Hit Your Bottom, Find Your Top

Cover of
Cover of Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

And when you’re alone, there’s a very good chance

You’ll meet things that scare you right out of your pants

There are some, down the road between hither and yon

That can scare you so much you won’t want to go on.

But on you will go, though the weather be foul.

On you will go though your enemies prowl

On you will go though the Hakken Kraks howl

Onward and up many a frightening creek,

Though your arms may get sore and your sneakers may leak…”

~ Theodore Geiser aka Dr Seuss, Oh the Places You’ll Go

Stephen Covey once said, “We are not human beings on a spiritual journey, we are spiritual beings on a human journey.”  It is inevitable that while on this existential expedition of Life that we will miss sign posts, lose our way and occasionally end up in a ditch.  It is buried in the fine print of the human condition that we will periodically hit a bottom.  The proverbial nadir can come in the form of any physical, emotional, spiritual or mental stimulus that compels us to make very important changes in our lives.  A personal abyss can be filled with nasty nightmares where worst case scenarios keep playing in our heads like a 24 hour horror festival.  An incubus can be tinged with painful humiliation or gut-wrenching spiritual doubt.  While no light seems to escape from these metaphysical black holes, it is within them that souls are often reborn through life altering personal epiphanies.

Some people get lucky.  They make rapid course corrections following moderate miscues.  We call these fortunates ” high bottoms” — those who have had mild brushes with consequence and in doing so, make alterations that avoid the deeper canyons of catastrophe.  Others are hard-headed and need to be tossed around in  life’s white water before finally gaining perspective.  Sometimes the most successful among us lack the basic ingredients of humility and self-awareness to see a bottom coming.  Their spiritual GPS is still “searching for the satellite” as they speed through one of life’s guardrails.  These advocates of self determination tend to rely on their own best thinking and are certain that if there is a God, he or she must look and think alot like them.

Just ask the endless parade of celebrities and power brokers who have seemingly had it all — only to sabotage their own lives.  Each low is determined by a simple psycho-social equation: “The Probability of Change Is Inversely Proportionate To The Pain One Is Willing To Endure Before Taking Action.”  How bad does it have to get?  What needs to occur to cause someone to change the way they live?  Not all crises of the soul are self-inflicted.  Bad things happen to good people. Yet,  life changing events test the very foundation of any person’s belief system.  Often people find true spirituality and religion in these midnights of mortality.  If you subscribe to the doctrine that life is a “testing place and not a resting place,” bottoms are critical ledges that can catch us and redirect us in a new, more positive direction.  For those in the thick of crisis, Churchill offered sage direction: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

Hubris and humility anchor the opposite ends of a spiritual continuum that begins as a perilous, high velocity rapid of self worship that eventually widens into a peaceful river of unconditional love.  Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is merely thinking of yourself less of the time.   It is in our tormented moments that we come to the conclusion that only a power greater than ourselves can lift us into the light.  Often that higher power manifests in the form of real people — individuals who see beyond our imperfections and focus on our possibilities.  They reward us with their simple acts of  forgiveness and love.  In giving us grace, they receive it.  They understand that we are all strands in a rope of compassion fashioned out of servants helping others rise from the ashes of their own spontaneous combustion.

It’s these acts of humanity and unconditional support that we see ourselves as part of a community of souls. We realize the greatest gift that we can give is ourselves to others.   “Sinners make the best saints.”  Bill Wilson often remarked when he was asked about the miracle of Alcoholics Anonymous.  It all started for Wilson by sharing his bottom with another person in the throes of their own despair and in that moment of raw humanity, they discovered grace.  Grace is everywhere and lines the pockets of every living soul.  It is a currency that never depreciates.

A catalyst for transformation might be getting fired, a divorce, an arrest, being caught in a lie, hurting a loved one, an illness, the death of a friend, getting into trouble or the painful recognition that one is materially rich and spiritually bankrupt.  Any relationship challenge or crisis can become a critical turning point in our belief system.  When we fearless inventory our part in a fiasco, we often find our own egos skulking in the shadows — trying to convince us that we are victims and not responsible.  Pain leads to humility.  Humility leads to surrender. Surrender is followed by the revelation that we simply do not have all the answers or control.  The recognition that there is a God and we are not him/her leads to a thirst for a theology whose principal tenets are anchored in serenity, humanity and tolerance

A soldier once said, “There are no atheists in foxholes.”  Most of us have bargained with God for intervention or relief from a problem and usually reneged on promises once the crisis passed.  Yet, sometimes a bargain sticks.  Every religion is filled with examples of faith found in the midst of fear.  It can take a crisis to shake us out of the illusion that somehow we’re exempt from life happening to us.  “Life,” John Lennon said, “is what happens while you are busy making plans.”  How we react to life — and whether we take life on life’s terms — ultimately determine our progress as human beings.

Ultimately, a bottom is a good thing.  If for no other reason, we are taught to appreciate the peaks of our existence.  Be of good cheer and remember that we never get dealt more than we can handle.  Strife, pain and low points also allow us to know who our friends are, confirm our values and see that life can be so much more than we might see in our limited view.  Travail shakes us from her chrysalis and we eventually take flight as butterflies — lifted on the gentle breezes of forgiveness and redemption.

It is Springtime and a time of rebirth.  It is a time to remember, however low we go, we can always find grace.  Enter Dr. Seuss, “…On and on you will hike and I know you’ll hike far and face up to your problems whatever they are…and you will succeed?  Yes, You will indeed (98 and ¾ guaranteed)…and oh the places, you’ll go!”

Walk It Off

broken ankle
Image by freeparking via Flickr

“Pain is weakness leaving the body” – Tom Sobal

In 1000 AD England, King Elthred was supreme ruler on earth. To villagers and peasants, life was a fragile gossamer strand that could be snapped by a sudden invisible hand as easily as one might brush aside a spider’s web.

Healers relied on sacred and profane remedies to exorcise the physical demons that brought plagues and misery. In darker times, giving in meant giving up. People learned early to chide and cajole the injured and infirmed ( gettest thou out of bed, you are fine !) as if to acknowledge the severity of their condition would make it a self fulfilling prophesy.

In the late 1500’s, an unusual illustrated journal maintained by an 11th century monk revealed much about life and death in the dark ages. In one protracted pictograph of medieval medicine, leaches were applied to the legs of individuals with circulatory and psychological ailments.  With their parasitic poultice in tow, the afflicted were expected to walk great distances – presumably to increase circulation – which in turn would swell the growth of the leach until it would literally burst off the patient’s skin.  This bloody explosion was said to mark the point at which the bad blood had been extracted, improving the odds for a speedy recovery.  It was theorized by one etymologist that this was the genesis of the Anglican stiff upper lip expression – “walk it off.”

Centuries later, I recall being beaned in the right leg during a high school scrimmage by Jim Gott, an all-county pitcher who threw laser fastballs in excess of 90 mph.  Gott went on to enjoy a decade long career in Major League Baseball with stints as a reliever for the Blue Jays, Giants and Dodgers. On this day, he all but fractured my femur with a low and tight slider that chose not to break.  I am reminded of the blinding flash of pain as well as the taste of red dirt on my tongue as I writhed in the chalk of the batters box. I distinctly recollect the unsympathetic cacophony of fathers and coaches who all yelled out precisely at the same moment, “walk it off, Turpin!”

As I got up limping on one leg, I shot an indignant leer through the chain-linked backstop. I saw distain on their ancient faces and could almost divine their prehistoric thoughts.  “that kid, what a milk toast. “ and “It’s just as well his father isn’t hear to see this.”

Injuries were common in the era of free-range kids. There were road rash bicycle accidents, sandlot football broken arms, Fourth of July firework burns, and new scout knife gashes. We knew emergency room nurses on a first name basis. Yet these ladies only saw a fraction of our maladies as with most families of our generation, we used the “O Squared” method to triage medical events.  The O squared rule simply stated that one must have been bleeding from at least two orifices to merit professional medical attention. This therapeutic best practice was not unique to our family.  It was an indispensable axiom for our entire neighborhood including the Del Santo family, a classically prolific, eleven-kid Italian Catholic family that lived directly diagonal to our back yard.

The Dels kitchen was a 24-hour MASH hospital. I can distinctly recall one of the Del Santo boys breaking his finger and attempting to get treatment from Mrs. Del, a saint of a mother who, while holding a screaming child, cooking bacon and eggs and dragging two other toddlers attached to her ankles, adroitly administered a field dressing with the detached calm of a battlefield corpsman.

In a treatment torn from the page of a survivalist field manual, Mrs. Del grabbed a long plastic Lego, scotch tape and set the finger.  Both patient and parent seemed content with the makeshift splint although, I was personally stunned that the stopgap remedy became permanent and was never replaced with the popular metal splint encased in white gauze and athletic tape.

In the days of  “man up” medicine, athletic coaches did not get sued for pushing athletes to the point of heat exhaustion or vomiting. Having survived the Army with a crusty Master Sergeant who was the only survivor of a platoon overrun in North Korea, my father considered pain an essential process in forging stronger character.  Through suffering, one could achieve a higher plane of consciousness where pain ultimately subsided.  (We now know this higher plateau to be known as shock.) However, in the days of ” tough it out” and shake it off”, no one iced a monkey bump the size of a golf ball, paid attention to the bruise on your left quad that resembled the continent of Australia or woke you up every hour after taking a shot to the head in football.

It was not uncommon to come into the house balling uncontrollably after you had just pounded a nail through your hand while building a primitive fort or plunged an ice pick into your thigh while removing grout from shower. Parents of the 60s would actually hit you to calm you – perhaps influenced by war movies where the tough officer slaps the hysterically wounded man. ” Get a hold of yourself, Bob. You still have your other leg.” Once slapped out of your self-pity, your parent would proceed to pour stinging rubbing alcohol on your gaping wound causing you to shriek and leap uncontrollably out of your chair.  Another therapeutic slap reduced you to a drooling, blubbering, shaking mass of blood stained clothes.

In days before the over prescription of antibiotics created superbugs and killer staph infections, a boil would not be considered life threatening but instead be lanced with a sterilized sewing needle and protected with a simple 3 inch Band-Aid.  A summer splinter was dug out with that same needle as you were screaming, “ no, I can walk with this in my foot, no!”

One would think with this tough love education that we would have grown into a society of practical homeopaths eschewing formal medicine for crazy glue, anti-bacterial ointment and a rubber belt to bite on. As we became parents, we changed from Darwinian fatalists into empathetic hyperactive helicopter parents.  Actually, the opposite occurred.  At every sniffle, sneeze or throaty cough, we rushed our first-borns to emergency clinics and to pediatricians begging for antibiotics because we could not stand the uncertainty of an illness.  We wanted instant resolution and it contributed to creating a healthcare system that was all too eager to accommodate our anxieties.

As we got older and realized our children were more or less indestructible objects, we became part of the cavalcade of “ walk it off “ parents.  After our son fell while swinging on his pull up bar, we chastised him and sent him to bed – despite his complaints that his hand was hurting.  Two days later, he was diagnosed with a broken bone in his hand (ok, so maybe it was four days later).  Our daughter took a bad spill while playing soccer – again there was whining about a sore shoulder and neck.  “ You’re fine,” we told her as she complained about being too sore to practice.  Three days later we were looking at the X-Ray that revealed the broken collarbone. Oops!

It is a cool autumn football night as I wander over to midweek practice fields that buzz under an eerie glow reminiscent of alien landing lights.  There is a symphony of yells, whistles, smacking helmets and tribal clapping followed by a singular outburst  “break!”

A padded adolescent warrior lies on the ground and is slow getting up.  As players take a knee in a sign of solidarity, a coach sympathetically touches the players shoulder pad and coaxes him to sit up. Across the turf field, a father paces uneasily. His large build and slight limp suggest a lifetime of contact athletics.  I am secretly critical as he is obviously barely restraining his need to run on to the field to hold his son. He moves closer to the sideline straining to see his player, attempting to ascertain the nature of his injury.  As a veteran “ tough it out” parent, I start towards him to reassure him that his progeny will be fine.  He can hold it in no longer. Cupping his hands to his mouth, he screams,  “Come on Jimmy, you’re fine.  Get back in there!”

I feel a sudden chill and for a moment, sense my father is right behind me, seated on wooden bleachers urging me to suck it up and get back in the game.  I turn, expecting to see him restlessly pacing, waiting for me to dust myself off and hustle down to first base.

There is no one there.  As I turn to return to my observation post, I stumble over an equipment bag tossed on the sidelines and hit my knee on the gurf field.  Dusting myself off and limping over to the fence, I glance up hoping no one has witnessed my gaffe.  In the shadows lurks another late 40’s father.  He is obviously an alumnus of the “suck it up academy”.

“Walk it off, dude” he says with a chuckle.