Monday, December 10, 2007

I wish someone would have told me…

We will not regret the past, nor wish to shut the door on it. (Alcoholics Anonymous, fourth edition, page 84)

Of all the “promises” that I’ve heard from the 12-step recovery programs, this one has been one of the most challenging, to me. It has been way too easy, over the years, for me to mourn what could have been rather than move confidently forward toward what might be. After a while, if one stumbles enough (and I sure have) one starts looking more and more at one’s feet, and looking less and less at the horizon and the heavens.

I believe with all my heart that all my mis-steps and “opportunities for growth” can be of benefit to others – if nothing else, as a “good bad example,” or at least as a sign-post in neon-orange saying, “Ye need not pass this way….” So here is a short list of concepts I wish I’d been heard (or had been willing to hear) earlier-on in life.

[Note: There are plenty of other bits of wisdom I could pass along (for instance, the wisdom of not doing the “rent-a-truck and have friends help you move” thing after you’re 40). But these are ideas and concepts that I believe could have radically changed my life if I’d bumped into them a little earlier.]

I wish I would have learned…

Feelings aren’t facts. I wish someone would have told me that my perception of facts would not always be the same as the facts themselves. In certain circumstances, I would look at something and believe it to be true and yet it would not, in fact, be anywhere close to true. This was especially true when it came to feelings. “Feelings aren’t facts,” I heard recovering people say – but for years, I lived as though my feelings were facts in my life - rather than just my own responses to what life dealt me. That would have helped a lot, especially early on. For instance, just because I felt ugly and unlovable for much of my childhood (despite what my mother tried to tell me) didn’t mean, in fact, that I was either of those things….

Capital-T truth. I wish someone would have said, “Forget these eternal truths and so on. There are people who have been arguing over eternal truths for centuries, and they are no closer to agreeing or finding the one true way than they were in the first century. It’s enough just to be searching – because if you are, you’ll find truth that works for you along the way. And you may be surprised to find out that at least a part of what you find will agree with someone else’s version of eternal truth, and you will find connection and community there.” (And if that sounds like I have been reading Richard Bach’s Illusions or something, so be it.)

Comparing myself to others. One absolute truth which I learned from people in 12-step recovery groups that would have been helpful very early on was this: “You cannot judge your insides based on other’s outsides.” It would have been very helpful to know that there was an excellent possibility that the self-confident, self-assured people who were in my junior-high and high-school classes were frequently just as terrified and uncertain and ready to self-destruct at any one moment as I felt I was. I’m not sure I would have believed it, at that stage of the game, but it would have helped to have someone at least plant the seed.

The presence of doubt in the lives of people of faith. I don’t know if I would have been able to listen, back then – I’d started forming an idea of right and wrong and good and bad by the age of seven or eight, and had decided that there was something very wrong with me (especially looking at others’ outsides, and comparing them to my insides). But I sure wish I had heard as a youth someone like Pastor Tom Housholder, of Prairie Village, KS, who made the bald-face declaration in the first sermon I ever heard him preach that “there are times that a voice in my head says to me, ‘What if everything you’re saying is a lie?’”

I still remember that moment – it was electrifying! After 34 years of feeling like I was the only doubter since “doubting Thomas” in the history of the Church Universal, I finally found someone with a collar who admitted to the same doubts and fears I’d lived with all my life. I wish I had been exposed to people of powerful faith – like Pastor Tom, like Martin Luther, like so many of the “fathers and mothers of the Church” who actively questioned and doubted in their hearts, even as they professed mighty faith (and led others to it) in their public lives.

So much of what I heard preached about faith in my formative years was about certainty – about being absolutely certain about God, about His being all-powerful, all-righteous and all-knowing, and about being absolutely certain of my “salvation.” People professed to be absolutely certain that their prayers were heard, that God could change things (even if He often wouldn’t), and were also certain that rejection of the desperate prayers of the devout didn’t mean rejection of the devout.

I wasn’t certain of that. Not at all.

In fact, I’d pretty much decided by the age of eight that I was a lost cause (based on some very selective hearing of what I heard preached). I had this belief that I was stained with original sin – something so bad that a few splashes of water and mystical mumbo-jumbo as an infant wasn’t going to save me from it. Believe it or not, by that age I had a sense that I was intrinsically broken – that there was something fundamentally unacceptable about who and how I was made that just wouldn’t fit in with the church-going world. That, of course, led me to the next revelation.

We’re all outsiders, at times. Growing up an overweight, un-athletic kid (with all the doubts and fears about whether the taunts about sissy and pansy were true), I thought some pretty unkind thoughts about my tormentors (well, awful thoughts, if the truth be known). As a result, I was absolutely certain that there was no room in church (or even in polite society) for people who thought about others the way that I did. From there it became very easy to say, “Yup, I’m on the outside, and I don’t see any way of getting ‘in’ any time soon.”

It wasn’t until I started listening to hundreds of people from every walk of life saying over and over again, “I felt apart from everything, and never a part of anything,” that I realized that this feeling is closer to a universal experience than many so-called religious experiences. And by definition, if I share “being apart from the world” with most of the rest of the world, I’m already “on the inside.”

There are probably more of these – but this is a start.

So....what are some of the things you wish you'd heard (or been willing to listen to) earlier in life?


Ed G. said...

to help you get the word out, included a link to this post over at my site. good learnings for us all, thank you.

Anonymous said...

Steve: Among all of your awesome posts, this ranks as one of the awesomest. Thanks for this open-ended compendium of simple wisdom.

I'm going to share a quote I just read yesterday in the AA Grapevine magazine. It blew my mind, as it seemed to sum-up the Serenity Prayer in a very down-to-earth, practical way for me .. and I need things as simple as possible:

"I no longer have to count the stars at night to make sure they are all there."

As a longtime "counter of stars" (methaphorically speaking), I take enormous comfort in reading that, over and over and over again. Hope you do, too.

Adam Gonnerman said...

Funny you should ask. I've actually been working on "A Letter to My Younger Self" which I hope to have up on my blog later this week or next. My big wish is that I would have taken seriously the advice I received from two different sources about studying something else in addition to ministry.

Oh well.

Thanks for the post!

Anonymous said...

In addition to pretty much all of the above, this: "You're bisexual. It's not that big of a deal. Get over it."

I'd still be married to the woman of my dreams, but perhaps things would have been a bit more manageable for the last 21 years if I'd heard those words.

Peter said...

And a very fine start it is, Steve man.

Anonymous said...

these are all so good to read over and over. the one that really speaks to me right now is the presence of doubt, it seems to be a favorite attack of the enemy, since another brother blogger put it, "since eve".

good post!

Hope said...

I'm going to have to think on this one a bit.
I can say that those words in the promises were ones I struggled with the most as well. I couldn't wrap my head around not wishing I'd done things differently. Especially stuff like being an abusive mother. It's not that I don't still wish that but I no longer beat myself up for what was. It's not the sum total of who I am. It's just one part of my story. This summer in treatment I was able to say outloud, "You couldn't have done anything different because you didn't have the tools and skills to do it any other way." I used to think words like that were a cop out but I don't anymore. They're reality. And finally I can accept that. It feels like a miracle.
Thank you for continually sharing your experience, strength and hope. I learn from it every single time.

Anonymous said...

A few of my favorites:

"What others think of you ain't none of your damn business."

"You're pole vaulting mouse terds."

"That person is living inside your head rent free."

I've heard more wisdom in the last several years in the rooms than I've heard in all of the first 40 years of my life.

Thanks for your post.