Fear of Failure

bare feet boy child couch
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

There are well over 500 documented phobias, or irrational fears, that can affect individuals at any given time. Some are merely temporary, while others can be life long. Certain phobias are so severe that individuals may take heavy doses of medication to maintain some level of “normal” function, while some simply prevent them from having household pets. A fear that isn’t frequently discussed as a phobia, but is named as one, is atychiphobia, or “fear of failure.” As it turns out, I’m more than a little familiar with this fear, and have dealt with for most of my life.

As a child, I learned early on what it meant to disappoint my father. His stern, judgmental, and religious orientated parenting methods often left me feeling like I couldn’t do anything right. As the offspring of a devout Jehovah’s Witness, I was taught to strictly observe their customs and beliefs, such as Do NOT celebrate Birthdays, do NOT salute the flag, do NOT have “wordly” (non-Jehovah’s Witness friends). I silently watched other children socialize with each other and enjoy these forbidden celebrations at school, while I either sat in the corner of the classroom, or worse, out in the hallway at a lonely desk all to myself, where for all it was worth I may have just as well been hanging on a cross in front of the school. I wanted so badly to be a member of the group, but feared letting my father down (as well as the fearsome Jehovah God, who watched my EVERY move, EVERY second of the day).

Because I felt so strongly inside that I needed to obey both my father’s and Jehovah’s commands, yet at the same time wanted to fit in, I carried around feelings of tremendous guilt and conflict. On the rare occasion that I’d sneak to some other kid’s house and have a piece of birthday cake, I’d later feel shameful about my actions, and deeply fearful of my father finding out. Unfortunately, it wasn’t only fear of not following my father’s wishes that undermined my healthy emotional growth. He was deeply critical of every move I made. He was constantly following me around, asking me why I did things a certain way. Why did I leave a dish in the sink. Why did I not shut a door. Why did I leave a toilet seat up. On and on. Sometimes he’d remark on something I’d done and call me an “idiot.” I believed I wasn’t ever good enough for him, and felt I couldn’t do anything right.

It was extraordinarily difficult to manage my feelings of frustration and anger. I had no outlet for such emotions; my father certainly wouldn’t hear of it, and I feared his belt if I said too much. Then my parents separated and divorced, and it quickly became a matter of either pleasing my father OR my mother, as my father remained a Jehovah’s Witness, while my mother left the religion and sought to indulge my sister and I in the world my father fought so hard to keep us out of. She celebrated every Holiday, while my father chastised me for participating in these celebrations, going so far as to say I would “die at Armageddon” -the day when Jehovah was going to destroy all those who refused to do his will. It became painfully obvious I couldn’t do anything that was ever going to make BOTH my parents happy at the SAME time. It’s no wonder that by the age of ten I had invented my own superhero-The Everything Kid-who was able to do anything or be anything. As The Everything Kid, I could be well liked, I was perfect (made no mistakes), and was “super human.”

Well how did I turn out? I stayed in my Everything Kid costume for much of my adult life. Easily fulfilling “people-pleasing” roles, I consistently put the happiness of others before my own. I made hasty, and poor decisions. I was constantly anxious and in a rush, often saying to myself “I should be X (fill in the blanks) by now.” My main goal was to prove my value, my worth, and that I could be the “best” at whatever it was I was doing. Anything less than that was failure. Not only was I afraid of failing at something, I was afraid that others would think I was a failure, even if I was successful, as surely they could see through to the real me. I sought out the external rewards and praise that I didn’t get from either of my parents. I’d do anything if it meant validation and something to give me a sense of self-worth, even if that meant settling with partners I was ill-suited for or staying in jobs I was over-qualified for.

Fairly often, I found myself in impossible situations in my home and work life, as well as numerous financial crises. I’d stick with whatever I was doing though, even if it wasn’t the path that made the most sense to outside observers, to show I was capable of overcoming anything. One of my favorite sayings was “throw me in a tank full of piranhas for an hour and I’ll be the only one left.” But alas, staying in tough situations too long caused me to lose time, money and chances at healthy relationships.

I’m sure many of us lived with highly critical or unsupportive parents who sought to undermine us or humiliate us at every turn. What I’ve found is that our parents’ voices become our voices, as the negative thoughts and feelings we have about ourselves persist. This pervasive inner voice can lead to the following:

  • Self-Sabotage: We endure such high levels of anxiety or fear of failure that we become frozen, like deer in the headlights, and aren’t able to complete the tasks in front of us, or don’t do them well.
  • Low Self-Esteem: Our self-confidence ebbs or is at times non-existent. We feel we aren’t “good enough” or “smart enough” for partners or jobs and so “settle” for less than we are suitable for.
  • Perfectionism: We fear failing so deeply that we only attempt or try to do things we are able to do perfectly. We won’t engage in the tougher challenges, or take the risks that are associated with greater rewards.

Not silencing this critical voice within can often lead us to approach life’s challenges by “playing not to lose” instead of “playing to win.” We may become motivated to avoid any chance of failure, so as to avoid any feelings of disappointment, loss or frustration. That would be unfortunate, as failing can actually teach us lessons we can take with us when it’s time to meet the next challenge. I know it is easier said then done, but we can choose to be afraid or we can choose to not be afraid. If you’ve lived your whole life with a fear of failure then it’s time you owned up to it and did something about it. Start by finding a good cognitive therapist. It will be a process that may take years, but once you move from Fear of Failure to Freedom from Fear, you’ll know it was all worth it.

For more on this topic, please read this excellent post by Guy Winch, PhD: “10 Signs That You Might Have Fear of Failure…and 2 ways to overcome it and succeed.” https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-squeaky-wheel/201306/ten-signs-you-might-have-fear-failure

 

Deep In The Woods

forest during dawn
Photo by Anton Atanasov on Pexels.com

I’m much too far from home. In too deep to turn back. Unable to find the exit or the clear path forward. Forced to make choices now that I don’t want to make, because I made choices carelessly so long ago.

Fuck.

There is no safety net. There is no one to take me in. I’m on my own. If there was any kind of God watching, he or she left me to my own devices somewhere along the way. I didn’t notice.

Shit.

I want to give in, give up, give out-but I have nothing left to give. I continue in spite of myself. I don’t even care what path I’m on as long as it is a path and I’m not subjected to the torture of well-hidden rocks and switchbacks. I. Am. All. Alone. It feels good and it hurts all at the same time. There is no pressure now other than what I put upon myself. BUT! I am a motherfucker and I can torture and punish like no one else.

I know better. I have meditated. But the deeper I go inside the more questions I’m driven to ask. Who made me? Can I be unmade? Can the unsettled be quieted? I need a moment of peace. Can I unlearn patterns learned and deeply embedded? Can I re-imagine my approach and change my course?

I walk faster, sun setting, pulse racing, palms sweating. Tightened breath coming in heaving gasps. When the sun has been vanquished I see nothing. I know my hands are in front of my face yet I can’t see them. I can only feel. I feel deeply. That is my curse, that is my gift. No one sees what I feel. No one feels what I see.

There are new sounds all around me. Things that crave the darkness and mock my presence. I’m no longer afraid. Let them take me. I don’t care at all. I’m beyond being afraid of death. This is not what scares me. What scares me is the world moving forward without me. I want to be remembered. I don’t want to be forgotten.

I see a sliver of moonlight through the trees. I make out a bat fluttering above. This is good, I can define shapes once again. I’ve moved from pitch blackness to shadows and stars. There are so many. There is a rock moving around one of those stars, and surely as that rock orbits that foreign sun, there is another like me, at once both lost and at home, deep in the woods.

And I take comfort in this.

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.

 

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.