Every year on October 10th, we recognize World Mental Health Day. It’s an important day upon which the global community strives to not only raise awareness of mental health issues but also mobilize efforts to support mental health initiatives at both the grassroots and national levels. Leaving aside the immense political and economic hurdles faced in terms of adequately funding the appropriate educational and medical supports needed to address this multi-faceted issue, I think we can all agree that each us plays a vital role in helping to eliminate the stigma surrounding fragile or compromised mental health.
Is there anything more tragic than going through life ‘unseen’, feeling crushingly alone despite being in community? That’s exactly what living with the stigma of compromised mental health feels like. Stigma is showing up with a full heart and only revealing half of it. Stigma is having to look at the pity in someone else’s eyes as they watch your life falling apart. Stigma is only feeling safe sitting in the waiting room of your psychiatrist's or therapist's office, knowing that here, and only here, do you feel people really know you. Stigma is filling out the disability benefits form from the Human Resources department because you can no longer function at work. Stigma is feeling broken and unworthy of love as you sit across from your partner as he or she struggles to find the right words to take away some of your pain and all of your hurt.
My own experience with tenuous mental health is not dissimilar to that of countless others—a torturous and haunting journey through the dark cavernous abyss of depression, waves of paralyzing nausea-inducing anxiety attacks, nights of being jarred awake in a cold sweat from piercing night terrors otherwise known as the unforgiving echoes of PTSD. Yet despite all of these symptomatic signposts that demarcate the jagged terrain of mental illness, I am still inclined to argue that the most soul-destroying symptom of all, and a byproduct of the stigma of living with mental illness, is the self-internalized belief that you will never be able to inhabit all of your life. It’s facing the reality of a life immersed in the dissonance that comes from never feeling ‘whole’.
I recently heard an interview with the American social and political activist, Courtney E. Martin, in which she described how exhausting it is for us to constantly craft our online persona—an endless happiness parade of joyful selfies, highlights, and stylized moments. In her interview, Courtney suggested that quite possibly the bravest thing each of us can do, is to show up ‘whole’, vulnerable, and authentic. Indeed, a terrifying prospect for most of us, but as Courtney points out, “sometimes it can be worth it, in part because when you show up whole, you give other people permission to do so, as well. You can actually feel the air change when someone does this, can’t you? It’s as if our cells collectively relax, oxygenated by the idea that this is a place where, apparently, we can show up as ourselves. What a relief. What a gift.”
So, I guess that brings me back to reflecting upon the significance of World Mental Health Day, and how I would love to see more and more of us who struggle with mental health issues deciding to step beyond the stigma into our whole life. Just like Dove’s well-publicized Real Beauty Campaign of a few years ago, where women were encouraged to post no-makeup selfies to show their real beauty, I suggest we consider a similar campaign around mental health. I encourage you to join with me in this campaign by using the hashtag #ThisIsMeToo.
Let me start us all off by sharing:
I’m an elite athlete, but I also suffer from PTSD and anxiety disorder. #ThisIsMeToo
For as long as I can remember, I’ve found great solace living in the margins— tenuous spaces inhabited by those set adrift, the wanderers, and the disenfranchised. I spent much of life uncoiled and disconnected, living as an emotional chameleon, a direct result of childhood trauma, and later as I nursed the seismic aftershocks of that trauma reverberating through my teens and into my 30’s in the guise of addiction and suicidal depression.
Yet here I am today at 50—an elite athlete, author, and international advocate for survivors of sexual violence. I do a lot of public speaking, and the question I’m most frequently asked is: How were you able to use the adversity in your life as a stepping-stone for growth and success? I believe it all comes down to resilience, and by that, I’m not referring to that static inner strength that allows us to endure or survive great hardship, trauma, or loss, but rather, to a fluid quality within that enables certain individuals to actively respond to and redirect the untethered energy of that adversity. It’s a conscious decision that is available to all of us when we face our most all-consuming challenges, yet it is a choice that few are willingly to embrace—And for me, that is what sets apart people who are ‘resilient’ from those who merely ‘survive’.
So, how do you get to the place where you can nurture resilience in your life? I’m currently at work on a book about that very question, and part of the research for this project involves interviewing over 100 people from around the world who have demonstrated immense and sustained resilience through some extremely challenging life circumstances. A theme that continues to reappear in these interviews is the importance of getting comfortable feeling uncomfortable. In other words, it’s learning to exist within, and navigate along those disarming margins we often find ourselves in.
Anthropology refers to something called liminality, a term that has its etymology in the Latin word “līmen”, meaning "a threshold". It is a concept that is used to describe that period of uncertainty and disorientation occurring within the middle of a ritual when participants can no longer trust the pre-ritual status and have yet to identify and enlist the appropriate transition or way of being needed to move forward. It’s a disorienting feeling during which identity, community, and security are in great flux.
I believe that our ability to be resilient has much to do with how we weather so-called liminal periods of our life. It is those times that often arise out of trauma, adversity, or great loss, when our previous way of being no longer serves us, and all our social and cultural values are called into question. Our way of interacting begins to dissolve and we have as yet to find or embrace, a new way of interacting with our environment. Over the years, I have learned to recognize these moments not as periods of disintegration, but rather as opportunities for integration and creativity. We all face these periods of uncertainty in our life, so I thought I would invite you to consider adopting these strategies the next time you find yourself in a state of liminal disequilibrium:
Adopt an IDEA mindset
IDEA is an acronym I created that stands for innovate, delegate, excavate, and accelerate. By learning to get ‘comfortable with the uncomfortable’, we open up the possibility to ‘innovate’ in order to find new ways forward through adversity. Second, by ‘delegating’ or deferring to others, we not only invite help into our lives but also stave off isolation by creating bridges of connection. Periods of dissonance provide an ideal time to ‘excavate’, or self-reflect—time to take a close look at what sits in our hearts and eats at our soul. And finally, sooner or later you have to move beyond the liminal threshold of uncertainty, and the sooner you can accelerate that motivation to do that, the better you’ll feel.
Timing is everything… Don’t wait!
I recently heard an interview with Brandon Stanton, the creative genius behind the internationally famous photo blog entitled Humans of New York. As you can imagine, Brandon is often asked by aspiring photographers and creatives what he credits with the phenomenal success of his project, and his advice is to not wait until you have something all figured out before you start. In other words, "You have to start something before you're ready, [and in the process] you learn courage by doing things when you are afraid. Don't wait until you are not afraid before you start."
Harness the thrill of the uncertainty
One thing is for certain, the wake of trauma, adversity, or deep loss, brings with it a debilitating weight of indecision steeped in fear. A characteristic of resilience is having an ability to make decisions without having all the answers figured out first. I believe this comes from a faith that no matter how something works out, you will either have success or you will learn something important about yourself. I once heard Elizabeth Gilbert describe it in this way: “I'm more excited and thrilled by the feeling of the jump rather than the landing… No one knows where he or she is going to the land, we have no control over that, but we do have control of how we feel when we jump.”
If you, or someone you know, exhibits a high level of resilience, and you would like to be interviewed for my upcoming book, please contact me at email@example.com.
Much like a wild animal, I am resilient—I have become accustomed to carving out an existence in the cruelest and most unforgiving places, and more often than not, that unforgiving space exists within the perilous terrain of my mind. I didn’t so much grow up, as evolve. I was raised in a house where mental illness and violence were always present, yet not in plain view. Like the small tangled clumps of dust and hair nestled behind the mahogany furniture, the violence became dislodged with the slightest jarring or unseen wind.
Those who know my story, see the vestiges of the physical and sexual violence that has reverberated throughout my life. But what they don’t see is my constant longing to return to those dark cavernous thickets of my mind—the aching aloneness that for far too long has become my solace, my way to silence all the intolerant whispering that feeds my fear—an incessant self-directed loathing of “You’re not good enough” … “If only they knew”…
I am that wounded animal that has nursed itself back to form. I too am returning from the brambles and underbrush, and back to life. Still, something rages on inside me, as I am torn between seeking the uncertainty of community, or defaulting to my self-imposed isolation. But I know that’s just my illness talking… the remnants of my PTSD, waiting to be ensnared and unraveled, like the errant strands on the sleeve of your favorite threadbare shirt.
I am reminded by something the Quaker scholar, Parker Palmer wrote. He was recalling how during a prolonged bout with incapacitating depression, he felt as though his intellect, ego, and emotions were dead. Yet, throughout that darkness, the rumblings of his soul continued to survive, like the faint embers of a fire. And it is in our darkest moments, and amongst these flickering embers, that we catch a glimpse of that undying spirit inside of us. The trick to bringing this spirit back to life is in allowing it space and time to nurture itself back to wholeness. And like a timid animal waiting to reemerge, the more we rustle and thrash through the forest, the farther it recedes into solitude.
A few years ago, I disclosed to my wife that I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse—a secret I thought I would harbor in my soul until the day I died. What is someone to do when the person they so dearly love shares such searing pain with them? I can tell you what my wife, Mary-Anne didn’t do… She didn’t press me for more details, and more importantly, she didn’t try to fix me, or soothe me. What she did do is sit with me in that moment of pain, and in that moment of released shame. And then in the months that followed, together as a couple we learned the difference between being there for someone and being there with someone. So often we want to take away the pain of those we love; however, deep down the thing we all want is for someone else to be present with us in our discomfort.
I think Parker Palmer describes this ability to ‘be with another’ so eloquently: “People who know how to sit quietly… and wait for the shy soul to show up… not pushy, but patient; they are not confrontational but compassionate; they are filled not with expectations and demands but with abiding faith in the reality of the inner teacher and in each person’s capacity to learn from it.”
I invite you to observe that wounded animal in you—notice where it crawls away in isolation. Search for the lessons in those darkest moments, and most of all, if you are summoned into someone else’s wilderness, be present and gentle as you wait for that timid soul to reemerge.
Given the choice, I would choose struggle over the softer, easier way each and every time. Now before you accuse me of insanity, permit me the chance to invite you to reframe the way you approach adversity in your life.
As an elite endurance athlete, I’m accustomed to brushing up against physical and psychological thresholds—the uncomfortable feeling that comes knowing that the difference between success and disappointment lies on that razor-thin edge bridging the gap between self-exploration and complete annihilation.
Like many athletes competing in extreme endurance events, I arrived to the sport well honed in the skills necessary to successfully navigate the landscape of adversity. A childhood tempered with physical and sexual violence fostered in me an unbreakable will to survive, something that I continued to draw upon well into my thirties in order to weather serious issues with addiction and precarious mental health. Today, it makes no difference if I’m giving a talk to a group of students or delivering a keynote at a conference, I always return to the same refrain: “I would not wish my life experience on anyone else, yet at the same time, I would not wish for another life because it has delivered me to a place of immense self-knowledge and inner fortitude.”
I think it’s safe to say that as a society, we are rather risk-averse. We are eager to walk a smoother path, and are naturally drawn to life hacks, shortcuts, and workarounds. But are we doing ourselves, and more importantly our children, a disservice by sidestepping the lessons of adversity? Friedrich Nietzsche referred to what he called “the discipline of suffering”, something he credits with propelling most human advancements and enhancements. He talked about the lesson of strength that can be mined in the discomfort of adversity: “That tension of the soul in unhappiness which cultivates its strength, its shudders face to face with great ruin, its inventiveness and courage in enduring, preserving, interpreting, and exploiting suffering, and whatever has been granted to it of profundity, secret, mask, spirit, cunning, greatness—was it not granted to it through suffering, through the discipline of great suffering?”
I’m currently at work on a book about resilience, and part of the research for this project has involved interviewing a broad cross section of individuals from around the world who exhibit and possess sustained resilience in their lives. One of the questions I hope to answer in this book is whether or not it is possible for someone to nurture and ‘default to resilience’ even though (s)he has not experienced trauma, devastating loss, or extreme adversity in life. Not surprisingly, the responses from the people I’ve interviewed vary greatly on this point, but one theme appears to be reverberating throughout these interviews—an acceptance that there are indeed practical steps each of us can take to become more resilient.
If you, or someone you know, exhibits a high level of resilience, and you would like to be interviewed for my upcoming book, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have you ever wondered what separates those rare individuals who are able to step forward after trauma and adversity from those of us who are stunted, derailed, or in some way consumed by similar life circumstances or events? As a society, we tend to gravitate to the ‘bounce back’ narrative so often espoused in the media, and one that is particularly true of the stories most commonly shared on social media. There is something about heralding the underdog or championing someone’s arduous climb through adversity that resonates deeply within us.
Despite being a public figure, I’ve never been one to shy away from talking openly about my own struggles with addiction, depression, and childhood trauma; and as a result, I have noticed that whenever I give a talk, the question of resilience is inevitably raised. Most recently, I’ve come to believe that our obsession with the ‘bouncing-back-from-adversity’ narrative tells only half the story, and I would suggest that it might in fact be the least interesting part of what is actually taking place during this personal transformation.
I am currently working on a book about resilience, and part of this process involves interviewing 30 individuals--resilience exemplars—people from around the world who exhibit an incredible and sustained level of resilience. I set out to write the book with the conviction that resilience has little to do with weathering the storm, or what we like to refer to as ‘bouncing back’, and everything to do with using that storm as a demarcation point.
I am approximately halfway through the interview process, and at this point, a number of recurring themes have appeared—some of which, I thought I would share with you:
Resilience is elastic.
Instead of talking about people who wholeheartedly weather adversity as being bounceable, I would suggest that it is resilience itself that has an ethereal elasticity to it. And in that light, we can begin to move away from the common misconception that being resilient has much to do with adopting strategies and mindsets that insulate us from the pain and uncertainty of adversity. In fact, the interview data suggest that resilience rises from an ability to be present with, and thereby process the scope of the adversity. The key is to avoid being consumed by it.
Resilience exemplars neither ‘artificially’ compartmentalize their adversity, nor negate the residue or resonance that trauma has throughout a lifetime. There is most definitely a period of processing and making sense of trauma and adversity, but there comes a pivotal point at which the individual makes the decision to move beyond ‘stuckness’ and towards personal growth and understanding.
Resilience resonates in the spaces and pauses we create.
Another critical component of resilience appears to be the ability to create a ‘buffer’ or space that allows someone the time to evaluate, process, and prioritize a given situation. Resilience thrives in the grey zones of insecurity and ambiguity; thus, finish lines and task outcomes take a backseat to daily ritual and a need to prioritize self-care, as these become ballasts against the paralyzing waves of self-doubt and uncertainty. Moreover, it is the importance of stressing ongoing self-care that leads to a high degree of self-awareness, which thus permits resilient individuals the ability to zoom the lens out from their own engagement with trauma or adversity. In so doing, they gain both time and perspective, which in turn gives them the sense that they are not alone in this discomfort.
With resilience, comes an opening of ‘self’.
Resilience exemplars are more likely to be ‘soul-driven’ than ‘passion driven’. Instead of being consumed or incapacitated by the intensity of a given situation, they zealously nurture an evolving degree of self-awareness predicated on building empathic connections within their community. Both Elizabeth Gilbert (in her book “Big Magic”) and Angela Duckworth (in her book “Grit”) caution against the often-touted advice of following your passion because by its very nature, passion is all-consuming and fleeting at best. Therefore, it’s not surprising that people we think of as resilient are generally in it for the ‘long game’, and that might also be a factor in their ability to be seen as community leaders and agents of change.
Resilience has a lot to do with embracing past scars and the dissonance of lived experience as a road map forward, and ultimately, as a bridge to connect with others in your community. As the Pakistani writer Moshin Hamid once said: “Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself.” I couldn’t agree more, and I would also suggest that resonating in those echoes is the connection we all seek that in turn, permits the resilience to grow within us and beyond us.
If you, or someone you know, is a ‘resilience exemplar’, and you would like to be interviewed for my upcoming book, please contact me at email@example.com.
If you drop me, I bounce. In fact, as crazy as that sounds, for much of my life, it certainly felt like that was true. As is the case with far too many children around the world, I grew up in a violent home, and it was within this violence, that a nascent spirit of resilience began to germinate, something that became further honed amidst the trauma of sexual violence and addiction later in life.
Yet, here I am today—not on the other side of trauma, but rather, standing along side it, mining it for its whispers of hope, and staring within this aching cavern of blackness for the glimmers of strength that despite what many believe, continue to softly resonate in the shallows of this darkness.
As an elite athlete and public figure, I have the privilege of addressing many groups, and inevitably after a talk during the Q & A period, the issue of ‘resilience’ comes up. I have to admit to feeling somewhat like the main character in the Hans Christian Andersen tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”—I’m the last to see what sits in plain view of everyone else around. People want to know about the path I took that enabled me to wade through the trauma and come out the other side somewhat ‘whole’. Unfortunately, it is something I am not able to articulate primarily because I’ve yet to recognize this change within myself. And the more I began unpacking what resilience might mean, the more I began to suspect that the question that people are really trying ask has very little to do with ‘how I managed to survive something’, and everything to do with what happens after the ‘bounce’.
I’m currently working on my next book, an exploration of resilience as manifest through the lives of a diverse group of community leaders from around the world. During the interview process with each of these individuals, I’m attempting to tease out qualities, behaviors, and pathways that highly resilient individuals default to. And surprisingly, as I sit down for each of these interviews, the discussion quickly diverts from what typically comes to mind when we think of ‘resilience’—surviving, enduring, and withstanding—states which can be summed up as static, and the further we progress into the interview, each person begins to talk about a more fluid response to adversity.
The word ‘resilience’ comes from the Latin resiliens, meaning to rebound or recoil—an elastic response. And herein lies what interests us most when we look to those who have weathered adversity for inspiration in our lives. Let’s be honest, there is nothing unique about being present for trauma, hardship, or adversity… If we live long enough, it will befall us all many times over.
At this point, which is most definitely the preliminary stage of the writing of this book, I have noticed that these resilient individuals share a few notable, and I would suggest, enlightening qualities. I thought I would share these with you now, in the hope that you may be able to apply them to any adversity you might be facing.
Learning to be present for the lesson within the adversity
When facing a traumatic or adverse experience, our natural inclination is to recoil, to turn-away from, or to numb ourselves. There is no doubt that at times, this serves as a vital self-protection mechanism, but there comes a time when learning to ‘mine the adversity’ allows us to become in tune with the lesson or intention that lies below the surface of the pain and trauma. A good place to start is by asking yourself, ‘how would my life be better with less?’ In so doing, it clears the space we need for an acceptance free of critical self-judgment to arrive.
Being open to ideas that you currently don’t hold
By holding steadfast to a belief system that has always governed our thoughts and actions, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity for things to ‘look’ and ‘feel’ different in our life. One of the most unpleasant truths of personal growth is that it often arrives after a prolonged exposure to dissonance. People, who are considered more resilient than others, appear to be able to stand within this prolonged period of ‘dis-ease’. Eventually, they arrive at a crux moment at which point, they insert one change or one correction into their lives, and it is this modification, which allows them to move beyond that feeling of ‘stuckness’.
Awakening to a greater sense of empathy
We often hear people who have weathered adversity in their lives describe the experience as a ‘gift they never asked for’. Having said that, I’m conscious of the fact that by choosing to describe a traumatic experience as a ‘gift’, I in some way demean the importance of what someone has gone through. Moreover, a ‘gift’ is typically used to describe something external that arrives in our life; whereas, adversity does not so much bring something to us, as it reveals something we’ve always had within us. In listening to the people I’ve interviewed for my book, the greatest ‘take-away’ for all of them has been a heightened degree of empathy—something that they describe as an awakening that allows them to be more present for others living in discomfort.
I’d like you to try something—Close your eyes and imagine you’re all alone, standing in front of a mirror looking at your naked body. What’s going through your mind? What are the stories you tell yourself when no one else is there to listen? Chances are you’ve been carrying around negative echoes from your childhood and adolescence. And even though the teasing, taunts, and bullying has long receded, over the years this reverberant soundtrack has become deeply ingrained as it accompanies you throughout your life.
As an elite athlete, I’m hyper attuned to my body and what it’s trying to tell me. One of the privileges of being a high-profile athlete is that I have the opportunity to speak to many organizations, school groups, and fitness classes. I’m often asked what motivates me to sacrifice so much in order to train at the level I do. Inevitably, I mention that running has always been my faithful companion. There were indeed times in which I felt I was running away from personal trauma and later, my subsequent battles with addiction, but more recently, it feels as though I am running towards what scares me most, a type of ‘knowing surrender’, predicated on the belief that no matter what kind of day I’m having, I always find a better ‘me’ waiting on the other end of a workout.
There is something transcendent about running, in that by placing one foot in front of the other and by making contact with the ground below our feet, we engage in a subtle dance of connecting and disengaging. And for me, it is within the rhythmic cadence of these footfalls that I begin to silence the negativity and self-doubt that has lingered and accompanied me for as long as I can remember.
We are a society obsessed with ‘beauty’, and as someone actively engaged in sport, I am all too aware that increasingly, more and more people are drawn to running as a means to lose weight, become fitter, and in essence—look more ‘beautiful’. The thing about beauty is that it is transient, so sooner or later it hollows and dulls. As a community leader and as someone who has found inspiration in running, I am passionate about encouraging others to awaken their joy through sport. I’m also keenly aware that despite how enthusiastic people are to the idea of embracing a new fitness regimen, their enthusiasm often wanes, and all they are left with is further disappointment and negative self-talk. In light of this, I thought I’d share with you three strategies to ensure your passion for wellness becomes a life-long companion.
“What are you doing when you feel most beautiful?”—Jacqueline Novogratz
I’m entranced by the haunting nature of this question, and by how it speaks to what I believe to be a new lens from which to look upon how we approach sport and fitness in general. Instead of taking up running, crossfit, or even yoga, as a means to look fit and beautiful, consider how this activity makes you ‘feel’ rather than how it makes you ‘look’. Does it bring you joy, or do you leave your workout feeling depleted and inadequate?
“The people you surround yourself with influence your behaviors, so choose friends who have healthy habits.”—Dan Buettner
Whatever you do, don’t dismiss the importance of ‘community’ as an essential factor in fostering a sustained wellness program. I know from my own experience, that running can feel rather isolating at times, so being engaged with other athletes through social media allows me to feel connected to something greater than myself. And more importantly, it is through this broader connection that we begin to nurture empathy, and that in turn allows us the distance we need to ‘right size’ our own successes and disappointments.
“Perfection is not pretty, it is not exciting, and it limits us in every area of our life. It is only in our mistakes that we truly gain glimpses of our potential.”—Petra Kolber
Who doesn’t want to be ‘perfect’! The best mom, the best employee, and the best athlete… The problem with being obsessed with perfection is that it sets us up for a lifetime of feeling deflated and disengaged. When we think about the most inspiring people we know, chances are we were drawn to them not by their status or because of their perfectly polished image, but rather, it is their story of overcoming that engages us. We are drawn into their ability to wade through adversity—it inspires us, and it empowers us. So, the next time you’re fighting negative self-talk, consider whether you have allowed that toxin known as ‘perfection’ to creep back into your story.
“Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.”—Pema Chödrön
Somewhere along the way you are going to face the decision whether to continue your commitment to your wellness program, or to allow complacency and inactivity to take root. It’s at this point that I invite you to allow your curiosity to speak much louder than your fear and your boredom. It makes no difference whether you are an elite athlete or a relative newcomer to your sport or fitness program; in both cases, you are facing the same struggle—making a decision to navigate the discomfort of a new threshold, knowing that personal growth always lies just beyond your comfort zone.
A little over a year ago, my wife and I did the unthinkable—we sold our little dream home in a leafy residential neighbourhood just north of the Beaches, and bought a big old Victorian house with our son and daughter-in-law right in Toronto's downtown core.
As you can imagine, the transition took a little getting used to. Upon moving into the neighbourhood we were excited at the prospect of living ‘car free’ and being nestled amongst quaint little urban parks, soaring buildings, boutique shops, not to mention restaurants offering every imaginable cuisine. What we hadn’t taken into account was the presence of the residents who were here long before gentrification and the condos arrived.
At first, I tried to ignore the sex workers standing outside our front door, the homeless men and women mingling on the sidewalks near the shelter down the street, and those struggling with drug addiction, who to be honest, at times look both menacing and lost. Part of me wanted to pretend these people didn’t exist—to walk around them, see past them, as if turning my head away would somehow magically make them go away. I’m not proud to say that, but it’s true. Part of me wants to live in a neat and tidy, predictably calm neighbourhood, but guess what? Life is not ‘neat and tidy’.
What I haven’t told you yet is that I am a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, myself. And those sex workers I was talking about, well many of them, like me, have a history of sexual violence in their childhood and adolescence. So not long after moving into our new neighbourhood, I came to the realization that if I can’t find empathy for these individuals I pass on the street every day—the marginalized, precariously-housed, addicted, and traumatized—how can I feel good about myself when I put my head down in the comfort of our home every night?
That was the point at which I truly planted myself in my new neighbourhood and began to see everyone who shares it with me. My wife and I started making eye contact with the sex workers outside our house, and gradually they began to trust us and to open up to us. And I can tell you that many of their stories are heartbreaking, but I can also say that there is a quiet dignity and at times a routine mundaneness in how they interact with their clients and other sex workers.
A few months back, I was invited to the premiere of Lowdown Tracks, a powerful documentary by Emmy award winner Shelley Saywell that profiles a few of Toronto’s precariously-housed individuals and the role that their music plays in their daily joys and struggles. I left that screening feeling jarred and uncomfortable—not so much overwhelmed by the scale of the homeless population within our prosperous city, but more so about all the lives and unlived dreams that comprise those ‘faceless’ statistics. What struck me most was listening to one of the artists profiled in the film describe what a typical day looks like for him. Having to leave the shelter before 8 AM after another restless night, and then having to face hours and hours of alone time wandering the downtown with no place to go and nothing to do.
Just last weekend my wife and I were walking past a large men’s shelter around the corner from our house. The shelter is located on a busy downtown street and is situated directly across from a large park and community center. There are always crowds of men mingling outside the shelter, and there is typically a lot of garbage and abandoned food containers scattered across the sidewalk and all over the grass outside the community center. I turned to my wife and I said, “This is disgusting… why doesn’t the shelter staff clean up all this mess?” That’s when my wife pointed out, “There are no garbage cans available outside the shelter, so what are these men supposed to do? If you don’t give people a sense of dignity and ownership of their space, how do you expect them to treat it?”
I hate to admit it, but my ‘default reaction’ is always to judge others, distance myself, and to avoid the hard conversations. You know what the ironic thing is? I thought living in the frenetic hustle of downtown would make me less patient and desensitized—the truth is since moving down here, I’ve become more empathetic and aware of the marginalized population and my role in that marginalization.
I’m reminded of an interview I was watching with the author and activist Dr. Marta Vega. In the interview, Marta recalls an incident that occurred when she was a teenager. She had walked past an old family friend on the street without acknowledging him. The young man had struggled with addiction and was now living on the streets of New York City, and Marta felt too embarrassed to make eye contact with this young man. Marta's mother took her daughter aside and sternly said: "That could be you, that could be your brother, that could be your sister, that could be me... Don't you ever not recognize yourself in somebody else."
I was recently asked by a friend to share a few of my thoughts on ‘courage’ and how it operates as a presence in my life. Truth be told, for me ‘courage’ is an intangible essence that defies definition. I believe it is ever-present and available to us all, yet is only breathed to life when we choose a path forward, one which is not absent of fear, but is in some way governed by faith – A belief that even the most unbearable can be endured when we accept that within every experience, and encapsulated in every moment, is a lesson that reveals something greater lies beyond the scope of each of us.
In no way am I suggesting this broader essence is of the religious or spiritual realm, but simply a faith that there is a current of interconnectedness that runs in and through us all – or in the words of John Muir, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe." And what is ‘courage’ other than the faith to move forward in the midst of fear? As we dig deeper and deeper into the genesis of all our fears, we discover that invariably our fear is driven by our belief that we are alone, disenfranchised, or set adrift in an achingly reverberant hollowness.
As a motivational speaker, I attempt to connect with my audience by returning to places of adversity in my past as touchstones, or catalysts for personal growth. I have come to see the ‘scars’ of my life – borne of trauma and great discomfort – not as blemishes to be hidden away, but rather as evidence of a personal roadmap of how far I’ve traveled in my life. What others often define as ‘courage’ in me, I see as nothing more than a belief that my ‘scars’ do not define me… but rather, they reveal me.
So again, I return to the essence of what it means to be courageous – a deeply rooted faith in our human interconnectedness. I find such comfort in the words of Viktor Frankl: “A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the ‘why’ for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how’.”
Where many of us get lost is in the act of comparing our suffering to that of others, and in the process, we diminish the impact, or resonance it has in our life. And in negating the presence of this suffering, we thereby deny any opportunity to embrace this discomfort as a lesson or opportunity for personal growth.
Our muscles respond to stress by becoming at first strained and later stronger, so too do we build up our tolerance for withstanding adversity by allowing it space in our life. Courage rises to the fore when we adopt a new mindset, a new lens from which we approach our life. I was listening to an interview with John O’Leary, someone who despite a devastating fire that burned 100% of his body, has become a tremendous source of inspiration and hope to many. Given the obstacles that John has had to face in life, he has chosen to embrace a ‘victor’ rather than ‘victim’ mindset. He points out that ‘victims’ tend to ask the same questions: Why me? Why now? Why bother? What can one person possibly do to change this situation?
Yet, O’Leary reminds us if we take those same questions and approach them from a positive mindset – one in which we see adversity as a lesson or an opportunity for growth, we begin to align ourselves with belief in our role in a greater connectedness with our community. “Why me?” becomes what makes me special to carry a message of hope and resiliency? “Why now?” reminds us of the importance of living in the moment. “Why bother… What can one person possibly do to change this situation?” provides, in my opinion the greatest possibility for us all to unearth the courage that lies within. It is a conscious choice to walk towards the bridge that connects us to everyone in our community, and in so doing we step away from the fear of isolation and into a wellspring of hope.
I take a lot of pride in the fact that at one time, I was what you would call a ‘technology maven’ – an early adopter, a pioneer of the virtual world. I was the guy friends would call to program their VCR, teach them how to burn a CD, or explain how to download an iTunes podcast. Yet somewhere along the way, I was left behind, and now cutting edge technology that used to amaze me, simply confounds me.
I hate to admit this, but I’m getting old, and not in a dignified fine ‘aged wine’ kind of way, but more along the lines of your favorite blue jeans that are becoming a little too threadbare and risqué to wear out in public. Speaking of jeans, I long for the good ol’ days when you could walk into a department store and buy a pair of Levis without having to consult a flowchart describing what best suits your ‘fit profile’. Gone are the days where your only decision was “blue jeans” or “black jeans”?
It’s very much like the analogy of placing a frog into a pot of water. Throw it into boiling water, and the frog will jump right back out, but if you put it into warm water and slowly bring the water to a boil, the frog is blissfully ignorant of the imminent danger. And that’s just how the aging process has been for me – it’s as if my night vision literally disintegrated overnight. How about driving at night when it’s raining… Forget about it! Those lines on the road mysteriously vanish.
And then there’s the inevitable stare down in the mirror every morning while I shave. Some days are better than others in that I manage to convince myself that my hairline is not receding, but there is no denying the huge mutant hairs growing out of my ears. I swear those furry ears happen while I’m snoring away – and trying to pull those mutant X-Men hairs out with your fingers… forget about it! Those hairs feel as though they are directly connected to your spinal cord.
I don’t consider myself ‘old’, but then again, I’m not sure if one ever does. Yes, I have more aches and pains than I used to have, and my scars and bruises may fade, but they never really completely go away anymore. I’m still a kid at heart… Who am I trying to convince? Alright, I’m still mischievously immature at heart! At times it feels as though I’m living two parallel lives – and believe me, it's a balancing act that is becoming increasingly more tenuous with each passing year. Take yesterday for instance… In honor of my 50th birthday, I decided to get a tattoo of the ‘Coyote’ on my calf. Now wait, before you judge me, I should add that I already have a tattoo of the ‘Road Runner’ on my other calf that I had done when I turned 40.
I walked into the downtown tattoo parlor feeling ‘hip’ and ‘cool’, and I made sure I peppered lots of ‘dude’ and ‘bro’ into my conversation with the 20-something tattoo artist who was inking me while heavy metal tunes thrashed in the background. I left that tattoo parlor with a youthful bounce in my step… Ok, my calf was killing me… Let’s just call it a ‘youthful hobble’. Walking down the street, I remembered I had to pop into the drugstore to pick up a few things on the way home – one of them being some cover-up cream for the age spots which are beginning to appear with growing frequency all over my face.
Later that evening I reached for this magical cover-up cream packed with retinol and vitamin C, promising to bring a youthful glow as it not only revitalized my skin but also revitalized my life! Another thing I’ve noticed is that the print on packaging appears to be getting increasing smaller and smaller with each year. I reached for my reading glasses so that I could read the instructions for my new-fangled-age-reducing cream, and that is when it hit me – suddenly, I’d become my father.
There is something about turning 50 that is freaking me out. Just do the math, and you’ll be alarmed too. Let’s just say you live to be 80, and that no longer seems all that old to me. 80 years x 365 days = 29,200 days, so that leaves me only 10,950 days, and when you subtract the time you spend sleeping and working, the time crunch really starts to hit home.
I’m trying not to think about it too much because it just leaves me feeling overwhelmed. I should really be doing something more productive with my waning time, but my achy back is killing me right now. I think I’ll just “Netflix and chill”… wait, scrap that.