Get in the Arena

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Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Yesterday I carved out time from my new job to return to my previous workplace and attend graduation for the last group of men to complete a program that has been in place for 21 years. I worked directly with part of the group through most of the time they were there. Just thinking about the experience, before and after, elicits a range of emotions, from sadness to pride, but I welcomed the opportunity to speak at the ceremony. Just days before, I picked up a book I purchased months ago, and what I read prompted my words to them. This is what I had to say:

“This week I started reading a book called Rising Strong, by Brené Brown, PhD. The timing of her words couldn’t have been better, because as I read, I thought of you and what I wanted to say to you as you complete this program and move forward with your lives.

She quoted from a famous speech, “Man in the Arena,” by Theodore Roosevelt in 1910:

“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 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 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.”

She continues to focus on the “ugly details” of failing – imagining that we are face down. The crowd may be silent, or booing, or all we can hear is the voice of someone telling us to get up and move on. We tend to think of arenas as some grand event, but these facedown moments can be small ones like our child lying to us about hitting a sibling or a disappointment at work or a “we chose someone else” call after a job interview – basically any moment where we risked showing up and being seen – feeling awkward trying something new, tough parenting moments, being in love, or sharing with your probation officer that you are craving that substance that got you into a world of hurt. She pondered the process of rising strong, of staggering to our feet and finding the courage to try again. What do the people who keep going have in common?

Her research has led her to believe that slowing down the rising and falling process is the key. To cultivate an awareness of the choices that are in front of us in the moments of discomfort and hurt. To take the time to weigh the consequences of those choices, and she has learned that incorporating storytelling into her research has been the most beneficial. And that is part of what you have been doing here for the last few months.

While in this program, you have been asked to share your stories, to become vulnerable. I know that wasn’t easy, because many of you clearly expressed your desire to avoid the pain of being vulnerable, particularly in this setting. I get that. But I watched something happen to you and your peers as you shared. You each grew – some with baby steps, others with giant leaps – in understanding where or why you had moments of failure, thoughts of how you could or would change to avoid that failure in the future, expressions of understanding why a peer is the way he is, and offering acknowledgement for the pain someone else had survived. It was truly amazing to see and I was honored that you trusted me in those moments.

Many of the stories I heard were about huge efforts to avoid feeling pain – whether extreme pain inflicted on you, knowing you hurt others, or the disappointment of neglect – and the failures were acting out the hurt, sometimes on others. Now it’s time to move forward. To be vulnerable with the people who count in your life. Here are the three truths you can take with you from this quote:

Get in the arena. You can choose courage or comfort. One or the other. You can’t have them both at the same time. Your acquaintances who are still using out there? They are choosing the easy way of blocking out pain rather than dealing with it. I’m not saying their lives are easy, but they are choosing what they know, what has become familiar. You know something different now. Take this new experience and build on it.

Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when you have no control over the outcome. It really is the greatest expression of courage, not weakness. Being vulnerable with your family, or your probation officer, to ask for help and support. Will you have people say “no?” Sure. But it’s their loss when you go on to experience success without them. That is courage.

A lot of cheap seats in the arena are filled with people who never venture onto the floor. They are always ready to offer put-downs or call you lame for trying to follow probation guidelines or stay sober. If they’re not interested in getting in the game and fighting for their lives, what they have to say about you means nothing. Can you still care and hope they find a way to change? Absolutely, but don’t let their criticisms from the sidelines define you. Will it take time for your family members or sober friends to trust you again? Absolutely. You’ve made promises to them before that have been broken. Prove by your actions that you want to regain their respect. That is courage. And you may be thinking you got the short end of the stick being the last group, with staff leaving and not getting everything  previous groups have gotten. But you’re here at the finish line, despite the additional challenges. That is courage.

In light of the upcoming championship games for my favorite sport of basketball: Get out there in the game, and play with all the courage you can muster. When you trip or foul or miss a 3-pointer, take a little timeout, think through your choices, talk with your coach, get back in the game with courage, and crush it.” (CHEERS TO KENTUCKY!)

I must add, that for years I felt like I was sitting on the sidelines, cheering for others, but afraid to play. Waiting for someone to send me in. Afraid of the criticism. Afraid to fall on my face. Afraid the voice in my head that told me I was not good enough was correct. Somehow I mustered up the courage to get back in the game. To return to school and finish a college degree at age 49. I can tell you – it feels infinitely better playing the game and crushing it!

 

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Exercise: 4 Life Lessons

fitness-1677212_1280When I signed up for membership at a new gym a year ago (two months before it opened), I wanted, but wasn’t certain I had the motivation, to get in good shape. If you asked me five years ago about regular exercise, I would have scoffed at the idea. When I showed up on the second day after the gym opened, a trainer showed me around, explaining what was offered. And then … he asked me to fill out a form, putting on paper my goals. After I shared what I wanted to accomplish, he worked his magic spell on me and pressured encouraged me to sign up for personal training. I fell for it, signing up for two sessions per month for nine months, an hour later kicking myself for spending the extra money. But a strange phenomenon has occurred – more than my physical health improved. (I know. Y’all already knew that and I’m just behind. Better late than never, right?) Imagine that. In addition to my own mental and emotional health benefits, I have learned some life lessons that have also improved how I relate to and serve my clients. I knew, deep down, that there were numerous benefits to exercise. It took my own experience, applying the concepts I attempt to  pass on to my clients, to improve and impact my own life and theirs.

So…here are the lessons I have learned from this experience.

  1. Making myself accountable to something or someone keeps me focused and motivated to change. Because I was paying for training that was not cheap (but definitely worth it), I wasn’t about to waste my money, so showing up for those sessions was imperative. That was all fine and good, but it also meant, I’d better follow the trainer’s exercise program before meeting with him again, or my hard-earned dollars were wasted when I didn’t see any results. In addition, I was able to encourage my clients to apply this same concept to their sobriety by purposefully making themselves accountable to family members or sponsors, from expressing their long term goals to sharing specific daily schedules. It is uncomfortable at first, given our human nature of thinking, “I am an adult and my own boss. Why would I give someone else permission to nag me.” But. It. Works.
  2. Individual personal training and group exercise classes have related but different benefits. The individual attention I got from personal training was very important because I had no idea what I was doing, and prefer not to hurt myself. I’m too old for that! My trainer started by assessing what I could do, what my limitations were, and what I wanted to accomplish, then giving me a variety of exercises to get me to those goals. (No, I don’t want to be a body-building contestant!) He worked from where I was, helping me gain strength. When my sessions recently ended, I felt strong enough to again try the group classes offered. However, the first time in the class was a little overwhelming, comparing myself to other members who had been attending the classes for a while. It’s the same way with individual and group counseling sessions. They have different goals, but both are beneficial, and typically compliment each other. Individual sessions can dig down to deeper content because the individual can be more comfortable to share. Group sessions are about understanding that participants are not alone in their struggles, but without specific comparison. That leads to my next point.
  3. Comparing myself to others is not only futile, but detrimental to my own success, as well as selfish. It took a couple of group classes, watching the other members do more reps, lift more weight, or finish in a shorter time to make me feel like it wasn’t for me. (No member made me feel that way. They were all either doing what they came to do or encouraging me to keep trying.) After about the third class, which took extra time due to my getting VERY sore, that it dawned on me that each member is at a different place, whether because of their age, how long they had been participating, or just their body makeup. Again, this applies to the work of dealing with substance abuse or life in general. Comparing ourselves to others is not the point, because each person is at a different place in life or even in addiction to the exact same substance. If I’m going to compare, I need to compare where I am today in relation to where I was yesterday. Some days will see improvement by leaps, some will be seen as progress because we didn’t move backwards, and then some will need to be about not moving backwards again tomorrow.
  4. Exercise/physical activity is a huge stress reliever when circumstances are overwhelming, frustrating, or just busy. I can say I have finally discovered what the hype is all about regarding exercise. On days I have been: overwhelmed (when a client shared extreme emotional trauma); angry and disappointed  (when I found out my job in a program I LOVED was ending); sad (realizing more people in need would not have the same opportunity); afraid (hearing “we decided to go with someone else” after more than one interview, despite the desire to trust God); undecided (when there was an offer on the table but it didn’t feel right); or relieved (when I declined that “bird in the hand” offer and within an hour received a “two in the bush” offer from the agency I felt sure was the right place, where God wanted me);…exercise was THE BEST MEDICINE for physical, emotional, and mental health.

Even if you can’t get to the gym or don’t have the funds to spend, grab a friend (or allow one to ask you what you are going to do or what you did for the day), and start moving. A walk. A run. A skate. A swim. A basketball. Something. There will be pain. But it feels SO good when you’re done. It’s time to love yourself healthy. You won’t regret it and your family will love you for taking care of yourself. Physically, emotionally, and mentally.

Crazy Days That End Well (I have people.)

paperpeople-011I don’t really do Halloween. I used to love being someone else for a few hours, and maybe I will again someday. Right now, life and its curveballs are a little too overwhelming to do anything other than smile and acknowledge the cute (or not) costumes and re-imaginations of others and hand over the candy. Without eating ANY of it!

Today, though! Crazy start. I thought it would be the typical Monday. I’m running a little late, so I’ll order my coffee on an app on my phone to save time.

Nope! ERROR message. Fortunately, the drive through line isn’t too long at 0600, but even that took longer. Okay! Have coffee. Will travel.

Nope! Red and blue lights ahead, and no one knows how to merge and keep things moving. Finally on The Grand Avenue, that everyone loves to hate, due to its 6-way intersections, and things are moving along and turning onto the street that is the most direct toward work.

Nope! Street is closed due to an accident, and routed onto a freeway with a few hundred other people trying to use a detour. Thirty extra minutes (and gallons of gas) of backtracking to make it to work. Time to focus and get things done.

Nope! Distractions related to not knowing the future. Not knowing what direction to go. Feelings of panic regarding decisions that need to be made, deadlines that need to be met, questions that need to be answered with graciousness that seem to need a magician to pull off.

But then …

A client calls to say, “I’m doing well. I have a good job. I’ve seen my kids. I’ve created accountability with my supervisor. And I want to thank you for everything you did for me.”

A daughter who loves to give gifts and make people feel special reminds you that you are loved.

A friend from across the country, takes your call and gives you nearly 2 hours of her late evening to listen. To help you reframe your situation. To understand you when you aren’t sure you understand yourself. To point to the trees that would be obvious if you weren’t so close to the forest. To send you encouragement. To pray. To help lift your load and remind you that you are loved.

I cannot do this life alone. And I don’t have to. I HAVE PEOPLE.

Where I Was When …

fabric-flag2[1]Friday was a day of remembrance related to a traumatic day in American history, one that I actually remember well. I was barely 16 months old when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination occurred when I was almost six years old in 1968. I was clearly too young to feel the impact of trauma or fear or anger, for either of those significant events. September  11, 2001, was very different. I clearly remember the trauma, from a distance, that I felt that day.

I was a school bus driver, and my days started very early. Before daylight, usually. On August 23rd, less than three weeks prior, my father had passed away after a long, excruciating struggle resulting from a stroke. We (my mother, daughter, and I) had flown back to my homeplace in Eastern Kentucky to bury him near my brother and grandparents. I missed him greatly, and still do, but his suffering had  been great and his new found peace was somewhat of a relief, but the loss was still on my mind. After the events of September 11th, my mother reported being grateful that my father had passed before this event for two reasons: we might not have been up to flying back to fulfill his wishes of being buried in Kentucky, and he would have been heartbroken to hear about what was happening to his country.

I drove up the freeway that morning, listening to KLOVE, finding strength in the encouraging words of the songs and uplifting stories I heard. I turned on my signal to exit the freeway and head toward the bus yard. Those songs were interrupted by a breaking news story about a plane having hit one of the towers of the World Trade Center. There was some brief conversation regarding whether it was an accident or airplane malfunction or a deliberate attack. Somewhere in the back of my mind I recalled a WTC bombing years earlier, but being so far removed, I new very few details of that event. I don’t remember the remainder of the route to the bus yard, because the next memory was walking into our little house-turned-office, looking at the television screen to see one tower on fire as yet another plane flew directly into the other tower. I remember thinking, “This must be what war looks like.” It seemed so surreal as news stations showed the havoc going on at street level and in the air, as well as two additional locations.

It was the first time in my life I remember feeling a fear that extreme. We were instructed to proceed in picking up students and transporting them to their schools, then to return to the bus yard on stand-by status, prepared to return them to their neighborhoods in the event there was a local threat. The conflicting thoughts of completing my duties for the children of the district versus the desire to rush to my daughter’s school to pick her up and find some safe place to hide were high. How would she get in touch with me if something happened locally? How was the school handling the sharing of the events with students that let them know of the threat without frightening them to death? So many emotions were running through me like a roller coaster ride. For weeks.

It was a day I will never, ever forget. Watching the devastation, the horror on the faces of those running for safety, realizing the loss of human life as the towers disintegrated into ashes, the loss of those who rushed to the scene to save lives – it was almost too much to take in. Tears flowed and I was thousands of miles away. I didn’t even personally know anyone who died in any of those three locations. I can’t even begin to imagine the heartbreak of those who experienced it firsthand or realized the phone call they received from a loved one was the last time they would hear his or her voice.

It still seems surreal to me, as I watch various memorial events acknowledging such a painful experience. My heart still breaks for the families who have had to go on living without a loved one, particularly the children who lost parents and now only have their memories on which to rely. How could humans be so evil and cruel? I don’t understand what makes people believe this kind of action is something for which they want to be known. I do know that when devastating events happen, there is also good. There are stories of people who jeopardized or even gave their lives to help someone else. There are those far removed from the situation that showed up to comfort, to clean, to search for life, to give a kind word, to give monetary gifts, to tend to the physical and emotional needs, or to pray from afar for all affected.

In my opinion, positive things happen at substantial levels when the most traumatic and disturbing events occur. It reminds me that there are still a considerable number of human beings who have compassion and empathy for those directly affected by natural or human-generated disasters. It confirms that support is the single most crucial element to success for humankind.

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