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I woke with my daily routine of coffee and toast with avocado butter
As I sat down in front of my computer, I mindlessly listened to the news on the TV, checked email, Facebook, and LinkedIn. This has become a sort of a habit and a bearings check to see what the world and the constellation of people I’ve bumped into are doing. This seems to help manage my hyper-vigilance that has diminished over the years but still, I like to be aware of new things coming my way or that may impact the world around me.
My first glimpse at Facebook took me to some of my son Danny’s battle buddies he served with in Afghanistan. As I clicked on an ever-expanding number of posts remembering all the close friend’s Veterans who have been lost, I began to feel something waking up within me that has been tucked away and numbed.
I quickly got up and went for a bike ride and listened to a segment of the audiobook “Unshakeable” about investing. This took me back into my numbness and quickly focused me into another area of my life needing attention
When I arrived home, I sat in front of my computer to check back in on Facebook.
And there they were again, endless posts from Veterans I know very well. But I kept zeroing in on the posts of Danny’s battle buddies. I found myself going into each of their Facebook pages to search through their pictures for a glimpse of the experiences they shared with Danny at Shkin Firebase, that God-forsaken mud fort in Afghanistan just a few miles from the Pakistan border.
As I came across more and more of these powerful images of camaraderie, pride, pain, and suffering, that numb feeling began to wake inside of me again, just under the surface. It was a numbness I had lived with all my life. I have a sense of knowing this numbness from infancy before I could even speak, and it became my armor that would protect me from countless life experiences that I would come to know as trauma.
For hours, I mindlessly combed through thousands of images of how these hard men had transitioned from the military into civilian life. It is amazing how through social media we can peer into people’s lives without having to say hello. I had met a number of them at Danny’s funeral and was very honored to hear the love and respect they had for him. At the party after the service, I sat in amazement as they shared their experiences of him. They described his free spirit and how incredibly effective he was as a soldier and leader, especially under fire and in extreme danger. They were slapping each other on the back as they wailed and shouted at each other while toasting and chugging beer after beer followed with shots of bourbon. The love and respect they had for Danny were deep, and I could feel them shielding their pain as they drank and toasted him. Throughout the evening, I would see some of them weeping together away from the large gathering as they suffered in private, unable to be vulnerable to others outside of their tribe.
As I continued to reel from the emotional reverberations from the images I was viewing, I felt something within me coming alive. Something wanting, no, something needing to be expressed. But I could also feel the pressure in that familiar compartment I have kept locked down, beginning to build.
Thankfully, at that moment, Annette came downstairs and it was the perfect instant to seal that container and stow it back away. My daily ritual of making her coffee kicked in and we floated in the pool for a good couple of hours. My mind was distracted and my numbness to Memorial Day faded. We made plans for the day to go shopping for large umbrellas to shade our decks from the scorching Vegas summer sun. While Annette went upstairs to change I once again, sat down and checked in on the growing number of posts from Veterans.
I thought, before we go, I should at least post a few pictures of Danny to quietly memorialize his life and to have a sense of honoring him. I posted them without a comment sensing those who matter most already know the message. I then went to my folders and found something Danny was so proud of, his performance evaluation as a leader. I remember the pride he and I felt as he shared the comments with me. All scores were in the “Excellent” column and statements of how effective he was in combat described the Danny I know. He loved the feeling of being a leader in Combat and this was reflected in the comments from his leaders.
Almost instantly upon posting, there was a response from one of his battle buddies.
“I am proud to have known him and even more proud to have served beside him.”
The words pierced my numbness as a welling of emotions surged through me.
I leaned back in my chair, my eyes flooding with tears and my body tingled with energy. My mind was fighting my logic to lock it down and stay in control but my heart was already cracked open. I felt a surge of energy well up in my chest as I took a breath in that stretched my chest open. As I exhaled I felt my need to control let go. Making it through these moments without breaking had been my way of dealing with Danny’s passing. His birthday, the anniversary of his death, Veterans day, Memorial Day, the anniversary days of his worst moments in combat when he lost friends, all had become things to get through. My numbing had become my normal way of dealing with my pain. But this was not new information, Danny’s passing was for sure the thickest layer of my emotional numbing armor because of the depth of the pain. But my emotional numbing in my mind was ancient, even ancestral from the conditioning of the men on my father’s side of our family. All of them were hard, self-absorbed, numb, and traumatized, except of course when they had too much truth serum…alcohol. These were my teachers.
I re-read the post, “I am proud to have known him and even more proud to have served beside him.”
My eyes welled again as my breathing seized up a few times and I let out a whimpering sound that brought me to my senses. I felt a sense of relief and letting go that was a long time coming. It has been almost 11 years since Danny’s passing and I have been numb for the most part the entire time.
Just then, Annette came downstairs saying she was ready to go as she walked toward me.
I turned away from her and acted as though I was reaching into a drawer as I wiped my eyes. But the tears kept coming as she was talking to me. I muttered something in response but kept my head turned away as I spoke.
The tears were visible and I was wondering if she could see that I was suffering.
Within a few minutes, I was able to get up and move away as I went upstairs to change. As we drove through the neighborhood she was on her phone and saw my posts. “Awe, that’s a nice post about Danny”. As I gripped the steering wheel I felt I felt vulnerable and embarrassed. But then I felt a sense of relief that I could let go without being judged. But I still kept quiet and stoic while the tears poured down my face.
We arrived at the Bad Owl Coffee Shop and sat down at a table outside. “They have the best Avocado toast with Cilantro Chimi Churi sauce,” I said. I went inside to order and covered my face with my N95 mask and wiped my eyes as I walked up to give our order. I went back outside, still shaken, and sat down. A deep feeling of loss and longing weighted me into the chair as I stared down at the table. “It’s ok to feel what you are feeling,” Annette said in a reassuring tone. About this time a couple sat down at a table facing us about 10 feet away. I was noticeably upset and wiping more tears but I didn’t really care what they were thinking.
After talking for a few minutes I was getting too upset to sit there and sob so excused myself and went through the cafe to the bathroom to gain some composure. Within a few minutes, I went back out and sat down expecting our food order would be ready shortly. It wasn’t long before I became restless and went back in to check on why it was taking so long. “There are maybe four people in the whole place!” I thought as I stood in the hallway to the bathroom. I didn’t want to be around anyone and there was nothing on the walls to help me look like I was reading something, so I came out of the back hallway to the bathroom and saw a book cabinet across from the cashier so I thought I would see what may be interesting. As I walked toward the bookcase something felt like a tap on the shoulder telling me “heads up”.
I have always had a sense of these kinds of moments. Moments when I am in pain or lost in confusion. I have learned throughout difficult or unexpected moments that I need to pay attention to. If I get a flat on the side of the road, I pay attention, there is someone I am supposed to meet or something I just avoided. This has happened more times than I can count. When I am triggered into unresourceful thinking or into painful memories, I pause and find myself triggered like a ricochet into a place of curiousness, a place where something hopeful and good is waiting for me to discover it. It has not always been this way, this ricochet effect is something I discovered many years ago to redirect the focus of my attention in some extreme situations and it has served me ever since. And it’s not just avoidant thinking or distracting to keep me from dealing with the moment. Not at all, it is as if a voice deep inside is calming my soul and opening my eyes, ears and intuition. I say to myself, “Where is it?” “Look around, what am I supposed to discover?” Sometimes, it is as simple as finding my breathing and re-centering in the present moment; other times, as I allow my awareness to expand, I am able to see or sense a way forward.
And then, almost always, something I would not have expected happens.
In this instance, as I peered into the bookshelf I whispered to myself “Where is it?” Within seconds, a book instantly caught my eye The Conquerer’s Wife, The love story of William I and Queen Matilda. I thought to myself “Is there something I should be paying attention to” as I held the weight of the book in my hand. “This would be a book Annette would like,” I thought. But I had a sense to keep looking into the darkness of the shelf and spotted another book in the space just next to the one I had in my hand.
I squinted to see the printing on the black binding “Leadership Pain.” I paused and considered the title for a moment as I pulled it off the shelf. It was a well-worn book with grimy hand and finger marks all across the cover. The edges of the binding were worn, probably from carrying it around by someone, or even many people.
I opened the book and found some highlighted sentences in yellow on page four.
As I read the words I knew, once again, a familiar, deep sense of knowing that the universe speaks to me through my challenges and pain. When I am in pain, I reach for what gives meaning and purpose through my suffering. And this was one of those moments as I read the following highlights scattered throughout a number of paragraphs:
“Pain is a part of progress. Anything that grows experiences some pain. If I avoid all pain, I’m avoiding growth.”
“We must choose right over easy”
“The pain is worth the progress”
“Leadership that doesn’t produce pain is either in a short season of unusual blessing or it isn’t really making a difference”
I stood there stunned with a sense of being struck once again with a cosmic 2×4 across my forehead. I could feel the presence of a soothing sense of knowing as I took a deep breath in and let it out. “Thank you son,” I whispered to myself as I teared up again. But instead of painful tears, they were tears of gratitude as I imagined Danny’s smile, encouraging this awakening moment.
I heard from behind me “Two avocado toasts to go.” As I picked up our order and walked toward the door I was still mesmerized from the experience I had just encountered.
Looking back, it is amazing to imagine what this experience must have been like for Annette who watched me step away from our table to go inside, not being able to contain my pain, only to return just a few moments later with this book in my hand with a sense of astonishment and relief.
“It just happened again,” I said.
“When I am in pain, I open my senses to what I am supposed to learn… and this book jumped off the shelf at me”
I opened the book and handed it to her with the pages highlighted in yellow. As she read them she began to smile. This is an everyday experience for her and she has a natural sense about how these moments happen and unfold. As a sense of awe and wonder about what is right with the world instead of what is wrong with it is something we have always had in common.
We both felt a sigh of relief that a deep sense of meaning had arisen from my suffering.
As she thumbed through the pages she found yellow highlights and sticky notes all throughout the book. We felt a sense of reverence that someone had fully embraced the wisdom of this book and had used its messages to guide them. Again, we acknowledged how these moments are happening to us continuously because we are open to them. Like a tuning fork, when we are in our most challenging moments, we are able to feel and sense our way through from pain to meaning. Sometimes we stay in our pain longer than necessary but eventually, this higher energetic field of meaning and possibility entrains us and draws us toward it.
She then shared how much she appreciated that I am open to this energetic field of possibility and how I am becoming more in tune with my conscious awareness.
And the day took on a magical quality we fully enjoyed
When my heart aches, I breathe. When I am triggered into painful or volatile places, I breathe.
When I am stuck and don’t know what to do, as I breathe, I admit to myself that I don’t know what to do. Because when I am stuck in not knowing what to do, all I have is what I know and what I have done to attempt to solve my presenting problem.
By simply admitting that I don’t know what to do, I release the binds of my need or control or certainty. As I admit to myself that I do not know what to do, I breathe new air and my field of vision expands and relaxes.
As my mind calms and softens I sense a shift in my energetic field I can describe as curiosity and possibility.
It is in this place of infinite possibility where I create the possibility of creating something new. It is in this place where I see what I am intended to see, who I am somehow intended to meet, and what I am to do to take my next steps forward.