“Happy New Year … Happy New Year … Happy New Year … HAPPY-NEW-YEAR!!!” I spat repeatedly to each of the faces looking back at me on the computer screen.
It was New Year’s Day, and the students and I decided we’d have a little check-in. The fact that none of them were required to meet with me today, but wanted to, made me feel beyond good. The past year had been challenging, and the year ahead was looking like it would have some hurdles to jump as well, but a feeling of optimism about the world coming back to life this year seemed to be catching on.
Personally, I had other things on my mind when this meeting began. Last night both of my grandparents had been brought to the hospital by ambulance. My grandfather had been diagnosed with Covid, and now my grandmother was not feeling well either. All I could think about was how scared they must be. But these faces on the screen needed me right now…so I did my best to focus….
“From The Ashes, A New Life Is Born,” something a friend once said to me, was the quote now stuck to my head. All of us came to this little in-prompt-to meeting with a quote we hoped would describe the year 2021. We all wrote the words on a sticky note and stuck them to our foreheads to wear. It was silly, yes, but we were all feeling comfortable enough to be silly together…which meant I was making progress. Reading all of their quotes, I could see that they had taken my instructions seriously. Every-single-one satisfied our objective: “Pick a quote that will feed the 400-Pound Mate in your head.” A reference I could now see clearly that they understood (it meant to pick something that would help keep them mentally tough).
“Yo, Mr. J.” started Pras, “we all wrote letters and gave them to Principal Sam about how important your ‘Emotional Intelligence’ class been to us. She told us she’d give them to the school board. Do you think maybe that might convince them to keep you on for the year?”
This was not news to me. The principal had sent me an image of the handwritten letters Lauryn had dropped off just two days ago. The principal was going to share them with the school board, but as she told me, “they don’t really have any say over funding.”
The principal and I decided that sharing them would not hurt though; we hoped that perhaps it might help us get the program back for the next school year.
I responded to Pras, “Just so you all know. I’ve offered to stay on and not get paid. Unfortunately, it’s a liability to have me in the school with you like that. But we can still have check-ins like these. Principal Sam can’t officially approve our meetings…but what she doesn’t know won’t hurt her. Do you get what I’m saying?”
After a short discussion, they accepted the reality of the situation: There was very little chance that I’d be seeing them at school after term two came to a close.
Changing the subject, I asked the group, “Does anyone have a New Year’s Resolution for themselves?”
Jumping in, Lauryn spoke, “I’m gonna stop swearing.”
“Get the f*** outta here!” I said to myself, but NOT out loud.
Knowing what was in the article that I would be sharing with them shortly, I would not be able to join Lauryn on this quest of hers quite yet. But her desire to better herself was not about me. So, instead of making it that way, I spoke genuinely to her through the screen, “You know Lauryn, swearing makes it really hard for some people to see how special you are. I think trying to stop…or limit…your swearing sounds wonderful. Good luck!”
Week 17- (1.1.21) – “B.S.”
“The only thing you have control over is your thoughts…. Your thoughts control your emotions… Learn to control your thoughts and you can control your emotions.”
When I was young and focused on living the ‘American Dream’ I read a lot of personal success and business books. Educated and full of enthusiasm, I prepared to conquer the world. Then I failed. Over and over. Actually, first the economy failed, then my life followed suit. That is when life initially diverged on me.
Many of the books I read in my youth told me to expect failure. Yet still, it stung like a bitch.
Maybe mental toughness was not in my DNA? Maybe I was destined to be a failure?? Who knows???
Failure made me frustrated. It made me sad. It made me mad. It made me depressed. It made me anxious. It deflated my ego. Simply put, it beat the living shit out of me. Over time, it made me quit. Over time, I detached.
“They did not teach me how to deal with these feelings in school!” I screamed in silence to a universe that did not care.
Call me weak…whatever.
Eventually I traded my “Get Rich Quick” books for “Mental Health” books.
In many of those books I read things like the quote I started today’s article with. At first, I listened and shook my head in agreement like any good student. Only over time did I start calling ‘B.S.’ on things that I once accepted as common sense.
Maybe you agree with the statement about having control of our thoughts and emotions? I could agree with it as well…if we lived in isolation. Some place separate from society and everything that comes with it today. Unfortunately, very few places like that exist.
After asking myself many questions, I’ve concluded that this statement used by hundreds of people to sell books and make people feel optimistic about getting control over their emotions does not work all the time. Sorry if you do not agree. I realize that many people pride themselves on looking at life this way. But, this article is about ME…so, be quiet and let me finish!
It is my opinion that we have so many responsibilities in our evolved society that it is nearly impossible to sit alone with our thoughts. For example, focusing on the bright side of things all the time like we are told is nearly impossible if you cannot pay your electrical bill.
As you know, most of us have to go to work. We have to deal with bosses, other employees, and, of course, customers (maybe even students…sorry kiddos). Silence is not an option here. On top of that, a lot of us have families. Being quiet to focus on our thoughts cannot happen if we want to raise our children properly or be a caring partner.
I could argue that we are expected to talk all the time. If we don’t, many people would think something is wrong with us. That is the world we live in today. Am I wrong?
And when we are not talking there is television…and radio…and apps…and podcasts…and…and…and…and…and…….
Being able to focus on our thoughts when the environment around us is so distracting is nearly impossible.
My conclusion: Our environment effects our thoughts, and our thoughts effect our emotions. Therefore, to improve mental health on a global scale we must change our environment. Period.
I bring this up because I think at this point you deserve to know. This conclusion of mine goes against everything I am supposed to teach you at a Recovery School. But seeing as I will not be here much longer, I’m going out on a limb and hoping that you can handle the truth. So, let me explain…
When I was in early recovery and my life was changing without my permission there was something I said that helped me survive the experience, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
This was part of learning the principals of ‘Acceptance;’ a key attribute in sobriety. Saying this over and over, and believing it, helped me more than I could ever explain to you. But there was always a part of the word ‘Acceptance’ that bothered me.
What if everyone just ‘Accepted’ the world the way it is? What if we all just ‘Accepted’ that things would never get better? What if???
These questions haunted me. But I was told that acceptance was the answer, so I just shook my head in agreement.
I have since ‘Accepted’ that like everything in life, exceptions exist. Acceptance is not always the answer. Sorry.
In recovery, I became a better person-There is no denying that. And acceptance was a key ingredient to my success-For that I am grateful.
The stability in my life has allowed me to be there for my boys. They are what give my life purpose today. But the world that waits for them in adulthood worries me sick.
How am I supposed to just accept the way things are? What if I could make a difference? What if making a difference brought me the peace I so desperately wanted? Was acceptance truly the answer, or was it merely a chapter in a larger book?
Troubled by all of this I confided in my councilor, Mr. Cardinal. This man had helped me so much, and I had come to respect him immensely. So, after listing all these questions of mine, I asked him, “Am I crazy to think I can change things?”
Looking at me, he spoke sternly, “You are saying ‘I’ a lot, have you noticed that?” He did not give me time to respond, before continuing, “All of society has a severe case of the “Me’s” so don’t feel like I’m criticizing just you. Everywhere you look someone is playing the victim. I was once told this by someone else, and now I’m passing the knowledge on to you.”
Truthfully, what he said really offended me. I hated being called selfish, and basically that is what I felt like he was saying to me. The knowledge he shared did nothing to answer my question. So, I pressed further, “But I have ideas that I think really could help people…does this make me crazy?”
He laughed, (pissing me off just a little bit more) and pointed behind me. Turning around, a picture he had referenced many times in the past hung on the wall. It was a picture with a quote that read, “Acting on principles costs money.” Mr. Cardinal had referenced this picture many times in the past. “Comedians are geniuses,” he would say-George Carlin was his favorite.
Struggling through the stages of grief when my wife left me, Mr. Cardinal once told me, “your actions went against your morals.” He used this to try and explain why I struggled so mightily with feelings of guilt in the past. I was an absolute mess in those days. A broken man shattered in a million pieces. So many things he taught me back then now made sense upon reflection…
By pointing at this poster, he was kindly reminding me of the fact that addicts often struggled with delusional thinking. Realizing this, I knew what he was trying to say: “You are- a little- crazy.”
On that day I stormed out of his office feeling defeated. The tough love this man had showed me in the past got me through a lot, but at that moment, it destroyed me.
Looking back on it, it was all something I needed to hear…as it broke something inside of me that needed breaking (this happens a lot if you learn to look for it).
“He did not know!” I later announced to myself thinking about our conversation.
The truth was only I knew what had to be done….In reality, I knew this for a very long time. However, it had been called delusional so many times by so many people that I had learned to accept it.
Not anymore. I call “Bullshit.”
I’m not crazy. I just finally know what I have to do. And I know it my heart that it’s right. SO… listen carefully…
I can do this! I can make a difference!! Accept it!!!
Week 17-Question for Reflection:
Can you make a difference?