REFLECTIONS ON LIVING AND DYING
Clark Moustakas wrote a book called TURNING POINTS, back in the sixties. His central theme was that there are four or five “turning points” that change the course of one’s life for better or worse. As I reflected on each of the “turning points” of my life I discovered that each event was a catalyst for change in the “box of beliefs” that I carried through each stage of my life. Neale Donald Walsh in his series titled “CONVERSATIONS WITH GOD,” asserts that change must happen at the level of belief for it to be permanent. So many of my “turning points” changed the course of my life permanently; and not in a way my brain could have ever anticipated. I would like to share a few of my turning points with all of you.
I came into this life in an Irish/Italian catholic family. While I was born in Brooklyn, New York, my dad joined the Army when I was three, so we traveled oversees when I was very young. I never felt like Brooklyn was my home. The theme of my life at that time was, adapt, adapt, adapt! My mother was big on image. Her favorite saying was; “you’ll never make the 400,”( a millionaires club in New York). My take away was that I was never enough as I was.
When my parents decided to retire and bought a home in Lakewood, Washington, I was enrolled in a Catholic school. This was my first experience of community and faith. I was wonderstruck with the stories, the rituals and the traditions. On the other hand I was filled with shame, fear and anxiety as my budding sexuality was met with an onslaught of judgment and condemnation. I was told I was a sinner and would spend many years of my afterlife in purgatory as penance for my shameful choices. While I continued to grow and pursue my vision for life; I felt split and always carried an underlying shame and belief in my unworthiness. I would strive to be impressive on the outside; but, always lived in fear of you discovering what a shameful sinner I was on the inside, and then you would abandon me.
In my early twenties a friend of mine and I decided to join the army. We were both following our father’s legacies and would join on the buddy system so we could stay connected through each other’s careers. We decided to be paratroopers and began our military careers. However, things changed rapidly because I was put on a different track than my friend. In Jump School, I broke my ankle. I was given six weeks to heal, thirty days of R&R at home, and then sent to Vietnam. My experience there was frightening. I was a twenty year old man, eight thousand miles from home in a war zone where living and dying was my number one preoccupation. I was scared out of my mind and in complete survival mode. Two and a half months later I stepped on a land mine. My life and career were now changed forever.
The twentieth year of my life was a significant turning point in my life. I broke my ankle in Jump School on my 20th birthday. After one year of Vietnam, the land mine and many months of surgeries and rehabilitation, I got out of the Army on my 21st birthday. I call that the year of transformation. In later years I would describe that time as a near death experience that transformed me from being “a warrior of the body”, to “a warrior of the heart”.
MARRIAGE AND DIVORCE
Upon my return from Vietnam, I immediately enrolled in college and pursued my academic, dating and drinking career. I had lots of sex, found the woman of my dreams, was known as one of the friendliest drunks on campus, and had enough intelligence to graduate and move on to graduate school. I managed to get a graduate degree and began my professional career as a counselor. My marriage was a mess. We separated once in grad school and the struggles continued into my career. I was still drinking heavily at the time.
Another turning point occurred on a weekend when my wife and I were contemplating divorce. She went home to her parents for the weekend and I went on a bender for the weekend with my neighbor in the apartment below our own. After two days of drinking, I awoke that Sunday morning with a hellacious headache and started what would turn out to be a six hour walk. That day May 12th, 1972, the last day I ever drank alcohol. We divorce soon after. I buried my feelings through lots of sexual exploits, but found myself depressed and questioning my life.
ON DEATH AND DYING
I was in dialogue with a friend from grad school who was also depressed and unhappy with his life and we both decided to leave our jobs and spend some time together traveling. I quit my job, sold everything I had and moved home. Within a few months my friend had closed up his life and we left on a road trip that landed us in the mountains of Colorado. We settled in a ski resort called Steamboat Springs. It was a small town at the time with one movie theater and lots of bars and the resort. My friend was contemplating suicide and had brought the book; ON DEATH AND DYING, by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. That book was transformative for me. It was my first introduction to the grieving process. The only movie in town was Woody Allen’s, LOVE AND DEATH, which we saw about ten times. My friend would often drive off alone and I wasn’t sure if he would come back. He was that depressed. His depression helped me decide I was not that depressed and wanted to live. The decision to live was another turning point that, once again, set in motion a series of events that were both healing and transformational.
AWAKENING MY SPIRITUAL CONSCIOUSNESS
I often muse that once I made the decision to live my life has been guided by a higher spiritual consciousness. Now I am aware that it was my higher consciousness in collaboration with the entourage of angels, guides, loved ones and Ascended Masters who had helped me decide my purpose on the planet and the script I had chosen to live.
After leaving Colorado, I returned home and looked for work. Traditional job searches were revealing nothing, so I decided to walk over to the Catholic Church of my childhood shame. I was greeted with open arms and began an odyssey that would, once again, change the direction of my life.
I had discovered that the church had changed dramatically from when I left in my adolescence. I was hired as the youth minister. I was encourage to attend, and did achieve a Doctor of Ministries degree from another Jesuit university. I was encouraged to attend a weekend retreat for the divorced, separated and widowed to see if I could expand the ministry of the church to those who had been ostracized by the church. The mass was in English, not Latin. The altar was turned to face the people. Confession and penance was changed to discernment and reconciliation. There was more openness and acceptance of other spiritual traditions. Compassion was growing in the “Body of Christ”. My spiritual world view was expanding.
I met my wife Sandra and we were married in that community. We have been together more than 38 years. I became a trainer and board member of Beginning Experience and had a wonderful life of service to the divorced, separated and widowed internationally. It was through both participation and facilitation in the Beginning Experience that I understood the connection between the grief process and the death resurrection process, so central to the church. I lived and witnessed the death to life process a thousand times. My compassion for humanity and the process of life expanded.
ADDICTIONS AND RECOVERY
Soon after our marriage my wife’s sister sent her son to us for help. He was an alcoholic/ addict. It wasn’t long before he was in an alcohol related accident which set in motion another turning point of my life. We did the interventions necessary to get him into treatment; but they wanted us to be a part of his family program. We resisted but decided to go to support him, so we thought. But as we sat in the lectures and family groups a new revelation happened. They weren’t teaching me about his addiction and broken family system, they were talking about mine. While I had stopped drinking all those years ago, I had never done any counseling to address the underlying issues of my family’s battle with alcoholism, or my own.
Once again I was being divinely guided into another element of self- revelation and healing. Both Sandra and I opened ourselves to individual, couples and group therapy. For me the exposure to more information and awareness about dysfunctional family systems and the coping strategies helped to normalize and make sense of my past. The realization that it wasn’t just me; but that thousands of others suffered similar traumas, helped relieve the guilt and shame about my past. I participated in structured group environments that allowed me to release my secrets, anger, sadness and fear, that helped create a shift in my self-esteem, and a lessoning of my depression and anxiety. Being supported by others alleviated my fears of rejection and condemnation. Learning the new strategies for life and healthy communications skills, bolstered my optimism that I was capable of being the loving man I believed myself to be. Without our mutual surrender and vulnerability to our processes of recovery, our marriage would have never survived.
In therapy I learned about my Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I now understood and had compassion for the walled off emotions I kept buried deep inside. I was afraid of how my rage would come out; so I pretended to not have any. I understood my own emotional disconnect that affected my wife and family. Eventually, I wrote a book about my Vietnam experience and my own personal struggles with PTSD. It is called; BOY SOLDIER. The trauma and grief of that experience took me more than twenty years to discover and heal. There was an emotional availability that was dead to my life. But with lots of healing and support my emotional life is alive and well.
As I sit here and reflect on all that I have revealed to you I feel hope and compassion. I realize that the shame, fear, guilt, anxiety and depression I lived was based in my own ignorance and the false beliefs handed down to me by those who influenced my life in my early years. The “box of beliefs” I held on to was based in an underlying belief that I was flawed by nature and needed to adapt to the expectations of others to survive, seek approval and find redemption for my sins. Fear of criticism, punishment, rejection, abandonment and eternal damnation, were the motivating factors for seeking approval and acceptance. As I lived in fear of judgment of others; I would even more harshly judge myself. I call this strategy, “abandon before you get abandoned”. The visions and dreams I had for my life slowly diminished into passivity and despair. I lived to survive, not to thrive in life.
It was the wisdom and compassion of others that helped me see and then heal the dysfunction of the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors that kept me bound to my shame. I realize that many of these “turning points” of my life could have easily taken me into more profound depression and despair. I have witnessed many family members and friends who died early in life because of untreated or mistreated addictions, diseases, or emotional trauma. I am thankful that I fought through my resistance and surrendered to the support that was offered.
EXPANDING HUMAN CONSCIOUSNESS
Perspectives on living and dying are directly tied to your “boxes of beliefs” about life and death. As I have already detailed, my early beliefs were based in fear and ignorance. But with education, love and support of others my views on living and dying have changed dramatically. I believe that fear needs information, and grief needs to be witnessed by the compassionate support of others. Because of these things I no longer fear life and have no shame or fear about death.
But now let me take you in a different direction. Let’s talk about thinking outside our “box of beliefs,” and expand our consciousness about living and dying. Do you believe you can live to be 300 years old? 600? Do you believe in re-incarnation? Do you believe there can be peace on earth? Do you believe you can become your own medical intuitive? Do you believe that there is no judgment from God? Do you believe that you are part of God? Do you believe that God resides within you? Do you believe that you can change water into wine? Do you believe that the earth has a consciousness that is directly entangled with human consciousness? Do you believe there is life elsewhere in the universe? The masters of the earth believe all these things. There are many stories of ancient civilizations that demonstrated all these things. Some current religions believe some of these things.
The great masters on the planet did not come to save us; they came to teach us how to save ourselves. Jesus said: I have given you all that my father has given me so that my joy may be yours and your joy may be complete. He went on to say that you could do things even greater than he. He was a master who lived and demonstrated the capacity for human consciousness to expand and become the masters of life.
Neale Donald Walsh suggests that life, love and god are interchangeable concepts of the fundamental energy of the universe. Dare to believe that we are in god and god is in us. If you believe any or all of these beliefs it will change forever how you view life and death.
Because I have chosen these beliefs, I have found more joy in life. I see death only as a transition into the next phase of my soul’s evolution. I now view all of my past experiences as lessons and opportunities to grow my consciousness. I feel grateful for those who played significant roles in my life’s evolution. I feel compassion for those mired in the darkness of their own fear and ignorance. I am more patient each day and take time to appreciate and thank the earth that I walk on. I meditate and pray more. I trust my intuition to guide me. I believe I am eternally loved. I laugh more. I play more. I am privileged to see my life’s work; not as a job, but a lifestyle. I take nothing for granted. I look forward to what life brings as the next opportunity to expand my consciousness. I know that I have the freedom to choose what enhances or diminishes my well-being. I am honored to be a light-worker in service to life.
I am the owner/counselor of Horan Counseling Services for 24 years. I work with my wife Sandra. I have also owner/director/ counselor at Passages Professional Counseling Services for more than six years. I also worked in a drug and alcohol treatment center, was a Youth Minister at St. Frances Cabrini Parish, and a counselor at Catholic Community Services. I have a Doctor of Ministries degree from the Jesuit School of theology in Berkeley, CA., A Master’s Degree in Counseling from Gonzaga University, and a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy from Seattle University. I taught counseling at Pierce College in Lakewood, WA. And I am a Vietnam veteran.
Written for the On Living and Dying series. If you’d like to be a part of the challenge, find more info here: 365 Days On Living and Dying. But first leave a comment and let Vince know how you feel about what he said, and be sure to visit him over at Compassion Zone when you’re done.