It was Christmas morning when I was seven—I remember sneaking downstairs before everyone else had woken up so I could squeeze, rattle, and shake the wrapped presents under the tree that sprawled across the harvest gold shag living room carpet. I wanted desperately to get the new GI Joe action figure—the one that came with the zodiac raft and a miniature set of TNT and detonator. Three years later, I woke up on that same morning, and I could care less about the presents under the tree. All I wanted was my mom to move back home.
I was thinking today that something seems to have shifted in me as I get older. Instead of defining myself by what I want, or even by what I have, I look to what I can give away as a means to somehow define my happiness. I must admit, I arrived late to this realization because of the years I spent in a self-absorbed alcohol-fuelled fog that segued nicely into a period of manic depression.
Even though to me it often seems counterintuitive, I am happiest when I am of service to others instead of being preoccupied with my own agenda. In the book Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, Adam Grant divides society into three distinct groups. “Givers” are those who selflessly offer up their time and energy. “Matchers” are only willing to participate in a reciprocal relationship based on give and take. Finally, there are “Takers”—this group operates on a parasitic level, as they are only governed by what they can get from you.
What we all seek is connection in our lives, and this feeling appears most readily when I align myself with “Givers” rather than the “Matchers” or “Takers”. For years, I convinced myself that I could never make a difference, so why bother trying to be of service to others. It’s only recently that I have begun to understand that it’s not about changing the world—being a revolutionary. This far-reaching belief ultimately cripples you and leads to inaction. I now look at what I can do to change the landscape around me—what can I do to make an immediate difference in the lives that I touch every day?
Coupled with this notion of immediacy, is a strong belief in cracking open the defensive veneer we all walk around in. Brene Brown talks about how true connections come through vulnerability. Take this blog for instance—whenever I sit down to write and that little voice in the back of my head tells me “keep something secret and locked away”, that’s when I know it is something that scares me—it’s from a vulnerable place. If I silence that voice of fear or shame inside, and allow others into that part of me, I make the most authentic connection with you. What’s most magical in this process is that something that I’ve given freely and with no strings attached, opens up a dialogue for others to share what lies in their heart and rarely is put into words.
I’ve developed a three-tiered strategy to allow me to nurture the idea of “paying it forward” more regularly in my day-to-day relationships. It starts with being a mentor—there is always someone who can benefit from my experience, usually acquired after a lot of sweat equity. I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to do this most days when I share some of the wisdom I’ve acquired about marathoning or running in general, with someone who is new to our sport. Next, I’m a firm believer in opening up my network to others. We are all connected to core groups in our lives, so why not share access to these clusters with others who may come into your life. My life is intertwined with three primary groups: the running community, the addictions community, and more recently, a community of dedicated people trying to raise awareness of childhood sexual abuse. Through social media and other means, I try to act as a “bridge” to connect those in need with these core groups in my life.
Most importantly, I wholeheartedly believe we all need an “angel” in our lives—a person who appears when we need it most. I call these people angels because they are not a family member, or even a close friend. It is a person without an agenda—someone who parachutes into your life and holds your hand through a crisis, transition, or personal catastrophe. I have two such angels in my life. A young lady who reached out to me 16 years ago outside of an AA meeting when I was emotionally defeated and ready to say “fuck this” and go out and use again. What she offered me, couldn’t be wrapped up with a beautiful bow—It was the selfless gift of hope, and it changed my life. Last spring I met the founder of the treatment centre I was attending as I was dealing with issues related to childhood sexual abuse. This man spoke in the most gentle voice as he looked me straight in the eye and told me what had happened to me as a child doesn’t have to define the rest of life. For the first time since I was abused as a child, those feelings of shame I had bottled up inside me, now began to slowly seep away. In that empty space where that shame lay buried, I could now breathe more deeply. This time, the selfless gift was freedom.
I invite you to consider who the angels are in your life, and whether or not you might just be an angel in someone else's life. In an age of iPods and isolation, we desperately seek connection with others. Like ripples in a pond, when we touch someone else’s life, we make a difference in ways we can’t even imagine.