We are all moving towards something, or away from something. It’s a journey that can take us out of ourselves, or bring us back to a place of peace within us. All of this toing and froing is the geography of life. And as is the case with traversing any terrain, the secret lies in knowing when to climb and when to simply stand steadfast waist-high in a rushing stream.
The one constant in all of this is choice. We make the choice to take action, and equally, the decision not to act is also our choice. It’s in this space of doing and not doing that we confront our greatest fears. American author and Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön suggests that we draw on “compassionate action” when we come upon this point of uncertainty. “Compassionate action starts with seeing yourself when you start to make yourself right and when you start to make yourself wrong. At that point you could just contemplate the fact that there is a larger alternative to either of those, a more tender, shaky kind of place where you could live.”
This “tender, shaky” place that Pema refers to is a threshold—appearing as either a tangible entryway to a new beginning, or as something less tangible, a point at which something changes inside us. Unlike the trite expression, “When one door closes, another opens”, we view thresholds as less definitive. They hold promise, and all the while haunt us with the temptation of doing nothing. It’s an unknown territory where the old is not yet old, and the new has yet to arrive. It is a place of contradiction—a quiet place of disquiet in our soul.
We can look kindly upon a threshold as an invitation—an opportunity to step out of our comfort zone and walk upon, what to us, feels like unsteady ground. Having faith in a life without limits means letting go of the illusion of predictability. You arrive at a place where the edges are soft and the footing uncertain. It’s leaving the nest of your family home; it’s embarking on a new career path; or even the quivering fear of trusting your broken heart to another.
Our arrival to a threshold can also be a much-needed time to pause and take inventory. Rollo May, one of the leading voices on humanistic psychology, describes this beautifully. “Human freedom involves our capacity to pause between the stimulus and response and, in that pause, to choose the one response toward which we wish to throw our weight. The capacity to create ourselves, based upon this freedom, is inseparable from consciousness or self-awareness.” Thresholds remind us that we are not subjugated to our instincts, and that the space within this pause is the canvas on which we decide how to craft our life.
And finally, a threshold is a timely reminder of the impermanence of everything and everyone. The choice is ours whether or not we view the fleeting nature of life as a fear of loss within our heart, or as a fragile gift that has come into our life for only short while. That which we cannot possess but only care for, exposes us to a place of vulnerability where love can blossom. As the writer Stephen Levine reminds us, “That which is impermanent attracts compassion. That which is not provides wisdom.”
I hate to sound jaded, but with age, most of us come to expect sadness, loss, and disappointment. From our newspapers to our Hollywood blockbusters, we are inundated with stories of pain and emotional scars, and if we’re lucky, we will get to witness the sweet taste of retribution for all that hurt. There is definitely a societal price to be paid for our addiction to catastrophe—and one that I believe vacillates between a callous disregard for suffering to a hyped-up endorphin-fueled rage.
Maybe that’s why I’m always pleasantly surprised when I stumble upon love and forgiveness in the most unlikely of places. In my work as an advocate for survivors of child sexual abuse, I have the opportunity to share my experience and strength through various talks and panels. This past week, I participated on a panel with four other survivors of sexual violence, for a lecture series at York University. Before the first speaker got up, the anxiety in the room was palpable, as those in attendance expected to be decimated by stories of lost innocence and unimaginable transgressions. But with the telling of each survivor’s story, a surprising theme began to take shape—one of resiliency borne of forgiveness.
Language is power, and the language we use not only defines what we say but also who we are. You’ll notice that I’ve chosen not to label myself as a “victim”, but as a “survivor”. What many may say is only a subtle shift in vocabulary is in fact, predicated on a seismic shift in thinking, one to which I believe forgiveness is the key. Before I enter into a discussion on forgiveness, I’d like to state unequivocally that I am by no means a “saint” when it comes to the art of forgiveness—There are many times I stubbornly choose to hang on to toxic, self-destructive resentments.
When I think about what lies at the heart of forgiveness, I’m reminded of a poem I studied in undergrad by the 18th century English writer Alexander Pope.
True Wit is Nature to advantage dress’d
What oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d;
Something whose truth convinced at sight we find,
That gives us back the image of our mind.
There’s nothing magical or ethereal about forgiveness. In fact, it’s staring us directly in the face, yet so often we refuse to reach out and unveil its beauty. On those rare occasions when we do, we discover the truth of “what often was thought, but never so well expressed.”
For me, truth lies in the faith of forgiveness, and when I surrender to this “faith of forgiveness”, a newfound freedom enters my life. I don’t believe that forgiveness is a one-time act, but rather, an unfolding process. We often get hung up on the “other party” when it comes to forgiveness, as we struggle with whether or not this individual warrants our compassion. And it’s at this point, that I need to remind myself that forgiveness is not something I bestow on someone else—It’s a gift that is mine alone.
You may be asking yourself, “What does forgiveness look like?”, and “Can we honestly expect anything from the person we forgive?” These are indeed valid questions, so I’d like to turn to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who expressed this philosophy so beautifully. When asked how he copes with pain, anger, and grief in his life, he responded: “I say to the bad times, I will not let you go until you bless me.” And this to me is why I see forgiveness as a lifelong process of connection. Like it or not, we are all connected, so it is impossible to live a life in silos, in which we let the good in and keep the bad out.
When it comes to forgiveness, we are well served to let go of our anger, yet hold on to the lesson. By inviting this lesson into our lives every day, we maintain that connection with those we choose to no longer have contact with. There is a general misconception that “forgiveness” is somehow tied to “reconciliation”, and it is within this misconception, that we often deny ourselves the permission to forgive. Forgiveness is an inside job—a coming to terms with our own anger and hate. When I forgive, I give myself the permission, and freedom, not to expect to rewrite my past. When I forgive, it does not mean I “condone” something that happened to me, and thus—forgiveness—a shift in my own thinking, does not entail an apology from someone else.
Author and ethicist Lewis B. Smedes describes the process in this way: “Forgiving does not erase the bitter past. A healed memory is not a deleted memory. Instead, forgiving what we cannot forget creates a new way to remember. We change the memory of our past into a hope for our future.” If we are able to continue further down this path of forgiveness, one day we might reach a point of “reconciliation”—seeking common ground and understanding to move forward with another.
In the end, the choice is ours whether or not we have faith in forgiveness. When I’m asked how I can possibly forgive the individuals who sexually abused me, I respond by saying, “How could I not?” Faced with the choice of indefinitely hanging on to the anger and fear nestled in self-pity and resentment, or the choice of releasing myself of those toxic feelings, I choose the path of freedom. Have I been released of all the hurt from my past? No, but I do have faith in the process. In the words of the immortal William Shakespeare: “How poor are they that have not patience! What wound did ever heal but by degrees?”
I’d like you to take a moment. Close your eyes, and focus on a place where you feel safe, supported, and at peace. As this image fills your mind, notice how the worry of your day start to float away before your eyes; your breath is a little easier, and the tension in your muscles more at ease. As your mind begins to envelop the joy of this image, bring your attention back to the present, but now, feel your heart a little lighter.
We all have our happy place—our refuge from stress, pain, and at times, loss. For some, it is a place to escape to; for others, it affords an opportunity to rejuvenate, reinvent, and release. Whenever I feel out of balance or filled with a screaming disquiet in my soul, I bring myself to my happy place—and for me, that sanctuary has always been found on the road and on the trails where my running takes me.
It’s said that a “picture can say a thousand words”, so I thought I would share a few vignettes with you that capture all the beauty, joy, and surrender that running brings into my life. I’ve run over 100 marathons and ultra marathons, and on average I run 170-190 km every week, so it’s not surprising that people often ask me why I run so much, but more often than that they ask, “What are you running away from?” Whenever I hear that, I smile because I don’t think I’m running away from anything. In fact, I’m running towards something—a better “me”.
Running is a gift that makes my life bigger and richer. My wife took this picture of me about 15 minutes after I had crossed the finish line of the LA Marathon. This photo perfectly captures everything that running means to me—It brings me around the world, and this gives me the opportunity to meet incredible people and see amazing places. But at the same time, running is a solitary activity. When I’m out for a long run, my mind slows down just long enough for me to catch up to the things that matter most in my life. Wrapped in a Mylar blanket, walking towards the cold Pacific Ocean, with every step I took, the pain and exhaustion from having just run a marathon began to evaporate, and once again running had delivered me back to “me”.
An unexpected gift of running is that when you challenge yourself, and you dig deeper than you ever thought possible, you not only become immensely proud of yourself but also those who love you bear witness to the inner strength you have unearthed. In 2012, I had the privilege of running the Comrades Marathon in South Africa, a grueling 90 km run up and down unrelenting climbs through the majestic mountainous countryside. This was such an “epic” undertaking not just in terms of physical endurance, but in regards to a huge economic outlay. We decided to make the most of our trip, so we spent the week leading up to the race with a stopover in Dubai. Worried about arriving to the race on “dead legs”, I foolishly went out for a long training run each morning in the extreme desert heat. The result was by the time we arrived in South Africa two days prior to the race, I was in bed suffering from severe dehydration. When I picked up my race kit the day before the race, I was filled with dread, believing that there was no way I’d be able to to attempt such a feat of endurance. When I said “goodbye” to my wife the morning of the race, both of us were uneasy about how the day would unfold. As is most often the case, the official race tracking system started to go awry, so the last report my wife received was that I had crossed the 50 km checkpoint, but then, all went silent. The “running gods” must have been looking out for me, because this photo was taken 3 minutes after I had crossed the finish line after 9 hours of running through intense African terrain and heat. I can remember looking up and seeing Mary-Anne running towards me and wrapping my sweaty, sticky body in her arms as we both wept. Running can take everything out of me, but it always leaves me with a huge reservoir of love.
A few weeks before last year’s Boston Marathon, I disclosed to my family and friends that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. It’s ironic that the hardest thing I’ve ever done was to let go of a toxic “secret” that had been eating away at me for almost four decades. My wife has stood by my side for 27 years, watching me battle addiction and mental health issues, but all the while believing that deep inside of me was a beautiful soul, but one that I never seemed to be able to recognize. Before heading down to Boston to run the marathon, I registered in a treatment centre that specializes in working with adult male survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Needless to say, when I arrived in Boston to run the marathon, my emotions were raw, and I felt as though my world was crumbling around me. Little did I know that on that fateful day, my wife and I would be on the street to witness the aftershock of the Boston bombings.
When we finally made it back to Toronto later that night, both of us had no idea of the impact that traumatic experience would have on our lives, but we were fairly certain we would never return to Boylston Street and the scene of the bombings. Life has a way of changing your plans, and so, a year later I returned to run the Boston Marathon, but this time with a greater purpose. I decided to run the marathon twice in the same day in order to raise funds and awareness for other survivors of childhood sexual abuse. At 4:30 am, I arrived at the finish line of the marathon and headed out on the 42.2 km run to the official start in Hopkington. There, I would wait less than an hour before turning around and running the 42.2 km official Boston Marathon with the rest of the athletes.
One of the concessions for my wife to agree to return to Boston was that I would run with my phone so that she could text me throughout the race to make sure everything was fine. Immediately after heading out on the second leg of the double marathon, I started to get frequent texts from Mary-Anne telling me to watch for her on a specific corner about a mile from the finish line. I thought the frequency of these text was simply residual anxiety as a result of last year’s bombings, but unbeknownst to me, she had a little surprise planned, so she wanted to make sure I didn’t miss her along the course.
This is an image taken from a video she captured of me coming towards her in the last mile of my 84.4 km run. It wasn’t until I got to within twenty feet of her that I discovered that standing beside her were my son and daughter-in-law who had flown down to Boston to surprise me. You can see the absolute joy in my face as I recognized my son standing along the barricade. But what you don’t see is the flood of emotions I felt when I left them and carried on for the last mile on my own. I don’t think I’ll ever have the words to describe what it feels like to let go of a secret that has been haunting you your entire life, only to discover that what you thought made you “weak” and “ashamed” is in fact the very thing that makes you “strong” and “brave”. Nor can I describe what it is like for a father to stand before his adult son and say, “This was me. This was my fear. But before you now, is the real me—This is your dad.”
And for this, I thank you running. You are my love, my sanctuary, my divine gift.
Who amongst us is not enchanted by the power of story and myth? It’s through story that we delineate, navigate, and if we are lucky, reconcile our place in this world. Story has the capacity to inspire and unite, yet it can also divide and ensnare us. Our story is our past, and our past is our story. Much of the hurt we carry around with us is a stowaway from our past—our inability to let go of what once was in order to grasp hold of what now is.
Lodged behind every pain, sorrow, or hurt, is fear—The fear that we are not good enough, the fear of letting go, the fear of uncertainty, and the fear of acceptance. When we operate from a place of fear, we are governed by panic and reaction, and we gradually become addicted to the endorphin rush of living in a perpetual stage of “drama”. But creeping below all of this is an overriding sense of powerlessness, leaving us feeling anxious and victimized. When we are stubbornly entrenched in the mentality that “things happen to us”, we remain powerless. It’s only by acknowledging that “things happen inside us”, that we become the architects of our lives.
What are we to make of our past, and is it even realistic to expect that trauma from our past, need not weigh heavy on our present? We are tritely told to “mine our past for wisdom” and “to make peace with our past”. The general consensus being that “what’s done is done, so it’s best to just move on.” But the more you look around, the more you see so many of us unable, or unwilling, to let go of our story, to let go of our past.
Much of the pain in our lives is a direct result of our being ensnared in our past, while at the same time, expecting to lay the foundation for our future, and all the while, we neglect what lies at our feet today. If our story is our past, and we are our story, isn’t it unreasonable to expect that we can willfully sever a “part of us”, like it were a diseased limb?
Instead, why not treat your past as if it were a huge buffet dinner placed before you. You can only carry so much. If you take too much of one thing, there’s little room for anything else on offer. If you return for second and third helpings, you’ll have no room for dessert. We need to take nourishment from our past, but we need to be vigilant not to take more than we can manage.
I’ve had to accept that my life story is by no means linear, so expecting to permanently close the door on my past only sets me up for frustration and disappointment. It’s as though I’m walking a precarious tightrope towards my future—to my left, is the cavern of my past, and to my right, is the gorge of my present. My goal is to find the perfect balance to walk through life towards my future on this tightrope. I mustn’t lean too much to either side, yet have the presence of mind to always survey the view around me.
When I gaze over the fertile ground of my past, I’m reminded of three important lessons:
1. “Forgiveness is giving up the hope that the past could have been any different, it's accepting the past for what it was, and using this moment and this time to help yourself move forward.” ~Oprah Winfrey
Our past is a springboard to our future, and I need to always remember that without stepping-stones, I’m walking through water. This quote from Oprah reminds me that expecting to rewrite my past with a different ending enmeshes me in that dreaded feeling of powerlessness.
2. “Some people are going to leave, but that's not the end of your story. That's the end of their part in your story.” ~Faraaz Kazi
Nature has a way of running its course, and relationships are no different. Much of the sorrow in my life comes from attachment to relationships which are no longer viable, healthy, or sustainable. This lesson becomes even more painful when the relationship in question involves a family member. Holding on to something which has already gone builds resentment, and that acts like an anchor that weighs down my soul.
3. “New Beginnings are often disguised as painful endings.” ~Lao Tzu
This quote resonates deeply with me because it is the pain in my past that has been my greatest teacher—my most precious gift. It's in our nature to recoil from pain—to wrench it from our soul, and abandon it in our darkness. The truth is what we disown, that which we orphan, has our fingerprints all over it. We can no more escape it than we could escape our skin. Acceptance and growth comes when I sit with my pain; caress my fears, for they are my most devote of teachers. It is in the unnerving solitude of their whispers, and in the tinge of their aches, that I find the truth to calm my uncertainty.
And finally, I’d like to leave you with the haunting words of Jeannette Winterson: “You cannot disown what is yours. Flung out, there is always the return, the reckoning, the revenge, perhaps the reconciliation. There is always the return. And the wound will take you there.”
Our society has a tendency to quantify pain. As a result, we end up in these futile discussions about how my pain is worse than your pain, or why what happened to you is far worse than what happened to me. As a survivor of rape, I am all too familiar that the “default position” for many victims of rape is to say to yourself, “It wasn't that bad. I can get through it on my own.” When it comes right down to it, this is just the brain’s way of coping with a violent, traumatic act of violation. Can't we all simply agree that no one's pain is worse than anyone else's. Rape is just that—It’s rape, and it's unconscionable.
The Twitter hashtag campaign #BeenRapedNeverReported has become a global phenomenon. It's allowing people to come forward and say, "This happened to me too." For many people, it's their first tentative act of disclosing the trauma they survived.
As I write this, I feel guilty in some weird way for entering into this debate that has been eye-opening for so many people, as it sheds light on how many female victims of sexual assault are amongst us. As a man, and as a survivor of rape myself, I worry that adding my voice to this might in some way usurp or direct the conversation away from highlighting the abuse of women in our society. But part of me thinks that this shouldn't be a debate about men or women, but rather, it should be about creating a culture in which stepping forward and disclosing sexual assault becomes a much more supportive and empowering experience.
I am also aware that I have benefited from a lot of resources that many victims of rape don't have at their disposal. I have been in a loving and supportive long-term relationship; one in which my wife has been able to hold the pieces together for me when my life was falling apart as a direct result of the ramifications of sexual assault. I have battled issues with drug and alcohol addiction for years. My mental health was so tenuous at times that suicide became a stark reality. I stand here today feeling empowered—feeling that the sexual assault, which has indeed shaped me, does not define me. I am also aware that I live in a privileged society; one in which this type of public disclosure, although never easy, is still possible. There are many victims of sexual assault who live in societies in which a disclosure can mean certain death, forced exile, or a devastatingly isolated fractured life. There are those too, who live in societies in which a sexual assault often entails exposure to deadly sexually transmitted disease.
The real question here is now that we are having this discussion—now that many survivors of rape and sexual assault are coming forward with their stories, what are we going to do with it, and more importantly, what the hell are we going to do about it?
I pray that if anything comes from this #BeenRapedNeverReported campaign, this global discussion, the one thing that I'd like to see materialize is that we, as a community, embrace each individual who has the courage to come forward with her or his disclosure. These people, these survivors, need to be received as our heroes. For every individual who has the strength and the faith to publicly open up about what has happened—this one individual can be the beacon to pull two, three, four...hundreds of other people out of their darkness. If we really want to live in a society free of sexual violence, we need to create an environment in which survivors of sexual assault feel empowered, liberated, supported, and encouraged to let go of feelings of shame that are not of their volition. This is what I pray for. This is what needs to come of this discussion.