becoming

red and white shoes walking a black and white train track

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.

Fearful.

Bitter.

Angry.

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 anyonethat 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.

The Best Advice So Far: 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.

The Best Advice So Far: 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.

The Best Advice So Far: The cumulative effect of DOING – of choosing to put thoughts into action – gradually turns 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.

I replied:

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.”

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About Erik

Erik is an author, speaker, blogger, facilitator, people lover, creative force, conversationalist, problem solver, chance-taker, noticer and lover of life. He lives in the Boston area. "It's more about writing lives than writing pages." View all posts by Erik

25 responses to “becoming

  • D. Wallace Peach

    Wow, Erik. Thanks for sharing such a personal journey. Though you’re clear that the changes in your life didn’t happen overnight, it’s still rather incredible that the wisdom came from inside, that you recognized it and were able to act on it. It show to a great degree how we are creators of our realities.

    I was a morose teenager too, insecure and depressed (it’s such a hard time of life for so many). And I would agree that it’s a long journey into increasing awareness – that hopefully continues to the day we die. For me, there was an element of surrender too, of giving up fear because there seemed little to lose. I started over from ground zero. Hard to explain because it wasn’t entirely conscious, but part of the process nevertheless.

    Oh, and the bathroom concert is adorable! What a cute kid 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Erik

      No need to explain “starting over from ground zero,” Diana. I get it (at least my version of it), only mine was conscious; I remember the day I said the words: “I’m starting over from ground zero.” And as far as the teen years being a hard time, anyone who tells you they’d “go back” … forgot how it really was! My best friend and I are always commenting how ironic it is that the older we get, the more we sag outside, but the more we like ourselves inside and the less we care what others think. True!

      Liked by 3 people

      • D. Wallace Peach

        I remember my day too actually. It was a bad day, and I think I was at a point where the fear of staying where I was was greater than the fear of letting it all go. It took me a long time though for the awareness to organize into words and for the road to smooth out. It’s much easier for me to look back now with compassion and understanding than it was to live through 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • Erik

          Absolutely! And yet, here we are. We made it. I’ve tried to store up those moments each time they happen in life – the moments when you realize you’ve made it, yet at which point you can still remember when you didn’t think you would. They cumulatively help with each new “next time.”

          Liked by 1 person

      • Sean P Carlin

        So true, Erik: The looser our skin gets, the more comfortable we seem to become inside it. Youth and beauty are great, but the wisdom and self-confidence that comes with age are what make life worth living.

        Liked by 1 person

  • Anonymous

    Excellent post, Erik. Even though I probably am one of those you had to forgive, I am thrilled that you are MY son and that, through the years I’ve had the privilege of learning from you and watching you become the man you are today. Forgiveness is the key to being able to love people and experience joy and the freedom to enjoy all the other wonders around us. Love you, Mom

    Liked by 1 person

  • jenanita01

    Reblogged this on Anita Dawes & Jaye Marie and commented:
    Seriously, I need to try this…

    Liked by 1 person

  • Sean P Carlin

    Wow, Erik — another raw, candid essay from you. My wife always says — and I know she didn’t come up with this — that holding onto anger is like swallowing poison every day and expecting the object of your anger to get sick from it. Forgiveness is such an abstract concept — a seemingly all-or-nothing proposition; taking steps to forgive, not unlike taking steps to conquer addiction, actualizes forgiveness — makes it practicable over purely philosophical. Thanks for demonstrating that here.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Erik

      Exactly, Sean. There is no quick fix.

      Oh, and Carrie Fisher of Star Wars fame actually voiced that quote: “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sean P Carlin

        Well, there’s someone who knew about resentment and addiction! For those that don’t know, “Princess Leia” is actually a very accomplished author and screenwriter, and I for one am glad she conquered her demons and will be back on the big screen in December!

        Really solid piece, my man. And the library anecdote is a stitch! I didn’t realize you were such a fan of horror, too! I’ve talked about how children respond emotionally to the Superhero genre because it reflects their desire to feel special, and a lot of horror stories — Carrie and Firestarter among them — are actually Superhero yarns at their most fundamental, even though they get “misfiled” with Monster in the House tales of terror, so it doesn’t surprise me that they resonated with you. Have you ever revisited those books in adulthood? I find the stories I loved as a kid are often powerful emotional “time capsules,” taking me back to a bygone time and place, and evoking subconscious feelings buried under the layers of (often unreliable) memory that help me revisit the past, if for no better reason than to more effectively understand it and put it behind me.

        Liked by 1 person

  • philosophermouseofthehedge

    Growing up is hard: the maturing of neurons, muscles, bone, and chemical and then at the same time each is trying to sort through what the world is, how society works, and people’s thoughts and actions in general. It’s a wonder anyone makes it through, but it’s part of the survival process – humans now just have to cope with so much more mental rather than just physical vs environment as animals seem to.
    Be quick. Solve the puzzles. Life is such an adventure – even once you think you’ve made it through.
    Battle – or muddle – onward! Just like the bear that went over the mountain, just to see what he could see.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Erik

      Childhood and teen years are a time when we have fewer choices, though we still have them. (Whether we realize that or not depends on our environment.) But as adults, while we can’t un-do, we can make new choices about how we let the past affect us.

      I don’t know if there is necessarily one puzzle to solve. The word “puzzle” brings to mind something that has one solution. Often, there are many “right choices” that will address the “present puzzle.”

      And … now you’ve got me whistling the darned “Bear Went Over the Mountain” song! Gee wiz …

      Like

  • Dustin Fife

    I love this. “Fake it til you make it” is great advice when it comes to forgiving. I recently wrote a blog post about forgiveness and didn’t think that that’s exactly what I was doing. I didn’t feel feelings of forgiveness, but I pretended I did. And now, the bitterness is (almost) entirely gone.

    Liked by 1 person

  • aFrankAngle

    Although it wasn’t the source of your turnaround, your bathroom moment was profound. Meanwhile, yes … forgiveness is absolutely freedom!

    Liked by 1 person

  • Jed Jurchenko

    Erik, you have a powerful story! I love hearing about the journeys of others. It’s so easy to look around and think, “everyone else has it easier.” The truth is that most happy people, and successful people, arrived where they are at through a process.

    It’s very normalizing to be reminded that everyone–yes, absolutely everyone–has bumps and bruises on their journey. It was fun reading your story and getting to know more about you. It’s also such a good reminder for me, during times I get discouraged, that difficulties are normal. It’s what we choose to do with these challenges that makes all of the difference.

    This is a worldview that I hope to pass on to my own kiddos too. Erik, you’ve written a lot of really good posts. However, I think this one is my favorites!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Erik

      Thanks, Jed. This is relatively new ground for me, to talk openly about the way things really are or were. But you confirm here again that “The Best Advice” is only the best if people can see that it works for real people in real situations that aren’t always easy or simple.

      Like

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