The older I become, the more I realize I’m fighting an uphill battle against my morphing into the conservative-minded person I railed against as a teenager and young adult. My younger, more naïve self, was distinctly less jaded and somewhat oblivious to the complexity of the the world surrounding me. With the passing of time, I’ve become more attuned to the infinite shades of grey in almost every situation I encounter. I, like many others in their mid to late forties, facing the growing weight of family and work responsibilities, have begun to compartmentalize the incessant influx of information as either “black” or “white”—and I think it’s this very dynamic that breeds conservatism in the older generation.
Were you to directly confront me on this, I would voraciously protest and point to my self-proclaimed open-mindedness. As the British writer Terry Pratchett has said, “The trouble with having an open mind, of course, is that people will insist on coming along and trying to put things in it.” If only it were that simple—no one is force-feeding his or her opinion on me. I am a willing participant in this exchange.
This fact became blatantly obvious to me yesterday with the news surrounding the very public dismissal of popular CBC radio personality, Jian Ghomeshi. In the wake of his dismissal, Jian posted a personal letter on his Facebook page discounting the backstory surrounding his termination of employment as spurious claims by a “jilted” former lover. Ghomeshi credits his somewhat “alternative” sex life for his removal from his position has host of the popular syndicated arts program “Radio Q” on CBC Radio.
Within minutes of his posting on Facebook, social media lit up with the irate comments of fans coming to Jian’s defense in their backlash against the public broadcaster. In this day an age, how could a person be fired for what happens in the bedroom between “consenting” adults? I too was quick to jump on the bandwagon and add my voice to the growing chorus of outraged fans.
It wasn’t until the next morning, when I read the news reports that I realized that this story, like most things, is not a matter of black or white—there are fuzzy grey bits to every story. I immediately deleted my Facebook post from the night before, and wrote a new post stating that I should have known better. It’s not my place, nor my intention, to pass judgment on who is right or wrong in this very public issue. But I thought I would share with you a few lessons, I’ve learned about myself during the past 24 hours.
First, it was far too easy for me to get swept up in the mob mentality of supposed sanctimonious freedom fighters. It is truly shocking to me how quickly I silenced my inner critic.
Second, language is power—and this power can be a scathing weapon. I was reminded this morning by a very close friend of how carefully crafted words, such as those used by Jian Ghomeshi in his statement of defense, like “jilted ex-girlfriend with an axe to grind” are rife with images of misogyny and disempowerment. We also see the power of words in the article in today’s Toronto Star article when the reporter claims that statements made by Jian Ghomeshi’s alleged victims are credible because “The women [were] all educated and employed.” It’s quite alarming thinking that employment and the privilege of an education are prerequisites before one can make a legitimate claim of having been physically or sexually abused.
Moreover, what I find most shocking is that even though I am a survivor of rape and childhood sexual abuse, I was so easily swayed by the aura of power, prestige, and celebrity, as I quickly passed judgment before all of the facts have come out. This is by no means an indictment of Mr. Ghomeshi, just a reminder to myself that being a survivor of abuse has not made me immune to the influence of celebrity.
And finally, I need to be more vigilant when it comes to communicating my impressions in this digital age. There are no filters or time delays on social media—It’s time I step back and think twice before I press “enter”.
Invariably every year around this time, with the leaves turning and the weather getting colder, I seem to spend a lot of time digging through the closets in our house—looking for my warm hoodies, my favorite wool socks, and the comfy quilt to throw on top of the duvet as darkness comes sooner, and the nights get chillier.
I don’t know what it is about closets that I find so appealing, but there’s something comforting in their musty darkness and cramped quarters. They are a safe refuge for tattered ill-fitting clothes—the forgotten, which we simply haven’t got the heart to throw away.
Closets serve as a powerful metaphor in our lives, as we build the walls around us to keep the skeletons buried in our closets, or even in the tentative steps of those who have decided to embrace their sexual identity and come out of the closet publicly. There have been times when I too have chosen the solace of the closet and the company of the dust bunny denizens over the anxiety of stepping out of that closet to a life of uncertainty.
There’s a fabulous TedTalk by equality advocate Ash Beckham in which she candidly discusses her experience coming out of the closet as a lesbian and the experience and wisdom she gained through that process. What I love about Ash Beckham’s message is that she believes that to some degree, we all live in closets. In her words, “all a closet is, is a hard conversation.” When I think about it like that, it reminds me of all the times that the words were screaming to get out of me, but they never breached my lips because I was incapacitated by how they might be received. It brings me right back to that closet metaphor yet again, and how I so often prefer the known pain of banging my head against that closed closet door to the fear of the unknown lying on the other side of that threshold.
When I look back at my life, I see a long corridor of closets—an endless hallway of doors that I have creaked open, smashed through, and splintered apart. It reminds me of the opening sequence to the original Get Smart TV series from the 1960s. As soon as I walk through one doorway and I hear the echo of the door slamming behind me, immediately I come up against another closed door.
The real tragedy lies in the belief we can never open these closet doors; when in fact, the lock can only be opened from the inside. The key to this lock is not forged out of molten steel, but intricately woven out of fragile loss. Before we can open any of these doors in front of us, we need to be completely committed to letting something go, be it our greatest fear, the pain of rejection, the fallacy of control—in short, any expectation of what we thought something should, or would, be. That cortisol-fueled venomous anxiety we held clenched inside us behind the door must give way to an ephemeral gnawing of the gut that coincides with release and uncertainty. It all sounds reasonable in theory, but it’s so much harder in practice, as it’s as though we have become addicted to letting go of the pain of the past, which has resided with us for so long.
So, what can we expect to find when we take those few tentative steps out of our closet? A better way of looking at that question is not “what can we expect to find out there”, but rather, “what should we carry out there with us?” The answer is empathy. The one thing we are all seeking is the one thing we can only expect to receive if we have the faith to give it away freely ourselves. What keeps us shackled in our closets is fear and shame. The only way to alleviate those is to no longer compare our pain to others’. In the words of Ash Beckham: “Hard is not relative—Hard is hard… We need to stop ranking our hard against everyone else’s hard.” Empathy levels that playing field, and it moves us away from comparing, towards the enlightenment of identifying.
The most beautiful legacy you can leave for those you love, is a long shadow-filled corridor of open doors that you have courageously walked through as you have moved closer and closer towards them.
I have always considered myself a reluctant alchemist—only eager to change after continually banging my head against the wall no longer seems to offer the refuge it once did. Mine has been a life of reinventing; a life that to a great extent, has been predominated by seeking. It’s only now that I’m approaching middle age that I have begun to get a glimpse, an idea of that which I’ve always been looking for.
I am by no means a religious person, but I have come to believe that my greatest hope lies in faith—my ability to trust in the need to step out of the comfortable to find a “better me” on the other side. We can see evidence of this inner pilgrimage as far back as the medieval period, in the words of the religious scholar St. Anselm of Canterbury. “Faith seeks understanding. I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand.”
I trust that deep down, we are all prisoners of our own process of alchemy. As we struggle to make sense of our place in this world and in the lives of those we touch, often we are left with self-induced isolation and inner rebellion. We grapple with the contradiction of trying to carve out our own niche while simultaneously aching for a real sense of belonging, a communion with the circle of people who envelop us.
Life is not meant to be lived in one place—and by that I am not referring to physical local, but to the level of growth or understanding we have reached. Embedded in a constant refrain of cultural clashes and witness to the generational discord within our own families, we are ever reminded of the necessity to move forward in our thinking, or we risk our greatest fear—remaining isolated, alone in our mind.
If we are indeed all seekers, personal alchemists, what are we to make of this human journey? Whenever I wrestle with issues of transformation and inner quest, I turn to the Buddhist traditions, which I believe offer hints, or signposts, that help unlock the mystery for me. Words attributed to the Buddha offer: “Your work is to discover your world, and then with all your heart, give yourself to it.” The simplicity of these words resounds a deep sense of love. What can be more “human” than to discover that which you are looking for, and with an open heart “give yourself to it” and send it back into the world.
When I look at what I have been seeking, three themes dominate--affection, connection, and revelation. And within each of these predominant themes, there are three other elements that are intricately entwined—the physical, the emotional, and the spiritual. So much of my personal validation comes from affection I seek in those I love dearest. I need only turn to my relationship with my partner to see how I am nourished physically, emotionally, and even spiritually, by making myself vulnerable and opening up to the uncertainty of change. When I turn this lens out to a broader scope, I acknowledge how much I seek connection with others. An issue I continue to struggle with is building bridges in those connections so that I can engage at a more emotional level within these relationships. This need for emotional connection is further exacerbated when the relationship involves another man. As men, we have been raised to insulate our emotions, and thus, our interactions with other men are inclined to be either competitive or jocular, but rarely substantive. And finally, I see that now more than ever, my seeking entails a degree of revelation—an insatiable need to uncover “what makes me tick.” It’s said that you can’t get to where you’re going unless you know where you are.
No matter what path you may find yourself on, and for whatever you may be seeking, remember to be kind to yourself and allow the time needed to get to where you are going. Ours is a world in which distances are shrinking and time feels as though it is accelerating. The actions you take now to bring about change may not deliver immediate results, but with patience, may bear fruit later when you are indeed ready to embrace the alchemy you set forth. In the words of Paulo Coelho, “The two hardest tests on the spiritual road are the patience to wait for the right moment and the courage not to be disappointed with what we encounter.”
Stories enchant us; they motivate us, but most of all, they define us. We all want to live a better life—be more creative, more authentic, and more empowered. We head out the door each morning vowing to be focused, eat healthier, and speak our truth. Yet, what we often fail to attend to is the one thing that may be lurking just beneath the surface and preventing us from living the life we desire--our story.
Deep within us, we all have a story, an unseen narrative that unfolds in our minds and anchors us to where we are today. The important thing to remember is that an anchor can ground you in rough seas, but it can also prevent you from moving forward. I invite you to take a moment, step back, and honestly evaluate the narrative in your life. What is it whispering to you?
How do we go about accessing our subtle narrative, and more importantly, are we powerless in allowing it dominance in our present life? A fruitful place to begin this discussion is by looking at metaphor and our mind’s ability to craft it into our narrative. A “metaphor” is word or phrase that denotes an object or idea in place of another—It is a type analogy by which we begin to understand something that is difficult to interpret. “Metaphor” has its roots from the Greek pherein, meaning “to carry”, and meta, meaning “beyond” or “over”. The power of metaphor has been a dominant presence throughout human history, as witnessed in our songs, dances, fairytales, and religious ceremonies.
Within all of us, is an ever-present ache—a desire to be loved, to feel connection, and a sense of belonging. Our heroes are mined from our family, our community, and greater society. We are captivated by others’ success and a their ability to transcend adversity. We long to find something in the stories of others that carries us out of our own mundane lives, or even more so, beyond whatever adversity that might be holding us back. We weave our “story” out of the fabric of metaphor that we graft from the lives of those around us. Unfortunately, many of us get “stuck” in the negativity of a self-constructed life story that serves only to overwhelm us and derail our opportunities to live the life we want to live.
Ironically, the solution to this problem lies within the problem itself—our mind. We are not slaves to the "machine" of our mind, so we have the ability to rethink the way we think. By stepping back and honestly evaluating how our “story” is sabotaging our life, we can enact a few important steps to move beyond the negative metaphor and self-talk and begin to craft a “new narrative”.
1. Do the things I say to myself make me feel “empowered” or “disenfranchised”?
At times we are all guilty of wallowing in the mire of our own negativity. Begin to adopt the strategy of focusing on what is right in your life rather than on what is not to your liking.
2. What is the underlying metaphor of my current overriding emotion?
Are you attaching how you feel at the moment to a self-sabotaging metaphor? For instance, is your internal monologue consumed by metaphors like, bottling up emotions, feeling swamped at work, or an overwhelming sense of being lost?
3. Is what I am saying to myself actually valid? Another way to look at this is to ask yourself, is the opposite to what I say also true?
Every truth is indeed one-sided, so what I might perceive as someone being hostile and pushing me away, might be perceived as self-preservation to that individual.
4. Do I have a positive personal experience, or an example of someone in my life who embodies characteristics of a roadmap to a more positive narrative?
It was Robert Frost who said, “The best way out is always through.” It’s very easy to become a victim of our past, and allow a feeling of “defeat” to dominate our life story. Whenever you feel you’ve become “stuck” in this foreboding doom, cling to a time in your life when you successfully rode through the adversity, or look toward someone in your life who embodies the characteristics you most admire.
5. Do you have the perseverance to transform states into traits?
Doing something once and expecting it to have a lasting impact on your life is unrealistic to say the least. Just as an athlete submits to rigorous training to develop stamina and muscle, so to do we need to practice self-reflection and positive metaphor ideation. By following this approach, we develop the habit of resiliency and positive thinking, and in so doing, contented “states” become happiness “traits”.
We all have our story—and our story is us. Our past is carried into our present, and it becomes our companion in the future as well. Our life becomes richer and more fulfilling when we learn that our story is simply that—a story. The magic lies in our ability to nurture it, release it, and craft a new one. I’d like to leave you with the evocative words of the poet, C. JoyBell C. “A star falls from the sky and into your hands. Then it seeps through your veins and swims inside your blood and becomes every part of you. And then you have to put it back into the sky. And it's the most painful thing you'll ever have to do and that you've ever done. But what's yours is yours. Whether it’s up in the sky or here in your hands.”
The American author and motivational speaker Bryant McGill once said: “Having the right priorities in a wrong world will humble you with a journey that only love can sustain.” The painful truth of our modern existence is that what we deem as important is rarely prioritized as urgent. The mundane always seems to get in the way—there are bills to pay, dishes to clean, and mounting emails demanding our attention. Our culture assigns value to what we accumulate and how hard we work, and thus our self worth is defined within those parameters. But lost in the frenetic pace of this incessant time crunch, is that which we value most in our life. It’s ironic that we tend to take for granted those things that feed our soul and make life worth living.
I’ve never been one to believe that happiness can be directly correlated to pursuit. Happiness already lies inside me, yet it requires that I make space for it to feel nourished. Where I go astray is by comparing what I have to what you have—something that always leaves me feeling somehow inadequate. By looking upon happiness as a truly subjective construct, I become the sole proprietor of my happiness. Only yesterday, I was listening to an interview with Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, in which he beautifully articulated this concept. “Sometimes we don't have to pursue happiness; we just have to let it catch up to us.”
If you’re anything like me, you spend far too much time obsessing over the past or fretting over the future, and all the while, missing the opportunity of living in the sweet spot of “now”. So, how can we slow down long enough to let happiness “catch up to us”? Those who follow a spiritual path might suggest that the answer lies in having an acute awareness of a divine presence in every breath, and the space between those breaths.
For me, I understand the path to this inner peace, through self-discovery and learning to go through life right-sized. The simple practice of starting and ending each day with a quiet reflection on what I am most grateful for strips away a lot of the noisy chatter in my brain and allows me to see what is “important” rather than what is “urgent”. In the words of Thornton Wilder, "We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures." Once I have established what is most important to my soul, the next step is for me to become more pro-active instead of re-active. By prioritizing was is important over what is urgent, I begin to spend more time preparing the space for healthy relationships and activities in my life—a radical shift from the inordinate amount of time I typically spend repairing those which I neglect.
It all sounds so simple in theory—Slow down, focus from a place of gratitude, shake what’s really important to the forefront. The reality is that in order to create this life of inner fulfillment, of being “right-sized”, you will surely be swimming upstream. And what better way to end this than with the words of the irreverent W. C. Fields, “Remember, a dead fish can float downstream, but it takes a live one to swim upstream.”