Greatest Regret – “Failures in Kindness”

George Saunders by Damon Winter New York Times

George Saunders by Damon Winter New York Times

It’s not often you get major writers speaking of such mundane things as “the need for more kindness” to students graduating from ivy-league schools. But that’s what George Saunders spoke about in a speech that went viral last year.

As the mother of someone suffering from addiction and the stigma of addiction, Saunders’ words touched me deeply. More kindness is what we all need when we are suffering.

You can read the whole speech HERE.

Saunders starts out with this amazing statement:

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.
Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded . . . sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.

We’ve all been there, I think. But kindness is something we can learn, he says, and lists ways how to do that:

Education is good; immersing ourselves in a work of art: good; prayer is good; meditation’s good; a frank talk with a dear friend; establishing ourselves in some kind of spiritual tradition – recognizing that there have been countless really smart people before us who have asked these same questions and left behind answers for us.

Because kindness, it turns out, is hard – it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include…well, everything.

Yet kindness, as hard as it is, becomes easier as we grow older. As life kicks us around a bit we learn to become more kind, because we realize how much we need it, and depend upon it, and want it for our loved ones.

Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving. I think this is true. The great Syracuse poet, Hayden Carruth, said, in a poem written near the end of his life, that he was “mostly Love, now.”

And so, a prediction, and my heartfelt wish for you: as you get older, your self will diminish and you will grow in love.

YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE.

Wow. To be replaced by love. I can’t think of a more worthwhile goal to strive toward for anyone starting off in life.

Or for anyone whose life is winding down, for that matter. Here are the first 12 lines of that poem by Hayden Carruth that he mentioned:

So often has it been displayed to us, the hourglass
with its grains of sand drifting down,
not as an object in our world
but as a sign, a symbol, our lives
drifting down grain by grain,
sifting away – I’m sure everyone must
see this emblem somewhere in the mind.
Yet not only our lives drift down. The stuff
of ego with which we began, the mass
in the upper chamber, filters away
as love accumulates below. Now
I am almost entirely love.

(From “Testament” by Hayden Carruth)

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Addiction and “Turning Pro”

Hero Carlo_Crivelli_-_Saint_George_Slaying_the_Dragon,_1470I just discovered the book “Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work” by Steven Pressfield. It’s been around for a long time, and it’s meant for writers or people who want to create something worthwhile in their lives.

But it’s perfect for addicts, too, because it compares the struggle to live our passion with the struggle to overcome addiction. This could include addictions to drugs, sex,  gambling, money, fame, web-surfing, or even maintaining the perfect house–it’s all the same.

All addictions are mindless or mind-numbing distractions.They are all ways we resist being who we were meant to be, and doing the work we were meant to do.

Let me quote a few things he says about addiction that ring true:

Have you ever noticed that addicts are often extremely interesting people? Addiction itself is excruciatingly boring . . .because it’s predictable–the lies, evasions, the transparent self justifications . . . But the addict himself is often a colorful and fascinating person . . . . [His] story often reads like a novel, packed with drama, conflict, and intrigue.

“Addictions” are not bad. They are simply the shadow forms of a more noble and exalted calling.

Addiction becomes a surrogate for our calling. We enact addiction instead of embracing the calling.

All addictions share, among other things, two prime qualities: (1) They embody repetition without progress; (2) They produce incapacity as a pay-off.

Both addicts and artists are dealing with the same material, which is the pain of being human and the struggle against self-sabotage.

Both artist and addict wrestle with the experience of exile. They share an acute, even excruciating sensitivity to the state of separation and isolation, and both actively seek a way to overcome it, to transcend it, or at least to make the pain go away.

The addict seeks to escape the pain of being human in one of two ways–by transcending it or by anesethitizing it. Borne aloft by powerful enough chemicals, we can almost, if we are lucky, glimpse the face of the Infinite. If that doesn’t work, we can always pass out. Both ways work. The pain goes away.

The artist takes a different tack. She tries to reach the upper realm not by chemicals but by labor and love.

The book is calling all the “amateurs” of the world–those of us stuck in our distracting, mind-numbing “addictions”–to turn “pro.” Turning Pro is changing our mind-set. It’s turning our life around. It’s embracing our higher-self and our higher-calling.

This how-to book starts off by identifying all the ways we avoid being who we were meant to be—through our addictions, our self-doubts, our self-inflicted wounds, and through fear in all its forms. And it identifies what is needed to overcome these, how the “Pro” approaches these very same doubts and fears and resistance in ways that are productive rather than self-sabotaging.

“Turning Pro ” evokes the spiritual in a non-secular way. The author states: “The pain of being human is that we’re all angels imprisoned in vessels of flesh.”  We’re all struggling toward a higher sense of self that we fear we will never reach.

But we can, Pressfield claims: Once we start taking ourselves and our dreams seriously. When we realize it’s worth the hard work to do so, worth the effort to resist anything that would slow our momentum or lower our reach, that’s when we turn our lives around; that’s when we turn Pro.

This is what the struggling addict (in all of us) needs to hear. This book is for those who are tired of the merry-go-round of addiction and want desperately to get off. And it’s also for those who have gotten off the merry-go-round and wonder, now what?

This is what my son needs to hear. And I think he’s ready for it.

Yesterday he told me with such heartfelt conviction: “I’m done with drugs. I’m never going back.” I believe him.

But he also said: “I’m tired of screwing around, working low-wage dead-end jobs. My life is half over. I don’t have time to waste what’s left.”

He’s started to explore a new career choice, something that has always tickled the back of his mind, and he’s excited about pursuing it.  He’s ready for this book.

It ends, appropriately for all struggling addicts, with these inspiring words:

The hero wanders. The hero suffers. The hero returns.

You are that hero

Sixty Days Clean: Perseverance on a Long & Winding Road

Big Sur winding trailMy son and I were texting each other yesterday and his ended with this:

PS – I got 60 days clean today. xxoo

Sixty days clean. A postscript.

So many emotions swirling around in my mind: joy, pride, tenderness, hope, fear.

We’ve been here before so many times. Two months, Three months. Four months. Each time I think: This is the beginning of forever. The dragon is finally slain.

Only it wasn’t.

So. Sixty days. Not very long when we consider all that is past and all that is to come.

Still, I feel hopeful, thankful, blessed. There’s much to celebrate, regardless of the outcome. Sixty-five days ago I had thought I had lost him forever.

So in that spirit I am celebrating what feels, emotionally, like a huge milestone. Even though rationally, I know this is only the tiniest beginning of what I hope will be a lifelong journey.

And I remind myself:

“Our greatest glory consists not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”
― Oliver Goldsmith

“You may have to fight a battle more than once to win it.”
― Margaret Thatcher

“Character consists of what you do on the third and fourth tries.”
― James A. Michener

Perseverance (and faith) is what we need to sustain us on our long journeys.

Given that, I’ve choreographed some thoughts to encourage us on the long and winding road.

A Speech on Perseverance (and Faith) Told in Quotations

“I know now, after fifty years, that the finding/losing, forgetting/remembering, leaving/returning, never stops. The whole of life is about another chance, and while we are alive, till the very end, there is always another chance.”
― Jeanette WintersonWhy Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

“I was taught to strive not because there were any guarantees of success but because the act of striving is in itself the only way to keep faith with life.”
― Madeleine AlbrightMadam Secretary: A Memoir

“The doing of something productive regardless of the outcome is an act of faith. The doing of a small something when a large something is too much for us is perhaps especially an act of faith. Faith means going forward by whatever means we can.”
― Julia CameronFinding Water: The Art of Perseverance

“If we walk far enough,” says Dorothy, “we shall sometime come to someplace.”
― L. Frank BaumThe Wonderful Wizard of Oz

“I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.”
― Nelson Mandela

“We’re all going to keep fighting, Harry. You know that?”
― J.K. RowlingHarry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

“Go back?” he thought. “No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!” So up he got, and trotted along with his little sword held in front of him and one hand feeling the wall, and his heart all of a patter and a pitter.”
― J.R.R. TolkienThe Hobbit

“When you have a great and difficult task, something perhaps almost impossible, if you only work a little at a time, every day a little, suddenly the work will finish itself.”
― Isak Dinesen

“Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.”
― A.A. MilneWinnie-the-Pooh

“Every day you may make progress. Every step may be fruitful. Yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever-improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb.”
― Winston Churchill

“Sure I am this day . . .  that the task which has been set before us is not above our strength; that its pangs and toils are not beyond our endurance. As long as we have faith in our own cause and an unconquerable will to win, victory will not be denied us.”
― Winston Churchill

“Courage and perseverance have a magical talisman, before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish into air.”
― John Quincy Adams

“So comes snow after fire, and even dragons have their endings.”
― J.R.R. TolkienThe Hobbit

 

Rants and Rage and the Bright Rush of Wings

Archilochus_colubris_Illinois_(6155782912) Creative Commons Jeffrey W FlickrMost of the posts that I try to write for this blog disintegrate into dark rants and rages.

Rants against a society that fully recognizes how an epidemic of addiction is destroying our children, our families, whole neighborhoods and cities, filling our jails and prisons, and littering our streets and alleys with the living dead.

And yet, and yet, how this same society provides painfully few resources toward treatment and recovery. A son or daughter seeking a bed at a detox center is forced to wait months for something affordable, dole out thousands of dollars for a few short days, only to be turned out onto the street again when the stay is ended.

Rages against the fact that the few available programs designed to help recovering addicts will bankrupt most families, since the road to recovery, as all admit, includes multiple relapses. But instead of sticking with those who relapse, helping them when they most need support, these programs kick them out on the streets again. With no place to go, to start over again and again and again, with no end in sight.

Sometimes it helps to rant and rage. And sometimes it just creates a dark hole that sucks me ever deeper into despair.

That’s where I’ve been heading. What I’m resisting.

What helps is knowing that I’m not alone. That I’m not even worse off than most.

At least, I tell myself, my son was not gunned down in his first grade classroom by a half-crazed boy; he did not hang himself because he was cyber-bullied into thinking he was worthless; he was not hit by a drunk driver on his prom night; he was not blown up on the battlefield in a senseless war; he was not shot in a movie theater for texting his daughter; he was not lost somewhere over the Indian Ocean on a flight to Malaysia.

At least he was not sold into slavery as a boy in the Philippines; or forced to murder his family as a child-soldier in Somalia; or bombed by a wayward drone on his way to a wedding somewhere in the hills of Aden.

Somehow it helps putting personal suffering into perspective. None of us are free of suffering. Even if what makes us suffer is the suffering of others.

Suffering is not the point, we soon come to see. It’s not what matters most. It’s not what breathed life into us, what keeps us moving forward, or what makes our lives worthwhile—the lives of those we’ve lost, and the lives of those still here, and those still waiting to be born. We do well not to dwell on our personal sorrow any more than we must to move past it.

These willful rants and rages help no one. I can let the darkness suck me up and become another casualty. Or I can turn away from the darkness toward the light. I have that choice.

I can choose to honor the light in me and my son and all those who are struggling–all the fallen children, all the mourning mothers–rather than dwelling on the darkness that dishonors us all.

I can honor the light that lies at the edge of every shadow, that pierces the storm clouds, and melts the mist. The light that filters through tree leaves, and slants across the grass, and pricks the night sky, and rains down in moonlight on the dark meadow.

I can honor the light outside my window this very moment, this first day of Spring, where the hummingbirds dazzle the garden with a bright rush of wings–hovering and humming, everywhere, everywhere! When I stop, and look, and listen.Colibri-thalassinus-001-Creative Commons photo credit mdf

Suffering is Relative, But Love is Absolute

Rodin_-_The_Prodigal_Son_-_LACMA

Rodin – The Prodigal Son

Two blog posts I read recently remind me how all suffering is relative, but love is absolute.

The first blog post was by writer Christian Mihai. He starts with this quote:

“You cannot save people. You can only love them.” ― Anaïs Nin

Then he goes on to say:

“[N]ot every battle can be fought with someone holding our hand. Some battles, we are meant to fight alone, to try to conquer our fears and insecurities. . . . . You can only love people, and that is more than enough, more than anyone should ever ask for.”

The other post I reblogged here yesterday, which includes this quote by Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. He writes about a revelation that comes to him during a death camp march, with fellow victims dropping by the roadside. He is remembering his beloved wife as he marches, and this is what saves him:

“A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth — that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way — an honorable way — in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, ‘The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.’”

The take-aways for me from these post while I try to help my son in his battle with heroin addiction is this: I may not be able to save him. This may be a battle he has to fight alone. But the love I bear him can help bear me up when I feel like falling by the wayside. And perhaps knowing I love him helps bear him up when he’s falling under the weight of addiction.

If Frankl could bear his suffering during his internment at the Nazi death camp with only love to bear him up, surely I can survive my far lessor suffering. And so can my son.

My new truth: While suffering is relative, love is absolute.