Hare Today, Gone Tomorrow

avian-1853120_1920While visiting with a relative last month, we spotted a tiny baby rabbit eating grass in the wide open meadow behind the relative’s home. Naturally, we were enthralled with the peaceful sight of this young creature blissfully eating its time away on a lazy Sunday afternoon, and couldn’t fathom anything that would interrupt its routine. Every few minutes or so, we’d glance out the window and continue to observe this little bunny going about the business of sustaining itself, all the while mentioning how cute it was, and how lucky our relative was to have such great views of wildlife from her window.

After a while, our conversation deepened and we stopped looking out the window. At some point, I got up to use the restroom, and on my way back, went to look out the window again. This time what grabbed my attention was the giant red tailed hawk standing proudly in the meadow. It would take my brain about ten seconds to make the connection and register what had happened. In a stunning example of the circle of life, the hawk was now enjoying a meal in the meadow–the rabbit was no more.

After the reality of it set in, I asked many questions to myself. In the moment the hawk came down from its likely perch in the treetops at the edge of the meadow, did the rabbit have any idea of its eminent doom? When in fact the hawk’s talons sunk deeply into the supple flesh of the rabbit’s back, did it know that the end of it’s life was near? As the end did come, did it struggle out of a sense of loss of the life it enjoyed, or was it only some primitive, programmed mechanism that caused it to fight against the hawk until it could fight no more?

This rabbit was likely much too young to understand the danger the hawk represented. Perhaps rabbits much older and wiser had witnessed their kin getting carried away by some bird of prey, and equated such birds with danger. I realized that most of the other rabbits in the neighborhood, especially the larger ones, were more likely to be found under bushes or at the edge of the border between forest and grass than out in the open.

In our own lives as humans, there is a healthy fear that motivates us to desire to protect ourselves and those we love. From experience or other ways of learning, we’ve come to know the various threats to our existence. Unlike rabbits and other life forms, we tend to dwell on those threats, and often allow our concern for them to overshadow our enjoyment of our daily routine. Certainly for those diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, like myself, we may see “hawks” wherever we go, imagining one is coming to devour us at any time. This fear can manifest itself in more severe forms of anxiety, such as panic attacks and severe physical ailments. I’ve been there on numerous occasions.

On the ride back from our relative’s home, I discussed with my wife how as humans we are almost “afflicted” with an ability to concern ourselves with suffering or even the idea that we may suffer. This whole notion of the anticipation of suffering, I believe, can get in the way of truly living a full life. Especially when we’ve survived terrible conditions, we know something bad can happen, and so may take necessary and logical precautions to ensure our own survival, but when we get to the point that we consistently believe something bad will happen, we lose perspective and the ability to make good decisions.

I don’t believe the rabbit had any way of anticipating the suffering it would briefly endure at the claws of the hawk. While it likely fought for its own survival, and the process of dying was physically painful, its not likely that it experienced any emotional pain brought on by thoughts of leaving the world it had known. In the end, it was able to fully let go, as it had no attachments to painful thoughts about what its end meant.

I’ve tried to reflect on what I witnessed that day, and apply the lesson in my own life. I need to learn to respond differently to events that trigger the “fight or flight” response in me, such as when my boss unexpectedly calls me into his office for a meeting, with my expecting to be relieved of my job. Or worrying about being unable to pay a bill on time. If I could learn to be like the rabbit, and let go of my attachment to the anticipation of suffering and the painful thoughts that accompany this anticipation, I’d likely have less physical symptoms such as stomach upset, tossing and turning at night, and rapid heart rate.

For now, I accept I have much work to do. When captivated by fear, I know I need to step back and consider what it is I am fearful of and why I am fearful of it. It’s not easy, and I still occasionally experience anxiety at a fever pitch. I’ve learned to forgive myself for feeling this way, knowing that the trauma I endured as a child has interfered with my emotional response in my adult life. I will continue to work toward full acceptance of the impermanence of life and the idea that whatever I am enjoying at the moment, whether it is my job, my home, or even my life, is subject to coming to an end at any time. Through a practice of acceptance of the ever changing nature of life perhaps I can come to a place where I live without anxiety, and fully live in the present. That is my goal.

Thank you little rabbit, and thank you proud hawk. Like so many things that cross our path each day, you both served to teach me a valuable lesson. May we all understand and learn from the lessons that life teaches us each day.

There Is No One To Blame

180505203354-01-hawaii-kilauea-volcano-0505-exlarge-169No matter where you are in the world, you’d be hard pressed not to be aware of the dire situation on the largest Hawaiian Island aptly named, “The Big Island.” As a basic study of geologic history will reveal, the Hawaiian Islands were formed by what is known as a “hot spot,” where magma that forms in the Earth’s mantle rises through a crack in the earth’s crust. As the top layer of the earth, the “plate,” slowly moves over the hot spot, lava erupts through the plate to form what is at first an underwater volcano, eventually rising up to become a land mass above the ocean’s surface, upon which lush, paradise like conditions may form, a process which occurs over many millions of years.

Today, the people of the largest of the Hawaiian Islands are in grave danger as the volcanic activity there is now wildly unpredictable. Much of the entire island could be lost if a major eruption of the Kilauea Volcano occurs. There is also concern that other locations along the “Ring of Fire,” where several tectonic plates meet and seismic and volcanic activity is common, are in danger of seeing major earthquakes or volcanic activity. Many areas within the United States West Coast are in this zone.

Should we take this activity as a “Sign of the End” of the present world? Has God roused up this volcanic activity to teach humans a lesson about his power? There are some preaching that what is happening is showing us to be that much closer to something, depending on what you believe. The Second Coming of Jesus, God’s Great Day of Judgements, Armageddon, etc. Is this really so? Did you know that 70 million years ago there were Hawaiian Islands that no longer exist today, far to the West of the present day islands’ location, proof that tectonic plates are continually moving over the Earth’s crust?

If you have a narrow view of the world, and have been shielded from the evidence–the geologic record that is there for us to review–it would be easy to believe that there is some supreme being “pulling the strings,” causing earthquakes, volcanoes, droughts or whatever else afflicts humankind from time to time, working to instill fear in us so we do whatever is asked by his so called “earthly representatives.” As for me, I prefer to let the record of the Earth’s history stand as a testament that these actions of “natural violence” are nothing more than a byproduct of living in the natural world. The truth, the real truth most religious organizations don’t want you to acknowledge, is there is truly NO ONE TO BLAME for these outcomes. Volcanoes, earthquakes, cancers, disease and death have occurred for billions of years and will likely occur for billions of years more, until our Sun finally burns out (all good things must come to an end).

So don’t live your life like the world is going to end tomorrow. It might, but it likely won’t, not for a very long time. Love your families, use your personal freedom responsibly, and live your life to the fullest! Stop hating or shunning those who don’t share your beliefs. If the earth’s going to be around another billion of years or so, in the grand scheme of things, those actions are worthless, and a waste of the short, precious time we have left to live on the highly volatile rock we call Earth. (Photo Courtesy of the United States Geological Survey)

Meet Life Where It Is Right Now

barn-lightning-bolt-storm-99577.jpegIt’s inevitable that our journey on the footpath of our life will find us encountering unanticipated obstacles, detours and outright blockades. No matter how careful our own personal choices, there are things that occur which are absolutely outside of our control. What matters most is how we respond to the unexpected, and what choices we make in connection with that response. This is what makes all the difference.

I’ve struggled to understand why we at times encounter extreme difficulty, and have sought to trace the source of adversity back to an individual or collective choice. Let me be clear from the onset, I don’t believe that any God or God-like being or force manipulates human activity. No God would “take” children from us, inasmuch as he or she wouldn’t “bless” us with children with disabilities. These events are simply part of the natural course of life. Cells and genes develop significant deviations that can cause major disabilities, even cancers and death. There is no “one” responsible for these possibilities. These are naturally occurring byproducts of living in the natural world.

At home, we’ve been tested recently through our efforts to successfully raise a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder and Schizophrenia. The challenges are many and varied, whether it be helping her cope with the academic setting at school, or even just trying to help her fall asleep despite having major delusions that someone is going to hurt her. It’s becoming increasingly evident with each passing day that the least restrictive environment the public school setting provides may not be the best place to facilitate her long-term success, and we now have to consider a full-time residential program.

Of course we’re not happy to consider the possibility of our adolescent daughter leaving our home, if even on a five-day basis, especially considering that many outcomes are still unknown. Will she be able to finish high school and go on to college? Will she be able to obtain gainful and meaningful employment? Will she be able to live confidently as an independent adult, able to navigate the unexpected on her own? We don’t know the answers to any of these questions right now. There is no certainty, there is no ground.

What is easy to do in situations like this is wish that our daughter didn’t have to have such a difficult path, or to hope that given a little more time she’ll be able to find success in her current environment. We have our own needs for normalcy, for family togetherness, for a peace that seems elusive right now. But our daughter’s needs are greater than our own, and if we fail to give her what she needs right now, in this moment, her future may be even more uncertain than it seems today. So we have to learn to let go of what we want or hope for, of our own idea of normal, and meet our daughter where she is, to ensure she is provided with the best care and support possible.

This approach can be generalized to all challenges we face. Who’d stand unprotected in a violent thunderstorm, simply wishing and hoping for it to pass, instead of seeking shelter? Likewise, by holding on to an “ideal” of the life we wanted for our daughter, instead of fully recognizing who she is, we may putting off our greatest chance of ensuring her future success and self-protection from the storms she is likely to face later on. It’s by no means easy to accept the struggles that we or our daughter are going thorough, but we can’t change who she is. What we can do is change how we’re responding to her needs. In doing so, we may also be teaching her how to respond to her own challenges, both those within her and those in the world she must live in.

Although it may feel impossible, if we meet every situation and every individual where they are right now, will full acceptance, we may find ourselves more easily making the choices that need to be made.

 

 

 

 

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