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!”

To The Class of 2010

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It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.  ~Edmund Hillary

Gang, you picked one heck of a year to be released into the wild – – and I do not mean your first frat or sorority party.  I’m talking about a hot, flat and crowded world that suffers from serial hubris and an inability to learn from history.    In the past year, we have seen many people at their worst and best. You eventually learn that everyone is imperfect – except the Dave Matthews Band.  It’s hard to believe, but in time, your parents will actually get smarter as you receive higher education.  It sounds counterintuitive but trust me.

We are all souls moving along a human continuum that is at one end, anchored by ignorance, self worship and tanning salons and on the other side, is love and humility.  Think “Snookie” from “Jersey Shore” at one extreme and Mother Theresa on the other.  We each rise and fall along this silk thread called life. It is impossible to be young and not suffer from self obsession, especially when you have a pimple.  Many of the mistakes we make, we commit out of self centered fear – – fear of rejection, fear of not getting what we believe we need, fear of fear, fear of not having at least 3 gigs on our cell phone or personal computer.  The “Fear List” goes on and on and is normally released once a year by the same people who make the Farmer’s Almanac.

We learned in school about people who have dedicated their lives to leaving the world a better place than when they found it.  We found out that conceit and fear have destroyed entire civilizations.  Sadly, most of us give up wanting to be President (some of you will eliminate your chances for public office at your first college party). As we grow older and slow from the weight of responsibilities, material pursuit and Krispy Kreme donuts, we lose our ambition to change the world. Churchill once said, “If you are not liberal when you are young, you have no heart.  If you are not conservative when you are old, you have no head.” Right now, it’s all about heart. Later, it will be about heartburn.

This is your time to indulge all of life’s possibilities and remember that the only doors that are shut to you in life are the one’s you choose to close by your actions or inaction. The French have a term, “raison d’etri”- – translated it simply means: “reason to exist.” What will be your reason to exist?  As you head into higher education, gap years, travel, jobs or a period of life exploration, never lose sight that everyone comes off the same spiritual assembly line.  We all hail from the same maker – – some of us just choose to become higher performance vehicles, while others succumb to their own self imposed limitations. A few crash and need some time in the shop.

In the last 12 months, you have witnessed a year of firsts – – a new President, landmark legislation attempting to fundamentally change our healthcare and financial systems, record unemployment, environmental disaster, unprecedented human suffering and the acoustic shadows of improvised explosive devices killing American soldiers half way around the world.  Amidst this chaotic age of hope, blight and frailty, your lights are shining like head lamps of climbers in a dark storm.  Each of you is a candle in the dark – a catalyst for change where ever you go.  You do not have to travel to the edges of Darfur to find the marginalized, the underserved, the hopeless and the inhumane – you can actually do this by visiting Congress.

You just have to get out of your self interest long enough to notice need and chances to be of service.  It’s like the movie “The Matrix”.  Self interest is the blue pill.  You can take it and continue to move along life’s path insulated from the ugly truths that lurk on the edges of our lives or you take the red pill, descend down the rabbit hole and see where it takes you.

You always have choices although sometimes, the only thing you can change is your attitude.  Feeling sorry for oneself is one of the more overrated indulgences in life. It’s a waste of time.  A Czech Holocaust survivor, Sir Frank Lempl, tells a story about his procuring an extra pair of shoes at Auschwitz and having to decide which of his two closest friends (both shoeless and suffering) would receive them.  The shoes meant life as winter meant long hours of work in the snow, frost bite and eventual death in the gas chambers when one could no longer walk.  Lempl stared deep into his soul, made his decision and saved the life of one friend and could not prevent the death of another. He called it his “Shoe Decision.” In relating this story to a friend, he shared that most decisions in life “are not shoe decisions ‘.  Pray for guidance.  Try to ensure that your choice is not made out of self interest but human interest, and then get on with living.  To Sir Frank Lempl, there is no place for regret or feeling sorry for oneself.  Pick yourself up, make your amends and get on with life.  It is worth noting that Sir Frank came to London penniless when he was 50 years old and founded one of the largest construction companies in the world, Bovis-Lend Lease.

Your best lessons will come in the form of pain – – physical, emotional, intellectual and psychic.  These moments of clarity are difficult and at the times, you will not see the forest for the trees to realize you are getting exactly what you need (BTW, this will always be different than what you wanted).  There will be days when it seems like the entire cosmos has turned its back on you.  Remember that you are only given what you can handle and strife is the ultimate compliment from a God who has a wicked curveball and a highly evolved sense of humor.  Your essence of being a person, along with gray hairs – will emerge from these trials.  You will discover a lot about yourself and others – who your real friends are and who were only hanging around for the free food.

To learn to forgive is like learning how to eat right, you will never regret it.  Resentment is junk food – it only creates emotional fat and has no value.  I have to admit vindictiveness tastes good but it ends up giving you reflux – (ask your dad what that is). Pray for your enemies. Praying that the idiot who bugs you gets whatever they need is hard.  Understand though, that by forgiving, you take away people’s power over you.  It is true.  Trust me.  I tried it once and it worked! It’s hard to do – sort of like learning to juggle or riding a unicycle.  However, once you get the hang of it, you suddenly realize that no one can make you feel bad about yourself without your permission.

Whatever you have done up to this point, it does not really matter.  That’s bad news for the social X-rays and drama queens but great news for those of you who remain undiscovered or ended up in the police blotter.  You are all equal sized tadpoles and will now be swimming in a bigger ocean.  Sorry to break the news to you amphibians but we are all here but for a brief period of time so make the most out of it.  Dance with your hands outside the safety zone.  Risk rejection knowing that somewhere out there, someone beyond your wildest expectations is waiting to be your partner – you just may have to travel through Slovenia to meet them.

Do not get depressed about the way you find the world.  Your job is to change it and our job is to try to stay out of your way while you pull down some of our grand monuments to self interest.  Don’t blindly accept a two party system. Crank the music but invite your neighbors to the party so they do not call the police.  Write thank you notes.  Do something nice for someone every day but do not tell a soul – – it is the ultimate overture of selfless service.  The good news is the most important person – you – will know what you did and 365 acts of kindness later, you will be changed for the better.

The people who seem so important today may not even show up to your 30 year reunion because high school was their life’s high water mark.  Other less visible classmates that did not appear to have it going on will end up doing some very interesting things. Some do not ever return so cherish your time together. Ask not for whom the bell tolls, you may not like the answer.

Above all, enjoy these years where your bodies are strong, your ambitions are boundless and your belief that anything is possible is amplified in every cocky little thing you do. Just remember humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is simply thinking of yourself less of the time. It is also occasionally taking out the trash without being asked.

Go get ‘em.  Breathe deep and scream at the top of your lungs.  Never give a ride to a hitchhiker with a prosthetic hook. Don’t party too hard – all you are doing is medicating your ability to live life. Hendrix, The Doors and Dave sound just as good without losing control and you are much more likely to sing on key. Try to change your bed sheets at least once a semester and remember not to mix colored and white clothes in the laundry. Exercise regularly – – the “Freshman Twenty” is real!( ask your mom). And yes, according to Dr Fessler DDS, you still must floss.

Vaya Con Dios!