for a moment and really ask how their day is going. Realizing how connected we all are, despite the isolation of technology, allows gratitude to flow into my life and it pushes loneliness aside. The place I’ve noticed the biggest difference is finding the “good” in the “worst” in my life. Five months ago I finally decided to seek help for the aftereffects of the childhood sexual abuse I experienced. It has not been easy to find the “good” in something so traumatic, but reframing that experience as something that has shaped me into a more resilient and empathetic person allows me to be grateful for everything in my past, and in my life.
Gratitude opens the heart and centers us in the present moment. I like to think of it as “strength without wings”. I think Thornton Wilder said it best. “We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.”
I’d like to start off today’s post by asking you a question, and we will return to this a little later on. “If you could accomplish just one more thing in your lifetime, what would that be?” While many people are intrigued by this prospect, others are crippled with fear. How you respond to this question provides you with valuable insights into how you carry yourself through this life.
I’ve always been one who finds solace in rules and structure, so it’s not surprising that in my quest to live what Brene Brown calls a “wholehearted life”, I’m grappling with a happiness plan or a good life framework. What I’ve come up with is my ABC Guide to Social Cartography.
“A” refers to AWARENESS, which I define as a not only mindfulness but also self-assessment. I’m slowly (and I mean painfully slow) adopting the Buddhist practice of treating feelings and emotions as simply transitory “things” in our life that are not worthy of obsession or preoccupation. The metaphor that is often used to explain this is to view all things that we experience as clouds that pass in front of us. We can take stock of them, but we have faith that the “cloud” will blow by and another will take its place. It’s very liberating to release some of my focus and ownership of painful or unhappy thoughts. You may have heard others say: “Our thoughts are in us, but we are not our thoughts.” For me, the tricky part is applying this reasoning to the joys and happiness that come into my life as well. For this mindfulness to work, I need to be cognizant that every feeling, good or bad, is transitory. It’s learning to be present with what is happening at the moment, while simultaneously not getting hung-up in the past, or anxious about the future. It’s easier said than done, but definitely something to which I aspire. The second aspect of “awareness” involves checking in with my body and mind in a more tangible fashion. Life is always a balancing act, and if I allocate too much of my energy to work, or to play, or to rest, then the other two get out of sync. I’ve always relied on my sleeping pattern to inform me of whether or not I’m meeting this balance in my life. As an athlete, I’m well aware of how important diet is in determining my mood, performance, and general sense of well-being. I think we all know when we are polluting our body, but we have a tendency to ignore our body’s warning signs.
“B” stands for BUOYANCY, or in other words, how well I can navigate life’s ups and downs. It was Robert Burns who said: “The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry. And leave us nothing but grief and pain, for promised joy!” When my drug and alcohol addiction was in full swing, I spent my days numbing myself, as I vainly attempted to fill an aching void inside me. The insanity of doing that was I not only numbed the discomfort but I also blocked out any hope of joy entering my life. During the past four months, I’ve been embracing Brene Brown’s philosophy of “Daring Greatly”. If I want things to be different in my life, I need to do things differently. Personal growth through the lens of vulnerability allows me to step out of my comfort zone and “enter the arena”. Buoyancy comes into play in that it bolsters me during the “learning curve”, or in the inevitable failures. My new mantra is “What have I got to lose?” It may not be pretty at the beginning, but having the courage to keep picking myself up and trying again will lead to tremendous personal growth. For instance, writing this blog is my attempt at daring greatly in my creativity. On so many occasions in the past, I would have kept my writing private, telling myself it wasn’t good enough; or I would have been consumed by constant re-editing trying for perfection. In both cases, my creativity would have been stifled and my personal growth stunted. Making big decisions in our life can paralyze us with fear. It’s the gap between the desire to make a decision and actually following through on that decision that nourishes our self-doubt and fear. I don’t want to live a life of big promise and poor performance. I now see that taking a leap of faith and “doing” instead of “thinking” is intoxicatingly empowering.
Finally, “C” is for COMPASSION, and this is manifest in both my interactions with others and my self evaluation. If I’m to be compassionate, loving, and empathetic with the people in my life, I must first be self-loving. This is not to be confused with being selfish. I’ve written about this before as my attempt to quiet that “enough voice" in my head. We all have that little thing in us that tells us we’re not good enough, pretty enough, smart enough, or brave enough. This self-love is also intricately tied to accepting that I am not my past. My past has shaped me, but it doesn’t define me. I wholeheartedly believe that I am blessed to have lived the life I have lived, warts and all, because it’s allowed me to be where I am today, and that’s exactly where I need to be, and want to be. In terms of my compassion for others, the skill I need to work on most is my ability to listen to others. I need to remind myself daily that the opposite of “listening” is not “waiting”, like I so often do, to add my own opinion, or to tell other people what they should do. It’s so difficult to really “be with someone else” rather than to “be there for someone else”. I know I’m not doing this correctly when someone is speaking to me, and I’m thinking about what I’m going to say next, or how I’m going to respond. When all that self-chatter is going on in my head, how can I really say I’m listening to you?
Now, let’s return to that question I asked at the beginning of this post: “If you could accomplish just one more thing in your lifetime, what would that be?” Approaching this question through Awareness, Buoyancy, and Compassion frees me up to dare greatly and have faith in where I take my actions. For me, this question works best if I reduce it to its simplest terms. All I want to do in my life is to leave this place with an immense sense of gratitude for the opportunity I’ve been given and a strong desire to be an energy of positivity in this life.
What would your choice be?
I want you to participate in a little experiment. Close your eyes, and think about a time in your life when you were really happy. Now, I’d like you to think of the word “addict”. What comes to mind? Be honest. I’m sure many of you envisioned a skinny, possibly homeless person, looking desperate for the next “fix”. You’re not alone in your conception of what addiction looks like, but you may be surprised to learn that most addicts are labelled as “functional addicts”. They are not on the margins of society, but instead are people we encounter every day. They are our doctor, our teacher, our neighbor, our parent, our sibling, or even our spouse. Addiction is defined as the continued use of a psychoactive drug, or the repetition of behavior despite its adverse effects.
In his Ted Talk entitled “The Power of Addiction and The Addiction of Power”, Gabor Mate suggests that in order to understand addiction, we need to approach the issue from a different perspective. He says that we needn’t ask ourselves “what is wrong with the addiction”, but rather “what is right about the addiction.” This reframing of the question allows us to interpret what the addict is getting from the “addiction” that (s)he doesn’t have naturally. Addicts get a release from pain, a sense of inner peace although temporary, or possibly a sense of control.
Addiction comes in many forms, and some are more socially acceptable than others. There’s drug and alcohol addiction, gambling and sex addictions, shopping addiction, internet addiction, and what we see more and more of today: addiction to social media. The most destructive addiction on a global scale may be the addiction to power and influence. I’m sure after reading through that itemized list, many of you started to feel a little uncomfortable. Well, that discomfort is an everyday feeling that others, like me, who suffer from less socially acceptable addictions face. In past posts, I’ve spoken openly about my battles with drugs and alcohol, and how even now that I’m 16 years clean and sober, I still face a constant struggle to live a healthy life. I can’t tell you how many times throughout the years I’ve had someone say to me: “Just limit yourself to one or two drinks.” If only it were that simple! I have no problems with gambling, food, or shopping, so it’s the same as if I were to say: “Just stop buying lottery tickets”, or “Just have 2 potato chips, or “Just buy one skirt, you don’t need two.”
I thought it might be beneficial to open a window into the mind of this addict so that you can getter better insight into how addiction is “cunning, baffling, and powerful”. Over the years I’ve spent many hours sitting in 12-step meetings and in all that time, the best definition I’ve heard is: “An addict is a megalomanic with an inferiority complex.” When social drinkers pick up a drink, they unwind, relax, and sometimes become a little more animated. When I pick up a drink, it’s for one purpose only: to fill an empty space in me, to shut off my mind. I never drank to get drunk. I used drugs and alcohol to gain a sense of belonging that had been absent for most of my life. Asking me to have only one or two drinks and thus limit my feelings of belonging, is next to impossible. For me, drugs and alcohol were always about immediate gratification, damn the consequences. The irony was that I used my addictions as a means to connect with others but the result was always a distancing from others, as I slipped further into myself and the consequences of my behavior pushed people further away.
After many failed attempts, addiction counseling at treatment centres, visits to psychiatrists and therapists, something finally snapped and I’d accepted that the way I was living my life was no longer sustainable. I can only speak for myself when I say that sitting in a room talking to other people who have the same brain, the same behaviors, and the same frustrations was the only way I could maintain some semblance of sobriety. When I walked into my first AA meeting, it was like finally finding the sense of belonging I’d been searching for using drugs and alcohol. I had days in my first few years of sobriety where I would literally be hanging on minute by minute, doing everything I could to distract myself from my addiction. The one thing I am sure of is that even my worst day sober is better than my best day using.
So, what’s it like today now that I’ve got 16 years, one day at a time, under my belt? I am reminded constantly that even though I’m not using drugs and alcohol today, my addiction is sitting in the back of my brain doing push-ups, and getting stronger each day. If I’m naive enough to pick up again, that addiction will ramp up to speed and begin from where I suppressed it 16 years ago. This brings me back to Gabor Mate’s reframing of addiction. What was I getting from drugs and alcohol that I was missing in my life? Coming to terms with the childhood sexual abuse in my past has afforded me the opportunity to take a look at my addictions in a new light. When a child is sexually abused, two things happen. One, there is an immediate disassociation of the “self” and normal development ceases. Also, the child begins to look at everything in his/her life through the lens of shame. The statistics are shocking in that an overwhelming majority of adults in addiction treatment programs are survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Even more disturbing are the numbers in the general population. 1 in 4 girls, and 1 in 5 boys, are victims of childhood sexual abuse.
I have no scientific proof to support that the abuse I experienced as a child led to my drug and alcohol addiction starting in my early teens and running rampant as I got older. The more I unravel my past and the abuse, the more I see a young child who not only lost his innocence but also lost any sense of belonging. I was reminded of how tenuous my sobriety is just this past weekend. I was struggling with feelings of worthiness, and this caused me to spiral into feeling that I didn’t fit in or belong. Alone, and filled with pity and shame, I headed towards the local bar to drink these feelings away. As I was walking down the street, some kind of divine intervention told me to head right back home and sit quietly and meditate. I managed to stay sober one more day, but I was terrified how powerful the feelings to throw it all away and to just say “screw this” were. This morning when I was reading my book of daily meditations, I came across I great quotation by Eleanor Roosevelt that nicely articulates what I need to accept if I’m going to defend myself against future self-destructive thinking. “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
For me, the antidote to shame, self-doubt, envy, and anger, always lies in “gratitude”. If I can learn to simply accept the trauma from my childhood and the role of addiction in my life as things to be grateful of for making me into the person I am today, and as gateways to help me grow into a person who can make a meaningful contribution to this world, then I will indeed by “happy, joyous, and free.”
During NASA’s glory years in the 1960s, they faced every employer’s enviable position: How to hire the most suitable candidates for their space program amidst a sea of applicants, all of whom had stellar transcripts and above average IQ scores. It was both the dawn of space exploration and the genesis of a new way to assess potential job applicants. Instead of focusing on academic credentials, NASA began awarding coveted positions in the space agency based on applicants' ability to demonstrate how they not only succeeded but also had failed successfully, thus building on mistakes and taking valuable lessons from initial setbacks.
As I contemplate a possible career change and all of the inevitable anxiety and self-doubt that’s part and parcel of such a move, I’m beginning to map out what the next chapter of my life should look like. Friends and family are asking me “what I want to do”, but I believe I will get more clarity by asking myself “what I don’t want to do". What holds me back, and keeps me from making a leap of faith into a new direction, a new career, is the shame associated with potential failure. I think I’ve finally reached the point now where the precipice has become a place filled with excitement instead of dread. The best advice I can take forward is to remember the bold hiring practices adopted by NASA in the 1960s. Any life change, be it subtle or monumental, is encased in a cloak of discomfort. The mind shift for me to grow will require I remember the words of Randy Nelson, former Dean of Pixar University: “Success is not about failure avoidance, but about error recovery.”
During the past four months, I’ve been compiling what I refer to as my “Declaration of Personal Growth”, and so far, this is what it looks like.
Personal growth happens at the edge of discomfort.
I love to exist in my comfort zone, where everything is safe, predictable, and emotionally cozy. There is nothing wrong with routine, dependability, and proficiency, but I’ve chosen to reside in it far too long. If you watch children at play, you see they are happiest when they are taking risks and discovering. Now that I’m starting to come to peace with some trauma from my childhood, I feel it’s time to break out of my protective shell and explore the life I want to live.
Currency is not only money. It’s time. It’s integrity. It’s joy.
I spend a lot of my time comparing myself to others, and this is not a healthy way to live. By comparing myself to you, I’m left with only two feelings: superiority or inferiority. Money is at the root of much of this comparison, so as I consider a new direction in my career, I want to remind myself that “currency is not only money.” I want to assign significant value to “time” to do the things that make me feel good in life, “integrity” so that I can feel I’m making a difference in this life, and “joy” that ultimately nourishes me and those around me.
The opposite of my truth is also true.
I’ve always been a “black or white” kind of guy. Those who know me well, will attest that with me, you’re either “in” or you’re “out”. I either do something to extremes, or I don’t do it at all. Today I’m actively trying to open my mind to other ways of thinking and doing. Buddhist teachings describe this as “the opposite of my truth is also true.” During the past month, I’ve been avoiding the mainstream media, particularly the news, and this has afforded me the opportunity to rewire my thinking to now incorporate other global and individual perspectives. It’s like arriving at a buffet and choosing to sample lots of varying cuisines. So far, it’s been nothing short of liberating.
Choose to live a bigger life.
In a previous post, I wrote about anxiety and how we often confuse it with fear. I need to stop worrying about “Why?” and begin focussing on “Why not?”. From now on, the first thing that will enter my head every day is the mantra “Choose to live a bigger life” and the last thought before I close my eyes at night will be “Gratitude” for the opportunity to learn from my mistakes.
One of my favorite lines from a movie, and I can’t for the life of me remember which movie it was in, occurs when the main character was asked what his definition of love is. He responds by saying he looks for someone he’d want “standing beside him in the bunker in the middle of a battle.” The one thing in my life I’m so grateful for each and every day, is my relationship with my wife that at various times during the past 26 years has been a pleasure cruise, a heart-throttling adventure, a romantic tryst, and a life preserver in turbulent seas. It’s so difficult to identify the “secret” to our happy relationship, but I know a huge part of it is our understanding that our partner needs space to grow, change, and evolve into what (s)he needs to be at that moment in time.
So what do you look for in a partner? I recently read an interesting article in Psychology Today that explores women’s preferences in selecting a life partner. Apparently the criteria change depending on a woman’s menstrual cycle. When fertility levels are at their peak, women gravitate towards masculine and dominant men. This is your strong-jawed Machiavellian type. The researchers do point out that this type of attraction often only offers short-term prospects. An interesting side-bar to this was that these characteristics, which women are drawn to during this phase of their cycle, are the same characteristics seen in sociopaths and narcissists. At less fertile points throughout a woman’s cycle, she is more receptive to compassionate men, what many people refer to as “dad material.” The researchers also looked at the qualities women were seeking in potential sperm donors for artificial insemination. It appears that superficial characteristics related to physical beauty take precedence over character and educational background.
Now, what do men look for in a partner? I decided to turn to well-known professional match-maker Samantha Daniels to glean some insights into this hot-button topic. As a man, I have to admit that I’m a little uncomfortable with the media’s portrayal of men as single-minded Neanderthals obsessed with a woman’s physical appearance. In one of Brene Brown’s Ted Talks, she describes the startling truth she uncovered during her research into shame and vulnerability. People rarely acknowledge the incredible anxiety and shame that the majority of men experience having to live up to the image of “valiant warrior”, and the pressure they feel not to disappoint the women in their lives. What I find most interesting about Samantha Daniels’ take on this issue is her approach to what men don’t want in a relationship. Among some of the personality traits that men are most averse to are: “Miss I Want To Change You”, “Miss I Speak To My Mother 5 Times A Day About Everything”, “Miss Keeping Up With The Jones”, and my personal favorite, “Miss I Don’t Eat.”
Who knows how much of that is white noise or pop psychology, but I think we can defer to that universal truth that applies to most things in life: You are only as strong as your greatest weakness. I wholeheartedly believe that what we project into the world is what we attract. If I want someone who allows me to be vulnerable, encourages me to evolve, and is courageous enough to be there in the struggles and in the uncertainties, I’d better be willing to offer all that to my partner too. Aristotle described love as being composed of “a single soul inhabiting two bodies” and happiness as “the settling of the soul into its most appropriate spot.”
When I look into my wife’s eyes, I’m reminded of a line from the movie Jerry Maquire, and it’s not the line you’re thinking of. It’s when Dorthy (played by Renee Zellweger) says: “I love him! I love him for the man he wants to be. And I love him for the man he almost is.”
In writing today’s blog post, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Robert Fulghum and his best selling book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. One of the incredible benefits of living in a vibrant city like Toronto is that I can get anywhere in the city safely, and affordably, on public transit (TTC). The average daily ridership on the Toronto transit system is just shy of 3 million. There’s nothing like being crammed into close quarters with your fellow citizens to remind you of “the best” and “the worst” of our behavior. So without further ado, here is my transit manifesto.
“All I Really Need to Know I Learned on the TTC”
1. A SMILE AND A THANK-YOU CAN GO A LONG WAY
A common pastime in Toronto is to complain about the customer service on our transit service. It’s too tempting to focus in on the occasional subway delay or less than courteous transit employee, but what about the majority of time when you get to your destination without any glitches, and all the dedicated men and women who get you there safely? I’ve started to make an effort to smile at the collector every time I pay my fare and say a big “thank-you” whenever (s)he helps me. We all need to feel appreciated, and this is by far the easiest way. Let’s face it, most of us are tired and a little grumpy on our morning commute. Smiling and making eye contact with each other on the train is so much more pleasant than being surrounded by scowls and yawns. Whenever I see a parent struggling with a screaming toddler, I always offer a smile and a knowing look to acknowledge how challenging traveling with children can be.
2. WHAT YOU PERMIT, YOU CONDONE
The older I get, the more I’m beginning to realize that if I don’t like what I’m seeing or hearing, it’s best to speak up. Next time you’re traveling on the transit and someone is being blatantly rude or disrespectful, why not say something instead of turning your head and pretending it’s not happening. I recently approached a young lady screaming racist comments on the subway and asked her to please keep her opinions to herself. I’ve even stepped in when I witnessed a man violently shoving his girlfriend against the wall on the platform. It’s been my experience that other passengers will add their voices and assistance if you’re just brave enough to take the initiative. If things get out of hand, the “Passenger Assistance Alarm” is at your disposal and the TTC personal are always willing to help out.
3. WE DON’T LIVE IN A BUBBLE
iPods, smart phones, tablets, and game devices make a long commute much more bearable, but they can lead to what I call a “bubble mentality”. Just because you have your headset on, or you’re immersed in your book, it doesn’t mean that you are all by yourself on the transit. It would really improve the commuting experience for everyone if we just opened our eyes once in a while and recognized there are other people around us. Maybe everyone doesn’t want to hear your favorite song blaring out of your iPod. Maybe an expectant mother just boarded the train and would really appreciate your seat.
4. REDUCE YOUR FOOTPRINT
Just because the two seats beside you were available when you first sat down, it doesn’t mean you own them. It’s so infuriating to see people standing on a busy transit vehicle simply because some selfish passenger decides that his/her bags require their own seat, or because people want to stretch out and put their feet on the seat. It’s really quite simple. One Fare = One Seat.
5. GARBAGE IS CONTAGIOUS, SO PUT IT WHERE IT BELONGS
If you bring a newspaper or food onto the transit, put the waste in the garbage or recycling when you are finished. It’s so easy for someone to toss a piece of litter onto the platform or vehicle if there is already garbage lying around. In fact, a newspaper blowing onto the tracks and catching fire on the third rail, is the culprit behind many subway delays.
6. WE CAN ALL BE EVERYDAY HEROES
It doesn’t take much to be a “transit hero”. Offer a seat to someone who needs it. Help someone carry a stroller down the stairs or off the bus. If you see someone wandering around looking lost, offer directions.
When I opened my email this morning, I came across an inspirational message from Karen Salmonsohn that really struck a chord, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. The message was “Don’t fear change. Change fear.” By now, all of you are well aware of how fear controlled my life for 35 years. No matter how much I've read about fear, or how much I've talked about it in therapy and 12-step meetings, I was never able to extricate its tentacles from smothering me and relegating me to a smaller life.
In AA, we have an acronym for “FEAR” as “False Evidence Appearing Real”. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that over the years, but it’s only recently beginning to make sense. What’s been most helpful to me of late, is the Buddhist practice of not judging something or someone, but merely accepting it for what it is. In doing this, I can approach fear not as an obstacle but as a teacher. The Dalai Lama expresses this beautifully: “In the practice of tolerance, one’s enemy is the best teacher.” One of the most moving examples of this belief put into practice is evident in my support group for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. It is incredibly powerful to hear a survivor say that (s)he is no longer afraid of, or angry with the perpetrator of the abuse. Whereas fear is stagnation, empathy is the gateway to understanding why someone behaves in such a way, and this is the clearest path to dialogue and acceptance.
Rationality is no match for fear’s insidious grip on our emotions and freedom, and we see this play out daily when we hear of potential job losses, when we stand by the window wondering why our child isn’t home yet, when we get the news of a troubling diagnosis, or even when that little voice inside whispers that we’re not good enough.” There is no doubt that all these all too common scenarios affect us deeply, but is this fear? And, if it is fear, what is the lesson it can teach us? To understand what’s really going on here, we first need to make a distinction between the meaning of fear and anxiety. The best way to illustrate this is through a simple example. Imagine you’re in your car barreling down the highway when suddenly you hit a patch of black ice and your car skids out of control. As you’re spinning erratically, and your car is careening towards oncoming traffic, your heart rate accelerates and all your senses are heightened. Fortunately, your car skids safely to the shoulder of the highway and you emerge unscathed. Now the next time you drive by that stretch of road, your heart starts racing and your palms feel clammy, and you might even start to hyperventilate. Are these two situations the same, and this “fear” present in both? In the first scenario, faced with immediate danger, your body has initiated the fear response in an attempt to save your life. In the second scenario, there is no immediacy to the danger, simply an anxiety response to what had happened. I believe we can learn a lot about how we internalize anxiety by examining this significant distinction between fear and anxiety.
When there is real, imminent danger, fear is a rational response that can “teach” us something and potentially save our lives. Fear’s ugly cousin is anxiety, and no matter how we might “dress it up”, it is still an irrational response in which I often react to by burying, avoiding, or succumbing to its odious effect on my life.
I can use this new understanding to shine a spotlight on every facet of my life. My wife and I recently celebrated our 26th wedding anniversary, and I am embarrassed to admit that I never realized this subtle distinction in my approach to our marriage. At its core, love is fraught with anxiety, insecurity, and ultimately, uncertainty. I’m starting to realize how I can be such a better partner, and husband by embracing my love for my wife through authenticity and vulnerability. Instead of being mired by insecurity with thoughts of “what if she finds out she doesn’t really love the real me”, “what if one of us gets seriously ill”, “what if she doesn’t find me exciting anymore”… it would be so much better, healthier, and let’s admit it, easier, if I silence that evil voice of anxiety whispering in my ear, and focus on what’s really in front of me. It’s as simple as reframing the question from “what if someone leaves” to “what made her/him come into my life in the first place.”
A colleague at work today asked me if I was happy. The question is not surprising considering that four months ago, when I went on an extended medical leave, I was in total crisis mode, and definitely not happy. What’s shocking is my reaction to this question; I really didn’t know how to respond. I could see that she was genuinely concerned about me, so I nonchalantly responded, “Oh ya, I’m happy.” Throughout the day, this started to eat away at me because I’m not exactly sure what happy looks like or feels like.
For most of my life, I’ve equated my happiness with pleasure; something that can be bolstered by material things be it fashion, food, drugs, or possessions. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that happiness in this form is transitory, illusionary, and diminishing. I have the mindset of an addict, so defining happiness based on the metric of pleasure acquisition, is a slippery slope that invariably leads to dissatisfaction and excess. Even at 16 years clean and sober, I’m plagued by this type of thinking each, and every day. If you want to see this in action, just watch me sit down to a plate of my wife’s homemade oatmeal-chocolate chip cookies. As soon as I take my first bite of one of the four cookies on my plate, instead of feeling happiness, I’m flooded with anxiety and the need to get more. 18, 20 cookies later, all the pleasure I was chasing is now just a guilt-ridden stomach ache. This scenario replays itself weekly in our house.
If I’m to live a more authentic life, I will need to undergo a radical shift in my understanding of happiness. This brings me back to the question I was asked today at work, and whether or not I’m happy. Superficially I have all the makings of happiness: a loving wife and son, a fancy sports car, a great house, and lots of the little luxuries I pamper myself with. The reason I balk at believing I’m happy is that like the oatmeal-chocolate chip cookies, these things leave me wanting more and feeling uneasy because they can be so quickly taken away.
Aristotle wrestled with the same philosophical problem when he said: “The function of man is to live a certain kind of life, and this activity implies a rational principle, and the function of a good man is the good and noble performance of these, and if any action is well performed, it is performed in accord with the appropriate excellence: if this is the case, then happiness turns out to be an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.”
So there’s the rub… I don’t think there is much “virtue” in my acquisition of material possessions nor in my futile attempts to seek pleasure through food and drugs. What Aristotle was reaching for was something greater, a totality of living a “virtuous” life. This idea of happiness is not fleeting like our modern notion of pleasure-induced happiness. I am a product of a society of instant gratification fueled by untethered consumerism. If I’m to aspire to lasting happiness, I will need to reframe my entire outlook.
One of my greatest fears in life is to be on my deathbed surrounded by things, and not people. I’m terrified of dying alone, of not leaving a footprint on this place, of not being missed. A huge piece of my year-long project to seek an authentic life through vulnerability and growth, will need me to align my notion of what it means to be happy with that of Aristotle. My new equation looks something like this:
TIME(PATIENCE) + INTROSPECTION + EMPATHY + FEARLESSNESS = HAPPINESS
Can I be a better husband, father, friend, teacher, neighbor, global citizen? The answer is definitely “yes”. Am I willing to do the soul-searching, pain-staking work to be better? Again, the answer today is “yes”. I’ve got a lifetime of protective veneer to chip away at, and I am grateful that happiness is not "something I can get”, but rather, "something I can be” but only if I keep walking towards “virtue”.
Anyone who has ever sat down in front of a blank sheet of paper or computer screen knows that writing is a very lonely and isolating activity. In fact, from a very early age, we begin to associate writing with homework, or even punishment. I still remember sitting in detention writing out “lines” on a piece of foolscap in elementary school. “Chewing gum is not permitted in the classroom.”
Maybe I’m some kind of masochist, but for me, writing has always been a form of therapy, a way to process what reverberates in my mind and can’t be articulated in any other way. In the words of Orson Scott Card, writers “create themselves as they create their work. Or perhaps they create their work in order to create themselves.” I align myself with the latter part of that statement because more than at any other time in my life, writing is giving a “voice” to a part of me that has lain ensnared in the shame of childhood sexual abuse. As people come to terms with trauma in their past, it’s very common to witness a blossoming of artistic and creative expression. It’s not surprising that many treatment programs incorporate art therapy in the treatment of addiction, abuse, and trauma. I once heard this artistic release described as akin to “pulling out thorns”.
So why do I, along with countless other survivors of trauma, find art therapy so liberating? After a traumatic event, an individual often represses emotions, feelings, and pain associated with the event. The first time I was sexually abused as a young child, I became disconnected from part of “me”. I was unable to process what had happened to me, so it was as if I broke that piece off and then spent the next 35 years wrapping this “ugliness” in shame, layer after layer, as a way of keeping it separate from me and the rest of the world. I like to use the analogy of an oyster constructing a pearl out of an irritating grain of sand. Eventually the pearl has to be taken out as the oyster increasingly loses space to live comfortably.
That’s the best way I can describe what it’s like living with the secret of childhood sexual abuse. You spend so much time burying, coating, and hiding the shame, that eventually you run out of space in your head, in your life, to live. When I disclosed the abuse, it was as though a million words had been released from deep in my psyche, and were clawing their way onto the page. At first, it was a cacophony of raw emotions that disarmed, or at least alarmed, everyone around me. Fast forward a few months, and these raw emotions are beginning to take shape in words, and that piece of me that lay separate for years is being nurtured by an acceptance in "me" and by the love and support of family and friends.
Breathe Through This is my one-year journey to read, listen to, and experience life-affirming material that will help launch me on a life of living fearlessly and authentically. The plan is to use this blog to process ideas for an eventual book. I’m so honored that you have taken some of your valuable time to come along for part of the ride. I’d thought I end this post with a poem I wrote shortly after entering the treatment program because this poem marked a turning point for me when I started to believe that my “past doesn’t have to define me” and that “beauty and strength are forged in trauma”.
A long time ago, a young boy I know
Swallowed a grain of sand
But life has a way, of getting in the way
So things didn’t go as he planned
Yet the harder he tried,
It could not be denied
This grain continued to grow
It didn’t take too long
For this grain to feel it belonged
And now it is running the show
With a diet of shame and fear
A ripe pearl did appear
Embedded deep within his craw
And secure in its place
This pearl fought for more space
And on his soul it did gnaw
Faced with no choice
He seeking a voice
Exiled this pearl must be
There comes a time
A pearl must shine
In the light for all to see
That little boy I know
Will have more space to grow
Now that the pearl is gone
What once hurt inside
Now an object of pride
From which strength is born