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My parents, not unlike many of the baby boomer generation, had a house and three children by the time they were in their early 20s.
From everything I was able to glean from their words and actions, they found themselves in this life, not because they had a great passion for raising and nurturing a family, but probably because this is what they thought they were supposed to do when they finished high school.
The biggest problem with self-absorbed young people starting a family by default is that they will most likely wind up with maladapted children who will go on to experience all kinds of difficulties later in life. My history of substance use in my 20s and 30s are what psychologists often refer to as “a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.”
I don’t really spend a lot of time or energy blaming them, though. There is something inside of me that believes we are all dealt a hand when we come screaming onto this planet, and it is up to us to play it as best as we can. There are so many people born into third world poverty, countries without liberty and violent unstable areas that it would be almost criminal to have a chip on my shoulder.
Yet, here I am at the end of my fifth decade with many of the same defense mechanisms and limiting beliefs that I struggled with as a 16-year-old. All of the insecurities, all of the skewed perceptions, and all of the unhelpful survival skills. Except now, I notice them as they crop up and in my heart, and I know I am not as small as I sometimes feel. Intellectually. Getting there in a wholehearted way has been difficult.
I believe this is why tears inexplicably ran from my eyes when I first watched “Brené Brown: The Call To Courage” on Netflix. It happened right when she was discussing the quote from Theodore Roosevelt:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Despite my constant struggle with self-esteem and insecurity, I have felt the need to be that man in the arena. It began when I careened my way out of a family where no one had attended college to be the first one to do so. It carried on for the next 15 years as I pushed and pushed—albeit unsuccessfully—to get a record contract. Then, finally, at the age of 48, I signed my first book deal with a major publisher.
I remember getting that email from my agent on my iPhone as I was driving my truck over the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge: “They made an offer: you are going to be a published author.” I pulled the truck over into the shoulder and got out. It was a cold December evening in New York, but I did not feel the weather. I only felt the culmination of the years and years of combat with all the resistance this world could offer. I spent my whole life shutting out the loud voices that told me I was nothing special and listened only to that thin small voice that kept reassuring me that I had something to contribute to this world.
I looked up to the sky as the cars went whizzing by and I thought to myself, “I did it! I did it! I did it!”
It was a moment I will never forget.
Am I living happily ever after? Hell no. I am, even right at this moment, still seeking validation from unworthy sources, trying to jam myself into romantic relationships that are detrimental, and feeling “less than” at my job every other day.
But I believe that’s the point. There is no “happily ever after.” For some of us, there are no sidelines. We will always be pushing against the gravity of the world around us. For some, it is the fight to abstain from addictive behaviors. For some, it is overcoming great adversity. And for me, it will always be this struggle to love myself without the need for circumstances to go the way I want them to. Because even when they do, the victory is hollow when it is not coming from within.
All of this came down upon me as I sat alone and watched Brené Brown that night. Before that night, I felt like an alien most of the time. I really never knew where I fit in and where I even was on this planet.
Now it all makes sense: I was, and still am, in the arena.