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Sunday, May 3, 2009

A Father's Pain

The story I'm about to tell you is true. It took 20 years to live and about ten or fifteen minutes to retell. It was one of the most gut wrenching and agonizing things I have ever listened to. I am going to try to explain it here and tell you in advance that it has a happy ending. For me, it was like God himself whacked me over the head with a two by four. If that in fact happened, my thanks go out to him or her, whatever the case might be.

In late 2007, I was undergoing a vast paradigm shift and just beginning to question my own flawed belief systems. I was sober, rational, and aware. Present and available in every possible sense of those two words. I had been a police officer all of my life. I had met a man that had been a "criminal" all of his life. I remember him well, his identity is not important but his story is too important to be forgotten. Our paths crossed in New Orleans.

Allen had grown up in a terribly dysfunctional and alcoholic home. He had watched his parents drink, drug, cheat on each other, argue, and fight. As a child he was hostage to this madness and powerless to intervene or stop it. He acquired belief systems that allowed him to survive. Merely survive. By his late teens he was fully engaged in all of the madness that he had watched his parents engage in. That was his reality. He accepted that as true. As he grew into a young man like most drug addicts, he began to sell dope and sleep with women who also used alcohol and dope to escape their realities. He was an alcoholic. To that end one of those women Allen saw became pregnant. It does not take much to bring a life into the world and so it was.

Allen continued to drink and drug with the mother of his child, to sleep with other women, and she in turn slept with other men. They argued and fought verbally and physically. They dealt and used dope in front of their son-enmeshing him in all of the dysfunction that was their lives. They abandoned that son emotionally, physically, and spiritually while engaged in the beliefs that this was simply how you lived. Justifying their existence as normal, plagued with issues of self esteem, this then was their belief systems. They were never able to recognize that collective ego nor did they have the tools or capacity to stop.

Allen's son became a drug addict and alcoholic as well. That is what he learned. Allen at some point, had enough and he found a bottom or he picked one. He got sober and aware. He became conscious and rational. He began sifting through the wreckage of his life. He began to accept the bad beliefs he received as a child and he forgave his parents as ill equipped. He began to accept responsibility for his own life and what he had done to his son. He had been sober a few years when his son landed in jail.

Allen's son, in a drug and alcohol crazed robbery, had entered the business he had just been fired from. Armed with a gun he had attempted to rob his previous employer, shooting up the place but thankfully not injuring or killing anyone. Clearly it was the only small victory for a staff of people traumatized by the whole episode. Allen's son was arrested the following day and had been sitting in jail for nearly a year. His sentencing in that neighboring state would occur in a couple of weeks. The prosecution had recommended 25 years.

As Allen told this story he began to cry. Sober now, he fully realized what he had done to his son during all of those years of drinking and drugging and I cannot fully capture the agony and despair in his voice. It was absolutely gut wrenching.

There was one old cop listening that night. A cop that had rigorously enforced the law and sought to put every "criminal" behind bars. A cop that aligned his belief system only for the sake of victims. A cop that believed criminals should be shown no mercy, a cop that didn't really understand why people behaved the way they did. Nor did he ever bother thinking about it. It would have been a tremendous loss had that cop never heard that story. Because in that instant, I realized that Allen's son was also a victim. An alcoholic and drug addict completely self absorbed by a belief system and ego laced with booze and drugs that said that this is acceptable behavior and he robbed that store. I realized in that moment there was no such thing as a "criminal." These were real people rather than some nameless and faceless booking number. There were simply millions of people that we label and judge as such. As I pondered all of this, I acquired a belief that virtually nobody is born with a bad heart. That these people are all created as a result of fear, bad belief systems, and a warped ego that really didn't know right from wrong.

In the days that followed I couldn't get Allen or his son out of my mind. I couldn't escape the truth that I had never really bothered to understand people like Allen's son. Perhaps it was a defense mechanism that allowed me to perform my job without involving me emotionally. Perhaps that allowed me to be more effective. I couldn't help but replay all of the "criminals" I had arrested and think about them. The more I did this, the more the truth became inescapable. It was as though I had been robbed of my innocence and I suddenly realized that I would never see people the same way again. I am grateful for that.

Perhaps we don't really understand people like Allen's son and we don't really want to. All we have seen is shadows. All we see is some drug crazed kid shooting up a joint and we focus all of our attention on that brief act. But inside that kid was a 20 year old piece of videotape we would never have wanted to see. To see it might cause empathy or distraction. We would become fully exposed, lose our innocence, perhaps our sense of justice. See a little boy, by himself, watching his parents fight. Scared and alone. People would call us weak or liberal-label us. We fear for ourselves. It is simpler not to know any of that and there is always someone to tell us it's not relevant to the criminal act and so we hide from it rather than get judged as sympathetic or insensitive to the victims we represent.

About a week later, I saw Allen. He was going to his son's sentencing. I asked him what he was going to do. He said that he was going to get on that witness stand and tell the world what a horrible drug dealing and miserable father he had been. How he had imprinted his child with the belief systems he had employed and what he had done to his son. That he had poorly equipped his son. He did that. He told his whole story.

The truth set Allen free. After 20 years, he finally stood up for his son. And you know what, that Judge set his son free. Gave him probation and released him to the custody of his father. I don't know if there were any angry robbery victims in the court room that day. Instead of taking 25 years of his life, that judge gave a wounded kid back his life. The judge gave a wounded father back his life also. Man, what a happy beginning. I hope they write a happy ending.

Essay 7. Rendering Negative Judgments

I absolutely love this topic. Of the thousands of people I have met and of the thousands of books and articles, opinions, editorials, and blogs I have consumed, I came to believe that this is an absolute epidemic. Of all those thousands of people and authored writings, I have only seen a handful-perhaps, five or six, who absolutely refused to judge others. Many others, nearly all authors, did not render enough information to assess. Those shadows again.

And as I listened to people and read those things what was I doing? Correct! Judging them.

We can have fun with this topic. In my essay, "Confessions of a Recovering Ego Maniac" I identified groups of people, clinging to their beliefs and egos, in such a way that it was humorous. It is only humorous because we have a collective belief that those stereotypes exist and we accept that. That essay was generated and placed on a competitive writing site wherein people are asked to judge it's value. It has remained at the top of it's category since I first penciled it out.

People are constantly judging and evaluating everything they collect through their five senses and rendering judgments. Good judgment is the litmus test for survival, common sense, and growth. Because good judgment is very valuable we accept it as rational although it is clearly subjective and belief system driven. Good judgment does not fit our criteria of a bad belief system and in fact we are here trying to improve our own.

Let me give you an example of a belief system or perhaps just an insight into a belief system. I once knew a man who habitually carried large amounts of cash in excess of five thousand dollars. He was an older gentleman and we became good friends. One day, I asked him why it was that he carried all that money, all the time. His explanation made perfect sense to me but only because he offered it to me. He said that he had grown up in the great depression. He had lost money as a result of bank failures. The economy thereafter rendered him poor and at the mercy of strangers. He said that he vowed if he ever were to obtain money again, that he would not trust all of his wealth to the safekeeping of banks. In fact he carried large amounts of cash and had some stowed away in safekeeping in the event that a similar situation ever occurred. Thus he developed a belief system as a result of real loss and insecurity. Clearly it was fear driven but that fear was very real to him and in fact he had lived through it. I had not.

His carrying all that dough was a shadow to me, I did not understand it until I did.

What we should focus on here is the very real and negative consequences of uttering negative judgments. Remember that "sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me" cliche'? That old saw is both absolutely correct and absolutely incorrect simultaneously.

It is correct in that the judgments and opinions of others is none of our business. It is incorrect in that words do in fact, hurt us. Sometimes we accept the harsh judgments of our parents and siblings as true. Sometimes we build entire and inaccurate belief systems including lack of self esteem and self worth because of them. Perhaps teachers say things that corroborate those fearful feelings that we have. Sometimes words anger us or cause us to lash out in a never ending game of "one ups man ship" that leaves both parties diminished and hurt.

Characterizing people as arrogant, self absorbed, jaded, cynical, or any of the thousands of ways that we have invented to negatively characterize someone else instantly becomes part of our bad belief system. If we say that Joe is a pussy or a coward, we have instantly uttered an opinion and a belief that we most likely will adhere to. We may have acquired a bad belief which is very often limited to an isolated incident or very incomplete information. We simply do not know whether Joe is a coward or not, because we don't know the history of Joe. The person uttering that statement by implication, believes that by identifying Joe as a coward based on a singular incident, he somehow feels better about himself-perhaps even courageous. In fact that person may even be a coward himself, fearful, and making accusations to bolster his own fragile ego. He is simply living his life directed by that fearful ego that must utter such judgments.

Judging others negatively is insane. We do so ever so freely and with incredibly limited information. By and large rendering harsh judgments gets us nowhere close to emotional freedom. Most people do not respond well to judgment or criticism and they will visit us with their own brand of judgment.

There is one noteworthy exception. If you have established a position of love and understanding, trust, with your target audience it is possible to render a negative judgment that they may see as true, helpful, and well intended. Some people really do have a capacity to listen and change. My belief system says that they are the minority and that I must exercise great caution and timing when passing a negative judgment and I generally have a viable solution when I do. I choose my words ever so carefully. Words are in fact everything-this cannot be overstated.

To attain emotional freedom, I am simply going to refuse to negatively judge people. This is the safest course. If you choose this same path and make a commitment to stop judging people negatively, you should be aware of one other thing. Your past judgments do not clear up over night. People will hold deep seated animosity and resentments if you have left them scarred and they are not going to suddenly see a halo over your head. It takes time and commitment and you will undoubtedly fall back into rendering negative judgments from time to time as situations arise. But at least you will be aware of the impacts and you can always make immediate amends.
You now have recognition and awareness. Once that occurs, it becomes your responsibility to take action if your goal is emotional freedom.

Will we as individuals or as a culture ever recognize just how damaging this is? Can we escape Plato's cave by understanding that negative judgments are simply shadows that we don't fully understand and that we may never have the capacity to understand? I'm not sure. I am desperately trying to escape that shadow filled cave and it's simply too early to render a judgment. So to speak.

Refusing to negatively judge others becomes part of our new operating system. If that system requires new beliefs, the dissolving of our old ego, acceptance, courageous responsibility, and refusing to negatively judge others, we cannot ignore the role of fear and control. Fear and control as we are about to see, represent a big virus that is bogging down our new computer. Recognizing and eliminating that virus is going to bring us operating efficiencies that we never dreamed possible.

Essay 6. Acceptance

Thus far we have discussed our faulty belief systems, our false sense of self or ego, and it's ability to rationalize and justify our own poor performance and inadequacies. Specifically an ego that constantly keeps an individual in denial of the very real possibility that our belief systems are flawed and that somehow anything we do, even if it is patently false, is justifiable and right given a set of circumstances that our ego demands for survival.

Acceptance is just the willingness to embrace the possibility that we have acted poorly. That is ok. However, at the point when we first realize or begin to examine this we must take action to change this. If we do not-we are doomed to repeat the same emotional mistakes over and over again, expecting different results. Einstein's definition of insanity.

Willingness and the ability to change require rigorous honesty. We cannot apply this to anyone other than ourselves. We don't need to fall on a sword, shout from the rooftops that we have acted insanely, or blame anyone. No bolt of lightening will come from the sky and incinerate us. We are simply going to accept that we have some faulty beliefs and that we are going to work on becoming better human beings and becoming emotionally free. Your ego won't like this, it will fight and resist. It will try to remain in denial. But slowly we are gaining the upper hand.

Part of acceptance is that we must accept that we cannot change anyone other than ourselves. We are going to accept that others will make mistakes, judge us, attack us, and engage in all of the same insanity that we used to engage in. We cannot control anyone other than ourselves. Other people are simply trying to live their lives based on the belief systems installed in them. What others do has nothing to do with us, ever. In fact, what others think of you is simply none of your business. For some, that is a difficult concept to understand.

So as we accept our failures, our ego gets diminished. This is a good thing. The ego can no longer perpetuate that fraud upon us that says, "we are right" or "we must control this" or "we are under attack, launch a counterattack!" because we accept that in fact, we may be wrong because of our faulty beliefs and that to engage in this one up argument diminishes our perceived adversaries and they in turn diminish us. All of that negative behavior is completely avoidable, unnecessary, and insane. We will just let others live their lives. If they attack us, we will not launch a counter attack. It is the insanity of the planet. Inwardly, we may chuckle when we watch others engage in this attack-counterattack useless and diminishing behavior. We won't laugh long because we will remember that we once participated in that negative behavior.

Acceptance that we are all fragile human beings, mistake prone, and stuck on this rock together becomes understandable. We are going to accept our flaws and work on them, the only way that is possible. With undeterred honesty and a willingness and acceptance to become better human beings.