Friday, August 19, 2016

Alphabet Soup for Your eSoul

A friend recently posted a question about "confessional" writers and why they do it. Well, here's the extended version of my response to that.

I am honest about a lot of personal things. For example, I think that, as a culture, we are far too self-conscious about sex. We hypocritically use sex to sell everything from cookies to washing machines, yet we have great difficulty talking about real, actual sex issues. Because of that, I'm very open when questions come up about my own sex life.

I am an unabashed feminist. I am not afraid to talk about race issues. And don't get me started on gay and transgender rights. I also like to play Devil's advocate. I am opinionated and fairly transparent in a number of ways.

Having said all that, there are parts of my life I'd rather not share with people. I don't want people to know that I have a problem with alcohol, or that I am technically homeless at the moment, or that I suffer from depression and an often debilitating low sense of self-worth. I don't want my life exposed like some Facebook version of a basic cable reality freak show. Hell, I'm going to my high school reunion in a month. Do you really think that I want that information floating around the hotel ballroom like the Fog, enveloping these people I haven't seen or spoken to in 20 years?

So why do I share these things? Because I am going through a rough journey right now. However, I am learning some great lessons along the way. And these aren't lessons that apply solely to substance abuse or mental and emotional health issues. If you get a deeper understanding of what "people like me" go through, that's great. But that's not my goal.

My goal -- my desire -- is that you can extrapolate the lessons I've learned from my struggles and apply them to your own life. You might hate your job and wonder how you've ended up where you are in life. You may be in a bad marriage. You might be afraid that you're a terrible parent. You may even have simply had a bad day because that cashier at the supermarket was kind of a dick to you. Or, like me, you may innately believe that you're worthless.

But you can look back and integrate some of the same lessons I'm learning to integrate.

I'm not baring myself so that you can pity me or tell me how strong I am. Although I appreciate knowing that I have a strong support network of people who actually care about me, I am extremely uncomfortable with that sort of attention -- any attention, really. I'm not trying to become famous. I don't get off on people knowing intimate details of my life. And even though I may write about it, I certainly don't want to discuss it. Honestly, I agonize over what I will or will not share because most of my experiences I wouldn't even discuss in detail with some of my closest friends and family.

I'll be honest; I do experience a certain amount of catharsis (there's that word again). Blogging is a sort of extension of my journaling. But, no, I don't do it for me. I do it for you.

Do you feel a little bit better about that shitty job that's so far from what you imagined when you tossed your mortarboard into the air that warm summer day? Do you feel that maybe you can address the chinks in your marriage so that you can either save it or have the clarity to see that it needs to end? Do you have the confidence in yourself to know that it's okay to make a mistake with your kids, but that, ultimately, you're doing the right thing? Do you know that when someone's an asshole to you, it usually has nothing to do with you, really? Do you know that you have value?

That's what this is truly about: you.

All I've ever wanted to do in my life is help people, and this is one small way of doing that. And if I'm not reaching you in that way, then I'll just pack it in and go back to talking about the latest recipe I've tried out or how pissed I am that ABC cancelled my favorite program. Because if I'm not helping people, then there is no point.

And, no, I don't fancy myself to be some self-help, lifestyle guru. I'm not Dr. Phil or Deepak Chopra or whoever the fuck is en vogue these days. I'm not ladling chicken soup down the gullet of your soul. I don't profess to have all the answers, or even most of them. I'm just a guy. A guy who gives a shit about other people. A guy who has experienced hurt and is still hurting, but who is learning ways to cope with that hurt and wants to pass those coping skills on to others. I'm learning along the way and making some mistakes, but maybe by sharing my walk -- and my stumbles -- something will resonate within you about your own path.

So, there. That's why I do this. Any other questions?

Monday, August 15, 2016

Riding the Subway with Baggage

I had a relapse a few weeks ago. After four months of sobriety, I allowed myself to go on an extended bender. Ultimately, it ruined my plans for my return to New York. No, I still moved. But the friend that I was supposed to stay with was, understandably, infuriated by my condition and wouldn’t allow me to stay with him. I then spent the next two days aimlessly riding the subway. That’s it, just up and down the various lines. Lugging my weighty messenger bag and huge suitcase. I then managed to hit up a few bars in the Village, just for good measure. At some point during all of this, my mother even filed a missing person report.

I wound up having one of my withdrawal seizures (in Port Authority of all places) and ended up in the hospital. On suicide watch, no less. Yup. I had a nurse’s aide sitting by my bed 24 hours a day.

During that period, I started to panic about where I was going to stay once I was finally discharged. So, I contacted a few people I felt comfortable asking, to see if I could stay with them for “a couple of days” until I could figure out my next steps. I already had an apartment lined up, but I wouldn’t be able to move in until September. I just needed a place to regroup. Unfortunately, no one was able to accommodate me. So, I now find myself in a shelter in Brooklyn until I can move into the aforementioned apartment.

This is not meant to be a confession. This is not meant to garner sympathy. So, please, I’d prefer not to receive any messages regarding any of it. I’m telling you all of this merely as background for the larger issue I’d like to discuss. So bear with me.

Recently, another friend of mine, someone I see as sort of an older sister, remarked that I’m “resilient and resourceful”. My response was, basically, that I wouldn’t have to be resilient and resourceful if I didn’t keep fucking up. I wasn’t trying to lash out at her. No, I was angry at myself in the moment.

The miracle, if you can call it that, is that I’m no longer angry at myself. I messed up. There were consequences, but there’s also a future.

I think I finally understand what serenity is. Life can be completely messed up, or even just be mildly challenging. I don’t know. It varies. Because it’s fucking life, and that’s just what it does: It varies. And you just have to roll with it.

But here’s my real revelation: prayer. I know I’ve discussed prayer before. A number of times, in fact. Praying regularly, not just in the bad times. Connecting to the divine, whatever that may mean for you. Strengthening yourself for whatever may come. And I stand by all of that.

But that’s not what hit me this morning.

I’ve mentioned before that I meditate. That’s my way of connecting. I also journal, which I consider part of my meditation. But I realized that my journaling is prayer.

Because what is prayer, essentially? Yes, it’s connecting to the divine. But it’s mainly catharsis.

When you pray – however you choose to do so – you’re sending out your hopes, your fears, your anxieties, your joy, your sadness, your mourning, your celebration… And, as I said in my other post on prayer, if you’re doing it right, you come away feeling, if not unburdened, then less burden. You come away with more of a sense of peace. Of, well, serenity.

Folks, that’s catharsis.

If you’ve been paying attention, you know that I’m an avowed atheist (agnostic, whatever). I don’t believe in any supreme being. I do believe in a connection to the universe, but not because there’s someone out there sewing it all together. So why do I insist on using the religious term “prayer”? Maybe because it’s a useful common term. Maybe because that’s what I grew up with, so it’s the only terminology I know to use. Nevertheless, I think that prayer (or whatever you want to call it) is powerful. Christians say that “prayer changes things”. As non-Christian as I may be, I completely agree.

All the junk that I described earlier, I brought that on myself. Life didn’t do that to me; I did that to me. But, because I’ve “prayed,” I feel at peace with where I am right now and am able to harness some optimism for my future. The plans that I had before coming to New York are still possible. This is just a bump, a wrinkle. There’s way more life yet to come. Some of it’s going to suck, and some of it’s going to be amazing. Some of it will be just plain mundane. But it will go on.

Hopefully, whatever life throws at you – or you bring on yourself – you can pray your way out of it. And what is prayer for you? How do you achieve that catharsis? Through exercise? Cooking? Pottery? Poetry? Gardening?

Whatever it is that brings you that release, it's prayer. And you need to embrace it. Let it heal you. Let it bring you peace. Let it guide you through this murky thing we’ve been handed that we never asked for but have to navigate nonetheless. Let it give you meaning in the meaninglessness.

Otherwise, you wind up just riding the subway from end to end, saddled with heavy baggage. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Breaking the Rules of Etiquette

We've all heard that golden rule of etiquette: "Never discuss religion or politics in polite company." Well, I think we've broken past the point of politeness, so strap in, children!

Religion has been all over the news and social media, due to the recent terrorist attacks around the world. I’ve read loads of anti-Muslim rhetoric from supposed Christians, including some who want to be our president. On the opposite end of the faith spectrum, I’ve seen tons of anti-religious speech from atheists, as well.

Bottom line: It’s all unacceptable, as far as I’m concerned.

Let me be clear, I’m agnostic. I choose that term because, although I don’t believe in a conscious god who controls the universe, I’m also not arrogant enough to believe that I absolutely know how this universe came to be and continues to exist. As I read and talk to others and learn, my perspective evolves. Personally, I think every religion has it wrong. There may be some elements of truth there, but nothing man-made is ever going to fully grasp something infinite.

However, I don’t believe in denigrating any particular religious institution or those who adhere to it. One of the purposes that organized religion serves is to help people formulate a perspective that will guide them through this confusing journey of life. My belief system is unorthodox and has some holes, but, so far, it’s served me well. Why should I deny that to someone else?

Yes, people do unconscionable things in the name of religion, but, in my opinion, that’s not a fault of religion. That’s a fault in the person. Furthermore, it’s a fault in our human psyche that still embraces tribalism to the degree that we are willing to go to war because others are outside of the tribe.

That’s the real trouble. It’s not differing beliefs (or skin colors, or sexual orientations, or geographic placements) that pit us against each other, but the impulse to demonize those who lie outside our self-identification. That’s tribalism in a nutshell. It’s a human instinct that has, in many ways, outlived its usefulness.

You know, I’ve always said that the only way we could ever truly achieve world peace is if we were to discover life on another planet. Then, we could band together to demonize them instead of each other.

We have to remember that, in the end, we are all connected to one another. And I don’t think that’s a simplistic or naïve point of view. It’s essential to who we are as citizens of this planet and creations of the divine.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Brush-a, Brush-a, Brush-a

More than likely, you brush your teeth every day. I mean, I don't want to assume. However, do you brush your teeth correctly? The ADA recommends brushing at least twice a day, for at least two minutes per session. Along with flossing, this promotes good oral health. And good oral health has been shown to be linked to overall health, particularly cardiovascular health. It’s not just an indicator of cardiovascular health, but integral to it. Are you brushing just so that your breath doesn’t smell, or do you want healthy teeth and gums – and a healthy heart?

Now, think about prayer and/or meditation (whatever that means for you; see my 10/3/15 and 10/20/15 posts for my own views). Do you pray? How often? For how long? What do you pray about?

Do you see where I’m going here? Some people see prayer as something they do in desperate times. Some people aren’t quite sure how to pray. Some people just sort of pray by rote, with no real connection to the divine.

I’ve learned that when I don’t regularly pray and meditate (and journaling is part of meditation for me), things fall apart. Just like if I don’t brush my teeth regularly – or, correctly – my gums suffer.

So that begs the question: Is there a right way to pray? I don’t feel comfortable saying that there is an absolutely right way. How about we say that prayer ought to be effective? The important thing is to make that connection with God. If I’ve meditated for 15 minutes, and I don’t feel anything, then I know that I’ve done something wrong – or haven’t done something right, as the case may be. When I journal, I have to walk away with a sense of calm or a sense of purpose, not feeling just as agitated or confused as I did going in.

I think what’s also important is that I don’t do these things just when I’m hacked off about something or I’m feeling worried or I want something to happen. I have to be in the practice so that when I need a revelation, then I’m not just fumbling around. You don’t start brushing when your gums start bleeding, although it can help; you brush to prevent the bleeding. You don’t start praying to get out of a desperate situation; you keep praying so that you’re not desperate in difficult situations.

So, there’s the question before you: How does prayer figure into your life, and how do you engage in it? Have at it, kids. Discuss.

Postscript: Of course, this is what I think of whenever I start to brush my teeth: 

Monday, November 9, 2015

Little Foxes

“Catch for us the foxes, the little foxes that ruin the vineyards, our vineyards that are in bloom.” Song of Solomon 2:15 (NIV)
In any therapeutic environment, you’re bound to run into numerous clichés and pithy quotes to help “inspire” you. At the ministry I just left, one of the pastor’s favorite one-liners was “It’s the little foxes that spoil the vine,” meaning that it’s the small habits which one might think are harmless that ultimately degrade one’s relationship with God.

We all have things we do which we think are harmless. That little white lie. Stealing office supplies. That snarky comment you were sure no one really caught. These things can often lead to bigger issues. And I don’t mean that taking Post-Its from work means that you’ll eventually knock over a liquor store. (Why is it always a liquor store, by the way? I digress.) No, these little things sometimes open the door to excusing deeper, more dangerous behaviors.

I regularly examine the things in my life which might be potential blocks in my connection with the divine. For example, Facebook. Relax, I’m just talking about myself. And, yes, I’m fully aware that I’m discussing how I sometimes get caught up in the internet… on the internet. I have to be very conscious about how I use Facebook because there was a time when I’d post specifically so people could tell me how witty or insightful I was. I needed that validation to form my self-esteem. Because my self-worth is something that I’ve been working on, I am now careful about how much I post and how often I check, as well as what I’m expecting when I check. It sounds like a small thing, but, for me, it’s huge.

Which is exactly the point here.

So, try it out. What are your “little foxes” that you think could be holding you back from being all that the universe has for you to be? And, then, what can you do about them?

Postscript: Okay, have you ever read Song of Solomon? It’s really just one long – and somewhat explicit – love poem. It’s the ultimate period romance. Read it if you ever get tired of buxom maidens and roguish pirates. Most Christian theologians, however, see it as a metaphor for the relationship between Christ and the Church.


Tuesday, October 20, 2015

My Will and My Life

Step Three: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God 

In my last post, I introduced my concept of God as the Universal Body. I hope that it stuck with you because I’m going to refer to "God" and the "Body" a lot moving forward.

At any rate, when I look at God and my relationship to God, I can finally move past the intellectual quandary of trying to parse out how an unconscious being can have a will. Every being, conscious or not, has a will to live. Since I am part of a larger being, my welfare contributes to the welfare of that being, just as the welfare of the cells of my body contribute to my overall welfare.

I believe that God’s will is for us to delight in and to honor ourselves and each other.

When I talk about turning over my will and my life, I am saying that I recognize that my will and my life are not entirely my own. Every decision and action has an effect on the Body. This is not a new revelation for me, and it’s certainly not an original insight, but it is one I must remind myself of daily because it’s a difficult revelation to actually act out of.

So, with everything I do, I have to say to myself, “Peter, is this solely for you? Is this going to benefit the Body? What are your motives here?” Often, I forget and just react. But, as I grow spiritually, I am increasingly able to stop myself and evaluate what I’m doing and why.

Over the past several months, I’ve battled with myself, worrying that I was being selfish in some of my decisions. The most recent decision to leave the program I was in is a prime example. I do believe that sometimes we act selfishly and to the detriment of others. However, there are some actions that seem selfish, but are really about self-preservation. And it is imperative that we take care of ourselves first because self-survival ultimately contributes to the health of the Body.

I composed the following prayer for myself. It reminds me that, although I am driven by the greater will of God, it’s not because I’m an insignificant pawn. Quite the opposite. It’s because I am valuable.
I am new. I am growing.
I am special. I have value.
I am ready to take on life.
I am not a passive victim; I’m an active participant.
I create life. I affect other people.
I have an impact on the universe.

Turning over my will and my life isn’t about deleting myself and my perspective. No, it’s about embracing my role in the universe and wholeheartedly doing my part, no matter how seemingly small, to keep it all spinning.


Monday, October 12, 2015

Every Good Work

I’m eager to continue discussing the steps, but first, I’d like to share something about myself which may enlighten you on how I’ve gotten to the place in which I find myself. By that, I do mean going through Recovery, but I also mean my current faith journey.
One of our weekly outings is to Celebrate Recovery, an overtly Christian off-shoot of AA/NA. Each week, in the smaller discussion groups, we are asked to state what we struggle with. A common response is “alcohol” or “meth” or “cocaine”. I state, honestly, that the substance I have a problem with is alcohol, but that my real struggle has been with my sense of self-worth.
I don’t really know where my low self-esteem came from. I’ve always had support: from my parents, from teachers, from friends. As an adult, my employers have always loved me, and I’ve advanced quickly in every organization I’ve been a part of.
But there’s always been that sense that nothing was good enough.
Now, I’ve always felt like an other. I’m left-handed, a fact of which I am almost disturbingly proud. I’m usually one of only a few black people in a room. Sometimes, I’m the only one. I was deemed “talented and gifted,” which set me apart, as well. And, I was the only out gay student in my high school. (Though, in all fairness, I had an incredibly easy time of it, with relatively few bumps in the road.)
Suffice it to say, I’m unique. And perhaps that fact was a painful one for me, even while I tried to celebrate my uniqueness. In my mind, being unique didn’t mean that I was special; it meant that there was something off. Have you ever completed an assignment or project in less time than the time allotted and were convinced that that meant you’d done the whole thing wrong? That’s how I feel almost every day of my life.
That feeling of wrongness has been the motivation for a lot of bad, as well as for a lot of good. In trying to set right what was wrong in me, I very quickly grew into a perfectionist. A deeper understanding of perfectionism reveals that, when given a project, the perfectionist will either work diligently to exceed standards, or he will simply not perform at all, for fear of not being able to achieve excellence. Anyone who knows me will recognize the accuracy of that description.
Furthermore, because I feel inadequate, I constantly seek the approval of others. This drive has manifested as a deep desire to help people, good manners and etiquette, excellent grades, a superior education, and (what started as) a promising career in arts and entertainment. The downside has presented itself in unhealthy relationships (both romantic and platonic), increasing alcohol abuse, and half-hearted suicide attempts, the last of these usually being subconscious attempts to overdose on alcohol. Many times, I hoped that I’d just pass out and never wake up.
Today, however, in my spiritual journey, I am accepting the value that I have in this universe -- which keeps me pressing towards the constructive and moving away from the destructive. I was inspired by Psalm 34:12: “Who is the man who delights in life, loving a long life to enjoy what is good?” The psalm goes on to talk about righteousness, but I was stuck on “what is good”. I understand “what is good” to mean “what is good in God,” the works which God has done. The first thing I always think of is the wonder of nature. Yet, am I not part of nature? Am I not one of God’s good works? Aren’t we all?

We don’t honor God’s work by destroying it. Not only was I killing myself with alcohol, but I was killing myself with my words and my thoughts. Both were dishonoring God and God’s work. Now, I press to reach the potential that is within me. This is where I find myself now, and how I begin to explore turning over my will to a higher power.