The Staircase

Dream SpeechOn this 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., I’m reminded of one of his many famous quotes, particularly this: “Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” While I’d heard this sentence before, I first became aware, I mean fully aware, of its meaning when someone very close to me shared it with me in one of my darkest moments nine years ago. I couldn’t see beyond the difficult nature of my present moment and didn’t see how my life could or would ever improve. My finances were in disarray, my job was coming to an end, I was selling my house at a steep loss, and I was going through a divorce, all at the same time. I didn’t know how I’d pay my bills, feed my children or even put gas in my car. I felt like I was in a deep tunnel with no source of light, with no idea where it ended or where it began.

I was so focused on the negative circumstances surrounding me. I was overwhelmed and anxious. Consumed with worry and the mental gymnastics that accompany that state, I wasn’t able to engage myself in any meaningful action to improve my life. I was frozen by my own fear, stuck and unable to decide what to do. It was when I honestly shared all this with someone that loves me that these words of Dr. King were spoken to me, words that still ring true in my life to this day. In my experience, no aspect of life can be taken for granted. Jobs will be taken away. Homes will be lost. People we love will leave us, either voluntarily or involuntarily. It is our response to these events that makes the difference in how we function on a day to day basis, and our response is shaped by our perspective. If we choose to see nothing but the staircase, the whole big picture of our lives, we may find ourselves collapsing under the weight of it. If we instead focus on putting one foot in front of the other, and just take that meaningful first step toward our future, with faith in our own ability, we may find it easier to move forward.

As a child, I was subjected to the disparaging voices of many adults. These became the soundtrack playing in my head, ultimately turning into the negative self-talk that dogged me for much of my adult life. I’ve had to learn to re-frame the conversations I have with myself. Reciting quotes like the one above as my own mantra (the statements we repeat to ourselves), has helped me to do just that. Now, I’m not going to tell anyone this is easy to do. I understand it takes hard work and dedication to harness our own thoughts about ourselves and our lives. But it is worth it. Just take that first step.

 

Searching for the Opiate: How My Parents Became Jehovah’s Witnesses

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Karl Marx once said that religion is “the opium of the people,” and I fully understand. It is a most difficult process to get to the root of the problem, to the core of who we are and even why we are, and to contend with potentially poisonous and distorted emotions. Some individuals choose the easy way out when dealing with bodily aches and pains, taking pain pills instead of utilizing diet, exercise and other healthy regimens to treat, or prevent, the underlying cause of their pain. There are more than a few paths we can follow to mask our pain. A religion, for example, may give us a sense of well being, a belief that someone more powerful is in control, has a plan for us, and will ultimately fix whatever inside of us we perceive to be broken. These beliefs may help us deal with the symptoms of our suffering, but don’t typically enable us to look critically at what’s going on inside each of us, at what’s ultimately driving our thoughts, actions and behaviors.

Many religions or spiritual philosophies preach life after death in heaven as the ultimate goal and reward for living through the common or uncommon trials and tribulations of life. Other spiritual paths may teach a belief in reincarnation, where one is blessed or cursed, depending on how one sees it, to live again and again on the way to one’s highest self. In my early life, I held to a belief that there is a God, who in his due time, will select a few to be saved when he violently destroys the vast majority of people in a fiery “Armageddon.” Those who’ve been judged worthy by this “most loving” God will survive this traumatic period to live on a paradise earth, restored to the splendor of the original Garden of Eden, where after one thousand years Satan the Devil himself will be released as a final test to mankind. Then, and only then, those who pass this test will be allowed to live forever on this paradise earth, where sickness and death have perished, and meat-eating carnivores will crave flesh no more.

According to the information published on the official website of Jehovah’s Witnesses, there are over eight million active followers throughout the globe. Current estimates put the population of the entire world at about 7.6 Continue reading “Searching for the Opiate: How My Parents Became Jehovah’s Witnesses”

The Response

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My grandmother repeatedly told me “life’s not fair,” and I never felt the need to argue this point with her. She was right; life isn’t fair. It doesn’t owe us a fucking thing—we get out of it what we put into it. Faced with adversity, we can quit midway through, dejected, hurt and spent, or we can pick ourselves up off the floor and finish the game. We may fall down again. We might even find ourselves all the way back to start, with nothing but our own skin protecting us from the cold, harsh realities we don’t want to face. Sometimes there’s a hand held out toward us in a gesture of help, while at other times, that same hand is rudely slapping us across the face. No matter how many times we stumble, and no matter how many times we fail, all that matters is how we respond.

Thanks to the work of psychologists John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth and others, we’re now aware that the quality of the early bond between a parent and a child is a highly significant predictor of that child’s later success in life. The relationships a child will seek and engage in, the career paths he’ll follow, and all the other major choices he’ll make, are heavily influenced by the nature of the initial attachment he experiences with his caregivers. If a child doesn’t receive all the love, comfort and protection he requires and craves in those critical months and years, he may find himself adrift, desperately searching for anything to replace what he didn’t know was missing. Those struggling to form healthy, secure relationships, may not fully comprehend what lies at the core of the difficulties and challenges they face. To understand this may require the kind of introspection they may be incapable of doing alone.

I’ve consulted with several different therapists, and while some were more successful than others at giving me the ability to reframe the conversations inside my head, none specifically told me I may have suffered from “insecure, anxious attachment” to my primary caregivers—I’ve figured that out on my own. My formal diagnosis was PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), as a result of the childhood abuse and neglect I suffered at the hands of various parental figures.

It’s difficult to reflect upon these early relationships, given how far in the subconscious these experiences may be buried, whether due to memories too painful to bear or the simple passage of time. I knew something wasn’t right with my parental figures but wasn’t initially sure who played what part in what became a long journey of self-discovery. I initially blamed my father for nearly everything. I blamed him for the poverty we experienced as children; for my sister’s experiences with rage at such an early age; for not protecting me from my stepmother and her random, unpredictable emotions; and for joining a religion that would forever plant a wedge in our relationship. He was a violent son-of-a-bitch. He beat all of his children mercilessly on multiple occasions, his hideous belt swinging at all of us whenever he could no longer control his temper. He struck my mother often when I was just a toddler, which helped me to see her as a wounded individual, more deserving of pity than love, so much so that I’d find it difficult to separate the two concepts in my own relationships. Given what I’d experienced, it was easy to see her as a victim. Perhaps because of this, my memories of the things she did for me, not the things she didn’t, formed the narrative I’d hold on to well into my early forties.

The world has been a confusing and at times overwhelming place for me to live. The uncertainties of life have often given me great anxiety, to the point where those fears have escalated into full-blown panic attacks, requiring medication or even hospitalization. Everyone deals with the unpredictable nature of existence in various ways. Some are secure enough not to be thrown off course by the termination of a relationship or a job, confident they will find another, perhaps even more suitable combination. I once envied such people, wondering what made them so different from me. I carried around the idea for a long time that something was missing, or broken, inside of me.

Human relationships have been a source of disabling pain and conflict for me. My need for security, my yearning for approval, my desire to belong, and my longing to feel loved and accepted have all influenced how and why I formed certain attachments. My intense craving for companionship and fear of being alone has lead me to form precarious and risky bonds, the nature of which I didn’t give much thought to when I initiated them. I’ve often latched onto individuals I thought I could “fix” or “help” to reach their full potential, determined to be a “superhero” that could mold them into people they weren’t capable of being or simply didn’t want to be. I’d let the pursuit of my personal happiness take a back seat to the unattainable goal of helping others find their own happiness.

I know what it’s like to feel stuck, trapped, and unable to decide what to do, when to do it or how to do it. Easily manipulated and frequently caught up in endless loops of indecisiveness, impulsive behavior and poor decision-making, I’ve assumed passive roles with partners I wasn’t suited for, and have found myself taking on their issues as my own. I’ve stayed far too long in jobs that demanded less of my intellect and ability. I even accepted a highly controlling religion instructing me how to think and how to behave.

I’ve seen people make choices, but I’ve also seen their choices make them. I’ve met individuals who appear to know how to live with intention, masterfully and fearlessly in control of creating their own story. I’ve observed others stumbling around in the dark looking for signs, but when they’re presented with those signs, don’t know how to read them. I’ve also known many who claim to be victims of circumstances, taking themselves off the hook for all outcomes, seeing the events in their lives as things happening to them, and not because of them. I was once one of these people.

For much of my life, I considered myself to be out of control and could not or would not see I had the power to change course. I’ve known indecision on many levels and the anxiety that accompanies it. My decisions in many critical moments have set me on a trajectory toward even more critical decisions I wasn’t well equipped to make, leading me to plunge deeper and deeper into holes I’d spend a long time digging out of. There were alarms going off, but either I chose to ignore them, didn’t fully recognize them for what they were, or was simply afraid to hear them. Had I heeded those alarms, I would’ve been forced to take a leap into the unknown, and that’s often frightened me more than the prospect of staying in a toxic situation.

Preoccupied with doing, I’ve given little thought to the long-term consequences or outcomes derived from my actions. In my constant hurry to go somewhere, I’ve approached life as a giant “task-list” to check off as quickly as possible, filling my hours and days with every activity imaginable. This has provided me with the instant gratification I’ve sought, and just as importantly, the sensation of forward motion. Moving quickly toward some destination, I haven’t always known where I was going—I was just going, I was certain of that. As a consequence, I’ve repeatedly ended up where I was without knowing how or why I got there.

Whatever the forces of gravity imposed upon us by our choices, our inner peace is determined, in part, by our acceptance of the outcomes of those choices. While I’m aware of this now, I haven’t always been able to rise above my circumstances or learn from my experiences. As many times as I’ve taken the best from a situation, I’ve also discovered the worst, and I do understand it’s not always possible to simply “imagine” things turning around. I’ve experienced moments of indifference, or worse, found enjoyment in sliding down the spiral, sinking further and further into an abyss of polluted emotions. I’ve embraced the darkness and its sleepless nights, letting my suffering and the contemplation over my own wounds define me.

I vividly recall turning twenty-one, my entire life spread out ahead of me like an interstate highway in the middle of the deserts of New Mexico, about a quarter of the way along my journey. I’m the star of my own show, yet the audience isn’t yet ready to applaud. They’re waiting for the next act, and everyone except me, is prepared. This isn’t a dream—I must go on, but I have no idea what to say or do. There are no cue cards, and there’s no director. It’s beyond frightening! How do the other actors know what to do, what to say, when to say it and how to say it? At other times, I stand like an artist contemplating his work, perched in front of an enormous canvas, painting with a brush that’s languished in colored water made muddy from a palette of a hundred choices. Now, my youth is behind me in my rear-view mirror, with many years come and gone, stolen from me so quickly the thief is in and out without being seen.

No matter the life we’ve led, every challenge we’ve ever had, and every individual we’ve ever encountered can teach us valuable lessons. We can choose to take something positive from our voyage, and allow our past to be a precious gift, not an excuse. Seen this way, every experience has purpose and meaning.

The Wise Mind

the wise mindI was recently introduced to Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). This therpeutic model, in part, utilizes the idea that the mind has three distinct states, a “reasonable mind,” an “emotional mind,” and a “wise mind,” as a mean’s of describing the driving forces behind a person’s thoughts and behaviors. How often we’ve heard someone say they made a decision with their head, and not their heart, or vice-versa. The head is the intellectual, or reasonable mind, while the heart is the emotional mind. Imagine if we made decisions from a place that balances between the two: the wise mind?

I’m familiar with spending the early part of my life making decisions from a purely emotional mind. I didn’t know any better. A great deal of my youth was spent reacting to my constantly shifting, and often dangerous environment. I endured many different adult caregivers, most of whom had far too much emotional baggage to properly consider my thoughts or feelings. When life comes at you faster than you can process what’s happening, you learn to respond emotionally, as there is little to no time available to plan a proper response. Unfortunately, as one grows older, constantly making decisions based on emotion leads one to indulge in impulsive actions with little regard for consequences.

As a young adult, I entered into a relationship no one thinking reasonably would have. I married my first wife because I took pity on her, and felt that our shared, flawed past was a good foundation for our partnership. I felt sorry for her for what she went through, and felt that based on my own traumatic childhood, I’d be able to help her heal from her wounded inner child. I was so wrong. She had issues that were beyond my capacity to deal with, and our relationship crashed tragically in just a few short years, costing me dearly both financially and emotionally.

In my teens, I sought earnestly for a way out of a difficult and stressful situation with my mother. My father had been a Jehovah’s Witness nearly all of my life, and I jumped at the opportunity to join him in his faith as a way of escaping a confusing and conflicted environment. It seemed the Jehovah’s Witnesses held all of the answers to the questions I’d been asking and had a purpose for my life already mapped out. It was a purely emotional decision, as I never thought about what would happen if I should ever decide to no longer believe in what the Jehovah’s Witnesses teach, nor did I even fully research their beliefs prior to joining. That highly charged, snap decision I made as a youth has resulted in me enduring many decades with no relationship with my father or sisters who remain active Jehovah’s Witnesses, not to mention the pain I endured when I lost many close friends as a result of my leaving the group.

I’ve learned more recently the value of slowing down, of focusing on the present. I no longer allow my past to act as an anchor, and I stopped worrying about the future. I understand that I cannot always control my environment, yet I can control how I respond to it. When making decisions I am now able recognize the importance of balancing an emotional response, which may be rooted in past experience, with a reasonable one, which may have a foundation in research or knowledge of facts. I am by no means an expert on this topic but have recognized the value of practicing this approach whenever I am called on to make decisions that will impact me far beyond the present moment.

Image courtesy of https://www.therapistaid.com/therapy-worksheet/wise-mind

Attachment to Identity

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In a previous entry I discussed attachment to experience. Another attachment we may be holding onto that may make it difficult to move from one phase of our lives to another is an attachment to identity. Most recently, I’ve wrestled with the transition of my children from complete dependence on me to formation of their own independent personalities and social connections. It hasn’t been easy and I have in some ways “grieved” the loss of the little selves I was once totally responsible for. I so strongly identified with making their every meal, reading to them at night, and simply being the center of their world, that I’ve found it difficult to let go of the feeling of purpose that this all provided to me. The part that requires work is letting go of this attachment, realizing how necessary it is for me to do that, to allow my children to continue to grow and become adult versions of themselves. Should I not be able to let go of attachment of this identity, it will result in suffering for both me, in ruminating over something I can no longer have and for my children, who would feel me as a weight around their ankle on their journey toward adulthood.

Another significant attachment to identity I once held on to was being one of Jehovah’s Witness. Those who have never been one of Jehovah’s Witnesses cannot relate to the fact that active membership in this religion requires not just full immersion at the time of one’s water baptism, but also full immersion in every aspect of one’s life. You are taught that you shall have no friends who aren’t also Jehovah’s Witnesses, that anyone outside the group is “bad association” who must be avoided at all costs, unless one is trying to indoctrinate them. It would follow then that one should only pick a mate who is one of Jehovah’s Witnesses also. Many Witnesses also find that their employers are also Witnesses. So often a Witness’s entire social structure is built upon connections with only other Witnesses. Second to that is the fact that the daily and weekly activities completely revolve around ones carefully selected by the leaders of the group. From the daily Watchtower guided scripture reading, to the weekly meetings and the requirement that a certain amount of time be allocated to studying Watchtower publications and going “door-to-door,” trying to convince others to believe as they do, there is no time left for any pursuit connected with one’s own independent mind or interests. As a Witness, your identity is entirely connected to being one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Should one begin to doubt the teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses then, one would have to be prepared to completely separate and let go of the identity they have known, which was all consuming. I’ve known some, like myself, who find themselves suddenly outside the tightly controlled group with no friends and no family, their entire social structure suddenly evaporated. The loneliness can be unbearable. The act of filling that void may take the shape of attachments to alcohol, drugs or undesirable and harmful relationships with other people. It took me many years to become aware and conscious of the reasons behind the attachments I formed and how to finally let go of them to achieve inner peace and happiness.

My greater understanding of the lessons my life has been seeking to teach me with regard to attachments came when I learned of “The Four Noble Truths” that Buddha taught 2,500 years ago. Now you do not have to convert to Buddhism to understand these Truths nor do you have to agree with everything Buddha taught; unlike tightly controlled groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Buddhist teachings do not require that everyone accept all or none of it. Even Buddha himself said, “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” I like the idea that one does not have to completely immerse themselves in a belief system but can take a teaching that resonates with them, as the Four Noble Truths have with me. I won’t go into The Four Noble Truths in detail here, but the Second Noble Truth deals specifically with the origin of the cause of human suffering, which Buddha taught is the “Attachment to Desire,” which can be a desire for things we want or a desire to avoid things we don’t want. The idea that we can let go of these attachments is key to our achieving happiness.

Whenever I contemplate the difficulty of letting something go, whether it be an attachment to an identity I no longer have or an attachment to an experience, such as having my once youthful body, I think about what those attachments represent, such as a desire to have my children or my body obey my every command (both a form of desire for power), and then I focus on letting them go. This is not easy work, and work that I’ve found comes only with daily practice and meditation. If you’ve struggled with feeling any suffering over the nature of your attachments, I strongly suggest that you read “The Four Noble Truths” and then reflect upon how these Truths may be relevant in your own life.

Image courtesy of http://www.tribalsimplicity.com

Attachment to Experience

nature-forest-waves-trees.jpgHow often have you found yourself making statements such as “I am sick,” or “I am angry,” or even “I am happy.” These “I am” statements serve to identify ourselves as being one and the same with the experience we are having. On a larger scale, we may use such statements in more negative ways, such as “I am poor” or “I am not good at relationships.” We are then confessing that whatever we are going through in that moment has become more than something we are experiencing, it has become something that has come to define us as individuals. And if we adopt a particular framework of who we are, it often further influences our future thoughts and subsequently the actions we take as a result of those thoughts. We may then be caught up in a vicious loop of negative self-images and self-talk that may only further influence the direction our life takes.

I believe the best way to get out of this potentially hurtful loop is to see ourselves as existing separately from our experience. Our experience should not define who we are unless we allow it to. For example, consider the above statement,”I am sick.” What if we instead thought “I am healthy but my body is experiencing an illness.” The identification of seeing oneself as sick may continue to manifest itself as a continually sick body, one which takes longer to heal. By seeing the self as healthy, yet moving through the experience of being sick, we may actually allow for a quicker healing process.

Likewise let’s reflect on the aging process. Many fear growing old and dying. Why? Because they are attached to the experience of being young, their former body shape, hair color or the once taut skin they enjoyed. This attachment to the experience of youthfulness causes many to spend thousands upon thousands of dollars on expensive hair, skin and body treatments designed to help make them look younger than they actually are. However, none of this stops or even slows down the aging process. What if instead we could accept the impermanence of life, and accept that our bodies were meant to slowly break down and eventually give up, knowing this is an inexorable process that no one on this earth who has ever lived has been able to avoid? Would it not be less stressful to “go with the flow” as it were, and accept our physical changes?

I believe by accepting whatever state we are in, whether it be financial issues, aging, sickness or other major life events, that we can be happier and mentally healthier. At any given moment we are simply moving through an experience or collection of experiences, often not knowing how long it will last. But because we often don’t know how long an experience will last we may be inclined to give in to it, and lose our will to stay unattached from it. However, we must understand thought that absolutely every experience is temporary, as our bodies do not go on forever.

My beliefs are my own and I realize you may have your own thoughts about the connection between yourself and your experiences. Thank you for reading.

Grow Like Your Life Depends Upon It

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I often hear people making comments such as “I wish I was 21 again,” or “what I wouldn’t give to be young again.” Without a doubt, there have been times where I would have reminisced about a past event, or worse, considered what I might have done differently were I able to turn back the clock. It’s beyond tempting to imagine traveling a road not taken, or to consider the jobs we passed up or the partners we didn’t contemplate past the first encounter. “What if?” is a question asked by many millions at one time or another. Surely we can ponder this question also, but at what risk?

What we often fail to realize is that life is like traveling one-way on a highway on which there is no doing over, no turning back, a road on which we will never pass the same spot twice. We must make every inch of the journey count, knowing we are constantly moving forward. What we are moving toward is a matter of perspective, yet it’s also a matter of uncertainty. We may plan for the road ahead, as we would on a real road trip where we pack the map, (or the smart phone with built in navigation), some jumper cables and plenty of food and water. However, as prepared as we may be, we don’t know for certain what lies ahead. Unexpected individuals and circumstances cross our path. Each new event requires a choice and a decision from us. How we act in those moments sets us up for the next set of unforeseen encounters. Before long, we are way down the road and we may not fully understand how we got to where we are. But we keep going because we are compelled to.

I believe there is an innate desire in all of us to want to improve upon our present circumstances, to push forward, to become better versions of ourselves. Sometimes we don’t live up to our own expectations and we may become despondent or even downright depressed as a result. But if we can remove expectations from the equation and just understand that life is a sequence of continued learning as a matter or process, we may just take a little pressure off ourselves. It’s not always easy to grow. We have so many distractions and people and things that are vying for our attention. Our families, our jobs, our innermost desires, are all scrambling to be heard by us. We must be strong enough to push through the clutter, free of expectations, determined to be who we believe we can be. Life is not always easy, but life always finds a way to survive. Like a weed pushing through the pavement we must find our way, and grow like our life depends upon it, because it surely does.