Broken Yet Complete

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Many years ago, Aristotle said, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” I’ve heard this repeated in many various ways at several different junctures in my life, relating its meaning to random concepts. However, I’ve never applied this phrase to myself until recently. As is the tendency of many, I’ve reflected on my life and seen what I’ve concluded to be bad choices, wrong turns and errant decisions. Its been easy to minimize my past as nothing more than a futile attempt at groping around in the dark with me vainly attempting to find my way forward. Set along this journey with few tools at my disposal, and a past victim of mental and physical abuse, I wasn’t prepared to move ahead in any sort of enlightened or meaningful way. Most often I operated in survival mode, not knowing what ill fortune would confront me around the next bend in what I perceived to be the dark, dank cave of my life.

Somehow I was able to see beyond the cave. I could make out others who were meeting with success by making good decisions when it was most critical to do so, individuals whom I envied for their ability to see and think clearly. It only heightened my sense of anxiety about the direction I was going in, leading me to make even poorer decisions in my attempts at trying to find a way out of my gloom. Nothing came easy, and I rarely learned from my past choices. At times, the cave felt like a circle, with me destined to move past the same haunting landmarks time and time again. I would stop occasionally to bang my head against the wall, thinking that might cause it to give way and ultimately lead me out of the blackness and into the light. In reality, this action did nothing more than to cause me more pain and anguish. This was not the way out.

I was presented along the way with good people who showed me that much was possible. There were those I presented an idea to who would simply say, “just do it,” later holding me accountable for becoming what I said I would be. This continues to this day. Just over a year ago I ran into a former co-worker I hadn’t seen in twenty years; she asked me if I had ever finished the book whose idea I talked about incessantly when last she knew me. I remembered, feeling a pang of guilt for not carrying out what I had set out to do and what I had openly and publicly committed to doing. Then just a few weeks after that encounter, I re-connected with someone from just a little bit further in my past than the co-worker. He mentioned a great book he had just read by Joe Dispenza called, “Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself.” Through reading this great book I found that I had not been true to myself. I was not the person I was meant to be or really deep down inside wanted to be. But it was totally on me to own the Thoreau quote “live the life you’ve imagined,” and metamorphisize into an individual molded after my true desires. For the first time, I am now something I had wanted to be for most of my life, a published author.

Sometimes it can be easy to hold to the belief that we are defined by our circumstances, that we cannot rise above who we turned out to be. “It is too late,” we might say, “I am too old,” or perhaps if we are really honest with ourselves, just too damn lazy to do the work required of changing our lives. My life is like a giant puzzle made up of a multitude of little pieces with sharp, jagged edges that will cause my fingers to bleed if I hold on to them too tightly. I began life as a sheet of clear, lucid glass.  This was then broken into many pieces at many times, yet somehow all of it stayed together. These pieces still make up the whole of me, but they do not define me or represent who I am. I am today now greater than what those irregular, ragged parts represent. I am broken yet complete. I have risen above what my environment, choices and circumstances conspired to produce. I am the creator of my own life now, destined to become the highest and best version of myself.

 

 

The Character Test

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I took my son and daughter on a hike today. It was a beautiful, crisp fall day, with a clear blue sky contrasting sharply with the autumnal colors. A solitary hawk flew overhead, just out of reach of the canopy of the forest, as we made our way beyond the trail-head. For the first quarter of a mile, we ascended a steep rocky walkway, with a moderately thin rope at our side that was suspended every six feet or so by some old galvanized pipe sticking out of the ground. It seemed harmless enough, this trail, with its strategically placed rocks and zigzag approach to the mountainside. Mildly out of breath, we relaxed for a few moments once we reached a plateau where we sat on some crudely fashioned benches made of tree stumps and flat wood. My kids thought we were done.

Once we had caught our breath, I motioned toward the sharply pitched hillside to our right. “We are going there,” I said, “until we reach the top.” My son, always up for adventure, nodded in agreement and stepped in the direction of the rise. My daughter, just about a year younger, began to question the wisdom of our continuing and then relented. We made our way forward and soon found ourselves staring at a rocky, leaf and tree limb covered terrain. It wasn’t long before we found the casual fall hike had turned into a hard scramble. My daughter grew anxious as she realized how easily the earth gave way beneath our feet. She was scared of sliding backwards down the mountain. I hiked behind her the whole way, assuring her that I had her back.

The top came into view, and the last fifty or so yards to the summit were the most treacherous. My son made it to the apex while we were still staring up at an increasingly sharp incline. We grabbed onto small trees and rock outcroppings, whatever we could grab, as we nearly crawled up the rest of the way, my daughter shrieking in fear. I encouraged her as best I could and soon we joined my son at the mountain’s pinnacle.

Once we were at a point where we could stand and see where we had been, we also realized we had a magnificent view of the Hudson River and the little village below that we had driven through to get to the trail. The look of satisfaction in my daughter’s face told me that she understood why we endured the struggle of just a few moments earlier. We took in the view for a short while, after which I began to lead us back down.

Descending the mountain was actually much harder than I anticipated, and more difficult than our climb up had been. It took my daughter all she had to contain her fear and panic each time she slid a little down the soft and squishy earth. Several times she said “I don’t want to die,” and I assured that she wouldn’t. I was right next to her the whole time and wouldn’t have let anything happen to her. She started screaming, saying she was never going to do this again, repeating how hard it was. I told her that someone famous once said, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” She repeated the often-used statement shortly after I had said it.

Finally, the most demanding part of the descent was behind us. My daughter raised her fists in the air once we reached the small area with the wooden benches for the second time. We rested briefly, then once again found ourselves walking down the steep, narrow path with the rope at our side. As we made our way through the last leg, I told my daughter that even though her mind was scared and afraid, her body was able to do the work it needed to do to get her through a dangerous route. Sometimes, I continued, you need to prove to your mind that your body is stronger than it realizes. This was a character test, I said, one that showed just who she was. I told her that she proved to be strong and courageous, and should be proud of herself for what she accomplished. She replied by telling me that she felt stronger than she ever had before, and added that she knew now that she could do anything. It was my turn to be proud.

Sometimes we must endure extremely rough patches in our lives. This has certainly been the case for me at multiple points along my timeline. In our mind, we doubt that we may be strong enough to get ourselves through the difficult situation we may find ourselves in. Our brain believes we are weak, and therefore we respond as though we are weak. What we believe about ourselves becomes our reality. But as difficult as it may be, we have to convince our mind that we are more than capable of pushing through, of conquering our own mountains. We have to leave behind the old, preconceived notions of who we thought we were in order to become the extraordinary person we are meant to be.

I’ve heard of learned helplessness, but what of learned self-confidence? What I taught my daughter today I trust will stay with her for her whole life. What mountain are you afraid of? Go conquer it today. Teach your mind that you are able to climb it, no matter how rough it seems. Do not let anyone, especially yourself, tell you that you are not strong enough or tough enough to do it.

The Chickens Have Come Home to Roost

chicken-677048_960_720It is difficult to fully assess just how many ex-members there are of the controlling and authoritarian religions of the world. When it comes to Jehovah’s Witnesses, the group I am most familiar with, I’ve heard numbers like “a million” or perhaps even more. When I left 30 years ago there were no web sites, no online support groups, no outreach for former members that I was aware of. I exited on my own, with my few non-Witness family members a good 500 miles away from me. I was birthed into the world, alone, afraid and despondent. I didn’t know how long it would take me to recover from the years I spent allowing others to tell me what to think, in the time that my mind did not belong to me. Once I was free of it I was set adrift, wandering in the midst of an often confusing and perplexing world.

Today, there are numerous sites, blogs and discussion boards that are supported and maintained by the many ex-Witnesses who feel compelled to help others. Whether motivated by compassion for fellow former believers, or full of wanton hatred for the Witnesses, these individuals are collectively working to bring the organization down. When I reflect on what is happening I am in awe. If you had asked me 20 years ago if I thought there would be a day when the Jehovah’s Witnesses would cease to exist I would have been skeptical. But I doubt no longer. In an interesting twist, the Witnesses, who early on blanketed streets and neighborhoods with a message of intolerance and hate for all those who didn’t believe as they did, are now being punished online for their current and former deeds. Yes, the chickens have come home to roost.

It is not easy to convert someone to Jehovah’s Witnesses today. No sooner that a loathsome video about how a child should “Witness” to a child with gay parents is released, it is shared with thousands who cannot believe what they are seeing. Surely thousands more have seen the video released at the summer conventions this past year which show a young lady being effectively “shunned” by her parents (they won’t even answer the phone when she calls). It would be tough for someone to be caught off guard by the Witness message today. The JWs, once themselves experts at disseminating their shifting propaganda, are now at the mercy of a counter-attack of proportions like nothing they could have ever mounted themselves with their small web presence.

This is why I write. This is why I won’t remain silent. I have a voice and I must use it. If one less child is abused, if one less person dies as a result of not receiving a life-saving blood transfusion, if one less mind is turned inside-out by the controlling Watchtower message, then I have done my job. For the million or so ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses in this world I presume there are as many individual stories, some similar but no two exactly alike. Speak up! Do not be ashamed of the fact that you once believed in the words of insecure old men. Know that by sharing your story you may also be helping someone else rewrite theirs.

The Light of the World

lighthouse-1031436_960_720When I was a small boy I had a recurring dream, perhaps bordering on a nightmare, where I would wake up to an extremely dimly lit room, frightened of not being able to see the room clearly. There were many shadows all around me, and I knew not what evils they hid from me. I’d pull the covers up over my head, and allow one trembling hand to reach slowly for the lamp switch. To my horror, the light would not get any brighter, despite all my effort in turning the switch over and over again. Terrified, I would recoil fully into my bedding, at which point I would wake up breathless, drenched in sweat. The feeling from the dream stayed with me so strongly during my waking hours that to this day I approach dark rooms all too cautiously, unsure if the light will come on when I flip the switch.

A common theme over the many years that the Jehovah’s Witnesses have been around has been the change in doctrine. Many today are unaware that Jehovah’s Witnesses once smoked cigarettes, received blood transfusions, or celebrated Holidays and birthdays, all of which are now condemned. I was around when their publications were insistent that men and women who were old enough to witness and understand the world events of 1914 would also remain alive to see the end of the present “system of things,” and see the “wicked” be destroyed at the hand of God, so as to make room for a paradise earth for loyal Jehovah’s Witnesses. Of course, hardly anyone is alive today who was of a mature enough age in 1914 to understand what was happening then. How do the current Witnesses explain the new understandings? By basically misappropriating a biblical scripture found in Proverbs 4:18 which states that “the path of the righteous ones is like the light that is getting lighter and lighter…” I’ve never been able to make a connection to what is supposedly the teachings of the One True God and the receiving of new and improved information over and over again, in the form of “new light.” l look back on my dream and I wonder, did I know something about this religion long before I committed to it?

Two thousand years ago, during the famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus Christ told the crowd gathered before him that they were “the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). He didn’t say “I am the light of the world.” No, he clearly said “YOU are the light of the world.” Yes! I believe we all have a light within us. We have the power to control its intensity, and no one can take our light away from us unless we let them. We don’t need artificial lights in the form of man-made religious organizations that claim divine inspiration but are really directed by nothing more than humans with big egos. By arming ourselves with knowledge, information and wisdom, we can light our own way. Once we learn to rely on our own light, we can then help others find their light as well. I will close by saying this: “Namaste,” which essentially means, “The light within me honors the light within you.” Let your light shine as bright as possible. Be the light of the world.

 

Any Port in a Storm

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As I have reflected on the critical choices I have made in my lifetime, I often look back at the moment when I decided to become one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. I was just 16 years of age, my life far from perfect. I was living with my mother in a run-down house that I was too  embarrassed to invite anyone to, all she could afford given the lack of support from my father. Aside from the living conditions, life had many wildly moving parts. My mother swung from one difficult relationship to the next, our home frequently filled with people in our home whom I didn’t know. As I was never in one school more than a year at a time, it was difficult to attract and retain friendships. I was often lonely, confused and unsure of where I was going. I used drugs and alcohol on a regular basis to numb the pain.

When I went out of state to spend a month with my father that summer, I knew that I would have to go back to the meetings, at least while I was there. There was no way he was going to leave me alone in their home, as he had many reasons to be suspicious of me. I readily agreed when the subject came up, finding myself in a Kingdom Hall again for the first time in at least three years. I had been searching for answers. I believed in a higher power, regularly calling on whomever was listening, askng for purpose and guidance. I wanted a sign–a sign from God perhaps–that would tell me which way to go. There, in my first Jehovah Witness meeting as a young man, I believed I had my answer.

Like so many that struggle with uncertainty, feeling like a ship lost at sea, the Jehovah’s Witnesses can seem like the right fit. As I came to understand it many years later, my own father was neglected by his father, seeing himself as lost for a time. My mother was nearly estranged from her own parents as well. I now better understand the strong attraction when the bible study was proposed at the time they were both in their early twenties. The young woman that came to the door literally had them at hello.

For me, coming to the Witnesses meant walking away from my drugs and my alcohol, and finding a new way to get high. The adulation provided to me by other Witnesses who saw how well I knew the subject matter during the many Watchtower and book studies was more than I had ever received anywhere else. For the first time in a long time, I had more friends than I could count on one hand. It was powerful. In this new world I was a star. I could go as far as I wanted, and would ultimately ride the fast train to pioneering and then Bethel, all within just over two years of my baptism. It was a short time after getting accepted to Bethel that I came to realize that the world which had accepted me and had brought me to an elevated status was not what I believed it to be. I was shattered, back out to sea, adrift and frightened. It took me a very long time for me to figure out that the light which guides ships to safe harbor was within me all along.

For many that come to the Witnesses, I suspect you will find similar stories of feeling lost and insecure prior to finding the organization. I met many Witnesses who were once drug abusers, came from broken families or just didn’t know where they were going. In a sea of discontent, they would gladly sail into any port, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses were there at the right time. I suppose you might question what is the error in that, especially if the individual left a life of addiction behind. The issue is that they never stopped having an addiction, they just moved it from one drug to another.

I have no issue with anyone choosing to join a church, a group, or movement that will allow him or her to fulfill spiritual desires. But a religion should not be a crutch for one’s inability to think for one’s self. Karl Marx said: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” Religion can be misused if it is only sought to fill an emptiness inside or if one’s ability to be self-directed is malfunctioning. I do not believe it is our purpose in life to be weak, docile creatures, who need to be told what to do, how to do it and when to do it.

That’s not living. That’s slavery.