Up until encountering them, I had certainly failed before.
Failed to dunk.
Failed to learn a legitimate skateboard trick.
You know, things like that.
However, the freshness of this type of failure was that success was more of a mirage and less of a clear impossibility.
When riding skateboards it was obvious that in order to get better, I needed to ride more hours and take more risks. I simply didn’t do these things, so it wasn’t a surprise when I wiped out.
When writing proofs in Geometry class, no matter how much I studied and how much extra help I attended, the correct answers evaded me like sand between my fingers.
A few months ago I felt this feeling all over again when in an Escape Room in D.C.
Having experienced one before, I was confident of my critical thinking skills and even found myself sizing up the other people in the room before we began. I had visions of being the Rosetta Stone, the one calling out clear directions, the one untying the Gordian Knot.
Instead, I found myself right back in sophomore year – frustrated, dejected, defeated.
Just to be clear, I’ve failed countless times, but these two seemed to fit together perfectly.
For most of my life I’ve looked at solutions as the aha moment, when statements and reasons are clear and acceptable, when the door finally opens.
I love, but have always struggled with Matthew 7:7-8,
Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.
Sure, problems can be solved, doors can be opened, it might just take a while I guess. Whether it’s in this life is not for me to know, and I’m okay with that.
I’m comfortable knowing there are those out there with superior intellects, more money, or exotic opportunities. Comfortable because it’s true, the only false belief is me thinking I have a handle on things.
The reality is, there’s no way out.
Now, instead of searching for proof or a way out, I’m getting more and more comfortable with being right here.
Our society is obsessed with the next best_________
If I’ve put in the effort, there is nothing wrong with problems remaining unsolved.
The paradox that has dominated my recent thoughts:
To occupy more space, get out of the way.
The dirty table had yet to be cleared, which was to be expected on a busy afternoon in Boston. This didn’t stop a group from claiming the territory in their name, jumping others on the list that was being curated by the maître d’ who initially missed the land grab.
Eventually the group was politely asked to move (a request that was not well received) and not only wait for the table to be cleaned, but for it to be their turn. The rightful group had been quietly and calmly biding their time and was eventually rewarded and served with attention and gratitude for their small, but far from insignificant signal of respect – listening, following directions, and getting out of the way.
Now, you might be reading this and like my first reaction, come to the defense of the group that was in the wrong or even say, “what’s the big deal?” Well, to provide further context: It was a restaurant. It was busy. The maître d’ had left her post for no more than one minute to help seat another table and the group did not wait, did not even pause to consider the other people clearly waiting to be seated. Instead, they saw an opportunity, a table, clearly dirty but empty, and pounced.
If you’ve ever worked in the service industry, there is little worse than someone who makes it a point to occupy space.
When I use the word space in this context, my intention is for it to represent a concept, one with a positive and negative interpretation. In this type of space, I’m not just speaking of physical space but also attention, time, and effort that takes away from oneself or others.
Examples being: asking for tables to be pushed together when they clearly should not be, speaking very loudly in a big group and being overly disruptive of other groups, making demands of the kitchen that aren’t reasonable and the list goes on, very simply – unnecessary special treatment and accommodations.
This next part is where this turns from a rant to a reflection.
The other night I attended Reflecting on Experiences of Racism in the Catholic Church – A Listening Session. It was an evening filled with prayer and reflection, which included unforgettable storytelling, particularly from Deacon Seigfried Presberry who has dedicated his life towards serving others through prison ministry and countless hours in his home parish. He shared about how he has experienced rejection for being a black catholic deacon. His story was one of perseverance and relentless compassion. Ultimately he was able to minister to a man who, in their first interaction, met him with words of hate. Despite this initial rejection, they went on to build a relationship and Deacon Presberry even presided at his funeral.
Listening to Deacon Presberry speak about not being welcomed and not feeling worthy, challenged me to reflect on my behaviors, how I’ve taken or not taken steps to be welcoming, to invite others into space – personal or shared. Personal being my experience, shared being a group experience i.e. my faith community, circle of friends.
The Deacon was pushed to the brink, he even thought about quitting his ministry – leaving what he loved, all of the sacred spaces in which he was a part of – the pain was that severe. What brought him back to earth was turning to God, focusing on Him and getting out of the way. Through his constant humble service, he modeled what it meant to be saintly, what it truly meant to be a disciple. Even if he never got the validation from the man who initially hurt him, even if there was no conversion of heart, I know he would have continued his ministry recognizing that the scope of his work was so much greater than he could imagine. The problem with this story is that it does not need to be this way. Racism does not need to be accepted as an inevitable part of our way of proceeding, as just another painful reality that needs to be overcome in order to fully live.
His reflection made me think about all the times I’ve sat down at the proverbial dirty table, not thinking about how I might be occupying space in a way that burdened others, even in small ways. It’s nice to think that I’ll always wait in line, get out of the way, be cognizant of people and my surroundings, but it is not a guarantee.
My privilege tempts me to occupy space, the wrong space. I’m aware of that and am currently concerning myself with making room. More space for God, love, positivity, truth and growth.
Beyond this, doing my part to see, value, and celebrate each person I meet, making it clear that they are welcome.
Maybe my paradox needs an addendum:
To occupy more space (in heaven) get out of the way.
My name – I didn’t choose it, but I hold it close like the Christmas gift I didn’t think I’d receive.
When I die, I’ll be fine with people saying a lot of things about me – everyone is entitled to their opinion. One thing I won’t be fine with is being remembered as a hypocrite.
Why this is so important to me goes all the way back to the Gospel of John 8:7
When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Recently I’ve realized one of my major faults is relying on the excuse, “I’m bad with names.”
I have a coworker who often says my full name when I see them on campus. “Good morning, Brendan O’Kane!”
I can’t tell you how that makes me feel.
Or it could be sometime much deeper – the fact that someone sees me, and put in the effort to call me by my name.
Something I didn’t choose, but I cherish.
In John 8, the crowd wanted to charge a woman “caught in adultery” and they wanted the approval of Jesus.
In rereading this passage I was struck by the lack of name for the woman.
Maybe it is intentional – to highlight the fact that it’s easier to demean someone without using their name, avoiding the name can dehumanize the subject.
Assuming Jesus doesn’t know her name either, he too omits her name. However, in his response, he treats her as if he knew her.
Walking down the street the other day, I saw a former student who graciously pulled me aside to say hello.
I blanked on his name.
We were eating at the same restaurant and after a few minutes of talking, we went our separate ways.
Frustrated with myself, I took to the internet and tried remembering some of his interests to see if I could google an old sports roster from around the years I knew him.
And then it hit me, I remembered.
A few minutes later, he passed by my table and I acknowledged him by name.
He proceeded to sit down next to me.
Fifteen minutes later we parted ways.
Our initial conversation was surface level, but then it seemed as if once called by his name, his true identity was revealed – we started catching up about life, God and the future.
Maybe remembering his name didn’t make a difference, but I’d like to think it did.
Often times I get nervous when meeting people or approaching a larger group that requires remembering names. In the past, I’ve brushed this off and been comforted to know it’s a common flaw. However, now I am seeing this challenge with new eyes, a new level of importance.
So many times I pass people on campus or on the street and do not call them by name. Now I know that just because I might not know their name or am struggling to remember it, like the woman in John 8, does not mean they are nameless. I must do what I can to learn, or to at least make them feel special, feel noticed.
It’s taken me a while to fully comprehend the depth of this request.
When working at a YMCA in Winter Park, Colorado, my lifeguarding responsibilities were not limited to saving over ambitious swimmers or helping the youth get comfortable putting their heads underwater for the first time. Part of my “other duties as assigned” included cleaning the bathrooms and taking out the trash.
One night, after a long day of swinging my whistle, and guarding lives, I made a trip to the dumpster with a large trash bag filled that was lined with someone’s discarded Big Gulp. Due to a rip in the bag, my leg ended up caked in ketchup and Dr. Pepper.
I remember being so mad.
Looking back, it was probably just a kid who got bored of his beverage and rather than leaving it at his table, threw it in the trash like they were taught to do.
In all the jobs I’ve held since the YMCA I’ve taken out trash at some point. Some jobs more than others. One common theme that rings true is you don’t throw liquids in the trash. It’s just rude. I think it happens because we often don’t know the end user.
About seven years ago I took a graduate school class on the educational planning tool, Understanding by Design, affectionately referred to as UbD. At least once a class my professor would remind us to begin with the end in mind. It’s simple and brilliant. Where do you want your students to end up – what skills and outcomes should they be able to have and produce? Start with that, work backwards to make sure all areas are covered. It builds a greater sense of buy-in and ensures these outcomes are at the forefront of all planning.
The other day when I had a cup of coffee that had gone cold, I was about to toss it in the trash, but then I remembered that in a few hours, someone would be tying up that bag and carrying it to the dumpster. That person does not deserve to have the result of my selfishness all over their shoes.
Lesson: If I begin with the end user in mind, the people who will be the beneficiaries of my actions, it provides a great check on even the seemingly insignificant decisions like holding on to that cup of cold coffee and pouring it down a drain before tossing it. Like my experience with taking out the trash, cleaning bathrooms at some of my past jobs is part of the reason I take a few extra minutes to ensure the person after me has a cleaner and more pleasant experience than I did.
In the end, who knows, maybe Jesus Christ is on trash and bathroom duty.
It fits in most pockets, contains 196 pages and has changed my life.
When reading about Mychal Judge, the Irish-American Franciscan Friar who died during the 9/11 attacks, I found out that he carried a couple books on him at all times. He was a man of action who proceeded with his care for others as close to St. Francis as he could, and these books guided him. AA, in many ways, saved his life and sustained him, so he carried a book focused on the program and a second book – The Way of Love by Anthony de Mello, SJ.
Inspired by stories of Mychal Judge, I decided to order The Way of Love to see if it could be something I carry with me. I’ve always struggled with keeping rosary beads or prayer cards on me, but I admire those who do – they are physical reminders of our spiritual nature.
When the book arrived, I dove in and very quickly came up for air.
When it comes to self-improvement, the way of thinking I’ve subscribed to accounts for societal limitations, i.e. the life and hardships one has endured can make it more difficult to find peace. I’ve believed this because it seems utopic to think we can all conquer our demons despite what has occurred. I believe that it is easier for those who have a strong support network of family, friends, and resources that help ensure needs are met.
My problems have always been met by a listening ear or a supportive spirit. However, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, despite all this, I still wrestle with issues that are serious to me.
Thinking I have a handle on this topic, I eagerly opened The Way of Love,and read carefully.
With each passing paragraph, it became clear that I knew nothing.
Look at it this way: You see persons and things not as they are but as you are. If you wish to see them as they are you must attend to your attachments and the fears that your attachments generate. Because when you look at life it is these attachments and fears that will decide what you will notice and what you block out.
I see the world the way I do because it is through my lens, this does not mean I see reality, no matter how much I try. All I see is my reality. My bias, my resentment, my interests, my opinions on how things should be, my values – my attachments and fears.
Struggling to breathe, I found myself putting the book down numerous times. When truths are revealed, often times I am tempted to be like Jonah and flee (as depicted in Jonah 1 below)
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.
Anthony de Mello does not ignore the fact that we all have different experiences, however, he focuses on what we often do have the power to control – our minds.
He extols the importance of ridding oneself of attachments for when we do that, then we can truly love, then we can truly live. Much like in The Four Agreements he emphasizes the importance of not giving the approval or disapproval of others too much weight.
How easily we are taken in by the judgement of other people and then form an image of ourselves based on this judgment. In order to be truly liberated you need to listen to the so-called good and bad things that they tell you, but to feel no emotion at the feedback any more than a computer does when data is fed into it. Because what they say about you reveals more about them than about you.
This is revolutionary. My whole life I’ve been a pleaser, constantly worried about letting people down and not being enough so when I have encountered a loved one or co-worker who extols who I am or something I’ve done, I am victim to this – placing way too much value on being accepted. He states,
What you are aware of you are in control of; what you are not aware of is in control of you.
To be free is to be aware.
Before reading this book I knew there was a great deal I needed to let go of, insecurity, a low sense of self-worth and a distrust for those who express love towards me, however, now I believe I have much more power, much more of a role than I thought in the creation of my own despair and of my own freedom.
I am now aware of the severity of the need to rid myself of my attachments and fears, and life will never be the same.
Last night, I gratefully ordered a club soda with lime for what seems to be the 10,000th time.
Twenty minutes later I watched as a Guinness was purposely poured. Cascading over the spoon to create a swirling work of art. It was quickly but carefully brought to a patron waiting patiently at the end of the bar.
Walking around the Milwaukee Art Museum last week, I was in awe of the eclectic collection and refreshing architectural design.
Often times I’m drawn to bright colors and vibrant pieces, but linger at simple ones, depressed in tone. They’re the ones that evoke my raw emotions.
At first, this was not one of them.
In fact, I walked past it and when I circled back I noticed something – it was in disguise.
I saw a chalkboard, hastily washed, with a small box and a line under it – etched like someone who was in a hurry.
When I got closer, I read the description and examined the canvas. It was an oil painting.
What a trip.
Immediately, my opinion was transformed. From nothing special to wow – just because I knew the ingredients.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, a saving grace of maintaining my sobriety in social situations has been ordering a club soda with a lime.
You might be thinking – what are you doing in a bar anyway? – and I get that. I do consider myself an alcoholic.
I’m also grateful that I’ve been able to be in social situations, sober for over seven years, and I haven’t felt an unmanageable desire to drink. Many of my friends, or people I know in recovery, do not share this level of comfort. It’s something I consider a luxury and work very hard at maintaining.
You might be thinking – didn’t he begin by saying he was in awe of a Guinness being poured, I don’t know how comfortable he really is? – I get that too.
The desire is there, sure.
I mean, I went to Ireland, was in Dublin and people in the bar even thought I was Conor McGregor, and wanted to buy me a drink.
That’s one of the lighter moments where I had to decline, despite wanting to take them up on their offer. There have been some really tough times too.
I’d much rather not have to manage my time at happy hours, depending on how comfortable I’m feeling.
It would be nice to be part of champagne toasts at weddings.
However, if someone told me I could go back – I wouldn’t.
I wouldn’t because before, my life had many moments of chaos, confusion, uneasiness, regret, and despair. Not to belabor a point but, like I’ve said in previous entries – most people would have never known.
Our culture is pretty accepting of alcohol abuse. But I knew.
Deep in my soul. I wanted more out of life.
Maybe that explains my taste in art. I appreciate and am drawn to color but I’m in awe of the simple, the honest and the raw. I’m in awe of interior struggle and I’m committed to maintaining the level of quiet peace that sobriety has given my soul.
The club soda with a lime isn’t flashy and doesn’t grab attention. It could even be seen as deception, but upon further investigation – it shouldn’t be a surprise.
It’s simple and if I give it a chance, it’s exactly the right ingredients.
My road to recovery began with AA. Early on, especially in my first year of sobriety, I leaned on it, clung to it. I would not have been able to make such a big change without the tremendous support I received. AA took me to school and taught me about judgment, acceptance, trust, and deception.
Judgment: When I walked into my first meeting, I was surprised to see people who looked like they were happy, healthy and thriving. Growing up, I knew people that had problems with alcohol but I still had a face of addiction in my mind and it didn’t look like me. Yes, there were people in the meetings who were visibly struggling, but it was not always clear. I quickly learned I had underestimated the reach and power of addiction.
We’re all possible candidates, no matter how much love we have received, no matter how much money we have earned.
We’re all possible candidates.
Those church basements, dining halls and conference rooms felt like classrooms. Anxious and afraid, I listened to stories, recited mantras, read books and took notes. The people in those rooms became my teachers and for one of the first times in my life, I understood the importance of learning.
We learn so we can identify and implement the positives and negate the negatives.
We learn so our lives can be more fulfilling.
We learn so one day we can become the teachers.
Even a case for Geometry can be made here because the learning of something difficult (for me, Math) is a reminder that we don’t know it all. There’s a big world out there and learning something we previously didn’t know is a gift.
Unfortunately, because of judgment, often times we don’t make space in our lives for learning. When I walked into the basement of building in downtown Baltimore I had to be open and accepting of each person because I never knew who was going to save my life that day. No, they weren’t physically stopping me from harming myself but their stories, smiles, and suggestions gave me life. They gave me hope.
If I spent my time judging people about how they got to where they are, if they’re telling the truth or exaggerating (thoughts that would run through my head from time to time) then I would miss the valuable lessons.
Acceptance: More times than I’d like to admit, I have looked at my life and said, “Wow, this isn’t how I planned it would look.” I’m ashamed to say that it is because of hubris, entitlement, whatever you want to call it, it’s because I didn’t think it could be me. I am so happy with how things are now, but I never anticipated experiencing many of the struggles I’ve faced.
The following statement is drenched in arrogance, “Well, I mean, I’m not an alcoholic.”
It has to be said in the “better than you” way that these statements are said. It comes from a place of perceived dominance and false security. It’s to say, “yeah I know those things happen, but not to me.”
Throughout my life God is constantly saying, “Oh yea?”
Believe it or not, I didn’t plan on being almost seven years sober by the age of 33.
The people in AA with me didn’t plan on their lives turning out how they have either but there can be beauty in the shared disruptive experience. We all experience some sort of destruction. It disrupts our perceived natural order of things.
Often times because of drinking, relationships fall apart, money is lost and pain is caused. It’s not something dreamt of as a kid, nor is it discussed in our ten year plans. The antidote to this way of proceeding is acceptance.
Often we might have a weak connotation with the word acceptance, but I look at it as full of power. I found the strongest people in the world in those meetings. Powerless over the control alcohol has? Yes. Powerful and able to accept that truth and make something out of life rather than dwelling on what could have been? Absolutely.
Often times when things happen to us we think, “Why me?” as if another person is a more deserving instrument. This stems from a seed of belief that God built a hierarchy which protects all the “good” people and wreaks havoc on the “bad.”
The sooner we get over this and get over ourselves, we’ll be able to live the serenity prayer.
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.
Trust: Today it’s often perceived as weak and simple-minded when someone places complete trust in God.
Many people I’ve talked to say that faith takes the place of reason because basically your reasoning muscles are weak so you rely on trust instead of doing the work. I’m not sure if that’s true or not. I don’t think it is, and based on my experience, this is largely an unfair assessment because I see people who trust in God as people who are extremely rational because in my eyes, often times life is irrational.
Whether you believe in God or not, sometimes life gets to the point where we start to look for answers and yearn for guidance.
In AA, recovery doesn’t happen without trust in a higher power. An entity to which we can turn and with which we can struggle. It’s not a safety blanket or a cop-out, it’s a source of power greater than anything this earth has to offer. When you think about it if the goal is to initiate a transformation can you blame someone for looking up for guidance instead of just around in the environment that contributed to the need for the change? This doesn’t mean that people can’t help bring change to our lives, AA wouldn’t be anything without the people doing the work. However, addiction wreaks so much havoc that sometimes fueling the soul while working on the body and mind is a rational way to combat such irrationality.
For me, trusting in God is the only way I’ve been able to be sober for so long. This trust has empowered me to take time to pray or go to mass every day, read the Bible, self-help books and poetry, exercise and commit myself to continue working in schools (something that keeps me honest). I ask more questions now than I did when my faith was absent. I struggle with controversial Bible passages, pastors, and the myriad of issues that come with being a believer.
Thankfully this trust has also allowed me to see the beauty in the people around me, knowing that they are all a part of the bigger picture, no one better or worse than the other.
Deception: We’re great at tricking ourselves and that is both positive and negative. I learned this in both Africa and AA.
Deception for the better – I had to go to Africa and meet a man named Juma to learn this lesson. My uncle, a role model of mine, is an adventurer. He has climbed many of the world’s tallest mountains and is not afraid of a challenge. When the invite to climb Kilimanjaro came my way as a junior in college, I didn’t hesitate to accept. At that time I was in shape because of Cross Country and I believed I was ready to make it to The Roof of Africa.
In the months leading up to the trip, my father and the rest of the crew spent plenty of time in the gym and REI.
We were ready.
Fast forward to the final 24 hours of the climb which included the summit. Juma, our guide, gave us updates on how far we had to go and because we were tired, he was getting peppered with inquiries. Most of the time he would smile and say, “Forty-five minutes.” Two hours later I realized he had told us the same answer a few times now. I remember being so angry at him. I thought to myself, “Why would he lie like that? Maybe I was planning my nutrition by how long he said he had to go? How inconsiderate!” Sure enough, he got us to the top.
It was a very difficult day because after the summit we needed to descend because of the altitude. Later that evening when debriefing about the climb I came to a realization: Juma’s deception was essential.
Sometimes when we are faced with the gravity of the entire challenge ahead of us, we fold. I think Juma knew we were intimidated and knew we were nervous. By telling us we didn’t have much more to go, he made us think we could do it. I’ve implemented this strategy in my marathon training, often times before my early morning workouts. I say that I’ll run a mile and see what happens, maybe I’ll even run home if I’m not feeling well. Well, because it’s only temporary weakness, I never end up turning around after that first mile. Just like Juma, I think God helps us believe we are capable of more than we are.
Through AA I also learned how good I was at deceiving myself, but this time it was the negative kind that kept me at the bottom of the mountain. Meeting after meeting I heard people talk about how we often tell ourselves things like “Oh that will never be me!” or “I can back off when I want to.”
These false mantras lead to destruction because the reality is quite the opposite. So many of my brethren in the room that were there by mandate by the law or a significant other and maintained the same lie, this is temporary.
Like I said earlier, I didn’t think I belonged in those rooms and for some warped reason, I thought addiction was below me. Many of the older guys in the room would often chastise the ones who seemed to be in denial. They’d tell stories and say things like, “You say you will never drink and drive or you will never steal to support the habit and then your ‘nevers’ turn into reality.”
Thankfully that hit home with me because it illustrated how we’re not automatically safe from ourselves, it takes awareness and work. The intricacies of deception are vast and I certainly never want to be someone who can’t see what’s right in front of me.
A lifetime of sobriety seems daunting to me, but I’m just focusing on hanging on for another forty-five minutes.
Before I begin I need to acknowledge a few things:
#1. I’m in recovery and have been sober since 2011. If you are reading this and you are not, that is a blessing! Rest assured that the following story is helpful (at least I hope it is) for anyone, really.
#2. I know that being sober doesn’t make me an authority on addiction or make me better than anyone.
#3. I do not claim to understand what it is like for all people who are fighting for freedom from whatever drug or alcohol that controls them. What I do understand is how powerful we are and what it feels like to be powerless.
All my life I’ve been a follower. I give way too much credit to people, build others up to mythical status, and defer to others’ opinions rather than trusting my own. This became really clear when I started drinking. I was the stereotypical spineless teenager that cared more about being accepted than doing what was right.
Despite having a childhood and a family filled with love and direction, the only way for me was wherever my friends were going. Mix in some bad skin, poor hand-eye coordination, a mediocre intellect and the recipe was complete.
To the outsider, I probably seemed like I was relatively happy. Yes, I had bad skin but it wasn’t so bad. Poor hand-eye coordination, sure but I still made the freshman lacrosse team. A mediocre intellect, but I earned B’s and kept it moving.
My issues were never to the point where I’d ask anyone to feel sorry for me. But see, the thing with issues is when they are yours, they are all you can see.
I must have been such an enigma as a kid because I had such low self-worth despite being showered with love and attention.
When I looked in the mirror I would only see my imperfections, not my cool blonde hair and blue eyes. I only talked about the times I was cut, not the teams I made. When I reviewed my report card I only saw the D’s not the A’s.
I also rarely acknowledged the faults in my friends and constantly deferred to their opinion. When I started drinking it was because my friends were, and I had no idea who I was, so I followed. Now, please don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t a victim.
After a night of drinking in New York City, my father picked me up from the train station and I reeked of booze. Knowing I needed an excuse, I told him that a drunk guy bumped into me and spilled his beer. He didn’t hesitate. “What’d he spill it down your throat?” Point taken. Like I said, I wasn’t a victim.
So often I tried to deflect blame for things for which I was clearly in the wrong. I’d come home from school with a bad grade, “Everyone did poorly!” or come home from a night out drinking with friends, “Well maybe if you didn’t get in my business so much I wouldn’t feel the need to go out with my friends!” Granted, sometimes excuses are valid, but most of the time I was just trying to avoid blame and responsibility.
It’s an extremely detrimental way to go through life and I fell into the habit of making excuses for my behavior. Why did I drink? “Well, do you see my skin? I’m so insecure. It’s the only way I can fit in!” Why did I lie? “Come on Mom, all the guys were there!” It’s really depressing.
As an adult, now when I see students fall into this trap, I can’t help but feel sorry for them. At the time, to them, it really seems like it’s the way to go. Deflect the blame and get through to the next day. The problem with this way of proceeding is that we never really leave those disappointing moments. They stay with us because they are unresolved.
I remember a couple years ago when I was talking to my parents about how I behaved in high school and my mother revealed to me that she knew all the times I was drinking. All the times I lied, she knew. All the times I used my insecurity or depression as an excuse for my behavior, she saw right through me.
The fact that she redirected me, without complete embarrassment, is magic. I was so lost and vulnerable and my parents did just the right amount of correcting. I had plenty of room to find out who I was, but not enough room to feel like I was alone or unchecked. This middle road served me well, especially when encountering the tough issues associated with addition, the toughest for me – telling the truth.
A colleague of mine once said, “See the thing about drinking when you’re young, is that you have to be a liar.” Even as adults, any time we have an agreement with someone – avoiding smoking, gambling, or talking to an ex, whatever it is, if we aren’t going to fulfill our half of the agreement, then we need to become comfortable with being liars.
As an underage drinker, in order to continue, I had to keep up the lying. I wasn’t of age, I didn’t pay the mortgage and I was dependent on staying in good graces with my parents. Unfortunately, the real person I was lying to was myself. I always had fun when I went out, but if I did something wrong, I would feel an extreme sense of guilt that was more vivid than any crazy night.
So many people would tell my parents that I was a “good kid” and talk about how proud they should be, except my behavior was not reflecting what they thought about me. I was being sneaky, doing whatever was popular, and ignoring a lot of the great advice I’d been given.
Throughout my life, I have always viewed myself as a moral and just person, but it wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I learned in order to be seen as moral and just all of the time, acting that way most of the time doesn’t cut it.
It pains me to this day that there are people out there who only knew me as a drinking buddy or in that context that think I’m a jerk or worse.
We don’t get free passes because we’re stressed, drunk, high or angry at someone else.
We don’t, because the people on the other end of those interactions have a hard time unseeing or forgetting our actions.
Now, yes we all need to practice forgiveness, but no matter what the circumstances or conversation afterward, words can’t be unsaid, feelings can’t be unhurt.
I’ve been working with middle and high school students since 2007. For the first part of my career I was drinking and it interfered with my job. Not in the way that I was drinking before work or was drunk while teaching, but because having it as a part of my life held me back from being the best role model I could be for the students.
Over time I have found the easiest way to connect with someone is by being authentic, no one likes a hypocrite. So when I was teaching Theology classes speaking about how we need to live the Good News and treat one another with respect, I can imagine some students saw through me. I had issues that needed attention before I could practice what I was preaching.
A turning point in my relationship with drinking was when I realized I was sacrificing what I really cared about for something that gave me nothing but fleeting satisfaction. I had attempted to cut back a few times to no avail.
My Sunday mornings were filled with apologies and anxiety.
I’ll never forget finally dropping down to my knees in my bedroom, distraught and defeated.
That evening, I walked into an AA meeting and with the help of God, my friends and loved ones, I’m free.
Now I have no excuse for the things I say or actions I take, there’s nowhere to hide and no place to run. This is a raw and intimidating way to go through life but it’s also fulfilling.
I no longer need to give alcohol any credit for my courage or creativity.
I can no longer blame something else for how I am.
I now own everything I do.
If you are reading this, are of age, and can casually drink without it getting in the way, please don’t think I’m speaking down to you. It’s not something I’ve been able to do. However, I think regardless of where we are on the spectrum of use, we all need a thorough evaluation of any substance, emotion or person that has power over us.
Things, thoughts, and people should add value, not cause destruction.
Movies and television make relationships out to be full of extremes. Amazing or broken. Beautiful passion or deceitful destruction. I think this is why we are all so fascinated with marriage. Two people making the decision that even with the possibility of potential tragedy they see on display in movies, television or even some of their friends’ lives, the possible amazing is worth the risk. For a long time I thought this assessment was pretty spot on, but boy was I wrong. Love doesn’t live in extremes, it might visit, but it spends most of its time in the middle of the give and take that’s necessary to sustain something truly beautiful. These are the marks of true love – mutual respect, selfless support, boundless belief. I know what you’re thinking. What do I know, right? Not much, but have I paid attention. Believe it or not, I had a third row seat.
Years ago I was at a wedding where the bride and groom wrote their own vows. Not only were they heartfelt and personal but they both mentioned the importance of building each other up, never tearing the other person down, and they meant it. She spoke about how much she admired him and with a purposeful smile on his face, he looked right into her eyes and said he would always be there for her. In that moment, I remember thinking, “THEY are in love.” They spoke with calm, but excited, conviction.
The focus on mutual respect and support is something I witness with my own mother and father. No matter what is going on, something that isn’t tolerated is breaking down the other person. There are stressful arguments at times, but it never devolves to personal attacks. Before it gets to that point it is almost as if they look at each other and know. Arguing is one thing, but desecration is another. Devolution to disrespect is off the table. They teach me that we don’t need to worship the person we are with, but we need to cherish them, at all times.
My father works with contractors and knows a lot about the intricacies of how things are built. Once he told me about a building in NYC – 432 Park Ave – that is extremely tall (425.5m) but has a base the size of a postage stamp (comparably to what it could be). The building has a 19:1 ratio of height to width and because of this, there needs to be built in floors that are open in order to let air flow. If architects didn’t include those, then the building would not be able to stay standing if there were strong winds. They also have a humongous suspended weight at the top of the building that in order to maintain balance, moves as the building sways. In order to create something so awe-inspiring, a great deal of effort needed to go into creating an intricate design that would stay standing in a storm, just like my parents’ marriage.
In the grand scheme of this world, they occupy a postage stamp. Neither has interest in notoriety, nor do they feel the need to take more than they need. In raising my sister and me, they give their time, effort, emotion, resources and most importantly, they share their foundation. Their values influence the way they live their lives each day. When my mother was a teacher she emphasized the importance of empathy and respect. Whether the students were four or fourteen, she made sure they knew how important they were to her and that if they focused on the golden rule, their life journey would be filled with meaning. She brings that same attitude home and always makes sure my father feels loved. He does the same. Thoughtful gestures, kind words and relentless support are hallmarks of his love. Together they spend time on making sure there are those built in spaces that allow the both of them to be their own person. They sway and at times it takes the great weight (their faith) to keep them balanced, but because they have dedicated their lives to building one another up, it’s going to take a lot more than some wind to bring them down. This allows them to stand tall, together.
January 21st was my birthday and more importantly, the day our nation celebrated Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and I have taken this as an invitation to deeper contemplation on his importance to my life.
Often remembered as a proponent of peace and unity, his journey was far from what he desired for others. Like Jesus in the garden, he seemed to know when his life was close to an end and like Moses, despite seeing the Promised Land, he would not get there. His prayerful and tireless work for justice included being insulted and imprisoned. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, April 16th, 1963, he penned a prophetic call, rooted in righteous frustration:
“First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”
Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
I’m constantly reminded that just because things might be going well for me and systems seem to be working through the lens of my physical well-being, this does not mean that all is well.
Roxane Gay, in a talk recently at Loyola University, spoke about how she does not endorse the word “Ally” not because it isn’t a well-intentioned attempt but simply because it doesn’t go far enough. She urged those who are white and wish to accompany a person of color, should do so in a way that suffering is shared and felt. There should be less distance.
This spoke to me because right now, by many metrics, my life is good, but since I believe God is in all people and all things, the suffering of one of my brothers or sisters should continually call me to action – compassion, companionship and shared suffering.
Last night I read a short story by Langston Hughes titled “Home” which recounts the homecoming of Roy Williams, a black man who was a musician – a violinist – returning home from Europe, due to illness. On July 28, 1932 – the day he returned – at the command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, troops forcibly removed thousands of veterans who were demanding bonus pay for service during WWI.
With the backdrop of the Great Depression which was a communal experience of shared suffering for many, Roy Williams eventually finds himself not welcome in his own hometown due to hatred and racism and ends up being lynched by a mob.
Today I was informed about what happened to Jussie Smollett. The Chicago PD released the following statement,
“Overnight the Chicago Police Department received a report of a possible racially charged assault and battery against a cast member of the television show Empire. Given the severity of the allegations, we are taking this investigation very seriously and treating it as a possible hate crime.”
We rarely ever know all the facts, and I know it’s rash to jump to conclusions, but there have been enough of these occurrences to prove hate is alive and well. This is clear.
I know there are so many positive and inspirational stories out there too. Stories of people doing amazing work – advocates who are dedicating their lives to this work, to stopping this hate – this is not to discount any of those.
When wrestling with my emotions after some of the details were reported, including the use of a rope around his neck, I am reminded of the words of Martin, Roxane, and Langston.
I am reminded of the words of Jesus – who experienced life with us, without shying away from suffering.
John 14:2-3 My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.
There is room for ALL in this world, unfortunately, even when some people are “home” they’re still not welcome.
I don’t like giving advice and would rather speak on what I personally need to do about this so all I’ll say is this: I know hatred and racism are not new but that should not diminish, excuse or normalize what is happening and it’s clear – there is no room for moderation.
Years ago, after months of lurking, I finally posted in a Facebook group.
It was one of those neighborhood groups where people would comment on various events, everything from barbeques to break-ins. Fear and aggravation dominated the page. News of car windows being smashed and lamentations about the decaying of the neighborhood got the most responses and I consumed all of them.
I always felt uneasy when some of the responses to reported violence seemed to dehumanize the accused, and even further, the neighborhood in general. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not endorsing violence nor do I think anyone should have to experience fear and I understand we all want to protect ourselves and our property. The confounding and concerning thing was that most of the comments were by people who had never experienced the crime being described, yet their responses would make one think they had, were and will.
Before eventually leaving the group, one winter when the snow fell freely and often, I decided to create a post offering my snow removal services. I said I’d shovel for free for the elderly or those simply unable to do so and for a fee for anyone else.
This post was met with absolute support and an outpouring of likes.
The next two days consisted of trudging around the city with my shovel, meeting people, clearing blocks and steps of businesses and homes. I was even invited into living rooms and offered hot coffee – a welcomed respite from the cold.
Often times I encountered an icy walkway that remained dangerous, even after the few inches of snow were removed. Even the edges of the shovel weren’t enough to break some of the ice. Sometimes I would have to walk away defeated because after all, I had a shovel, not an ice pick.
I did what I could, and both of those nights I remember feeling really good about my contribution. There was a need, and I was able to be of service and provide a temporary solution.
What I didn’t do was solve any of the bigger issues facing Baltimore city, affordable housing, racial injustices, or the disparity between educational performances in our public schools compared to those in many parts of the county.
I didn’t offer to do that, nor was I expected to do so. These are issues, icebergs that are easier avoided than faced.
Ever since that experience, every time there’s a snow day – I’m out there with my shovel. Today I cleaned off some ramps, steps, and walkways. One house I’ve cleared the past few times belongs to a woman who came to the door to thank me and told me she had the flu. I told her to rest up and went about my work. Before finishing, I encountered an icy patch and found myself again, in need of an ice pick. Roughly ten minutes later, the ice relented and the steps were deemed safe and walkable.
On my way home, all I could think about was what I had done and more importantly, what I hadn’t.
Sure, shoveling is nice, necessary and good. It was a positive way to spend a few hours and it surely helped some people in the community, but what about the ice?
This reflection has reminded me to not diminish the importance of service and acts of kindness, but to make sure that they are done properly and for the right reasons. Intentionality and execution matter. I need to be aware when a shovel is a start and is certainly better than sitting back and lurking, but it simply isn’t enough. There needs to be a conversion of the heart, enough to motivate me to spend some extra time learning and taking action concerning those icebergs and at the very least, to remember to pick up an ice pick before heading out the door.