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.

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.

There Is No Ground

Rocky Ground HD Desktop BackgroundI recently read several books written by renowned Buddhist Nun Pema Chodron. In her works, she writes often of being “groundless,” or of living with uncertainty and the realization that there is no real ground underneath our feet. I devoured her works with great interest, knowing that for much of my life I more than anything craved ground under my own feet, and sought in earnest for anything that I could hold on to. My early life was full of chaos and constant change. My parents divorced when I was eight, and then my mother went from being a Jehovah’s Witness to an Episcopalian to a Born Again Christian before I was even 16. My father remarried and brought three more children into the world. We sometimes did not even live in one place for an entire year. I went to four different elementary schools, three different middle schools and two different high schools. In the midst of all these shifts, I desired more and more to have solid ground to stand on, something to count on, something that I knew would always be there, and yet I could not find it. When I was 15, I often found myself up on top of the hill behind our home at the time, praying to whomever might be listening for guidance, direction, and above all else, certainty with regard to where I was headed. I sincerely believed that someone greater than me would finally provide the answers I was seeking.

At 16, I traveled by myself to a town two states away to be with my father for two months. He had recently moved and I’d been missing him dearly. My father had remained a Jehovah’s Witness and I knew there would be an expectation that I would attend the meetings with him while I was there, knowing that there was no way they would leave me in their home alone. So while that was expected, what was unexpected was how in that first meeting I would hear what was indeed music to my confused ears. For most of their followers, the leaders of the Jehovah’s Witnesses have all of the answers, and that day, at that meeting, I felt the same way. No more would I have to worry or dwell on the uncertainty of my own future. I quickly made a formal dedication to this way of life and never looked back. For the first time in my short time on earth, I felt I had a purpose in life! This purpose included going to three different meetings each week, preaching 90 hours a month to others, and ultimately serving in the world headquarters of the group in Brooklyn. I believed I knew exactly what each day would bring, and at the end of the repetition of all of this work was the grand prize of someday living in an earthly paradise! My hope was strong, the earth felt firm under my feet, and nothing could knock me off course. Nothing, that is, until I came to realize that what I believed and what I asked others to believe was not the truth that I once thought it was.

I was crushed, I was rocked, I bounced all over like an errant spring. Walking away from my beliefs meant no longer having a purpose, as well as losing my friends and family. There was no certainty about anything and I lived recklessly, as if I had no tomorrow to live for at all. There was no longer any ground beneath my feet, and I was terrified. Within a year of leaving the Witnesses I found another small piece of ground to hold onto when I found my first wife. Her life was ripe with turmoil and emotional disorder, but once again I had a purpose, to help heal her and see her become the person she was meant to be. Ultimately my actions never proved to be enough to help her and I grew despondent. We parted ways, and once again I found myself adrift in loneliness and despair. It would only take another year for me to find someone to latch onto once again.

In the years that followed I brought children into this world. I was never certain if I was doing the right things as a parent and I did not manage my finances well. I lived in constant fear of the groundlessness of the situation I was in, just dying for someone or something to show me the way out. I prayed to God endlessly for direction once again, much as I had done as a teenager. Sometimes things improved for a short while, only to plunge into chaos once again. I rode a fast running train of anxiety all through my adult life, seemingly moving from one disaster to the next, or at least that’s how I viewed it.

It is best to realize that our lives are generally in a state of flux. The stress comes when our lives do not meet our expectations or desires, when we are not flexible or adaptable enough to adjust to the constantly shifting sands that swirl all around us. We don’t have full control over what is happening, as w cannot control the actions of those we are connected with. By resisting the changes we experience, we actually can make the situation worse. How many times have we been told that when driving a car that is skidding off the road due to hazardous conditions that the best course of action is to steer into the skid? In addition, living with a higher level of chaos, disorder and uncertainty may cause us to crave that certainty on a much higher level.  We may stay in jobs that we are not well suited for, with romantic partners we really have no business being with, and follow religions that dictate and direct our every move. In other words, we may remain stuck in a situation out of an irrational fear of not knowing what may lie on the other side. While stuck where we are, we may fervently cling to a hope that things will get better. But if we are in the wrong place at the wrong time, no amount of hope is going to change our situation.

Only by accepting our current reality and by acknowledging that there is no real ground under our feet will we be prepared to deal with uncertainty while maintaining inner strength and peace. We must not cling to hope as a crutch or an escape from what is really happening. By doing so we may not make the proper adjustments that will enable us to keep moving forward despite what is happening around us. However, we must realize that life does not owe us a thing. We are not entitled to be rich, or happy, or good looking or healthy. If at any time we don’t have one or any of these things, then our acceptance of the situation will make a huge difference between peace and despair. Life is more like a turbulent river than a calm lake. Make peace with the raging rapids as they move you along from place to place, while doing your best to keep your boat, and your head, above water.