The Steam Bath Gathering


How is it possible to feel happy and sad at the same time? Recently I tasted that bittersweetness as I walked the campus of a college I attended almost 30 years ago. The landmarks of warm memories were still there: majestic buildings, the elegant gym, the cozy dining hall. Then I came to a place that held great poignancy for me: the dorm where I had proposed marriage to a young woman. She accepted and we married soon after. Despite our best intentions, it turned out to be an unhappy union. Four years later the marriage ended, leaving both of us exhausted, ashamed of our failure, and feeling foolish.

Aside from the death of loved ones, the lost love from broken relationships may well be our most common source of persistent grief and regret. It seems like the path to lasting love is fraught, with few reliable road maps. According to psychologist Sue Johnson, forming a primary, trusting love relationship is the main survival tactic for our species. It is a great mystery that most of us have to struggle so hard, risk so much, and fail so often to accomplish something so necessary for our well-being. How does anyone go through life without relationship regrets? We would like to think that if only we could wipe away these sad and humiliating experiences our lives would be just fine. Or better yet, we’d prefer being invulnerable to that anguish in the first place.

The sorrows of lost love aren’t the only painful emotions we are keen to avoid. We strive for the thrill of success in all areas of life, and we trust that achieving our goals will produce happy feelings about our places in the world. We reason the good life we seek would be better served by reaching our goals rather than being thwarted from them. But alas, we fail, we fall short, we miss the clutch shot, we commit blunders in life, and we suffer setbacks.

Our failure is often a double loss: there’s the substance of the goal unwon, but perhaps worse is the blow to one’s self-confidence to meet the demands of life, one’s damaged sense of agency in the world. The more entitled we feel to the favorable outcome, the more catastrophic is the failure to the sense of self. What does it say about me if my legitimate desire, good intentions, and best effort aren’t enough to produce success? When my insufficiencies are laid bare before my eyes, how am I supposed to feel about myself? In the aftermath of my divorce, I felt wretched.

My father reached out to me then, inviting me along on his daily trips to the town recreation center “for a light workout.” This included an extended steam bath with his friends who, like my father, didn’t mind the stifling hot steam I could barely tolerate. I enjoyed the lively and candid conversation in there, so I always forced myself to endure the heat and to listen carefully.

These were materially successful men of high stature in the community. They exchanged personal stories, generally not about their successes in life, but mostly about how they had screwed up this or that. Their accounts were hilarious and full of insight. It seemed to me they were also emotionally mature men, now literally and figuratively naked, who fully accepted themselves. They found great fellowship in their common “weaknesses” openly shared. There was no need to impress anyone with what they possessed or what they had done. There was not a hint of competitiveness in their conversation.

A frequent theme in their stories was the necessity for failure that preceded success. Sometimes the misfortune was unjust, but mostly the men were the perpetrators of their own folly. Far from feeling bitter, guilt-ridden, or regretful over failures, these men seemed grateful about how their lives had turned out. They shared a winsome humility expressed as kindness and generosity. I felt nurtured by the unguarded masculine energy in their presence, an unusual display of strength and vulnerability, and I think my father found emotional sustenance with them as well.

This was an unusual experience to have with my father. For decades our difficult relationship alternated between periods of hot and cold wars, open conflicts and long, quiet truces. Attempts to express honest feelings too often deteriorated into reactive, defensive arguments. We loved each other, but we couldn’t seem to connect in a way we both understood as acceptance by the other. I learned to avoid telling him what I really thought and felt.

In a group situation he was normally a boisterous, entertaining storyteller who commanded the room. But with these men, who seemed like apparitions through the steam, my father was uncharacteristically quiet. I believe both he and I were silent because we recognized we were in the presence of exceptional men. I came to see my inclusion in the steam bath gathering as an act of fatherly love. In generous humility, my father allowed other men to instruct his son in the higher ways of the examined life. We both benefitted because in this group we could partake in deep emotions together in an unthreatening way. In the hazy cloak of the steam bath, my father could more comfortably be my dad.

I deeply appreciated the company of these men, and yet I still struggled to accept their main message: that if I were open-minded toward my own vulnerabilities and failures, I would be a freer and stronger man. I found it distasteful, even dangerous, to relinquish the belief that my worth and happiness depended on succeeding at things, not failing. I thought that to feel free and strong required I take command over the structures in my life, to increase my sense of agency in the world.  By word and deed, these men affirmed something else: that one must recognize and accept one’s limitations to reach the place of our deepest needs.

In his book about finding one’s lifework, Crossing the Unknown Sea, poet David Whyte agrees with that view:

We have the strange idea, unsupported by any evidence, that we are loved and admired only for our superb strength, our far-reaching powers, and our all-knowing competency…. We try to construct a life in which we will be perfect, in which we will eliminate awkwardness, pass by vulnerability, ignore ineptness, only to pass through the gate of our lives and find, strangely, that the gateway is vulnerability itself. The very place we are open to the world whether we like it or not….[is real] intimacy…based on mutual vulnerability.

It may seem cliche to some that vulnerability to failure precedes success. But it is nonetheless true, not merely because ‘losing’ illuminates the techniques of ‘winning.’ Failure imparts necessary knowledge of self, which brings new meaning to both winning and to losing.

When two highly trained boxers stand in the ring, they’ve placed themselves in a position of intense vulnerability. If the fighters give their absolute best effort, they may embrace at the end of the bout, no matter who is the victor. Why the embrace, when moments before they were each trying to take the other’s head off? Because meeting a worthy adversary furthered the common quest for self-definition. A post-fight embrace may be the sign of a more nuanced and internal success for both fighters: the clarity an expanded sense of self.  What a fascinating paradox, that accepting our limitations can expand the inner life.

Limits are external forces imposed by the social structures, institutions, and relationships around us.  Limitations are the shortcomings within ourselves: the deficiencies, failures, frailties, and weaknesses shaping thoughts and actions.  One’s limitations are constantly rubbing against one’s limits, and the chafing is often measured by degrees of suffering: felt stress, anxiety, or sadness. However, seen as an opportunity for self-discovery, the friction between one’s limits and limitations produces indispensable knowledge for life. To see your limits and to understand your limitations is to know yourself.

What I observed in the older men of the steam bath was authentic humility: the emotional freedom that accompanies this acceptance of one’s own limitations when they have been truly tested.  Once accepted, the men there no longer needed to take refuge in resentment, self-pity, or grandiosity. The evidence of this freedom is a non-judgmental kindness toward others that made it pleasant to be in their company.

The Franciscan Friar Richard Rohr affectionately describes such a man as a Holy Fool for whom “…being human is more important than self-image, role, power, prestige or possessions. He can lead, partner or follow when necessary. He has it all!”

My steam bath friends were a pack of Holy Fools. They gently introduced me to a new perspective about what it meant to be strong and what it looked like to be free. Could I accept the man I was, and find my freedom and strength from an honest appraisal of myself? Could I be okay with the bittersweetness of surrendering my old and rigid view of what made me strong and capable in life?

I now grasp better how dearly I need a sober view of my limitations. This openness toward my life experience is now central to my well-being. And its lessons are more precious to me than any recognition, award, or trophy.

Posted in Depression, Divorce, dual nature, Facing old wounds, Failure, Fathers, forgiveness, freedom, Grief, happiness, Joy, meaningful life, Music, philosophy, recovery, shame, sobriety, spirituality, Suffering | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Spiritual But Not Religious

An atheist friend once caught me off-guard when she declared, “There’s a reason for everything.” It turns out she meant there is a rational, scientific explanation for everything that exists or happens, not that there is a Divine Purpose behind events. Her faith is in scientific progress to bring safety and stability to her life and to reveal life’s mysteries, given enough time. Despite this apparent secular worldview, she calls herself spiritual.

As for so many, her spirituality focuses on personal growth and her desire to be in sync with natural forces governing the known world and holding it together. This spirituality also favors ethical, psychological, and political interests more than metaphysical ones. There is no necessary belief in the existence of a spirit realm or souls that live on after the body dies, much less faith in a religious concept of God.

This disenchantment with traditional ideas of God and long-established creeds has led to popular use of the phrase spiritual but not religious (SBNR). The implication is that individualized beliefs are more consciously arrived at and are more sophisticated and equipped to handle the complexities of modern life. World religions based on the embrace of objective truth are assumed obsolete – too rigid and narrow to serve the needs of individuals in the Information Age. Acclaimed film director Martin Scorsese lamented the difficulty getting top actors interested in his religious-themed movie Silence, saying, “Several actors didn’t want to get involved with anything that smacks of religion in any way.” It’s curious that those calling themselves religious are usually comfortable calling themselves spiritual, but the point of SBNR is to maintain a clear distinction from religion.

The phrase spiritual but not religious was popularized by Bill Wilson, one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous. He believed the desire for intoxication was primarily a spiritual impulse and that alcoholics were unconsciously trying to “grope their way to God” as they sought reliable fulfillment in alcohol. In Bill Wilson’s view, religious belief requires a higher order of maturity and complexity than does mere spirituality. But even as he greatly respected religion, Wilson made clear that Alcoholics Anonymous did not require religiosity for recovery from addiction. His use of SBNR was a practical and wise acknowledgement of legitimate emotional wounds some alcoholics suffered in their religious upbringing. A large number of alcoholics also had an aversion to anything churchy, stemming from religions’ typically moralistic approach to alcoholism. For him SBNR was a frank statement of humility, the need for rudimentary spiritual assistance, and was not necessarily a declaration of permanent independence from religion. Wilson insisted, “…good theology ought to ask every man’s question: Do I live in a rational universe under a just and loving God, or do I not?” His AA sought to provide emotional room for alcoholics to get physically well while still wrestling with that question.

Wilson and his co-founder Bob Smith chose the term higher power, not highest power or God, to assist alcoholics in their efforts. Wilson and Smith might have found it ironic and maybe disheartening to see the modern practice of the SBNR idea move away from religious thought, rather than towards it.

So then many calling themselves SBNR do believe in a non-material realm and even cite experiential “touches” of the transcendent without specific mention of God. This person finds in a spiritual practice a bridge to the mysterious, and a way to gain agency over fearful and potentially threatening things in the experience of living. Love is often identified as the ultimate spiritual value, having mystical and protective properties within itself without a necessary connection to deity. God is love evolves into Love is God, with fear being the primary antagonist to spiritual growth. Oprah Winfrey espouses this approach in her faith declaration, “I believe every single event in life happens [as] an opportunity to choose love over fear.” The objective is a therapeutic one, based on a personal growth model of spirituality rather than on obedience to the will and purposes of one God, or gods, or a higher power. The road map to love means first loving the self: one must listen to oneself and follow one’s own dreams.

This approach may even lead to organized groups and communal rituals, but without a defined object of worship that is higher than the self, the desire for self-fulfillment becomes the foremost concern and the primary power with which to contend. One’s intentions are imbued with a quasi-omnipotence, attaining divinity status. If one’s intentions are faithfully released to the larger Universe, then the divine in oneself aligns with the divine in the Universe to bring the intentions to fulfillment, goes the belief.

American political discourse increasingly appropriates this self-help language to stigmatize opposing views as necessarily fear-based. Political opinions and actions are less frequently assessed in a moral context as right and wrong, or even in a utilitarian way as better or worse, but instead as choices between one view or a fear of that view. A SBNR might dismiss an opposing point-of-view as a symptom of mental instability or as an irrational fear: something-phobic.

Despite the potential inaccuracy of that linguistic ploy, it may well be that the reaction against fear, or more specifically anxiety, is common ground for both the self-described SBNR and the religious person. Every human being has a keen desire to be free from internal anxiety. This is not a new concept emerging from the uncertainties of modern life. How to understand anxiety within the human condition reflects ancient questions and conundrums between philosophy and theology. Do we reason our way to transcendence or are we awakened to it, as something revealed? Is spirituality uncovered or birthed? Are human beings like onions whose crusty, brittle exterior just needs to be peeled off to reach the pure center? Or are we tainted throughout and in need of transformation? Every side to these questions have had their true believers for thousands of years.


How then does the modern seeker find clarity with such long-standing questions that have challenged the greatest minds of all time?  I’m exceedingly reluctant to say what others should do, but here is an account of a spiritual experience that gave me some clarity I desperately needed, illuminated beyond intellect.

At age 21 I decided to give college life another try. My previous attempt was interesting but directionless, so I quit and went to work. After several low-paying jobs serving affluent people, I was resentful. So I resolved I’d never be among those who bowed to the rich. Back at a different university, I was hungry for knowledge and ambitious to learn something useful.

Despite my optimism I was very nervous about my future. But living with chronic anxiety was so normal for me that I wasn’t aware life could be conducted any other way. At the time I described myself as spiritual but not religious, though I understood very little of what I meant by that. In the midst of my confusion I had the first truly spiritual experience I am aware of, which happened shortly after my arrival on campus.

It was a Saturday afternoon and I was lounging around my dorm room when there was a loud knock on the door, a guy from down the hall. “Hey JJ, you wanna make twenty-five bucks for two hours work?” You better believe I did. This was 1979 when minimum wage was three dollars an hour, so this was good money. Off I went with him. “What are we going to do?” I asked. “Sell t-shirts,” he said.

A famous rock band was playing at the big arena on campus and there were already long lines of people outside waiting to get in. I was introduced to the boss man and he explained the deal: we were to sell bootleg t-shirts outside the arena. The official and legal merchandise happened inside the arena and were totally controlled by the band. We were illegal so keep your head down, he said, and if you see the campus police, keep moving. T-shirts were $5.00 each and I was given a box of them filled to the brim.

The boss let us in on an innovative sales technique: since we would run out of XL sized t-shirts first, we could still sell a t-shirt to someone requesting XL by reaching into the box with both hands, one hand holding a shirt and the other holding the tag that had the size labeled on it. Then, he instructed us, quickly pull out the t-shirt with one hand, thus ripping off the tag in the process. This way the buyer couldn’t see they were getting a medium or large-sized t-shirt instead of the XL they requested.

You might think cheating the customer this way would arouse pangs of conscience. But at that time, despite my claim to a personal spirituality, I placed greater value on personal shrewdness. I was determined to never play the fool for anyone. I found satisfaction in ripping off institutions and groups of people, especially if I considered the groups to be wealthy. It was vanity and avarice that really governed my thinking, but I easily deluded myself into believing I was striking a blow for the common man. I was a big fan of Steal This Book by Abbie Hoffman the Yippie leader who advocated small acts of subversive criminality to undermine the established order.

On the surface I affected a confident pose about myself, but deep inside I felt the confusion of my sloppy value system. In a conversation with a “religious” guy a week before I had asked, quite sincerely, “How do you know the difference between right and wrong?” He said, “When I’m considering the morality of an action, I ask myself two questions: Does this please God, and does this glorify God?” I had no idea what he meant by glorify God. It sounded like the kind of high-handed religious talk I was moving away from. Pleasing God seemed simple enough though, in theory. Just do good deeds.

Back at the arena I began walking around with my box of t-shirts. They sold quickly, with people gathering around thrusting five dollar bills at me. In twenty minutes I had sold several dozen and I had a fistful of cash to show for it. I was feeling flush with success, but then I reached the point where someone asked for an XL t-shirt and I had no more of them. As instructed, I accomplished the maneuver of slyly removing the tag, thus cheating the customer.

As I mentioned, this normally wouldn’t have bothered me much. I would have fairly easily convinced myself that the larger objective of getting over on a big corporation, even a rock and roll one, justified this small indiscretion against the customer. But for some reason those arguments weren’t available to me this time. My stomach felt queasy.

I stepped aside to sort out my thoughts. The two questions I’d heard the week earlier came unbidden to my mind: Was this pleasing to God? Was this glorifying to God? My stomach still hurt.

No, I decided, what I was doing was neither pleasing to God nor glorifying to God – how could it be? I immediately found the boss and gave him all the money and remaining t-shirts and told him I quit and didn’t want any payment. “What’s wrong?” he asked, holding the wad of cash. I surprised myself by saying, “It’s not honest,” the words coming out all by themselves. He smirked and said, “You’ll learn someday.”

As I walked back to the dorm a startling euphoria settled on me. At the same time I felt lifted up, like I was walking on air, relieved and happy. Back in my room I put on a record, a Beethoven symphony. The music rose and I could almost see it filling the tiny room and swirling about. I was possessed by a beautiful sweetness, completely free from anxiety, at least for now. This moment was clear, utterly sober and superior to any experience I had before. Something far more expansive than myself was present and drawing me closer.

I mark that day as my first conscious contact with a spiritual – – something. Or was it religious? This much I understood: it was something new I lacked within myself by nature, something far grander than I could then fathom, and something that changed the way I felt about living. It was exciting, like finding a treasure or falling in love. I wanted to pursue it.

I pondered my religious friend’s advice. Pleasing God was about choosing right over wrong, I reasoned. But my understanding of right over wrong was incomplete, I intuited, until I could understand the second question. What was it to glorify God?

The following Summer some help came my way. I was leisurely strolling in downtown Manhattan on a beautiful sunny day, feeling great. A man sidled up next to me, matching my pace. It was a workman carrying a large package on his shoulder.

“How’s your faith?” he asked.

A little surprised, I said, “Uh, good I guess.” He had the word Shekinah emblazoned on his t-shirt.

“What’s Shekinah?”

He said, “God’s glory.”

“Really?” There it was again. “But what is it?”

“Shekinah is the manifestation of God’s presence on Earth. With you, maybe. See ya.” He turned sharply into a building and was gone. A shiver of recognition passed through me, thinking of my uplifting experience of months before. Could that euphoria be a Shekinah? What an interesting thought this was. I no longer cared if this new glow I had was called spiritual or religious or even weird – it was just too splendid to worry about that.

This guy used the word presence – yes, it was that. A veil I didn’t know existed was lifted, certainly not by my powers of reason or imagination. A highly personal presence that was not mine had beckoned me in. It was glorious, and sublime. If this was God’s glory on Earth I was more than willing to call it Shekinah and follow where it led me.

Whatever Shekinah was, it banished my anxiety. I wondered what more I could do to glorify God. Maybe all I needed to do was stay out of the way and Shekinah would come to me as before.

In the end I settled on calling this a spiritual experience. It changed me and set me on the spiritual path I’m on to this day. A path that draws me along – I take steps without knowing exactly where the path will lead. But as I take them my natural anxiety is muted and I am aware of a growing assurance that I am going to be okay.


Posted in addiction, Alcohol and drinking, Depression, freedom, happiness, Joy, Kierkegaard, meaningful life, philosophy, recovery, sobriety, Spiritual But Not Religious, spirituality, Suffering, Teun Hocks, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Beast-Angels Like Us

Beast Angel Embrace.jpg

“I’ll never forgive myself,” Marie said, looking pitiful. I was in an addiction treatment group circle with Marie and a dozen others. Twenty years before she had a baby girl who died. Though no charges were filed, Marie admitted to us her drinking was a key factor in the neglect that led to the baby’s death. Now in her late-forties, she was struggling to face this and other failures and humiliations caused by three decades of hard drinking.

Of all Marie’s heartaches the baby’s death certainly seemed the most punishing. Our society reserves a special shaming for women judged as “bad mothers” – especially those who abuse substances. By declaring herself unforgivable, Marie gave voice to a shame heaped upon her by others and now she heaped it upon herself. Was she unforgivable as she supposed? The normally talkative group fell silent.

Finally another woman spoke up and with great tenderness asked, “Marie, are there any advantages to not forgiving yourself?”

“No, there’s nothing good about not forgiving yourself,” she answered.

“Then why do you continue to not forgive yourself?”

“I don’t know,” said Marie.

The woman persisted, but not unkindly, “I think maybe there is something you find useful about not forgiving yourself. Can you think of what that might be?”

“No.” There was now an edge of defiance in Marie’s voice.

“As long as you don’t forgive yourself for your baby’s death,” the woman said softly, “you have a reason to continue drinking.”

Now this was a twist I didn’t expect and the intensity of the insight gave me goosebumps. By the time the group was over Marie seemed relieved, her burden somewhat lifted. Why then did she collude with her miserable shame for so many years by declaring herself incapable or unwilling to forgive herself?

As they say, addiction is the human condition writ large and the shame dynamic we observe in Marie’s life is likely universal to the human condition. As Ernest Kurtz writes in his outstanding book Shame and Guilt:

Shame contains a “not” – the “not” imposed by essential limitation. That “not” is to be neither severed nor undone: it is lodged in the very essence of our human be-ing. To be honestly human is to be aware that one falls short – to accept that the ability to be is also the ability to be not. Thus, to be human is to experience shame – to feel “bad” about the not-ness lodged in one’s essence.

To say human beings feel “bad” about shame is a vast understatement. Shame is agonizing and fear of exposure leads us to expend enormous mental and emotional energy to keep shame well hidden, even defending its foul existence with declarations like, “I will never forgive myself” or “I will always feel this way.” When shame is exerting its power, we hide and human connection is lost. Shame brings isolation, alienation and loneliness. One cannot begin to measure the sum of human misery in the world attributable to this.

Why does shame feel bad? Does it have to? Kurtz observes the painful power of shame stems from how deeply rooted is our conflicted response to our dual nature as beast-angels:

Why this feeling-bad of shame? Because of the anomalous nature of the human as beast-angel, as essentially limited yet craving unlimitedness. The anomaly is inherent, for to be human is to be “both/and” rather than “either/or.” Confronted with the task of being human, one must live both its polarities: one cannot be only either… Inevitably one falls short of being either beast or angel – neither can be total so long as both are actual.

Beast-angels: rational-animals. The “angel” represented by all that is uniquely human: our reason, the ability to think conceptually, to aspire for the eternal, to live principled lives, examined lives, and maybe even to love. The “beast” in us is represented by the body and all that is demanding and finite about it. Despite its wondrous beauty it is also crude, it harasses us with its desires and attachments, and it will weaken and die someday.

In The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker bluntly states human beings are “gods who shit” and that we are typically burdened and shamed by the contrast. It’s not hard to observe people who attempt to resolve this by alternately living all one way or the other: do the “responsible” thing during the week, party hard on weekends. This is a distraction from the more difficult work of reconciling the two natures.

The process of resolving the shame-filled dread of one’s life begins with self-acceptance. Self-acceptance means accepting one’s human limitations. This cannot be done in secret, it requires renewing open connections, reversing the isolation with supportive and understanding human beings, the way Marie did it. As Kurtz puts it, …to be real is to be limited, and to be limited is to be real…. for limitation proves reality. This understanding enables joyous acceptance of the human condition. For beast-angels like us, self-acceptance bridges the gap between the two natures, reducing shame and making self-forgiveness possible. When we are okay with all “we be” and all “we be not” the fruit is sublime, spontaneous, unavoidable joy. People often speak of this experience of shame being lifted as an awakening.

The strange and wonderful paradox is this: In self-acceptance we are most open to genuine change. In self- condemnation we consent to remain the same. I often hear people talk of “finding themselves” as if the process is nothing but one happy discovery after another. But facing ourselves as beast-angels means embracing the light and the shadow co-existing within. As Ernest Kurtz writes: … accepting the reality of self-as-feared is the essential pre-condition of finding the reality of self-as-is.

Earth connected

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The Scream

Irish Speech

You wouldn’t expect an American to suffer much culture shock in Ireland; so similar are the two nations’ customs and values. But after a month living in a remote area of northwest Ireland I felt disconnected and discouraged. The people there were friendly and kind, but their Irish accents were so thick I often had no idea what they were talking about. The effort it took to listen hard for even a fragment of understanding was wearing me out.

Fortunately, Irish radio programs came to my rescue: news, interviews, music and sports broadcasts. The radio voices were still accented, but they were clear and winsome, and they eased my isolation like a conversation with a friend. Journalists were a pleasure to listen to: well-informed, direct and sincere. The melodious Irish voice made even the Farm Report interesting.

Interviews with Irish athletes were great fun, with their quirky, honest comments such as explaining how a player was absent because he was still “on the piss,” or the how certain referees were “wankers.” There were personalities with great names like Mossy Quinn being asked, “So, can the Dubliners hold on to the lead, Mossy?” I loved hearing all their opinions. One sports commentator insisted Muhammad Ali was Irish.

I recall my bafflement listening to a story about the history of whoring. It was about how in the past only men were allowed to participate in whoring. If women tried to get involved with whoring, they were beaten and imprisoned. How could that be? It took me a while, but I finally figured out the announcer was saying hurling not whoring. Hurling is a beloved sport in Ireland, similar to field hockey. That made the story only slightly less weird.

From the radio talk shows I learned the Irish people were generous and open to receiving Syrian refugees. The music programs were consistently interesting, assuming one didn’t mind half of them being about Van Morrison. I happen to like his music, and so one day an advertisement for a band that played only Van Morrison music caught my eye. The band’s unique approach was that all songs were to be sung, not in English, but in Irish.

This was intriguing, but I still hesitated because over the years I’d grown weary of live music shows. I frequently felt an awkward, self-conscious irritation with musicians for excessive “performing” – the contrived mugging and bizarre facial contortions they seem to think is required. “Just play the music!” – I want to say. I usually prefer hearing music in a disembodied way; melodies wafting through the ether in the dark, sort of like one gets from the radio. I bought a ticket for the concert anyway.

At the theater I snagged a front row seat. The crowd was middle-aged and mellow. Suddenly ten musicians pounced onto the stage and started rocking out, catching the audience off-guard.

This was good. There was something about this band that was straightforward and free of the performer’s guile that usually bothered me. I knew many of the songs with the English lyrics, but there were several songs I’d never heard before. The Irish words were mesmerizing.

For a change I felt very unself-conscious, which mirrored my perception that the musicians were sincerely into each song, and not just “performing” in an affected way. I got into the songs too and was so enthused, I ceased paying attention to the crowd around me. It was just the band and me, jumping up, whooping it up, whatever I felt. The musicians on my side of the stage seemed to notice my antics and I think they liked it, smiling at me and nodding.

One of the songs I’d never heard before was Ballerina. That title suggests something pretty and delicate, but they played the song with a hard edge. At one point the lead singer let loose a soulful howl, more like a scream. My eyes were locked on him and when he screamed, not only did he really mean it, but I felt like I was screaming as well, somehow inhabiting his scream, strange as that may sound. I’d never had that feeling before; it was connecting and transcending as if I had received the music into my body. My chest was full of emotion; the scream located dead center. In that moment an astonishing new thought exploded in my head: I don’t ever want to feel ashamed of myself again.

What in the world was that, I wondered, feeling stunned and relieved and delighted all at once. After the last song, the band ran off, but I clamored for an encore. When they came back, the musicians near me also looked delighted; laughing and giving me a thumbs up.

I left the theater feeling so light and airy, like I could fly home, but I just couldn’t go home yet. I sat down on some steps and looked around. This was Main Street Letterkenny. The Autumn air was chill, I could smell pizza nearby, and there were lively people all around. I could hear a guitar player strumming somewhere; it was Saturday night. The eyes of my soul seemed to be directed outward in all directions, even as my senses took everything in. There was no self-concern; I was accepting of everything I saw and felt without judgment.

This was an abundant state of super-receptivity, birthed by the music and the musicians, and consecrated by a scream. I don’t recall ever having screamed in my entire life. But this vicarious scream, from a song I didn’t know in a language I couldn’t understand, overshadowed my usual way of thinking things out. The scream was like a new language, received like a radio transmission, with gifts to offer.

I looked again with affection at the people streaming this way and that. This was sweet and clear and distinctly sober. And I’m thinking: Wouldn’t it be great if it were like this all the time?

Posted in Facing old wounds, freedom, Grief, happiness, Ireland, Joy, Music, philosophy, recovery, sobriety, spirituality, sports, substance abuse, Suffering, travel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Good Lawyer and a Sad Son


Once I was invited to the retirement party of a fond acquaintance, a well respected lawyer. He was a man I personally knew to be honest as well as exceedingly good at his profession. The party was fun; full of toasts and speeches commemorating the career of this good and admirable man. He sure helped a lot of people. Here was a guy who had really made it, and he did it in the right way.

After the formal part of the festivities, the guests were scattered throughout the large, bright room, happily socializing. I noticed the guest of honor, the lawyer, quietly slip away through a side door of the room with, if I wasn’t mistaken, an expression of alarm. I followed my hunch and found him in a secluded spot, very upset.

He was ready to talk about a topic I didn’t expect: his troubled relationship with his father. The father had been a cold man, stingy with affection and praise. This retirement party, overflowing with praise and appreciation, stirred memories of the lawyer’s intense longing for the praise and appreciation of the one important person who withheld it, his dad.

His father respected professional men – doctors and lawyers – so the son went to law school. On graduation day, the father remarked that a man wasn’t “a real lawyer” until he passed the bar exam. On the day the son passed the bar exam his father responded with a frown, “Well, do you think you can handle it?”

I kept quiet and listened, aware I was seeing this dear man’s deepest wound. His eyes were wet and his face a mix of despair and choked anger. He was now nearly seventy years old, his father long dead. On this day, dedicated to celebrating his own well-lived adult life, his wound, begun probably in childhood, still festered inside. His experience is well described by the poet Robert Bly: “If a young man is not being admired by an older man, the young man is being wounded.”

What does it feel like to carry this kind of pain day after day, year after year; a deep pain that never really goes away through the seasons of life? We don’t have to wonder for very long because I think we all know. It is part of the universal human condition to be wounded in some way, and every one of us is vexed by the remnants of emotional injury.

We could hear laughter from the party. The lawyer gathered himself and we went back in. A short time later he too was laughing with the guests, looking as though he hadn’t a care in the world. But I was still disturbed. His poignant description of a pain carried too long called forth my own hidden pain, now agitated and asking for attention.

Later I reflected on the difficulty of resolving, not to mention healing, this kind of damage to the inner life. No matter how well put together people are on the outside, every jack one of them has a secret place deep inside that is a repository for their worst personal pain. It is the dank, dark basement of the soul with thick walls, where nobody wants to go. In East of Eden, John Steinbeck describes it this way, “Everyone concealed that little hell in himself, while publicly pretending it did not exist – and when he was caught up in it he was completely helpless.”

Feeling helpless and vulnerable is dreadful, and we may do anything to avoid it, and so we tend to push down our deepest pain. But emotional pain doesn’t always do as it is told; in fact, it never does for long. Though confined, it eventually surfaces anyway, but often in disguise as depression, anxiety, shame or self-doubt, or even physical illness. Hidden wounds don’t want to remain hidden. Still, a man hiding his sorrow is as old as the human race.

In his book The Examined Life, Stephen Grosz describes how we may feel trapped by our wounds, imprisoned by our own hidden history and react to it by repeating mistakes and self-defeating behaviors. Yet those same mistakes and self-defeating behaviors are also emissaries, delivering messages about something inside needing attention.

Grosz describes the experience of American soldiers captured during the Vietnam War. The soldiers, often kept in brutal solitary confinement, learned to communicate with each other through an ingenious system of tapping a code on the walls of the cells that separated them. Their tapping and listening skills became so sophisticated that they were able to discern, through only a few taps, the mood of the message sender; if he was hopeful or depressed, for example.

Grosz quotes philosopher Simone Weil on this same phenomenon of prisoner tapping: “The wall is the thing which separates them but it is also their means of communication,” she said. “Every separation is a link.” Walling off our emotional wounds to protect ourselves from further suffering is an understandable impulse. But the pain imprisoned inside us is tapping on the wall, always tapping, trying to forge a link to the conscious mind, to be understood, to be accepted, to be healed. Weil says the wall, “…is the barrier. At the same time it is the way through.” What beautiful irony that is; fortunate for us because it suggests the possibility our suffering, while often hideous, may contain the seeds of its own redemption. Our agonies and traumas are not meaningless; they can serve a greater good. May I suggest one of those greater goods?

One of the grotesque things about emotional woundedness is its cozy relationship with shame. The wound is bad enough by itself, but then we, the wounded, heap additional shame upon the wound. The shame is the jailer, keeping the wound locked up in darkness and secrecy, where it remains infected and able to exert its serpentine influence. Quite often the biggest difficulty to facing the deep wound is getting past the shame that blocks access.

Entrenched shame does more than perpetuate misery from the wound, however. Shame is also an enemy to intimacy in relationships. And now we get to the heart of the matter. Here is the sensational greater good that emerges from the courageous work of facing old wounds.

By sharing our pain with a worthy other, someone who can listen with affection and not judgement, we begin learning how to become known, to be seen as we are: first to another, then to ourselves. We begin to experience the nourishing relationship between self-acceptance and intimacy, which is essential for the art of giving and receiving love with our whole self.

Beyond wounds, beyond grievances, beyond acclaim, beyond professional and material success, even beyond great sex, meaningful love reigns supreme. Love, based on the truth of who we are, is the pearl of great price.

Who would have thought that the dreaded experience of woundedness could be connected to the much desired attainment of love? In the pilgrimage of life everything is connected, even as we attempt to disconnect things.  You can see how holding onto old pain could be an effective defense against the risks of true intimacy.

But it’s not really effective because we hear the tapping.  As my lawyer friend discovered on his day of celebration, his greatest sorrow showed up as well; an uninvited guest, but one that would not be denied admittance.

“Every separation is a link,” is a terrifying and wonderful statement. Intentionally seeking out our hidden pain may seem impossibly frightening at first, but if we incline our ears to the tapping and move towards the wall, we may end up getting what our wounded souls are really looking for.

Posted in Depression, Facing old wounds, Grief, happiness, recovery, spirituality, Suffering | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Need to Read

Calvin 2For book lovers, being stuck in a place without something good to read can be a painful affair. I found myself in that position recently in the remote, small town of Buncrana, Ireland.

I finished the books I had on hand and had no success finding anything interesting in the disorganized book bins of the “Charity Shops” on Main Street. A kind soul told me there was a funky used bookstore in Letterkenny, a larger nearby town. Fortune smiled on me because just then a bus going to Letterkenny rumbled down the street. I flagged it down and off I went. A car would cut the travel time in half, but lacking a vehicle I resigned myself to enduring forty-five vacant minutes on the bus without anything to read.

Once on-board though, my attention was piqued by the other passengers. There was a young couple in lively conversation. The woman’s speech was clear enough, but the man’s rapid and thick Irish brogue was as indecipherable to me as Swahili. It was fun trying to speculate on what he said by what she said.

We passed a bus going in the opposite direction. Our taciturn driver and theirs exchanged a polite wave. How do I know it was a polite wave and not the wave of old friends, or of rivals, or of brothers? I don’t. I wondered what the two men’s stories were.

An elderly man sat a little ahead of me across the aisle, silent and motionless. Suddenly he lifted his head in time to see a small stone church with a graveyard pass by. Communing with a grace or a grief known only to him, he gently crossed himself.

This led me to direct my attention to my own inner world. Why was I even on this bus? Oh yes, book hunting, but why? It’s fun, but what was I really after? The joy of reading and learning? The avoidance of boredom? Maybe, but there was something else. As I thought about my need to read, a fifty-year-old memory startled me.

When my older sister first went off to kindergarten, I was bereft. To console me my mother took me on walks through the neighborhood, saying, “Let’s see if we can find something important!” This was great fun. My little world came alive with the thrill of the hunt as I focused my attention on items I usually ignored. I picked up a bottle cap. “Mom, is this important?” It was important to my sister, who used bottle caps for her artwork. Into my pocket it went. There’s a stick, twisted in a weird way. How about a soda can? No, not a keeper. Finding a penny was like gold.

Irish BusPondering this memory while on a bus rolling through the Irish countryside I entered into an extraordinary feeling of connection with my mom and with my curious younger self. Surely in my present book hunt I was reenacting something, likewise hoping to “find something important.” I felt full and rich as I sat with these feelings linking past and present; a small but pleasing insight into my current behavior. Whatever mental state this was – excitement, contentment, love – I was in a good place. This bus ride was anything but vacant. The thrill of paying attention coincided with the joy of discovery; the delight of finding meaning and value where I previously thought there was none.

The gentle sweetness of this recollection reminded me to regard my attention as a precious thing, and to be more selective about where I placed it and not to squander it. This can be quite a challenge in a world that presents so many options for what to look at, listen to and think about. It is far easier to passively respond to whatever presents itself the loudest or most urgent. This passivity can foster a sort of “learned helplessness” leading to a dependency on the loud and urgent for motivation.

Knife in outletA common example: a man is unable to complete an assignment until the deadline looms, thus creating an artificial urgency without which he can’t command his energies and focus his attention to complete the task. The man insists he “needs” the tyrannizing last minute pressure, because without it he believes nothing is happening within himself to draw from.

There are times in my day I am tempted to think nothing is happening, like when riding a bus or being in between this or that activity. This practice of directing my attention to the present moment, what is going on around me and within me right now, has proved to me that in the spaciousness of the human body and soul there is never nothing happening.

Practicing this attentiveness, sometimes called mindfulness, requires effort, but what a thrill when our powers of attention grow strong and nimble and can be employed freely. Perhaps the common usage of the term “will power” is better understood as attention power. This is a high order of freedom when achieved through natural effort. Yet the process can seem puzzling: I am doing something intentional, but I’m not fully in charge of the outcome. It is not the same as fantasizing or daydreaming as there is more discovery than creation going on, more surrender than orchestration.

This cultivated inner space has become a mental and emotional sanctuary for me; partly a place of refuge and also a place to do active work, seeing what’s there and trying to understand it. It is a safe place where I can “find something important” among things previously ignored as insignificant or too unpleasant. There I discover a need of mine that goes well beyond my immediate desires: the need to read the self. This kind of sanctuary is sometimes bittersweet, but even then it is a lovely and meaningful place to be. And, I believe, it is within the reach of every person.

Posted in freedom, happiness, Joy, meaningful life, philosophy, sobriety, spirituality, travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Endings and Beginnings

Hippo ParentsAs a kid, after my parents put me and my sisters to bed, I would sometimes sneak back out to a hidden spot on the stairwell to eavesdrop on the adult conversation. My mother and father seemed happier at that time of night, and I was soothed by their relaxed voices and unguarded laughter. I suspect I also hungered for a secret connection with them and for reassurance that the grown-up world was well in control of everything good in life.

Around that time President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I was five years old. My strongest memory of that event was how upset the grown-ups were, and how uncensored were their distraught reactions in front of me as the news spread. I had no anxiety about the reality of death, unaware as I was at that age of endings and beginnings, so this window into the adult realm was exciting. It felt as if I were eavesdropping on the whole grown-up world.

A few weeks after that, an old man who lived on our street also died. This was my first encounter with the death of someone personally known to me and it did upset me. When someone dies it means they go away, I realized. I became concerned about the most important old person in my life, my grandmother.

“Mom, is grandma going to die?” I asked.

“Oh, don’t say that!” she said, wincing. And so we didn’t talk about death. But I sure wanted to talk about it, and I did with an older boy on my street. He let me in on the shocking, if open, secret: “Everybody dies someday,” he said. “Even you.”

His words hit hard. If I was going to die someday, then where would I go? The grown-ups’ Man Floating Awaysevere reactions to the President getting shot now had a different feeling to it. Everybody dies someday. If the grown-ups were not in control of this then who was? I recall a sharp increase of anxiety in my life at that time. Dying wasn’t just for old people, and I was certain I didn’t want to die.

By nature everything in us fights to live, and yet that’s ultimately a losing battle. The billions of human lives currently on Earth will nearly all be gone in another century, replaced by others who will also die. The suggestion of meaninglessness and possible annihilation could easily tempt one to cynicism, despair, or worse. Joseph Conrad Heart of Darknesscaptures the sickening emptiness in the bald apprehension of death through his narrator in Heart of Darkness:

I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable greyness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamour, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid skepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary.

No wonder my own sweet mother found death difficult to talk about. But we must talk about it and face the anxiety that may attend it. As psychologist Irvin Yalom writes, “…given the centrality of death in our existence, given that life and death are interdependent, how can we possibly ignore it?” Well, we can’t truly ignore the terror of death for long, nor should we. “Though the physicality of death destroys us,” Yalom continues, “the idea of death may save us.” An intriguing paradox for sure, but how do we make sense of it in the present?

We find help in an essay entitled Ignorance, by philosopher Wendell Berry, where he expounds on how a human being, properly subordinated to the limits of his human nature and life, may experience, not terror, but simultaneous grief and joy, where death and life embrace as collaborators, not adversaries.

To illustrate, Berry describes one of the fascinating subplots of King Lear where the Earl of Gloucester, once a politically powerful man now blinded, destitute and suicidal, is aided by Edgar, the son he falsely accused and drove away. Edgar conceals his identity in order to help his blind father.

In an intense father-son role reversal, Edgar becomes his father’s physical and spiritual Gloucester and Edgarguide, leading the despondent Gloucester into thinking he’s thrown himself off a cliff to die, when in reality the Earl leaps off only a small rise of ground, high enough to be jarring but not fatal. Edgar, the consummate benevolent trickster, pretends further to be a passerby who, after witnessing the failed suicide attempt, proclaims these transformative words to the still despairing Gloucester:

Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again.

Edgar’s life-affirming, grown-up words eventually call Gloucester back from the childlike despair and anxiety that led him to give up on his humanity, Berry observes. When Gloucester was able to look past the earthly reality of life and death to embrace the miraculous, rooted in the sublime mystery of human existence, his humanity was restored and his life preserved. Somewhere between the fearful child-self and the grandiose god-self was the actual man, whose life was worth living.

Gloucester, like Lear, was guilty of the hubris of the powerful that thinks human life may be agreeably and reliably manipulated if one is powerful enough or shrewd enough. In his arrogance, Gloucester “treated life as knowable, predictable and in his control,” writes Berry. This mechanistic view denies the miraculous and the mysterious, and regards life as a commodity subject to man, rather than man being subject to life and its constraints. As they say in the 12-Step recovery world, unless we accept life on life’s terms, we are headed for misery.

Misery came to Gloucester in his crushing fall from power, leading him to give up on his human life and choose death, though suicide is not the only way to give up on one’s humanity, Berry contends. Gloucester gave up on his humanity long before his political defeat; his desire to die was merely a further representation of his hubris. “Gloucester’s attempted suicide is really an attempt to recover [god-like] control over his life – a control he believes (mistakenly) he once had and lost….The nature of his despair is delineated in his belief that he can control his life by killing himself,” writes Berry.

A modern day version of that hubris may be the common belief that with enough time, talent and money one can get everything one wants in life. But the obvious reality is that man did not birth himself and making himself a god cannot prevent loss and grief and death. With one foot in life and the other in death, the warped and fallen god-man Kurtz in Heart of Darkness urges us to avoid his fate; his warning offered in his death whisper: “The horror! The horror!”

According to Wendell Berry, and perhaps William Shakespeare, grasping that “life is a miracle” involves releasing one’s ultimate trust in human agency – the desperate pursuit of a life without limits – which is an anxiety-ridden quest for the un-miraculous.

Gloucester eventually takes heed to this warning and has a different end than Kurtz. He Gloucester Restoredrecognizes, for possibly the first time, the truth of his limits, his endings, which yields a strange and peaceful joy out of his grief – a new beginning. He reclaims his life, and his inspired utterance is almost a psalm:

You ever-gentle gods, take my breath from me;
Let not my worser spirit tempt me again
To die before you please.

Twenty years after JFK’s death, at a time I felt great anxiety about the grown-up world I was now supposed to inhabit, I was at my precious grandmother’s bedside in the hospital. She was unconscious, and dying. I was trying to talk to her, hoping she could hear me. One of my uncles arrived and stood at the foot of the bed and began to cry, which provoked others present to cry as well.

Upset and frightened as I was, I might have cried too, but I didn’t. Instead, a mysterious awareness settled on me, a peaceful and ecstatic touch, that made all other concerns pale in comparison. I suddenly had a strong sense, even a knowledge, that my grandmother was going to be alright in death, and that I was going to be alright in life. It was the utmost opposite of anxiety, a simultaneous ending and beginning, and it was awesome. As I witnessed the end of a life I loved – my grandmother’s – Life itself seemed far more expansive and grand than I imagined before. It wasn’t something I needed to make different or control. Life just was, and it was good. In that miraculous moment I was enabled to better accept Life on its own terms, how it begins and ends, to be okay with my existence in it, and also be okay with the “ever-gentle gods” who will decide my death, when it pleases them.

Posted in Depression, freedom, Grief, happiness, Joy, meaningful life, philosophy, spirituality, Suffering, Suicide | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment