In last week’s post, I told you that a college student I used to mentor interviewed me for a paper he’s writing on “The Happiest Person You Know.” But I also mentioned in the same post that I haven’t always been the happy sort.
If you were to ask just about anyone who knows me, they would tell you that I have the patience of Job. They would tell you that, for the most part, I have a contagious aura of peace about me. They would tell you that I don’t hang on to stress or worry, and that I shrug off even the worst of offenses relatively quickly. But these things have not always been true of me.
Let me take you back – way back – and see if I can explain how I became the happy and patient and positive guy most people know me as today.
My mother will tell you that when I was very small, I used to make entrances by bounding through doorways, announcing my arrival with “Tah-Dah!” as if I were really something special.
From the earliest years, when I had to climb the shelves like a ladder to get my treasures, I spent long days in the library – a place where my sense of wonder was stretched until I thought it would burst. Every one of these books contains adventures and ideas and fascinating new information about everything! (I felt that way then, and that much has not changed a bit.) I was excited about the bugs and art and fancy scientific names; about the way that words sounded; about history and the world and the people in it, both near and far.
I remember one day when I visited the bathroom in said library. I was sitting on the pot, taking care of business and humming, as I often did, when I discovered something else new and wondrous – reverb. The ceiling was high, the floor tiled and the walls concrete; and so the sound of that humming echoed around me and sounded strange and exciting. So I hummed a little louder. Then I added words and sang. And before I knew it, I was belting out my little tune from my porcelain stage, enraptured by the swirling fullness of it all. I reached the end of the song and let the last of the reverberation die out before hopping down, flushing, washing my hands and heading back out for more book exploration. But when I opened the heavy metal door, I was greeted with the sound of applause from a dozen or so parents and their kids, all gathered around. Even Mrs. Bird, the stern librarian, was among them, clapping enthusiastically and smiling. With teeth. (It was weird.)
This was the kind of kid I was.
But somewhere between the days of wonder and unwitting bathroom concerts, my world got very small and dark. I began to see and experience the worst in people everywhere I turned. And by the time I was 10 or 12, I was anxious.
And I felt this way all the time.
My junior high science teacher once called my parents to report that he hadn’t noticed me eating any lunch for a while. The truth of the matter was, I always brought lunch. I just was never hungry. The feeling of stress and anger I carried with me every minute of every day masked the feelings of hunger and counteracted the desire for food.
I still read a lot. But my tastes began to turn solely to dark Fantasy – and Horror. I was drawn to Stephen King back then. But it wasn’t primarily his writing that hooked me. It was his characters. When I read Carrie, I wasn’t scared of her. I wanted to be her. The thought of being able to control matter with my mind was intoxicating, to will those knives from the kitchen drawer and hurl them across rooms. But the one that grabbed me more than any other was Firestarter. I’ll never forget the feeling of exultation that came over me at being introduced to the idea of pyrokenesis (i.e., starting fires with your mind). My trips to the library now found me in search of books that provided any hope that, however slim a chance, I could develop this ability. I dreamed about it – about being able to mentally start a ring of fire around certain people I hated and to watch it close in on them as they stared incredulously at me through the flames, knowing I was doing it. Knowing why. And having no way to stop me. In those dreams, I also had the power to immobilize my victims and remove their voices so that, when the fire finally reached them, torching their clothing and setting their flesh to baking, they could neither move nor scream. Just feel.
I was 11 when I read each of those books.
Outwardly, I was a model kid. Straigh-A student. Responsible. Talented. Compliant (again, outwardly). But inside, I not only hated the world, I hated myself.
I was bullied and called names through most of my teen years. Somehow, I was at the center of everything – a starter on the soccer team, lead tenor in the choir, principal in every play, yearbook editor, award winner in every category in competitions, top of my class. And yet, ironically, I spent most of my time feeling very much on the fringe of things, looking in. In my mind, whenever people were nice to me, it was strictly out of pity. I was awkward and skinny and ugly. I was unlovable.
People who didn’t know me then, including the kids I’ve mentored over the decades, have a hard time believing that I was ever that person. They just can’t rectify the person they know today and the person I’m describing to them. In fact, even many of those who did know me then are surprised to know what was happening inside of me, because I hid it well for the most part.
So how did that person become this person?
The truth is … I can’t tell you. At least not in any kind of linear, point-by-point fashion. But I can tell you in broad strokes. In principles.
I remember having just graduated from college and being back home again. While the darkness inside never really went away while I was at school, I was at least far enough away from the environment that I’d grown up in that I could compartmentalize a bit more. But once I returned, it all flooded back.
I remember one particular night when that wrenching feeling in my stomach was particularly bad. The black miasma of anger was pulling me under again like quicksand. Yet ironically, for whatever reasons, I also recall the first hint of realization that my anger and that knot inside weren’t punishing anyone – that when I was younger, these people stole parts of me; but that every minute I held onto the bitterness, I was now giving to them. I remember the fight I had with myself. It went late into the night and the next morning. Part of me was holding onto that anger with white-knuckled desperation. It was all I had, I told myself. But another patient yet adamant part of me was whispering, It’s time to let it go. It’s time to forgive.
It hurt like kidney stones. I seethed and cried until my face and hair and pillow were soaked. I mentally screamed, It’s not fair! Why should I have to forgive! And that quiet voice replied, You don’t. You can choose to hold onto it until you die, letting it slowly erode every good part of you that’s left – every trace of that boy who jumped through doors and sang aloud and saw endless possibilities in the world. Or you can choose to forgive – and be free.
I’d like to tell you that this epiphany changed my life that night, that my soul opened up and forgiveness flowed like a river, and that I was lifted from my bed in a swirl of magic like in Beauty and the Beast, and that I was set down again, innocent and transformed.
I’d like to tell you that. But it would be a lie.
However, what I did do that night was that my two voices came to an agreement. A first step. And that first step was that I would choose not to feed the anger. I decided never again to accuse the guilty with my mouth. And if past thoughts of the abuse and hurt they had caused came knocking, I would turn them away as best I knew how, instead of inviting them in for bitter tea and poison crumpets. But I was not ready to forgive.
Stay with me here. It’s important. What I want you to see is that the old me didn’t become the new me in a day. Not in any area. I was not a forgiving person. I just made a first-step choice to do what people who forgive do. I changed my behavior first, and somehow, somewhere along the long, with consistent choices to do what I could do, my soul caught on.
I don’t remember exactly when choosing to do what forgiving people do turned into my becoming a person known as a forgiver.
Likewise, I don’t recall the exact moment when I stopped believing I was ugly. I just know that I made small choices when I became aware of them. I made the small choice to allow people to tell me I wasn’t ugly, without contradicting them by pointing out my flaws. Then I made the small choice to add a simple “Thanks” if such a compliment arose. These might not seem like a big deal in isolation. But the cumulative effect of doing – of choosing to put thoughts to action – gradually turned into being.
This week, an old friend who’s been reading the book sent me a message. Here’s what he said:
I took a page out of your book (literally) and sent out some encouraging text messages this morning. The response was pretty incredible. One person immediately called [and] left me a voicemail profusely thanking me, telling me how timely that message was and how they really needed it since they were feeling very discouraged. This was a big burly man that I didn’t expect such an emotional reaction from. His voice was actually cracking while he left the message. He said that message just “made his week.”
Thanks again for writing the book, it is changing me.
Good job on actually making the choice to follow through, and not just think about doing it. And you can see that, in encouraging others, you get encouraged yourself that … well, you’re making a difference.
This friend wants to be known as an encourager. Right now, he is starting with doing what encouraging people do, and that is – well, making the choice to start somewhere. To encourage. This week, he did something. And I know that if he continues to do this, even if he has to work hard at it, somewhere along the way, he will wake up and just be an encourager. People will say, “Oh, yeah! He’s the most encouraging person I know!”
This friend ended our particular exchange with mock wryness: “Darn those vicious cycles of encouragement and happiness!” I had to laugh. But he’s right. It’s not a one-shot deal. It’s making the choice to practice the basics over and over until they become “the new you.”