Grief Recovery For A Lost Society

Our United States have been torn with violence and grief. A season of brokenness seems to grow with each new event of loss. It seemed that not a breath passed after Orlando – the largest mass shooting modern U.S. history – than our entire country viewed and felt the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castil. Only a few days later our hearts were torn again as we witnessed our public servants gunned down during what was intended to be a peaceful march.

I live in Chattanooga, TN. For us the wounds of grief only a year past are still fresh. This weekend we remembered and honored the five servicemen that were lost on July 16th, 2015 – Randell Smith, Carson Holmquist, Squire Wells, David Wyatt, and Thomas Sullivan. Checkout this 30 for 30 short here.

After all that’s happened it is really easy to be angry or shout statistics about gun violence or systemic racism. It is really easy to target the president or those that stand across the political isle on facebook and twitter. Those on the opposite side of the isle are infuriating! Right? Or… Left? Didn’t you know that gun sales are booming and boom after mass shootings? Didn’t you know that a disproportionate amount of mass shootings are related to gang and domestic violence? Haven’t we learned that blacks and Latinos are 30% more likely to be pulled over than whites and three times more likely to be searched? Haven’t you seen the statics, the videos?

I have consumed it. The challenges facing our present moment are more available for consumption than ever before – instant access, viewable in our pockets at any moment. I have been increasingly drawn into feelings of anger, disappointment, and grief, but mostly anger. I believe that in our United States, no matter what side of the isle you may stand, we are addicted to anger, feeding off it. Anger is a drug and its often unconscious. My experience is that the degree I toss blame at others is always in direct proportion to my inability to take responsibility for my feelings and actions.

I’ve been about the work of healing for some time now. Most recently I’ve been immersed in Grief Recovery. I’ve read enough about grief to know that it is deeply neglected by most people. As individuals deny the process of grief after loss society as a whole suffers. The increasing amount of violent mass shootings in our country is point-in-case and is symptomatic of accumulated, repressed pain that has no healthy outlets. Our great social institutions – family, school, church, government – offer few tools to negotiate and heal from grief.

The messages/tools most of us receive growing up are clear. Crying in public is shunned. Wipe away your tears quickly. Don’t let anyone see. Often we cry alone or not at all. We immediately try to quiet a crying child with incentives – “Cookies and milk?”  Later in life we try the same strategy on ourselves: drugs, alcohol, sex, hyper-exercise, workaholism, binge-watching or eating, even religious fanaticism, even violence. Doctors consistently mis-diagnosis grief and prescribe anti-depressants or mood-stabilizers. Or we cope with grief by attempting to quickly replace the loss with another object – offering the child a new dog or jumping from relationship to relationship, cross-addictions. Grief irrupts as anger or depression even in folks we would consider relatively productive and happy. We explode or act-out and often we don’t know why!

Loss is profoundly impactful and inescapable. It is not only encountered during the loss of life – as in the death of a loved one; it is felt when one loses a pet, a business, health, an intimate relationship or even an ideal, expectation, or dream. I have been learning that there are better strategies to receive, honor, and integrate grief – more holistic and sufficient strategies offered through grief recovery. We explored a few of those tools this past weekend.

The framework of grief recovery has a great deal in common with the 12-step process; much of the practice felt very familiar to the 12-steps. Openness. Honesty. Willingness. The willingness to practice grief and relationship inventories, the openness to participate in group processing and be guided by the frameworks of recovery created opportunities to heal from our grief.

In one conversation we were discussing forgiveness. Forgiveness is a skill, an action word. Like faith, love, or even death, forgiveness is my responsibility. No one can forgive for me, like no one can suffer for me or die for me; it is my duty and how I respond to that task is my gift to the world. One of my favorite books is Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl. In it he speaks to this point:

When a man finds that his destiny is to suffer (or grieve), he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bares his burden… (and speaking about his experience in the concentration camps) Once the meaning of suffering had been revealed to us…there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer (grieve).

Grief and mourning are natural responses to being human, to honestly encountering the human condition without fear or distraction. Grief is absolutely emotional and bound up with our unique spiritual calling. Our grief is the pathway towards generational healing. Taking responsibility for our own grief, embracing the courage it takes to fully feel our pain, and practicing the art of healing through specific action-steps creates space for us to be more alive, and future generations benefit as we intervene, rupture, severe the lines of pain that flow through our society, family, history, experience.

 

 

A New Church

Recently, I’ve been witnessing the growth of a new church. I’m attracted to growing things. Spring is evident everywhere and its outstandingly beautiful in Chattanooga, TN. Today I sit on my back porch looking over the back yard at the vibrate greens embracing my vision. There is a pear tree – probably older than I am – full of new leaves. I just noticed the emergence of tiny little buds that will soon be pears. Much in my life has this quality currently, especially a little community of seekers at a church called White Oak in Red Bank, TN. This particular church holds a great deal of meaning for me. I’ve returned to this church my entire life. My father insisted that I join him there each Sunday during my childhood. His parents were attending and he had grown up there so I too grew up there. I carry this history with me in the present which makes this church’s growth deeply meaningful.

But there’s much more here. Over the past month church has meant more to me than I can remember, at least since I was at Glide in San Francisco over a few years ago. I have been genuinely moved during our services. The critically corrosive thoughts that typically swayed my mind during worship have fallen silent. I have noticed the space in my heart to feel connected and that feeling has a quality of the miraculous.

This past Sunday I witnessed the pastor celebrate a moment of true spiritual experience. She accepted the membership of her father into the church. This sounds nice already, but the history of healing and transformation that stood testament in that moment was much more than nice. It was a miracle. Pastor Amy spent years looking up to her father. Her father spent his entire life as a Church of God minister – a denomination that unabashedly rejected women in ministry. Still, in reverence and faith Amy thought of nothing else but following in her father’s footsteps as a pastor – practically an insurmountable challenge facing the denominational sign that read: “No girls allowed.” This little girl, with a persistent heart, spent years under the shadow of discrimination based on gender and pressed forward in pursuit of her calling despite convention, family criticisms, and religious dogma. Last Sunday our entire congregation witnessed the power of transformative grace and generational healing when a loving father whose heart had been melted by a determined, faith-filled daughter publicly announced his membership and unwavering support of pastor Amy’s ministry.

I haven’t witnessed such a spiritualized event in a church in a long time. It was more than just generational healing. It was an another event that symbolized an entire religious movement to overcome gendered oppression. It was a spring time event in a new church.

 

 

Thinking About A World View

I’ve spent the better part of an undergraduate degree and two successive master degrees thinking about a worldview. I grew up and still find myself situated deeply within a Christian worldview. Admittedly, it would take the intimacy and care of thinking, loving Christians to recognize me as such. Nothing about my worldview would necessarily be recognized by the majority of Christians as having anything to do with “Christianity.” I’m more rightly sized as a secular-Christian critical pluralist. I think all religions express aspects of divinity, threads of perennial wisdom, and are challenged with problematic dogma. For those initiates, I would sail my boat into the seas of panpsychism, a view that the entire cosmos is imbued with aspects of consciousness or even further, a cosmotheanthropic (Cosmos, Divinity & Human) play of complementary and complex matrices of being and becoming, but I digress.

I’ve been reading a great book recently. Perhaps, its a book that has brought this thinker back to books. I have been on leave from scholarship, research, thinking, and writing for some months. The book’s title is The Road Less Traveled authored by Scott Peck. It was written on the precipice of my birth, in the late 70s, but didn’t find the best seller lists until much later after circulating and reaching popularity through the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous. Rarely do I speak of a book so highly, but the entire book is helpful. It reminds me of the Frankfurt School of thought and of Eric Fromm’s insightful work in particular.

Section III is entitled “Growth and Religion.” I realize that most of my readers will find the following commentary agreeable, even obvious. Those I would like to write for, for whom this commentary would really benefit will unlikely read it. It is largely written for those whose convictions find them in church. I’m learning how to write for those persons whose beliefs still define Christianity and especially those leaders whose voices influence entire congregates of believers. With that confession out of the way, Peck believes, as do I, that despite one’s ideas about religion – whether they believe in the God of Christ, practice Buddhism, or profess agnosticism, whether they “think” they have a religion or not – everyone has a world view, a religiosity. And further, that despite religious affiliations or non-affiliations, world view’s are as diverse as the individuals who hold them. There are atheists whose actions of love outshine the best Christians and there are Christians whose commitment to capitalism is so faithfully blind they will perform the most un-ethical deeds in service of profit motive despite or in advance of Christianity. Often a persons world views are generally unconscious – the atheist is often unconscious that his/her rejection of God is not a rejection of “God” per-say but a rejection of a particular conception of divinity or world view – he ‘rejects’, the God of classical theism or that of Jesus or a ‘Universal Order’. Through and through, Peck finds that one of the largest problems with people’s conception of religion is their narrow perspectives about the world and reality. These limited and limiting views produce all sorts of challenges: unproductive judgments, shame, institutional corruption’s, psychological neurosis, and in some cases violence.

His point strikes a resonant cord, especially as I begin a professional path as a life coach in the heart of the Bible Belt. Over and over I witness the cultural and individual challenges created by the confusing relationship between religion and reality. Easter pasted recently and churches all over the planet, especially in the Southern United States celebrated the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The story has captured the faith and convictions of countless believers for over two millennia, but while the rest of the world moves on to reinterpret this story in light of the last 500 years of conscious evolution – thoughtful science and information – the majority of churches are simply being left behind.

In an interesting aside: The Left Behind series was super popular among Christians all over the US, but not for the reason you might expect. The series was entertaining and made a great deal of money for its authors, making Hollywood out of the the Book of Revelation. But, if we look deeper into the success the series tells us another story. With a little insight into the collective unconscious we see that the entire Left Behind series is the externalization of a collective Christian unconscious fear – that it has been and continues to be literally “left behind” by contemporary culture. It functions as a piece of entertainment kitsch, a psychological catharsis for an entire Christian community blinded by the very symbols they claim save them, a collective character defect of unwillingness and lack of humility at the heart of its own decline. For more on the churches decline see here and here.

What’s more is that the faith as a whole is generally unconscious as to the reason why their popularity is declining. They find themselves curious why their numbers, on the whole, have been steadily decreasing over the last few decades. “More Jesus” has always been the rallying cry to spur growth, yet “More Jesus” is a call to again embrace an old world view, one that consistently asks the believer to compartmentalize reality for the sake of their faith.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the problem I had with the Christianity I grew up with was that it wasn’t big enough to hold space for the history of science and human diversity. I heard over and over that all “others” – non-Christians – were going to Hell. I saw countless of my peers outright reject biological evolution because they couldn’t fit the science into their faith. Whereas so many chose to ignore the science, indeed all voices that challenged their faith, I sought to enlarge my faith. My faith would include and transcend reality – the history of science and religious diversity all became ground work for the development of my faith.

Change is hard work, and especially difficult when what’s changing was supposed to be absolutely foundational and unchanging. It took years of education to change and it was frightening at times because I knew I was “leaving the fold” of my community, family, church, friends. I had to risk alienation and suspicion to develop my faith. What I discovered was an entire culture that had already made the leap into an entirely new kind of discernment – a new world view. I had the privilege of an education with nurturing, critically rigorous instructors guiding me step by step into a new world view. I worked hard to clear the baby from the bath water and re-integrate – resurrect – my faith after criticism.

The average churchgoer is still frightened by rigorous honesty. Reflecting back on Easter again, when I say that I don’t believe that Jesus’ body literally rose from the grave it is in fulfillment of my faith, not despite it. I respect my faith far too much to burden Easter with the fallacy of literalism. My faith reads the Easter story as a powerful archetypal mythos that communicates some of the deepest human revelations about God and our universe. My faith stands in awe of science, not against it, and it celebrates the inherent mystery which ties me to a common humanity and Christian legacy.

It is the case today that far to many Christians are desperate to make the Easter story, indeed all of Christianity, determinately literal, final, and authoritative – a fixed statement of faithful superiority over all other world views nicely securing every believer’s place in Heaven. The rallying cry has barely changed from the pulpits: “You must believe in the risen Christ to go to Heaven!” – a message that looks more and more like the fundamentalism popping up in Islamic factions – growing more and more radically uncompromising in their beliefs the more the world around them leaves them behind. And History – with a big “H” has and will continue to leave them behind. ‘History’ is a professional at separating the wheat from the chaff, and it dispassionately vanishes what refuses to transform.

All over the interwebs there were zombieism memes about Easter. Do the faithful find them curiously insulting? Or do they get the joke because they secretly know themselves: “It’s not really true… just symbolic.” I have to imagine those lost to comedy have judgements of their own, feeling pity for the world of “non-believers” surely going to Hell – paradoxically succumbing to their own judgement as more and more people leave the church because the enlightenment they offer fails to outweigh the ignorance.

I have to be careful here. In the past I have been prone to throw stones and yell “WAKE UP!” from the ivy towers of academia. I have to remember that honesty without compassion is brutality. It’s an easy judgment against an entire religion – easy to depersonalize. When I reflect compassionately, it took years of education to let go of inadequate ideas and emancipate my faith filled world view. Please check out the book, The Fight of Peter Fromm for an outstanding read through the evolution of Christian thought out of deep fundamentalism. The book is grounded in arguments that span the 20th centuries most competent and persuasive theologians.

To conclude: Peck writes, “To develop a religion or worldview that is realistic – that is, conforms to the reality of the cosmos and our role in it, as best we can know that reality – we must constantly revise and extend our understanding to include new knowledge of the larger world. We must constantly enlarge our frame of reference…Most of us operate from a narrower frame of reference than that of which we are capable, failing to transcend the influence of our particular culture, our particular set of parents, and our particular childhood experience upon our understanding. It is no wonder , then that the world of humanity is so full of conflict.

 

 

 

2015 – A Few Things I Learned and Relearned

I was inspired to write this blog after I read Jeremi McManus’ blog post recently. A former roommate and long-time friend, I don’t feel bad almost plagiarizing his title and idea – because I liked it and what are friends for? Find his post here.

Over the course of 2015 there were many lessons learned and relearned. I can’t pretend to create an exhaustive list nor aim to, but here are some of the highlights from the year.

1) People would rather see a sermon than hear one.

I was leaving a dinner with family just the other evening and I heard myself tell my father perhaps the one fact of my life that I am most proud of… My father’s job is to consistently remind me that he’s waiting on me to become the bread winner of the family. All he has to do is bring up my career, and though I’m almost immune, I’m still instantly transported back to the little boy intimated by the demands of his father. “When are you going to get a real job, Adam?” I quickly assured him that I was taking steps to work on just that, but I needed more. I had to come up with something more powerful that reminded us both that I’m on the right path. The answer? – my sobriety. It’s humbling and powerful, but it is the greatest work I’ve ever accomplished. I learned and re-learned this fact all year in the rooms of recovery. There is no other substitute for living more sufficient than spiritual principles. I got this beautiful moment to reflect with my father about how important my recovery is for my nephew. He witnesses how I live – though imperfectly – day by day according to spiritual principles. My life speaks the message my voice communicates. As I walked away from my father I remembered the line so many old-timers in the rooms of recovery have spoken, “I would rather see a sermon than hear one.” In that moment he remembered that he was proud of his son too… despite my waning financial adolescence.

2) Tears are still absolutely essential.

I’ve had my fair share of up’s and down’s this year. Joy has been abundant and continuous. I have grown immensely as a professional teacher, an active participant in family and community, discovering more of who I am. AND, this year the tears have been plentiful. The sadness over losing an amazing teaching job that I loved. The mourning over losing my last grandparent just recently. And omg…was I diagnosed with skin cancer this year? Yes, plenty of tears over that too. Don’t be concerned, I’m fine – the new scar I have goes with me as a constant reminder that when in doubt, question doctors – they’re absolutely imperfect.
I’ve written a fair amount on the power of tears in the past. Tears are one of those indispensable opportunities to shed pain and connect deeply with our lives. In fact, I don’t believe there is any other substitute as powerful for mind/body/spirit healing. No one can cry for me – like they could feed me or clothe me. It’s more akin to forgiveness or love or death in that way. No one can love for me, forgive for me or die for me – like these, my tears are my cross to bear or gift to receive. AND… it takes a certain capacity to cry. My most sincere cries are always alone with God. If you spend enough time in the rooms of recovery you’ll start to notice the suffer’s face warped by pain. I’ll never forget how profound the revelation – I was witnessing faces that hadn’t wept in years – decades even. They were the faces of unexpressed, repressed, forgotten, drugged pain. If you watch closely and stay present you also witness those same faces heal and literally grow younger. I have to remember that tears are still absolutely essential.

3)  I am ready enough.

I like movies an awful lot. While the rest of my demographic is currently obsessed with Netflix’s “Making a Murderer” I am re-watching sci-fi cinematic favorites like, Ender’s Game. The book is outstanding. The film earned a solid tomato somewhere in the 60 percentile. There is one line in the film that continues to resonant with me. Harrison Ford’s character is pushing Ender to his psychological, social, and physical limits in preparation for his great work leading – AN ATTACK TO DEFEND EARTH!! As the time arrives for Ender to lead his psyche officer demands that Ender be given more time to prepare, “He’s not ready!” And Ford replies, “You’re never ready. You go when you’re ready enough.” YESSS!! I love it.
So many moments in 2015 came and went under this mantra. “I have to teach 6th Grade girls about what? Shit. Here we go!!” Telling myself, “Don’t curse in the classroom, Adam! And don’t be weird!” Whether it was hosting a huge Culture Fair for the entire 6th grade and their parents or holding soccer practice as the head coach for the first time, the entire year was filled with the feeling that I wasn’t quite ready, but I was ready enough. I did wonderful. In the new year I face the same calling only this time I feel I am the more unprepared, yet all the more “ready enough” to embark on my own private practice as a life coach. With each new goal it’s essential that I keep reminding myself and practicing – I’m ready enough.

4)  Spiritual Principles Are Facts of Life.

Over the past 5 years my life has been re-fashioned by spiritual principles. I’m not so sure that I’ve been doing the work either. I feel its more accurate to say that the spiritual principles have been working me and not the other way around. These principles are stronger than I would like to admit – they’re forces not subject to my whim and want; they’re ego crushing and lawful – more physical like gravity. I align myself with them and they work – not some of the time, every time. The degree that they work is dependent upon my surrender or how honest, willing, and open I am to be a channel for their presence. I’m only beginning to practice living upon this foundation and so far its been like gravity – attractive. The same principles that got me sober, that sustain my life currently, are the same principles that unlock my future potential – as it is written in the Big Book of AA, “We apply these principles in all our affairs.” Let me take you more deeply into one of principles I’ve been working with recently.

5)  You become what you think about.

I’d like to say I came to this idea out of an intellectual inquiry, but no. After depressions, bottoms, and multiple humiliations, this is a tool I need to survive. If you haven’t ever taken the idea seriously, I would suggest it. One of the most powerful talks I’ve heard on the subject is called “The Greatest Secret in the World” by Earn Nightingale found here. Earls talk is weighed with authority – his heavy, deep tonal voice captures the authority of a convicted preacher having pasted through fundamentalisms into an emancipated and inclusive worldview still grounded by a perennial truth. He communicates over and over the fundamental principle (secret)…that, “We become what we think about.” or in the words of the famous 20th century philosopher and psychologist, William James, “Human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitude of mind.”
It’s one of those things most of us have heard before. Negative thoughts attract negative experiences; positive thoughts attract positive experiences. In the past I’ve associated the idea – that we “become what we think about” – with those fascinated with “The Secret.” I’ve been really critical about the entire matter for some time: “So poor, black Sudanese should use ‘positive thoughts’ to bring themselves out of poverty!?” Post-structuralist criticism aside, (or just prejudicious) its been interesting to take an honest look at the evidence for such a claim in my own life because there’s plenty. I could site the years I was consumed by my fear of becoming a pot-head and how I attracted everything I need to fulfill this fear. Or I could talk with you about how often I thought life was deeply unfair and unjust which put me in a constant state of self-pity and victimization. Positivity worked the same way. I surrounded myself with recovering people, and I find sobriety comes to me with ease today. I do not fight to stay sober; it is a non-issue; the struggle does not exist for me. Currently, I am using the same tools I applied to get sober to build my dreams. The very principles I have been taught to apply and practice on a daily bases to maintain and grow my sobriety are the same principles that will make me successful at anything I choose to do or become. I become what I think about. I’ve been reading my goals to myself for the last month. All the sudden I’m attracting people who are accomplishing the very things I hope to achieve. Still, over the holiday season, as I have drifted from my practice so have those connections – the momentum has waned according to my conscious thought and action. So I have to remember to practice again, and relearn and relearn in 2016.

Attitudes of Mind

“Human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitude of mind.” These are William James‘ words – the famous 20th century philosopher and psychologist. They came to me via Earl Nightingale’s talk on “The Greatest Secret in the World.” Earls talk is weighed with authority – his heavy, deep tonal voice captures the authority of a convicted preacher having pasted through fundamentalisms into an emancipated and inclusive world view still grounded by a perennial truth. He communicates over and over the fundamental principle (secret)…that, “We become what we think about.” I’m not boasting here, but the condition of my conscious thought hasn’t been shot through with a beacon of light as of late. Boasting into the darkness. Everyone’s shit is terribly unique, isn’t it? We find this blue-balled attitude in each other’s churches and recovery meetings all over the world, “I’m terminally unique. Haven’t you heard? …my shit!?” But, I digress. I wanted to bring your attention to the power of your thoughts and reflect on mine own recently. I am convicted, or rather, I have borne witness to the truth in my experience that our lives are largely our thought manifest, be it conscious or unconscious. I would very much like to measure my thought. And in fact there are plenty of methods – as many methods as there are traditions. For a number of years I have very much appreciated and referenced David Hawkins‘ conscious calibration scale from 1-1000. I’ll spare you the full disclosure but the higher one rises on the scale the more powerful the conscious thought and thus personal and circumstantial experience. If I reflect on this past weeks conscious thoughts I have to include the desperation I felt at not having a meaningful human partnership nor having manifest my goal to be a paid life coach. This week those thoughts have not only come, descending on me like some cloud of absence, but I have opened the door, wrapped up in them for a time, befriended the unfulfillment. A friend recently told me that having a pity party is the most expensive party you can throw that no one wants to attend. So now the transition… I have come so very far to achieve a new life, with new power and capacity. These desperate thoughts cannot contend with my ongoing practice of spiritual disciplines. It’s impossible for self-pity to continue very long because I get too many hugs, I spend too much time surrounding myself with people whose lives are full of healing, courage, sobriety, and grace. So I think about failure, absence, loss less. I dwell in God more – where God is flow of conscious thought of high calibration. God is an action word – a verb. Courage, acceptance, willingness, open-mindedness, humility, love, fulfillment, peace, neutrality, forgiveness, hope. According to the principle, “We become what we think about,” as long as I keep practicing these high forms of consciousness my life will continue to grow in power and fulfillment.

Talking About Recovery & Transformation

A few years ago I took a position teaching 6th grade Social Studies at a top independent girls school in Chattanooga, TN. I’ll never forget the first talk I had with the head of my school on a matter of significant importance in my personal life. “Please do not discuss your recovery,” she says. And adds, “All your social media, especially your blog, need to be made private.” At first I was taken aback by the comment, I felt subtly insulted. I have always blogged a great deal about my own recovery. It’s compelling for me – spiritually, emotionally, intellectually. It’s my medicine for the cliche and superficial. As it turns out, speaking openly about the spiritual nature of my recovery wasn’t professionally strategic! Turns out. It’s true that no administer, nor I for that matter, wanted to find ourselves defending against an attack from a concerned parent about their daughter’s teacher being an addict. Still, I was saddened to adopt what I felt was an inauthentic posture, saddened that an intimate part of myself and my gifts of personal transformation would never be a part of my classrooms. It’s akin to quieting the very life blood of education. Oh…the paradox!

Usually folks can get on board discussing “transformation.” Who doesn’t like to entertain becoming something better? But, having the conversation about our dirt, the twisted compromise of heart and mind, the betrayals and shame that makes transformation necessary is much more difficult. So, talking openly about recovery from addiction can become unsettling for many people, especially in bars which I love doing because it is hilarious (for me). Unfortunately though, we seem to be killing the conversation in our schools and places of worship, in the home and among friends, place where it’s really important to have these conversations. In our culture of privilege, excess, and accommodations one of the most frightening questions one can entertain is, “Am I an alcoholic?”

We’ve past the point in American culture/history where its a terrible taboo to identify as an alcoholic or addict. Nevertheless we have our assumptions and prejudicious about people in recovery. We judge them. We watch them on shows like ‘Intervention‘ to remind ourselves that, “Thank, God. We’re not that bad.” The satiating feelings of catharsis are always in direct proportion to the degree of our repression. So, we naturally judge, and we unconsciously shy away from being completely honest about how much obsessiveness we truly face on a day to day basis – food, sex, caffeine, internet, tv, football, porn, alcohol, weed, speed, music, sugar, tech, exercise, movies, co-dependencies of all color – work, especially work. Who is really desperate to do the work of inner transform and face their shadows, besides the folks whose very lives depend on facing the truth about themselves? “And those people are confused, weak, something other…not us, not me!”

The more honest I become, the more transparent and openminded, the more apparent how vital recovery and transformation are for my growth, and my life is dependent upon my growth. Strange how it took such great misery and compromise and addiction to arrive at a turning-point. Folks to do not arrive to the rooms of recovery on winning streaks – the sliding off rainbows and unicorns of light were our twisted, intoxicated imaginations. They arrive, I arrived, with a broken life, and we’re all told the same message, “You’re going to die from this disease, and the only chance you have is to leave behind everything you thought you knew and follow our path.” Reality was our velvet hammer and there was a cost of admission. The cost wasn’t just “my drug of choice” it was my entire life plan – my entire life.

I like to think of my recovery, as my sobriety. In a broad sense “sobriety” isn’t simply not drinking if your alcoholic – there are plenty of sick people out there who don’t drink or who drink a little and go on polluting everything and everyone around them. Sobriety in the broadest sense is purity of heart. That purity brings us into a sacred arrangement with ourselves and our world.  It’s an absolute turning – turning one’s life and will over to powers that call us forth, heal us and draw us near to others in service. We gain access to dimensions of our self that would otherwise remain unrealized. In that way each day of sobriety is a promise of transformation, but also death to a former version of my identity no longer fit. Sobriety consistently asks for my entire life – the price is still my life. My life as I know it will be crushed, abandoned, disregarded or ruptured – like breaking out of an enclosure or being born. Sobriety, as I understand it, is a path that never ceases to develop our spiritual fitness. On this path I have grown or it has grown me…and as I continue to grow I elevate my awareness and my own sense of responsibility and belonging.

You come to the rooms of recovery in search of people who have done the seemingly miraculous. They had gotten sober, something I sought to do with increasingly demoralizing failure. I needed them to show me the way. I needed to be nurtured by their presence and energy, their very lives were medicine. Here, today as I write, I am 6 years sober, and I still need this medicine to do things that seem impossible – like build a business, become an author and professional speaker and the president, of course. Or, perhaps, I’ll spend my life in search of way to communicate to my students the message and life that sobriety has given to me without inciting fear in the faces of their parents or my administration.

I would never trade what I have now for the life I surrendered to get here. I live in a place where the miracles I see don’t just pass me by in a cloud of obtuse cynicism and self hate. I have a host of friends and a quality of fellowship about me that few humans experience, and I am of great service to many who find my presence extremely valuable and they let me know, often. I get to continue to work toward my own sobriety and the principles behind recovery, the same principles embedded in the texts of our most sacred books, hymns, poems; principles written into the lives of people whose presence transformed the communities around them.

 

 

 

 

 

There’s a Hole in my Neck

There’s a hole in my neck. It’s healing. I’m fine, but I’ve been needing to write about this matter for some time. Tonight’s the night. There’s enough distance between me and the event… so…..

In the beginning there was a mole. On my neck, right behind my right ear grew a suspicious mole. It was small. It continued to grow. Irregular, undefined edges, a steady stream of people taking notice over a number of years: “Hey, what’s that?” “Have you had that looked at?” “Oh, I thought that was a tatoo for a second.” etc, etc. I had it biopsied three years ago and nothing. They didn’t cut it out mind you – they took a little sliver out with a knife. I never heard back about the results. I never checked on it. Flash forward to this summer. I saw a physician for the first time in over a year and just briefly discussing it we both agreed it should be removed. Feeling positive about the entire matter I saw a dermatologist about a month ago. She takes one look at the mole and we decide together to take it out – right then. Another instance of unified agreement between doctor and patient – success. She and her nurse laid me on the table and she cut the mole out and stitched me up. The entire procedure took no more than 20 mins and done. The cut was clean, the stitches looked good, minimal swelling and little pain/discomfort. The skin felt a bit tight for a week. I remember walking out of the hospital feeling relieved and content that I made a good decision – done deed.

Now, this is where things start turning. I get a phone call from the doctor (nurse practitioner) about a week later informing me that the mole they cut out of me was in fact melanoma – the worst and most deadly type of skin cancer. I grant that she did her best (mildly unskillful) to navigate the sensitivity of the issue and impress on me the importance of having another procedure to do what’s called a secondary or wide excision taking out a larger margin around the melanoma site. I immediately found myself critical of the idea. I told her that sounded excessive. She let me know that she had indeed cleared the margins of the mole by 1mm and that she was 99% certain she got it all. But, she insisted, because of the seriousness of the cancer it was standard best practice to cut a wider margin. She continued informing me that evidence based research concluded that after secondary excision the chances of successful removal, with non-recurrence increased to 96%. Yes, Yes. I understood. She told me that she had gone ahead and scheduled the procedure for me. Ok. Wow. When I got off the phone I found myself feeling violated and a bit angry. The way our conversation went it was like I was supposed to feel scared, blindly accepting her recommendation and the further skin removal. Whose body? It was like an entire new spirit of fear had started to inform and direct the negotiation of my body. Fear, and this is what upset me: after I said that it sounded excessive the doctor’s reaction was to tell me that the melanoma could end up in my brain! It was almost laughable. Yeah, I get it. Melanoma has ended up in people’s brains – that’s a possibility – but REALLY? That’s what your going with? It will eat my brains? It was like talking to a child wanting her way and she started telling me these horrendous tells of death that could happen unless I agreed to another surgery. I understood that the mole was bad and it needed to be removed and it was, successfully. The difficulty I was feeling was the cognitive dissonance between what she was saying and my…intuition is it? Or perhaps the experience of the first procedure flowing so smoothy or…what was it exactly that was off about this? 

The first procedure flowed, each part’s (doctor/patient) input and interactions solid, confident, and professional. But I immediately found this notion that they “didn’t get it all” or “we can achieve a better ‘margin’ of certainty” to be bound up in fear rather than “best practice,” hubris rather than care, and further, a proprietary notion of certainty. If you (the doctor) and I (the patient) agree to a 99% probability that the first surgery was successful then upon what basis are we discussing another? The basis, “best practices, evidence based medical research,” I understand as absolutely valid when taken as a general rule. But its the political economy that constitutes the general rule that disturbs me, and the underlying assumptions about the unquestioned authority of institutional medicine. These ‘general’ practices are put into place after an increasing number of first surgeries failed at preventing melanoma recurrence. The ‘general practice’ further protect the margins of error, the prevention of law suits, security of continued dependence model of medicine, and victim centered patients, the standardized practices are thought to be beyond doubt – authoritative, even lawful – doctors cut twice when they find melanoma. And this is where the contemporary standard of care fails – right as it approaches the power of certainty. Indeed, here we have highlighted the plight of all modernity. For failing to understand the power of the individuals autonomy in treatment, for failing to have a clear diagnosis of my body as a psycho/somatic phenomenon and instead interpreting my body as a mechanism, ripped from every context except the measurable physicality, the separation of mind/body, subject/object, patient/doctor. I would even submit I could have lived the remainder of my life with the mole, never dying from melanoma. An accurate diagnosis would have understood the connections between my brief history of addiction/depression and the growth of the mole. They would have correctly understood the cancer to have corresponded with the toxic growth of my dependency issues and would have understood that the power of my recovery, the turning of my spirit into light, not to mention my age, skin tone, general health practices, positive attitude, social value (light) made the possibility of recurrence almost zero after the first cut.

So…I was angry (fearful) at the notion of getting a second surgery, but here’s another matter: I resisted in only in thought to having the second procedure – all the critiques went only as far as thought… because once I told even the first person of my circumstance and the doctor’s recommendation EVERYONE told me to have the surgery done. EVERYONE. Oh the power! Please remind me to bow before the safety of my community. My most wise council instructed me to be grateful for medical science. I followed the course of anger and resentment only briefly (ok, maybe I’m still as sore as my god-awful scar!) but I got the surgery done. The scar is horrendous, but healing. BUT, the notion that I’ll forget about it, as people suggested, will not be my course. BECAUSE, even though I can access gratitude for medical science, the power of healing, the amazing restorative powers of skin itself, the true care and expertise of the my doctor (who I very much like btw)  the critique is still valid and so are my feelings. My circumstance only highlights the problem in a minor, obtuse way: The current medical model is built upon the power of research. But even more fundamentally authoritative is the unconscious cultural myth of progress founded upon the power of science and certainty. It’s such a powerful myth that no one sees it operating, secretly acting upon our very bodies. The power of the Christian mythos – eternal life through salvation – is desperately trying to be realized through science. Donna Haraway at UC Santa Cruz first clued me into this mythical motivation – a secular-Christian motivation attempting salvation through better science. Our bodies – now my body – is a marker of an age of medical science not-yet having arrived at its destination and mutating bodies along the way. YAY! See the book: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down for a cultural critique and just a fantastic read about other limits contemporary medicine is meeting in a global context.

So just a few more remarks about my experience here and I’ll be done:

There was a really interesting moment during my first interaction with the doctor. Right before her first cut she said something that raised a curious red flag. She was talking about the aesthetics of the scar and she said she wanted it to look good because, “It will be my signature.” I think if one were to see into my mind they would have seen me do a double-take. Did she just say… I repeated the phrase back to her to make sure I had heard her correct and to give myself a second to digest the notion. Her… ‘signature?’ like a piece of art? Or like, she owns it? Ok. “Yeah, I guess she’s about the cut the shit out of me,” I thought or said… I can’t remember. I do remember joking about how archaic the entire surgery would seem to our future selfs – the future of medicine: “Yeah, they would actually cut out the skin and use stitches – like piece of cloth! Isn’t that unbelievable!”

Another interesting moment was when the second doctor came in to perform the second surgery. At first she petted my head. It was both comforting and infantilizing/disturbing at the same time. The subtle gestures of power dynamics in the room between myself and the two female doctors. “Is she petting me? Yes.” I thanked her for this actually. She had traced a huge section of skin to be removed around the original site with a sharpie. OK. I did like how I was able to be a more active participant in the procedure and even marking out where the cut would be. I think this is reflective of gender as well. Working with two competent medical doctors who happened to be women was significant because I believe their perception and capacity as women offers a space that welcomes more participation. We went back and forth for a few about which type of cut to make and where exactly the cut should be… “Where was the mole again?!” My thoughts: “Holy shit, man… or woman.” She let me watch the surgery with a mirror which I found extremely engaging. I even took a few selfies and a brief recording of the surgery.

I was reflecting about this the other night after a long gaze of discontent over my healing scar. After my first surgery I came home confident. I was pleased and felt good about the entire matter. When I came home after the second surgery. I was an emotional basket-case. That night – alone in my room I wept so violently my wound oozed and bled bad. I was so deeply disturbed and upset. I’m still upset about it.

I remember being on a bus in San Francisco and there was a black woman setting across from me with a whole in her neck. It was from smoking. She had a band-aid over it that had fallen off so that the whole was exposed. She was panicked, out of mind, dirty, poor. I found a bandaid in my bag and put it on for her, covering her neck whole. She gave me a NY hoodie for my act of kindness… and thanked me over and over in front of a crowd of astonished onlookers.

I don’t know why I’m not that bad off. She… was in a bad way. I’m not dead. I don’t have cancer. I used to fight so many things. I’m learning not to fight. I’m learning to surrender, to practice acceptance, trust. And surrender is power… Surrender, even in the wrong – when I’m wronged. Perhaps, I was right and the doctors wrong. So what? What gifts do I bare so proudly that I earned? What price have I paid for the privilege to exist, to have access to health care, to have a father who drives me to the doctor? This woman on the bus had no one. I was her best gift and I was off the bus a few stops later. So there it is…

I’m still human.