REGULAR THOUGHTS ABOUT OVERCOMING ADVERSITY
AND DEALING WITH OUR LIVES.
In April, I will be speaking at the About Doing More summit in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
My wife’s parents have been married about sixty years.
During the past few years, their love for one another and their inter-dependence has really shone through. For instance, in the last year they owned a car, my mother-in-law, although suffering from dementia, could still drive it, but could not navigate. My father-in-law could not drive, but still could navigate. Together as a team they were able to remain mobile.
My father-in-law’s health has been declining these past few years. Recently, my father-in-law lay in his death bed in their apartment doing the hard work of dying. Sedated, and somewhat delirious, he was agitated and was swatting some imaginary thing in front of him. Nothing seemed to calm him.
Even though my mother-in-law has virtually no short term memory and cannot remember what happened only minutes ago, something inside of her knew what to do.
My mother-in-law sat by his bed, took hold of his hand, and sang to him a Swedish lullaby his own immigrant mother used to sing to him as a baby. He immediately calmed down and fell asleep.
My father-in-law died peacefully an hour or so later.
God bless them, both.
Recently, my son, James celebrated his twenty-first birthday.
James was a cute, bright, precocious little boy. We called him Jamie until he was about nine or ten years old. Upon return from school one day, he announced that henceforth he was to be called James. For a time, it was hard to comply with this new requirement. He had always been our shy, bright, handsome, little boy. Our Jamie. But, the young man, James, was just beginning to emerge on that particular day so long ago.
A few years later, our not-so-little boy explored and finally traversed his teenage years. They were, at times, turbulent years. James had to cut his mother’s apron strings and he had to forge his identity in opposition to me, his father. Sometimes James and I were face to face, man to emerging young man, butting heads together. These were stressful times, but we both endured and grew. As hard as these moments were, I insisted on staying with the encounter, even though every fiber of my body wanted to flee the conflict. I knew my son needed to struggle. I knew he needed to grow. I knew he needed a father-son relationship and not peer relationship with me.
In contrast to this, my father, who was an idealistic, faithful, strong, laconic, hard working, disciplined man, could not bear interpersonal conflict. He would state his case, sometimes lay down the law, but he would withdraw from an argument. He was by no means a coward. Nevertheless, for some reason, for him, withdrawal was the necessary and proper course. But, that course, however necessary and proper for him, left me wanting. With regard to conflict with my father, I neither had a father-son relationship or a peer relationship. To fill that void, for years I sought a father figure in my mentors.
Our Jamie has grown into a strong, well grounded, young man. I am so proud of the man he is, and is becoming. I feel blessed to be his father and by his being my son.
Happy Birthday, James!
How often in life do we yearn to cross over to the other side of some barrier. Geographically, rivers can be insurmountable boundaries stopping us from crossing over to the other side. Think about some of the rivers that stopped your progress, but you somehow were able to swim, ford, or sail across.
In childhood, we looked around at our older brothers and sisters, or playmates who could ride a bicycle, while we could only manage a tricycle. We eventually tried to ride a bicycle, perhaps with the assist of training wheels, or the steady hand of our mother or father. We tried and failed, tried and failed. Then, in an instant, we got it! We understood! We triumphed!
As teen-agers or young adults, we heard of the joys of sexuality with a true love. Yet, until that time we actually experienced that joy within the commitment of a loving relationship, we did not really understand. We really did not really know, despite all the advertisements, the movies, the songs, the magazines, the television sit-coms, and the boasts of the locker room.
As adults, my wife and I often remark about our mind-set B.C. and A.C.------before children and after children. Before the birth of our two children, we could not possibly know or understand what life would be like as parents. After the birth of our children, and after the many joys and sorrows of rearing our children, my wife and I wonder, “How did we ever live without them?”
As older adults, many of us receive a diagnosis of a life-threatening disease. Prior to the diagnosis, we spend time as freely as we use water in watering our lawns. At least here in Minnesota, the water is cheap and seemingly abundant. After a diagnosis, time becomes precious.
Each of these events is a watershed in our lives. Each is a river, the crossing of which brings us to a new world, a new world of understanding and awareness.
On the bank of which river are you standing in your life?
“Oh, Dad. You are so paranoid!” my daughter has often told me. Roughly paraphrasing an old joke, “Am I really paranoid? Or, are others actually out to get me?”
Survivors of sexual abuse often have significant trust issues. Certainly, over the years, I have had difficult times trusting others. Rather than trusting others, I have tended to structure my life such that I do not depend upon others, apart from my wife. Also, due to my professional training as a lawyer, I assume the other party will perform in any given circumstance to his benefit and to my detriment. My daughter’s and my dodging bullets several years ago in Amsterdam did not make me any more trusting of the world.
Given this background, my wife and I recently said good-bye to our now seventeen year old daughter as she flew off to, of all places, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, for a month’s vacation. In the weeks leading up to her departure, I tried to instruct her and warn her about such possibilities as pick-pockets and other assorted tricksters or criminals who would easily see she was an American tourist and might therefore target her in some way.
Mostly, she would just roll her eyes in that typical teen-aged fashion in response to my warnings. She would give me a reluctant acknowledgment signifying less that she understood and agreed with my sage advice than a begrudging, “Yes, Dad. I know. You’ve told me a thousand times already.”
As she left for the airport, I gave her a big hug. I told her I loved her and I was proud of her. I wished her an enjoyable trip. But, I held my tongue, holding back the urge to instruct her any further about evil in this world.
Some things, she will have to learn for herself. As a parent, I have to let her.
Five years ago today, my then twelve-year-old daughter and I were nearly killed while vacationing in Amsterdam when we stumbled upon an armed gangland kidnapping in progress. (I describe this event elsewhere in the website.)
As intense and deeply disturbing as the incident was, I now consider it to be a great blessing. It forced me to face my own mortality. As a consequence, it helped me appreciate each day since. It motivated me to make some positive changes in my life.
Looking back over your life, were there difficult or terribly challenging times which looked insurmountable or unbearable to you? Did the struggle and the challenge to you ultimately lead to a better life for you?
Recently, my wife, our daughter and I attended a Buddhist ceremony at the Zen Center of Syracuse Hoen-ji in New York state. Our twenty-year-old son has been studying and practicing Zen Buddhism for a few years, now. He was introduced to Buddhism as a junior in high school by a girlfriend. Now, as a junior in college in up-state New York, he decided to formally commit himself to Buddhism by taking certain vows. It was not analogous to a Christian ordination as a minister. Rather, it appeared to me as though he was being commissioned as a lay minister of sorts.
As I watched the ceremony in which my son vowed fealty to Buddhism, I was struck by, and troubled by his willing, if not eager, submission to the process. For my son, submission to something larger than himself was a choice which, presumably, would give him greater freedom.
For me, submission is more problematic. When I was a teen-ager I submitted to Steve, the man who molested me. My submission led to my subjugation. My submission confined me and led to my enslavement at Steve's hands. Expansion and freedom for my son; containment and imprisonment for me. This really nagged me during the ceremony and afterwards.
I knew I was missing something, but I could not put my finger on it for several days after I returned to Minnesota. Finally, it dawned upon me. My son was an adult, willingly consenting to the act of submission. As a twelve-year-old in 1963, I was yet a child, incapable of giving consent to Steve's subjugation and domination of me.
Over the years, I have cast off many links of the chains that bound me. It is fair to say, I have cast off most of those chains. But, every now and then, I discover yet another link in some remaining chain that, with joyful but labored effort, I cast aside.
Perhaps because we have had drought conditions in our area this year, the chorus of cicadas has been delayed until today. When I hear the song of the cicada, I am reminded of the birth of our son twenty years ago. The cicada and the birth of my son are important symbols in my life.
The cicada lives most of its life underground. It then emerges from the ground, attaches itself to a tree and sheds its skin, spreads its wings after a time, and then flies to nearby trees to sing its song of love to other cicadas. They seek out one another, mate, and both die, the female having first cut holes in a tree’s bark into which she deposits her eggs. The cycle starts anew.
In a sense, I was dead to the world from age twelve, when I was first molested, until years later as I emerged from the darkness of my life dominated by Steve, my parents’ best friend. Meeting and marrying my wife brought life and light into my world, yet I still was burdened by my association with Steve. More life and light came into my world as my love for my wife grew. Although there had been significant deaths to my relationship to Steve spread out over a decade, symbolically, that relationship came to an end in June, 1988 when a Minnesota jury awarded me a civil verdict against Steve in the amount of $1.27 million. The true flower upon the grave of that ended pathological relationship, however, was the birth of my son about two months later.
Something died. All that is left is the abandoned shell of the cicada nymph attached to a nearby tree. Something better lived on to take its place. All about me, I hear the chorus of cicadas. I rejoice in what was lost, and what was gained.
As I write, I am sitting in our backyard at a small table beneath the shade of two maple trees which were mere saplings when we planted them twenty years ago. Grape vines cover our boundary fences. Our tomatoes are ripening in the July sun. The breeze is light and cool. An armada of cottony cumulus clouds lazily sail across the Midwestern sky. Although our backyard is rudimentary and not beautifully kept, it is far more verdant than when we moved into our home two decades ago.
Nearby, our athletic, teen-aged daughter is teaching herself the basics of bicycle repair with instructional videos she found online. She intends to take a lengthy cross-country bicycle trip through rural Minnesota sometime during the next year and may need to make repairs along the way. When she sets out to do something, it will be done.
As I sit and write I listen to an Aaron Copland piece on my MP-3 player entitled “The Promised of Living” from the Tender Land Suite. I find myself overcome with emotion and gratitude for my own promise of living.
From time to time throughout the past four decades beginning when I was first molested as a thirteen year old boy, I so yearned for the promise of death. Yet, I somehow managed to lash myself to the mast of my own personal ship of state as I struggled against the siren song of suicide which sweetly beckoned me with false promises of relief from the agony of my depression.
A few years ago, as if to challenge my lack of regard for life, my daughter faced death from a head injury sustained while skiing. For a time, the left side of her body was paralyzed, she could not hear out of her right ear, and the right side of her face looked as if she had suffered a stroke. Strong young woman that she was, and continues to be, she nevertheless said, “Yes to life!” In time and through her incredible determination she struggled back to a fully mobile and athletic teen-aged life. She still has some difficulty with some things, but it is not obvious to the casual observer.
I am so grateful to God and to my daughter for her personal triumph and for her example. Today, in my late fifties, I finally join in embracing the promise of living. I say, “Yes to life!”
Recently, I have been struck by the miracle of leaves bursting out on trees and vines as they recover from the ravages of our Minnesota winter.
Looking back at my childhood and Steve’s abuse of me, it is almost as though the bright and verdant summer of my youth died off---the vital sap of my emotional and psychological well being withdrew from the leaves and took refuge deep within my roots. The leaves turned, seemingly prematurely colored as a result. Finally, the leaves fell off the tree. I became dormant with a long, long winter and appeared dead. All of this was a protective measure to ensure my survival.
And yet, spring returned and my vitality finally returned.
For each of us survivors of sexual assault and sexual abuse we often need to retreat inwards. Sometimes, we may appear dead to the world in our depression, isolation, and self-absorption. But, with time and with guidance we can emerge from our protective dormant state to flower anew.
I marvel at my life in my mid-fifties as I leave my dormant, depressed, and isolated self behind---and as I flower anew. The Middle English writer Chaucer described that process so beautifully---
When April with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced unto the root
And bathed each vein with liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower.
I am, at long last, regenerating and coming into bloom.
How much are you and I worth? No doubt, you immediately begin to think of your bank account, your investment portfolio, and your salary. Certainly we have all been trained to think along those lines. It is endemic to our practical and entrepreneurial culture. In America we are worth something only so long as we are useful to ourselves and to others.
But, isn’t there something more to our value within, or without, this parentheses in eternity within which we live? I have struggled with this question all my life. When I was a victim of childhood sexual abuse, the man who molested me measured his own feelings of self worth by all sorts of traditional means---materialistic means. No doubt he also measured his self worth by the number of boys he conquered and abused. He also seemed to measure his own self-worth based upon how much he could denigrate and control me.
I have always measured my self worth by my success in my various roles. For many years, as a student, I measured my self worth by the grades I achieved and the degrees which I earned. A salesman might measure his self worth by how many sales he has made. A lawyer might measure his self worth by how many hours of work he has billed his firm’s clients or by how many court cases he has won. Some coaches are so driven to win that if you don’t win a race or a game you are worth less, and therefore worthless, in their minds. But we cannot all be excellent students, stellar professionals, or Olympic athletes.
So, in the performance of our roles, are we worthless when we don’t achieve a perfect result? How can you maintain any sense of sanity if the answer to that question is “Yes”? I am only now, in my mid-fifties, beginning to find an answer to this spiritual dilemma.
My personal perfection is simply, “I am.” No zero to ten scale is required.
My personal imperfection lies in the performance of my various roles. I am a son. I am a father. I am a husband. I am a lawyer. I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. At any point in my daily life, I might place my performance at various levels on a scale of zero to ten. For instance, sometimes I am a terrific father--a nine or a ten. Sometimes, I am not. The same is true for each of my other roles. If I am lacking at any time in the performance of my various roles, I can chose to take steps to improve my future performance of that role. Or, I may choose to no longer play a role at which I am no longer successful.
But, in my being, I simply am. That existence, if I must measure it on a scale of zero to ten, is always a ten. It is not dependent upon winning or acquiring or achieving.