Friday, April 22, 2011

Suffering is Optional

Some of the worst things I ever experienced never really happened.  I was real good, a “master” mind you, of being able to take a grain of pain and create a mountain of suffering. It was familiar, like a comfy blanket I could wrap myself in–one that confirmed my reality. I could lie swaddled in my circumstances knowing my role of “victim” was secure.

I have realized the universe will usually prove me right. This is a great paradigm I awakened to but only after realizing that it works in two ways. For many years I would exclaim, “My life sucks!” It would prove me right. “I am going nowhere!” It would prove me right. “The world is full of evil people.” It would prove me right. “I am never going to get out of this (insert challenging circumstance)!” It would prove me right.

It is our focus that often binds us to our perceived insurmountable obstacles. Our self-victimization that we are being caught in the crosshairs of a malicious God or universe–that our purpose must be one of suffering.

I lament at the awareness now that I spent so many years in a self-conjured prison with my hands gripping the bars white-knuckled and screaming to be set free. In my unrelenting grip trying to rattle the binds of my own Bastille, I never let go of the bars to realize I held the “key” in my own pocket. My focus affixed on the jailor “out-there” distracting my gaze–incapacitating me to simply reach “inside” for the key I already held. My focus kept me blind.

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.

Pain is the circumstances life bestows upon us to strengthen us, challenge us, bind us, and perhaps reconnect us to our faith. It nudges our rudder to keep our lives fresh and vibrant–although often not of our liking or choosing, inevitable none-the-less. The most righteous, rehearsed, learned, and cautious will succumb to the inevitable brush with pain. Yes it hurts, but for how long will we allow it to remain?

Suffering however is where we continue to remind ourselves that we still should be hurting. We writhe in the familiar only because we bring it along like a carry-on bag in our life’s voyage. This can occur with people who have encountered great obstacles: addiction, divorce, loss, disease. For some reason the obstacle becomes the "identity." We drop our anchor in yesterday retarding our ability to sail again. There is a difference between fear and respect. Fear paralyzes one into inactivity. Respect empowers one into seeking new paths. Respect your painful experiences, don’t fear them.

I find that many enjoy pushing the “play” button on these little movies that run in our mind. We continually rewind, hit play, and re-experience the event over and over. At the end we say, “See, THAT is why I feel this way!” The brain cannot differentiate between the current and the movie, so you will indeed get the same biological responses repeatedly: nervousness, anxiety, heart palpitations, tears, anger, and the entire cornucopia of physical symptoms that accompanied the original event. Play a lot of movies, get a lot of responses. Pain is the original event. Suffering is the rewinding and replaying. Pain we cannot control. Suffering we can. Put down the remote!

Nowadays I dedicate myself to trying to remain aware of my CHOICE of FOCUS. I have found the simple key has been in my pocket all along. I decided to stop screaming through the bars, screaming in my pillow, screaming in the mirror and simply decide to rearrange what I focused on in my recovery from any challenging situation.

If I decide to say, “I know I will bounce back from this!” The universe will prove me right. “There is a way out!” It will prove me right. “I am strong enough to handle this!” It will prove me right. “I am not alone in my trials and tribulations!” It will prove me right. “There are powers greater than myself at work in all of this!” Proof will indeed manifest.

Like many men, for many years I had to have my keys in my pocket, remote in hand, and know where I was going. Now I enjoy the journey knowing in advance I will eventually arrive where I should. I realize too that there are certain things I no longer need my remote for. And if you need a key, extend your hands through the bars and you can have one of mine.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Park Placards

I was embarrassed. Or was it my ego knocking at the door? Both maybe. Either way I felt uncomfortable. It had been a while. It was unsettling and yet familiar.

The evening sun was lowering over the baseball diamond where my son and a collection of other young hopefuls were enjoying the first practice of the season. They scrambled about after the ball similar to the action you see when you throw a handful of corn to chickens. To many of them it was yet another step toward their image appearing on a box of Wheaties, to others–a great way to spend time with friends and family.

A handful of the parents sat on the aluminum bleachers. Introductions were extended as were idle pleasantries.

“That my son, the one with the blue shirt, grey shorts.”

“Great! Mine is the one with the yellow shirt and baseball pants.”

A smile of acknowledgment and then a reflective pause.

The conversations ensued around me.

“So, what do you do?”

The responses of the other parents contained a collection of letters I have not heard since my last bowl of alphabet soup.

“I am an XYZ from OSU with a PHD and an MBR and MNY from BYU...”

“That’s fantastic! I am an alum of OU with an MBA and a DNA from PU as well as a JKL from MNOP.”

Intelligent laughter bonded the two.

I put in my iPod headphones.

In my mind it went-

“So what do you do Tony?”

“I invented space travel, post-it notes, human reproduction, milk shakes, and a cure for cancer!”

“Really!!?” They respond astounded by my brilliance.

“No. I am an unemployed ex-hairdresser who can make a killer peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”

The laughter further crushing, making me even doubt my sandwich making prowess.

I left as they discussed their achievements. They were not bragging, just bonding and sharing. I walked the circumference of the park. I enjoyed the reflection, the balmy wind, and the sunset. I felt a bit small at the moment. Here I was in mid-life with nothing going on, no business card, feeling as worthless as a breast augmentation coupon to a nun.

I wrestle with where I am at times. I believe I have noble intentions. I do want to make a difference, but am I? Should I just say “screw it” and take the first job that offers a check, forget my dreams of helping others and be able to at least feel like a contributor? It’s coming way to slow for me.

I am well aware that often rewards are found only a few paces beyond where the mediocre give up. I need to practice what I preach. I have always said that my greatest fear is not my inability to practice what I preach, but my inability to become aware when I am not doing so.

I continued my walk around the park. I encountered laughter, sports, children, and nature. I reveled in the brilliant orange glow of the progressing sunset. I noticed my surroundings. The park benches called to me.

Each bench had its own placard at its base– a small metal plaque with the name or names of those who were to be honored or remembered upon initial glance and reflection. I wondered, “Will I ever be worthy of a park bench plaque? What does it take? Will I be easily forgotten? Do I matter?”

I continued and saw each bench and many trees had a placard with yet another name or two. They must have been special people. I guess I realized that I did not need to know them or their achievements to appreciate their time before me. “Good for you,” I thought.

I reflected upon the “alphabet soup” I listened to earlier. “Good for them,” I thought. They should be proud, and so should I. I refuse to compare who I am, where I am going, and the depth of the contribution I share on this planet by comparing myself to others of dissimilar paths.

I am a healer, coach, mentor, father, husband, and swell guy.

Earlier that day as I was having brunch with my folks, I received a random text. It was from a young lady I had spoken with about a year ago pertaining to certain challenges she faced that were harming her mentally, physically, and causing her family distress. She thanked me stating I “saved her life” in the first few months of her battle.

Later that afternoon, I reached out to a friend who had a recent stumble in his own battles. He thanked me for making contact and for the words of encouragement. Hopefully I made a difference.

I took my son to fly his first kite later that day watching his eyes light up as he held the power of flight in his hands.

I saved lives, encouraged lives, and enriched lives in one afternoon.

I don’t know what “alphabet soup” would encompass that. I do not know how I could put that on a business card. I doubt I will be issued a W-2 this year for my accomplishments. I don’t care as I do not need letters, papers, or a business card to feel like I “matter.” I will figure out how to make this financially viable someday. I feel I am still on the right path.

As I respectfully thanked everyone for coming to my pity party, I also thanked Ardith, Byron, and Paul for sharing their benches and shade with me as I sorted out the "stuff." Although I may not get my own park bench placard someday, the couple of texts I got, and the “I love you Dads” I got that day are all the recognition I need.