May 15, 2009
Introduction to “Living is Risky Business”
(The essay begins on page seventeen.)
My first attempt at writing the following essay “Living is Risky Business” was, in January, but after five days it wasn’t finished. I was unable to neatly tie together my opening story with some insights that I wanted to share with this audience. The transition from story to ideas just wouldn’t gel in my mind. Out of rare frustration, I mothballed the nearly complete piece and chose to move on to my next idea. I did let a friend read the last draft. Like always, she loved it. Donna encouraged me to share it with the group. I opted not to.
Instead, I switched gears with my next two essays that were written on local matters. In March, many of you received the commentary about a former African-American judge, Herman Thomas, who is accused of assaulting young black men, either, physically with a fraternity paddle or through coercion to perform sex acts on the judge, in exchange for lighter sentences. The alleged abuse occurred in the privacy of a little known room in the courthouse while they sat incarcerated in the county jail.
Coverage of a criminal defense attorney’s two-year investigation of Thomas appeared in a local alternative newspaper, Lagniappe, when the scandal seemed to have all, but died. To everyone’s surprise, a criminal case against attorney Herman Thomas was promptly announced in the city’s daily, Press-Register, soon afterwards. After a two-year hiatus by the District Attorney’s office, a secret grand jury returned with a 57-count indictment against the former circuit court judge. Thomas’ case is set to go to trial this fall.
For all my interest in the national scene I have no desire in critiquing the new president, Barack Obama, or the soundness of his policies, at this time. Maybe later. Given his predecessor’s, George W. Bush, egregious conduct and the problems that Mr. Obama inherited I think he deserves the right to put his ideas and those of his cabinet and advisors into action. I do hope he used a sharp pencil to write out his administration’s first federal budget. In the eyes of many, he’s either going to be the nation’s next hero or the next zero. I have no interest in listening to any of the partisan political fighting occurring each night on cable TV or on talk radio. I don’t even have cable and rarely am I even home to watch the national news. I find it all to be very shallow, dishonest and soulless. Why put storm clouds in my head when I can enjoy sunshine. I’ve spit out “the hook, line and sinker”. It’s all drama, manipulation and fear. No thanks.
I feel like a man that’s ahead of his time who is forced to sit on the sideline only to wait for this insane world to catch up, but if history is any indicator it never will. So, should I be a patriot, climb up “the Hill” and fight for these universal principles that I believe in, but I am not so sure they ever really existed in America? Or, should I do what an estimated 300,000 fellow Americans are reportedly doing annually since Bush v. Gore, in 2000, they are leaving the United States as expatriates for a new life somewhere else in the world? I continue to chew on both ideas while looking for signs in the tea leaves. I sure would like to travel across Europe and I think the U.S. is in for more unrest – financial, political and social.
Regarding the meltdown on Wall Street and its fallout, I have some more thoughts on the matter. My views in my essay “Business as Usual” (2008), not surprisingly, seem to have gone unnoticed in our nation’s capitol, on Wall Street and by our leading economists. The above preferred a short-term “fix” – a “buy now, pay later” philosophy to biting the bullet and correcting the problems, now, for long-term peace, prosperity and security. Looking down range and making hard decisions is something that our elected officials appear incapable of doing. The Ego is in charge; it would rather save face.
Like their constituents, federal lawmakers prefer “feel good” activities with instant gratification and an opportunity to enjoy the limelight, such as, signing ceremonies, which are always a favorite. These events are filled with plenty of pomp and circumstance at the White House where top Congressional leaders, fellow Americans and the media join the president while he signs into law another piece of “landmark” legislation while deferring its ever-growing financial, emotional and spiritual consequences off into the future for another generation to address. What fine leaders we have. That day of reckoning will come, again, and when we least expect it. This mother is going to blow. Tipped off by a friend about the work of Harvard Law Professor Elizabeth Warren, I shared with her this same piece. For my reward, I received a letter from the Congressional Oversight Panel (COP) committee, which she chairs.
Congress and all interested parties are currently holding hearings on how best to reform our financial system, the banking system along with the unregulated (shadow) banking system that was responsible for trading in the complex mortgage-backed derivatives that led to the collapse of Wall Street and nearly sacked the insurance giant American Insurance Group (AIG). With “the horses out of the stables”, I think there will always be an incentive by someone, by some group to play games, when the heat is off and the regulators have all gone missing, to take huge financial risks using sophisticated mathematical formulas and powerful computers to invest in the next generation of unregulated securities without a full understanding of their downside. It’s simply human nature or maybe it’s something else.
My problem with Wall Street is that it’s an artificial, a man-made system rigged, skewed by man’s theories, based on half-truths and not on God’s natural and stable laws, on the truth. It has crashed four times in the last one hundred years producing a lot pain and suffering for many Americans, for this country and the world. If this outcome were the result of a medical procedure or side effects from a prescription drug wouldn’t it have been banned or pulled from the drugstore shelves along time ago?
Because Wall Street entails making money and building national wealth, at all cost and in a vacuum, bringing this dysfunctional marketplace to a happy burial seems to be out of the question even when lost fortunes trigger homicides and suicides. Preserving the stock market, which lacks all reality, is more important than preserving human life, that’s been a well-established public policy since 1929. How many of you are now mad at me and will sit and defend this phony magical contraption because of your own participation in it? Where’s the nobility in this line of work? Where’s the wisdom in any of it? I see none. This marketplace is what Jesus spoke out against. Remember the story of the young, rich ruler who admired Jesus, but he couldn’t quite give up his possessions to follow Christ. How is this any different? How are any of you any different from the young, rich ruler?
Succeeding in the stock market requires having a set of skills including dishonesty that most human beings don’t seem to have an awareness of or tolerance for, thus it creates an unfair advantage for the cold and calculating few or many, lacking in scruples, who become society’s admired millionaires and billionaires. Remember ol’ “Kenny Boy”, the late Ken Lay, former Chairman and CEO of Enron. Do you still admire him, how about Bernie Madoff? All the while a majority of Americans seem to blindly tithe, each month, to the system by purchasing stocks, bonds or mutual funds through a retirement vehicle, like, the 401k plan.
The current system favors investors, such as, Warren Buffett who can quickly evaluate and determine if a company is worth more or worth less than its current trading price before making a decision to buy, hold, pass or sell. The average American is lucky to pass high school math much less read and make sense of a conglomerate’s financials. I know that I can’t, it’s not my forte. The stock market creates an unleveled playing field, yet it continues to have the federal government’s complete backing. Every time a crash occurs everyone pays and we, the taxpayers, usually have to bailout all the guilty parties, including the bad actions of Congress, banks, investment banks, hedge funds and American corporations among others, responsible for causing it.
The safeguards for preventing the Bernie Madoff scandal of $60b were already in place, yet the responsible government agency, the Securities and Exchange Commission, ignored repeated calls, for many years, to investigate allegations that Madoff was running a scam. Look at how many people got hurt while our government turned a blind eye. How can an investor’s honest concerns ever be put at ease that this type of criminal activity will never happen again when officials can’t even make assurances that there will never be another Enron or WorldComm?
So, what’s the individual investor to do now about his or her future? Does he or she continue handing over their hard-earned money to their broker or financial advisor who in turn gives it to a complete stranger who then gives it to another complete stranger or an alien company and so on, without the full knowledge of the investor? What would Jesus have to say about all this future business? This sounds completely crazy, yet we are once again rewarding and repairing a corrupt system hoping that we will become millionaires, in NYC’s version of the Las Vegas strip, in spite of reality, in spite of the truth where everyone can’t and won’t possibly be a winner. “Ladies and Gentlemen, Step up and place your bets”.
What’s the toll on a nation’s or even the world’s economy and to every citizen with each and every stock market crash? Look at the latest federal bailout and all the ethical and moral questions it raised when tax dollars were used to make “loans” available or to purchase stock in failing banks and in American corporations, like, AIG, Bank of America, Citigroup, GM and Chrysler. Maybe all companies should be held privately where the owner or the president of the company might align the interest of his employee’s welfare with the company’s long-term interests and be less concerned about his own extravagant compensation package when their board of directors finally forces him or her out.
Why are some investors, such as, corporate raiders who buy a large position in a company solely for short-term gain and for one’s selfish interest puts their trading in this stock at complete odds with the interest of the company’s management, the majority of stockholders and the employees? While this alignment can and does happen within privately owned companies for selfish and other political reasons it doesn’t happen on the same grounds of merely manipulating and profiting from the short-term rise and fall of the company’s stock price.
The financial sector, which is a billion dollar industry, representing some 15% of our national economy, $13.84t, where men and women wearing pressed suits and polished leather shoes “push paper” around and those working at Wall Street firms can generally expect, on a good year, to earn tens of millions of dollars in yearend bonuses without ever getting any dirt under their finger nails or breaking their back much less a sweat. With such lucrative opportunities like this, what kind of pressures do you think they are under to sell stocks, bonds and other securities to us, at any cost including their integrity, dignity and sanity?
Without ever knowing any of us and/or having to look us straight in the eye, can’t this lead to us being sold a lot of junk? Isn’t that just what happened to investors in the U.S. and around the world? It all looked like solid gold on paper until the crash. Isn’t it time to abandon the New York Stock Exchange, NASDAQ… otherwise aren’t we in store for more of this insanity and pain with greater frequency and severity? The American worker is funding their game, all this daily chaos on the trading floor, at the worker’s expense. We get small or no returns while they enjoy lavish perks and heavy compensation for their sometimes-questionable efforts.
Aren’t these markets becoming a real national security threat leaving us vulnerable to attack more so than from the works of Al-Qaeda as we build great walls at our airports, seaports and along the Mexican border to keep them out? China has their great wall and now we’re building ours to our own determent. Hasn’t Wall Street become our very own Trojan Horse? Can we afford another “big one”? It’s not if, but when it happens during the next fifteen or twenty years, swiping out your profits, again, along with empting the U.S. Treasury’s coffers? Will we, the taxpayer, have even dug ourselves out of this current trillion-dollar debacle? When will we ever learn?
Instead of our current Caesar or Ego-based economy, which lacks in all spirit, it has long driven American economic, political and social policy that if you can afford to buy it – a mansion, a GM Hummer or the latest Parisian fashions – then we will gladly sell it to you. We need to shift away from endless consumerism, for deriving our temporary happiness, to a needs-based, a reality-based economy where one’s individual needs are balanced against society’s needs.
Repeatedly neglecting one’s basic needs, either, spiritual, emotional, mental, physical, financial or all of them will lead to “a rotting of the core”, to insanity, to weakness and ultimately to a collapse of a nation. These needs have to be taken into account at all levels – local, state and federal, but instead Caesar is in deep denial, totally asleep at the wheel. “He” continues to ignore them because they don’t even exist in his mind. They don’t matter because he really doesn’t matter in his own heart. Caesar is a man of self-hate, of self-destruction. He squanders his resources while foolishly sending his fellow man off to war and to their death. Caesar is grandiose and so is America.
A needs-based economy and society is smaller, authentic and more efficient with its resources. It’s more environmentally sensitive, without the need for all this new green technology, which only serves to primarily enable our same old crazy ways. The needs-based, a reality-based results in a smaller carbon footprint unlike the Ego-based, which doesn’t care one tinkers damn about sick rivers, dead bays, toxic oceans, melting glaciers, acid rain and smog while life is slowly snuffed out including his very own.
A needs-based or reality-based economy and society produces an honest, a stronger society than our current grandiose culture where we’re always number one in the world to everyone else’s detriment. We win and they lose. Honesty is something we need more than ever before. Under the existing U.S. economic policy, any growth to our gross domestic product (GDP) is considered to be a good thing, but it continues to create personal and social misery while causing greater environmental harm affecting global climate change. Today, China does our polluting for us, they ship over millions of plastic goods that are quickly consumed and tossed into one of our many ever-growing landfills that won’t decompose for thousands of years.
Does Caesar even care – not really? We’ve enjoyed too much success in our brief history and we’ve become fat, weak and unhappy. And now it’s showing. It shows on the battlefields of Mesopotamia, central Asian and around our waistline. In America, just like the current trend of baggy, oversized jeans that our kids are wearing with the help of one or both hands, bigger has made this nation lethargic, slow to react and ineffective. Bigger is no longer better. “Less is more” and it leads to peace, to freedom and to happiness for all. “Less” leads to being swift and being able to turn on a dime.
In the past two years, I have produced over thirty-five essays on a variety of political, social and spiritual matters. Some of them have been quite personal in nature regarding human development, addiction, mental illness and spirituality while others have been about regional, national and international affairs. Many of my insights are drawn from personal experience as I have slowly woken up, emotionally and spiritually, over the past twenty years. In the last twelve months, I have applied for three fellowships with foundations or policy institutes based in Washington DC, but I was rejected each time.
While I continue to stand firm in my ever-expanding worldviews much of it stands in plain heresy to popular and often cherished American beliefs and ideals. These views have left me “in a political wilderness” faraway from where the establishment governs with its money, power and prestige. Maybe that’s a good thing; I sure do enjoy my life at home along the Gulf Coast. In the search for the truth, views like mine aren’t easily defined as either conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat. These political groups often have an agenda to achieve or turf to protect. In their many battles, the truth becomes just another casualty on the road to, either, victory or defeat. They seek to be right and to always win at any cost even at the expense of their own freedom, happiness and sanity. That’s the Ego for you. Got one? Does this sound familiar, either, at home or at work?
I seek to find honest answers as a result of my natural curiosity to focus on unresolved problems that have been long ignored by society, which I can learn and grow from, embrace, live with and move on. Independent thinkers, like me, often suffer from a lack of career opportunities or we have little financial support to develop into credible voices in the public debate. Rarely does the establishment or the majority, immediately, embrace these viewpoints because they’re driven by their own fears and not by faith and trust, in themselves and in their fellow man. For the fearful, accepting change is always difficult. Thus, truth can never be quickly recognized.
All growth comes from truth and not from its absence. To paraphrase Professor J. Rufus Fears, truth and freedom comes from great individuals and not from anonymous societies. Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, Abraham Lincoln, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and many more all spoke of a personal and a universal truth. Regrettably, the truth is a threat to the ignorant, to the fearful, to the establishment, to the masses. Truth has many enemies and many assassins. Living is risky business. This is heavy lifting, it’s unpopular and dangerous work, but I continue to journey onward while my torch still burns bright.
I am glad to be able to freely share my works with “the man on the street”, local attorneys, clergy, state and federal lawmakers, judges, faculty at Harvard, Yale, Oxford… major foundations, media along with two billionaire business executives who share the same diagnosis of dyslexia, as me. In the beginning (2007), I couldn’t have sold these ideas to the establishment or to my own family and friends so I simply gave them away to whoever would listen or showed some interest. In these days of trillion dollar economies, how refreshing it is to see how a few loaves and fishes can actually feed thousands living in five countries and more around the world, virtually for free.
I hope to be in a position to continue this practice of sharing my work, time and energy. I know that the need is all too great. I see it, everyday, in the eyes of so many anxiety-filled and joyless faces. The world is starving to death, but history’s mystics have always said that love and compassion are everywhere. I believe them. I am frequently reminded of the work of the late Millard Fuller, founder and president of Habitat for Humanity International, and the impact that a single man can have on the his community, on the world. He gave up a successful multi-million dollar business at the age of twenty-nine, which was killing him, physically and spiritually, to build decent, affordable housing for the poor. That sounds like the work of God in human form.
While my needs are minimal, my financial resources are quite limited, at the present moment. Unlike Winston Churchill, a dyslexic and a millionaire author, who too found himself on the outs with his British government, with his political party and with society’s values, I need some assistance. It could be in the form of a one-year grant, a fellowship or something beyond my wildest dreams. Beginning in September 2008, I began receiving Social Security Disability due to my troubled business career caused by my dyslexia and finished off by my bipolar disorder.
During the nineteen-month wait, from first applying, getting immediately rejected to my successful appeal hearing, in August 2008, I ran up a sizable debt in basic living expenses. Two established lines of credit kept me afloat until I maxed both of them out, last summer. Before my first disability check ever arrived, I was forced to seek out help from close friends and the local Ecumenical Ministries for rent and utility payment assistance, a gas voucher, help with refilling my medications and a box of food in the interim. The banks have been calling and they want their money back.
With talents finally revealed, I am ready to earn a living wage as a writer, essayist, lecturer and consultant. Currently, my monthly check falls well short of covering all my expenses and to service the debt. A once large check for back pay is almost depleted. I am well aware of the state of the economy and I am sensitive to how it maybe affecting the financial health of your institution or organization. However, I do feel a responsibility to my cause and to myself to, at least, ask this group. I accept the consequences. I am left to wonder so, how did Jesus cover his expenses before the humble ministry turned into a million dollar Empire? This request, this action is my latest example of a working faith along with sharing my essays. Living is risky business. I trust that God’s mighty hand will touch the right individuals and open the right doors, if I will simply ask for the help.
My academic credentials for working in Washington by Ivy League standards are awful. My work history looks something like a pile of splintered 2x4s from a wrecked home after an irate tornado passed over it. This reality is penalizing me as I attempt to reenter the workforce, as a thinker and as a writer. Currently, I am probably a “high-risk” candidate in the eyes of most skeptical organizations who aren’t familiar with, either, my story or my work. You could help by serving as a conduit. If you have any involvement with a grant or fellowship committee or have a colleague or friend who sits on one, I would greatly appreciate any consideration.
What I don’t make up in a near perfect GPA, finishing with honors or in fancy degrees I can most certainly demonstrate in life experiences. For I have lived! I have lived in the Deep South my entire life briefly working outside of D.C. shortly after college. I have vacationed twice on the west coast and I have toured several major cities. However, I have never walked the streets of the Big Apple, Chicago or L.A. I have traveled only once outside the United States on my honeymoon to Central America. I have never been to London, Paris or Rome, but I have lived!
At eighteen years old, I had my first spiritual awakening (1989). I was sober for all five years of college, who can say that? I have been hired and fired four times. I have never shied away from this truth whenever asked. I have stood in line seeking a job at the state unemployment office while on the public dole. I took my father’s Vietnam secret of thirty years and shared it with the world. Not once, but many times. The “risk” taken has always been greatly rewarded and very healing. His secret forced me to review my entire life, from early childhood to age twenty-seven, my family’s unnecessary suffering and my relationship with him.
I met my ex-wife while working at my first job out of college, a Fortune 100 firm, in Atlanta, GA (1997). She was sitting in the adjacent open cubical where I was “on loan”, from my sales team, to help with a marketing project. I had literally nothing to offer this project, but I was so glad to be there because the scenery was much prettier. The company and I soon parted ways, but not the girl and I. My future father-in-law, a Yale man and a physician of forty years, said point blank to me “if my wife and I were choosing our daughter’s husband it wouldn’t be you.” Ouch!
While “engaged”, I was asked to sign a prenuptial agreement not once, but twice at his insistence. I stuck to my guns and said, “No”, both times. Living is risky business. I always sought to have a positive relationship with both of them, but the feeling wasn’t mutual. In reality, they were incapable of having one. So, who was the adult in this situation and who were the children? My nine-year dance with them was bad from the beginning, but they were some of my best teachers. They schooled me, but I also schooled them. They haven’t heard the last of me. I’ve had a lot of great teachers who have taught me some important, but hard life lessons during some of the darkest periods of my life. Some were looking out for my interest while most weren’t. I have learned from all of them.
At the age of thirty-two (2002), I had a nervous breakdown while standing at the altar with my bride. Mysteriously, and for the first time ever, I was able to articulate my thoughts, both, in writing and orally. What happened? I am not really sure and no doctor has ever explained it or even shown any interest. Under great stress and pressure, I suspect maybe some neurons fired in my brain creating new pathways, some new connections making it possible to write this essay. It turned out to be a watershed moment in my life, but my bride didn’t believe my new IQ score. I didn’t understand her unemotional reaction to seeing my printed evidence, then or now. She thought I was crazy and, at the time, I was manic. Having written dozens of essays, I believe that the jury is in and that I was right, all along. I don’t know if she was jealous of me, but I was disappointed in her reaction. It should have been a happy moment for both of us, but it wasn’t. She had everything to gain, but she refused to support my new writing endeavor. I would remain silent and struggle in vain for another five years. The score that I brought home that day was 142.
It was a forty-point upswing from my previous test in the eighth grade. For the second time, in five years, I was forced to review my entire life and make sense of all the pain and suffering caused by my learning disability as a struggling student and later as a suffering salesman. During my untreated illness (2003), I finished the final leg of a race out of town across two states west of Alabama and back during the previous twenty-four hours by leading a sheriff deputy on a two-mile long pursuit back to my house. Surprisingly, I wasn’t arrested and the deputy left me at home for my mother to come over and deal with. Later that afternoon the police were called back. While standing in my front yard and in the plain view of my friends and neighbors, I was tazed by police. The Tazer is the modern-day version of electroshock treatment once dispensed with frequency inside the walls of insane asylums. It really hurts, leaves burns and sometimes it kills. You can bet that I was the talk of the neighborhood that evening. Life for me, for us in the ‘hood was never the same.
Paranoia caused by my mental illness once tricked me into racing across five states and back in a thirty-eight hour period on no sleep, fueled on several tanks of gas, a case of bottled water and a muffin or two (2006). I have been chocked and punched by police and by a corrections officer. I’ve been cuffed, stuffed and shackled. After three separate trips to jail, I still have no criminal record. I have testified twice on my behalf in two commitment hearings while manic. I later learned from my attorney that my testimony in one hearing garnered me praise from the presiding judge. I still lost and I was sent back to the psychiatric hospital for another week.
You can learn a lot from spending the night in jail. On a budget of $1.50 per inmate the food isn’t fit for human consumption, but they don’t offer anything else. There’s no menu. Jail wear, at this facility, consists of, either, wearing solid-orange or all-white tops and bottoms along with fashionable white or orange plastic slippers or some color combination, of all the above. If you haven’t slept in days and you’re paranoid, as hell, you just might believe that the colors actually have some sort of subliminal meaning, like, good and evil or harmless and dangerous. When you’re wearing all white and you discover that two black Mike Tyson-types are, both, wearing solid orange in the dayroom you quickly feel like you’re on the wrong team. That’s scary to think about. This only pushes you all the more to the edge, if not totally over it.
On my first trip into “the wedge” (2003), I was put in a cell with a sleeping double amputee with what looked like long painful scars or burn marks on bottom of his two stumps. While sitting at the foot of his metal “bed”, all-night long, I was left wondering what type of crime the poor chap committed while riding around town in his wheelchair. Since when did chicken and dumplings come served on the bone for lunch? It looks like a serious choke hazard. Does anyone around here really care? Is this a Pro-life jail? Is this a Pro-life society? I have my doubts.
Where’s all this talk about “the sanctity of life” when your getting assaulted by a corrections officer? Does it apply in these jails and prisons? What would Jesus have to say about all this? Is there any redemption for committing a crime, for making a mistake in this Christian America, even if its murder? Are these modern-day dungeons simply man’s version of a landfill for human beings? Just like plastics, use it all up and throw it away. Where’s our humanity in all of this insanity? I see none.
The first Saturday following the Fourth of July my family has celebrated a reunion, every year, for over thirty years at a cousin’s beach house down on the Florida–Alabama Gulf Coast. The attendance for lunch is usually around eighty family members and friends who come as far as Washington State and New England. The menu, is served buffet-style, and it’s always the same – smoked King Mackerel, caught offshore by my cousins in the preceding days, there’s lots of chilled deviled eggs, Cole slaw, sliced red tomatoes, toasted breadsticks and for dessert – a one-layer chocolate cake covered in cherries, blueberries and white icing in the shape and design of an American flag. The meal is definitely Southern and it’s delicious.
With the summer sun always beating down, and sweat pouring, in the 90° + heat with high humidity, the drinks are always flowing. Bloody Mary’s, appear to be a popular party starter, cocktails of your choice, cold beer, soft drinks and a family favorite – Kappa tea, an old recipe from our host’s, my great aunt, sorority days at the university.
In July 2003, I had other “commitments” and I wasn’t able to make it to the reunion on that given Saturday. I was locked up at Searcy, a state hospital, located some fifty miles upriver from my hometown of Mobile, AL. Our lunch for this national holiday was unmemorable as I now “rack my brain” to recall it, but we did mark the occasion by eating slices of watermelon and cake in the gymnasium. However, there wasn’t a fireworks show after twilight. So, was I feeling all that “free” on that Independence Day? Not particularly.
In first year of graduate school (2005-06), I “earned” straight A’s, the first-time ever, before getting sick upon my wife leaving me for a new life, in the Carolinas. Her departure triggered a manic episode that could have and maybe should have gotten me killed. While insane, I wrote an email, late one night, to my classmates causing quite a stir that only someone with a mental illness can achieve. It was madness at work. The program’s weak faculty and the school’s cowardly administration refused to give consideration to the event’s catalyst. A separation or a divorce is considered to be a significant life event. What happened and the stress it evoked within me given my past career problems, my finances and my bipolar disorder should have been understandable and to be expected. It wasn’t, not even for a university with a medical school and a psychiatry program.
As a student in the master’s program in counseling the explanation that I was told by my faculty advisor was that I would need “a sound mind” as criteria to practice in the field as a professional. In other words, because of my mental illness or being “crazy” I would not meet this basic standard for licensed professional counselors. That was their justification for getting rid of me. In two separate requests seeking an appeal, the school’s president refused to meet with me and to hear me out. Caesar doesn’t want to be disturbed for he is sleeping.
I stood up for myself when nobody else would do the right thing including an agency and their staff attorney who were charged to do so by federal law. Living is risky business. It’s heavy lifting, unpopular and dangerous work. I never received an official university letter stating this specific reason or any other for my expulsion. With lots of disabilities to my name, their action was definitely criminal and immoral. You can learn a lot by challenging the system including higher education. I deserved better treatment and I demanded it when they were incapable of freely giving it, their “true colors” were revealed. The death of that career opportunity led to the birth of another. Soon afterwards (2007), I started my new life as a writer. I picked up where I had left off, in 2002-03. Two years have now passed and I am going strong.
Today, in addition to using my “sound mind” to write these commentaries, I work with individuals who have addictions and/or a mental illness, like me. Most are under a doctor’s care and are receiving treatment for their psychiatric issues, but many continue to suffer with the emotional and spiritual aspects of their illness. These areas are too often ignored or overlooked by their psychiatrists who are always quick to dispense pills rather than talk about feelings and the role of God in all of our daily lives. Both are just as critical to a successful recovery as much as the individual taking their daily medication. With a diagnosis of mental illness comes a new way of life that includes searching for one’s place in society.
Lost in life, running low on self-esteem and lacking all confidence, many reluctantly take their place as misfits hanging on to society’s lowest rung. While some are married with kids almost all of them are floundering in one critical area or another – whether it’s in the relationships with family and friends, with their finances, staying on their medication and out of trouble with the legal system or with keeping a job. Full of guilt and shame most don’t believe they deserve a great life nor have they discovered their talents that so often accompanies mental illness, which has produced so many of history’s famous actors, artists, composers, musicians, philosophers, poets, political leaders and writers. Where would our society, our culture be today without the contributions from these mad geniuses?
One person that comes to mind is my friend, “Ernest.” We first met at the grocery store (2007) where I shop, weekly, and where he restocks the store’s produce section. On disability and working for near-minimum wage, this college graduate, husband, and a father of four grown children was once proudly employed with an international construction firm in an oversight capacity for the company’s internal compliance department in the building of nuclear power plants. The position paid well and allowed him to provide for his young family. Working with strict tolerances set by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), a federal agency, Ernest felt a heavy responsibility to hold the company’s 100-man crew to the agency’s rigid standards when the concrete mixture was being poured into the intertwined steel rebar.
Each poured section formed a six-foot thick wall that was twelve-feet high that ultimately rose up some two hundred-feet high, which contained the reactor. With little or no communication between the construction company and the federal agency, every time Ernest’s compliance department spotted a problem(s) it immediately halted all activity until the corrections were made or the engineer on site signed off on the issue, in question. The NRC received notification about each and every incident. Driven to turn a profit, the construction firm constantly sought “cost effective” ways to hit their benchmarks and to speed up the timetables for completing the job. This company’s natural objective put them at constant odds with Ernest and his team of “watchdogs” creating a tension.
Under great stress and pressures Ernest began experiencing memory lapses, depression, a loss of confidence, soon was leaving out details in his daily reports while constantly worrying about getting fired. Paranoia along with hearing “voices” and having hallucinations finally set in. For two years, he kept his problems a secret from, both, his family and his employer. While wrestling with these demons, Ernest struggled to keep up at work before losing all control over his illness. Finally, he was involuntary hospitalized and received a psychiatric diagnosis of schizophrenia, of mental illness.
Getting diagnosed with mental illness is a real death except there’s no funeral service for you, your obituary never appears in the morning paper, there’s not a proper burial with a casket and there’s hardly any tears shed or any understanding of your new condition. Finding yourself helpless and locked up against your will in jail or in an asylum is traumatic. It’s a shock to your system. A part of you dies, a part of your Ego dies. Your life, as you’ve always known it, is over. You’re dead, but your heart still beats.
Stigmatized, you become a second-class citizen and even lose some of your Rights, at least, in the eyes of family, friends, acquaintances and neighbors. You find out that society’s safety net doesn’t really exist or at least it has some big holes. You become vulnerable in ways that you could have never dream of before. You are at the mercy of your fellow man, but in the hands of God. Everyone looks at you with suspicious eyes and discounts most anything that comes out of your mouth or whatever you type on a keyboard. For Ernest, he lost his job and his life, some twenty years ago. It has never been the same. Once proud, the illness left him stripped naked and demoralized. That’s how it left me and everyone else that I have ever met.
Today, we meet about once a month for two hours and we usually exchange greetings if I catch him at work once or twice a month. We have met for lunch, talked at public libraries, at a local bookstore and have even sat on a bench at a public park over looking Mobile Bay for the past year and a half. Recently, Ernest revealed to me that after getting his diagnosis and losing his job that he withdrew from the world. For the next ten years, he associated only with his large family and their church friends before getting some counseling. Today, he participates in a weekly group for individuals with mental illness at the local mental health agency, in addition, to our regular outings. For Ernest, our talks are an attempt to slowly reclaim his life, to enjoy a full life. He continues to struggle with his self-image.
Recently, I introduced Ernest and “Joe”, another alcoholic and schizophrenic, one afternoon. Sitting in a nearly empty restaurant with Ernest on my left and Joe to my right, like a spectator at a tennis match, I sat back in my seat and just listened and watched as these two, took turns, swapping symptoms, experiences and feelings regarding their illness. It was a serious discussion with moments of laughter. Both of them, for the first time, shared experiences and thoughts that they had never once discussed with another soul. Having gotten my earful I excused myself, after ninety minutes, while they continued engrossed in their conversation.
The following day I heard from the two of them. Each said the first meeting was very helpful and that they were interested in having a second one. Just like with their situation, most people in America are walking around wounded, isolated from the world and cut-off from their feelings believing that they’re “terminally unique” with a set of “one of a kind” troubles. The truth is that we are all built about the same. While there maybe some differences in our stories, we all share the same basic feelings – happy, glad, mad, sad, hurt, angry, resentful, betrayed, disappointed… Unfortunately, most people go to their grave never learning this lovely truth. They’ve never lived. Their wounds never healed and their fears have long killed off their spirit and any chance of a good life.
Many of you had the opportunity to read my essay “Success!” that I wrote, back in January. If you took time to read it, you weren’t the only ones, too. I received emails from four classmates from my high school that also read my posted essay on my Facebook profile. Touched by my words all of them contacted me to say thanks for sharing my story while divulging a personal crisis presently facing them.
On a beautiful Saturday afternoon, I met with a single mother, “Valerie”, who is suffering with suppressed memories from her childhood. They were brought on with the birth of her daughter. Her boyfriend and the father of her child abandoned the two of them by leaving the country, apparently forever. We traded our experiences for three hours – she cried some, but we also did a lot of laughing. She left our meeting feeling better about her situation and with some sense of relief.
I also heard from “Elizabeth”, a wife and mother of a child diagnosed with a Wilms’ tumor. After rounds of chemo, radiation and surgery her daughter, “Sara”, is now in remission after one year. Sara continues to be seen by her oncologist and is regularly tested for evidence of the cancer’s return. This concerned mother has become very supportive of my work.
Another fellow classmate and a divorced mother of two children, “Pam” wrote to me expressing her grief over her ex-husband who has abandoned his children. Desperate for answers, I wrote her back sharing my experience and my thoughts about her situation, as best as I saw it. I encouraged her to seek help for everyone in her young family.
Lastly, I received an email from a husband and father, “Tom”, who has also had career problems, like me. We’ve since met on several occasions for two-hour lunches to discuss my evolution. It turns out he has more problems then he originally thought. We continue to meet.
In the course of writing these monthly essays I have long sought acceptance and praise, as a human being, thinker and writer, from this audience. However, I can’t express how moved I was to have these long forgotten faces that once saw me almost daily in class or in passing through the hallways have sought me out and have entrusted me with their pain and suffering.
Have you ever touched someone from your past or in the present through the course of your work? What were once shallow connections and laid dormant for the past twenty years have suddenly flamed up in a very intimate way. That’s powerful. The completion of each essay produces great joy and to know that I am touching, at least, one life, my own, is a beautiful thing. It’s like finishing off and savoring my favorite meal. I feel comfortably full, but never stuffed.
Most everyday, I get the opportunity to have communion with, both, new or old friends including many who are fans of my writing. I enjoy a good life born out of a lot of pain and suffering from my childhood well into my adult years. If I thought that I could’ve out run it for one minute, I definitely would have tried to. I have come to learn that pain and death are apart of life and that I am surely in store for more failures, more setbacks, more pain, more deaths, but the suffering is now optional. It’s a choice. I no longer have to suffer for another day, for another minute. I just have to lick the wound until it heals – sometimes that may take awhile, but it’s time well spent.
By society’s standards, I am a poor man and thus an undesirable, but by God’s values I have never felt wealthier, more valuable and more productive in my entire life. I have something to offer to the world and that feels great to know. I am happy and at peace. I must be doing something right. What a real treasure trove I have stumbled upon.
In the end, I never gave up when there were plenty of opportunities to do just that, to lie down and die. I got knocked down so many times, but I learned to get back up. I chalk it up to the power of the human spirit. Living in the South, in “Dixie”, I have always seen myself as a rebel, as a fighter with a conscience. Dare I ask what kind of degrees Harvard hands out for completing this heavy course load – a degree in living? What is experience like this worth in the marketplace – as they say in the commercial – it’s priceless?
What I long thought was sanity I no longer believe to be true, what I long feared became true and left me labeled as certifiable, but it gave me a new life and restored me to a natural and sane state. My insanity was not the kiss of death, but the kiss of a new life. The late Anthony de Mello, S.J. once said, “The end of the world for a caterpillar is a butterfly for the master.” So, true.
“For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” Matthew 16:25
“The reasonable man adapts to the world. The unreasonable man tries to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
– George Bernard Shaw
Living is Risky Business! I should know.
See the following essay.
Copyright © 2009. All Rights Reserved. “Living is Risky Business” by Ted Burnett.
January 31, 2009
Living is Risky Business
“Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure.
Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”
– Helen Keller, an American author, political activist and lecturer
One Saturday morning, in the summer of ‘79, my mother and I were invited down to her friend’s beach house for the day. Our trip was little more than an hour’s ride over to the Gulf. At the time, I was only nine-years-old. My mother’s old classmate and our host was the mother of two girls, ages, thirteen and fifteen. I knew the family very well having spent many afternoons and nights over at their house and weekends on the water sailing in their forty-foot boat. I was very comfortable with all of them.
“The plan” as I first learned of it was to drop the three of us, kids, off at Waterville, a water-theme park, to frolic in our swimsuits for several hours. Our mothers would return to the house to catch up on all the latest gossip while hanging out and eating lunch. I knew of the park’s existence having ridden past it many times, but I had never previously visited it or any other park like it. I had no positive association of what was in store for me and that would create a major problem.
This new opportunity fell well beyond my highly controlled world. Without any experience at Waterville or enough trust in my host, the thought of being separated from my mother, for any period of time, was totally unnerving. It produced feelings of intense fear, anxiety and left me feeling powerless over my environment. The rewards of walking through the turnstile to enjoy hours of wet fun could not have been large enough, in my mind, for the “risk” required.
All five of us loaded up into our host’s car for the mile-long drive from their house to the park. Within minutes we were cruising down Waterville’s long driveway and slowly approached the drop-off on the turnabout. At some point, along the way, I piped up and voiced my opposition to my participation in the plan. When the car came to a halt the girls quickly sprung opened one of the passenger doors and proceeded to bail out of the backseat darting off to the familiar ticket booth and gate as though they were running across their front lawn and up to the house. To me, it seemed more like lining up once more for confession with a parish priest or going to the dentist to drill out some more cavities. It was pure hell.
As a mere child, I couldn’t see any upside in this sunny situation only a down one. I didn’t move a muscle in my seat and oddly there wasn’t the first protest or any coaxing from either parent to my resistance. My fears carried the day and an opportunity was missed. It wasn’t the first nor would it be the last, just the latest. That’s how I would live my life for the first eighteen years – avoiding risk, opportunities and life.
The two women and I drove back to the house. This traditional one-level, wood-framed house with its pitched shingled-roof sat high on wood piers. The rustic beach house with its back deck overlooked a man-made canal that drained out into a saltwater lagoon. It stood shoulder to shoulder with its neighbors, one on each flank. Their house was only blocks away from where Alabama’s sugary, white beaches meet the Gulf of Mexico’s crashing white-foamy waters. I navigated my way from the front of the house through to the back with its open architecture of a living area, dining area and kitchen on one side of the house and the bedrooms and bath off to the right. It’s primitive by today’s standard of million dollar condominiums in glass high-rises.
I walked outside into the deck leaving the two of them behind. I climbed down a set of stairs to a sandy backyard. Laying at the water’s edge I discovered their Sunfish – a one or two-man sailboat that was no more than ten-feet in length. With no sailing experience, I pushed the boat into the canal and I followed right behind it. The water’s depth was just barely calf deep, pretty shallow.
The boat’s aluminum mast and sail were missing and were probably in storage. This left me as the only power source for this small fiberglass vessel. With boredom and loneliness quickly setting in, I decided to float the boat around the bend and out into the lagoon in search of deeper water or something. The comfort and safety of being under or near my mother’s “skirt” far outweighed all possible, yet unimaginable fun that I could have enjoyed while rushing down one of several giant waterslides into a waiting pool.
I soon found my shirtless self all alone and sitting idle in the water while baking under the sun aboard this tiny craft. Some life I was having. Like the boat and its missing sail, I was dead in the water. In an effort to avoid any further pain I had cut myself off from the world and life including its little pleasures. I was an island all to myself and I was completely miserable.
To cope with life, I had long taken refuge in an old abandoned castle, in the sky, with a drawbridge, mote and lots of alligators for protection from this now scary world. This became my altered reality. With familiar places and faces, I would quickly lower my bridge and come out to play with kids from the neighborhood, my classmates at school and with teammates on Saturday mornings. However, it was all the other unpredictable conditions in life that evoked great fear and my clumsy reactions to them.
Rather than find freedom and happiness living in this fortress – the isolation and its insulation led to fear creeping in under the heavy wooden doors and bleeding through the thick walls filling up every room. It’s like wearing the warmest coat ever made and finding oneself still freezing to death as a draft of cold air seeps in between its lining and one’s bare skin. My safe haven had become a trap with no real cheese to eat.
At this early stage of my life, I was already a twisted boy – wounded, introverted and fearful of almost everything including my own shadow. I had already suffered through many painful events that had seared my psyche with many more wounds to come at home, at school, at church and in life. The pain would continue to get worse and my fears would only grow larger over the next decade.
So impaired, my inability to solve life’s problems in a healthy way caused me to finally shutdown. My natural drive for living was all, but snuffed out. I simply went through the motions. Instilled with fixed beliefs, to die for, I began to fight an ever-changing world that was leaving me in its dust while refusing to accept this reality, to accept the truth about the world or me.
To be continued…
I am available for speaking, consulting and political advising. My other essays can be viewed at my blog – http://www.toxicnation.blogspot.com/. I can be contacted via email at – email@example.com. My bio can be viewed at http://www.tedburnettresume.blogspot.com.
Copyright © 2009, 2010. All Rights Reserved. “Living is Risky Business” by Ted Burnett.
De Mello, Anthony, S.J., Awareness – The Perils and Opportunities of Reality, Copyright © 1990
Ehrman, Mark, Getting Out: Your Guide to Leaving America, Copyright © 2006
Lose Your Life And Find It! http://www.savedhealed.com/lose.htm Matthew 16:25
Wikipedia – Helen Keller, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen_Keller