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.

 

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.