The Road to Faith: Part 2 – Gratitude

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My mom – Marie R. García – 1930-2003

In my last post, I began sharing my journey to understanding faith. It’s been an amazing voyage of discovery caused by a life changing heart attack and lung complication. Along the way, I’ve come to learn that faith is accepting God’s will, being grateful for what you have, and serving others. It took a major life event to get me on the road to spiritual discovery. On the road to enlightenment, I discovered that my mom had always understood what I sought to understand.

When I was a kid, she taught us to say, “thank you, God, and thank you, mom” after every meal. Of course, I understood why I was thanking mom. She cooked the meals. The real reason for thanking God never really dawned on me. It was a ritual, I thought, like everything else about church: sitting and standing at the appropriate times, praying the “Our Father,” taking Communion, and reciting responses after the priest gave a blessing.

For my mom, all of these actions and words were rooted in her deep faith. Through the course of a day, you could hear her say, “si Dios quiere” (God willing), “gracias a Dios” (thank God), and “Dios te bendiga” (God bless you), as part of any kind of discussion she was having with someone. Those weren’t mere sayings to her. She was a person who put herself in God’s hands. She was patient, understanding, and thoughtful no matter the situation, good or bad.

And, she was grateful. As I became older and more financially secure, I started to notice the beautiful simplicity of her life. Her children and grandchildren were her prized “possessions.” When we bought our homes and filled them with, in her words, “nice things,” she beamed with pride. When she passed away, she had the same round kitchen table, simple living room furniture, basic dinette, and plain bedroom set that I remember as a boy. She appreciated every bit of it. I never heard her yearn for more or complain about what she didn’t have.

While tirelessly climbing the corporate ladder trying to redeem myself from life’s “failures,” I found time to visit my mom in the morning on the way to work about once a week. I loved to see her eyes brighten and the smile on her face when she opened the door. She would give me a warm hug before escorting me to that old round table in the kitchen so she could fix breakfast for me.

I felt safe in the comfortable cocoon of 48 Viewmont Avenue. With a plate of papas and a couple of over-easy eggs, a cup of coffee, and warm tortillas in front of me (she usually didn’t eat), mom would want to hear about the girls and ask me to regale her with tales about my business travels. She wanted to hear all about places she had never visited: Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.

Her favorite stories were my descriptive narratives about the Lincoln Memorial, the U.S. Capitol, and the White House. She always thanked me saying how much she would love to see those places someday, “si Dios quiere.” After saying “thank you God, and thank you mom,” I would head for the front door to walk out into the wild and wooly world that was my life. With a hug, she said, “have a good day mijo, que Dios te bendiga, give my love to my babies,” and sent me on my way.

Gratitude, and its connection to contentment, is the foundation of almost every religious and spiritual movement in the world. Fredrick Koeing, an 18th century inventor, put it this way, “We tend to forget that happiness doesn’t come as a result of getting something we don’t have, but rather of recognizing and appreciating what we do have.” The concept is simple. To live a happy and fulfilling life, one only has to be truly thankful for all that God has provided.

My mom understood that. She lived that. I really believe that she had a happy and fulfilling life. The struggles of living and the heartbreak of losing loved ones didn’t deter her from being grateful. She didn’t know her father, and experienced the grief of losing a daughter, her husband, and her mother. She wasn’t surrounded with “nice” things and she never visited the places she dreamed about. Nevertheless, she was truly thankful for what she had and appreciated every day of life God gave to her.

In my obsessive pursuit of redemption from failure, I believed that I would find true happiness and fulfillment. With each accomplishment, I thought I was taking another step toward that special place. All the while, I never once stopped to reflect and appreciate what God had given to me. I single-mindedly marched forward to reach for additional professional responsibilities, a bigger office, more prestigious titles, and showed my appreciation by acquiring “nice things” for me and my family.

I didn’t understand what it meant to be grateful the way my mom understood it. It would take a life-threatening medical crisis to feel the grace of God the way my mom did. I hope to share more about my faith and the power of gratitude in future posts, “si Dios quiere.” Stay tuned!

 

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The Road to Faith: Part 1 – Acceptance

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Image by Join me on the road to discovery and faith!
https://esereport.com/2018/01

Several days ago, on a group chat with some friends and family, a few of us were discussing the power of trusting in God. At the end of the chat, I reflected a little more than usual on my personal faith journey. For those who endured the summer of 2010 with me, the life-changing 100-day nightmare in the ICU, hospital, and rehab miraculously came to a joyful end almost eight years ago. For me, the experience is a daily reminder of the power of faith.

I’ve learned that having faith is the key to understanding our place in this uncertain and ever-changing world. As is my nature, I went to the bookshelves to unravel the mystery of faith. A dear friend introduced me to the writings of 1st-century Roman philosopher Marcus Aurelius and Pope Francis. My brother David shared New-Age writings about God. Other friends recommended that I delve into the works of Muhammed, Buddha, Gandhi,  and Paulo Coelho.

Reading such diverse viewpoints on a common theme inspired me to dig deeper into my own religious upbringing and tradition. The words of Jesus Christ and the Gospels are more meaningful to me as a result of studying the recommended literature. I came to realize that faith can come in many forms, yet the foundation of faith in all its forms is based on making a full commitment to acceptance, gratitude, and caring for others. Upon deep reflection of my literary exploration, I also realized that a devotion to faith is also at the core of happiness.

It all seems so simple: Belief in God (or your version of a higher power) + faith = peace and happiness. Unfortunately, like almost anything that brings true joy in life, adhering to that equation is easier said than done. Can you imagine what the world would be like if everybody applied that formula to their own lives? We would live in paradise. Of course, we know that not to be true.

So how do we apply this commitment of faith to our day-to-day lives? For nearly four years, this question has consumed my thoughts. Life is a winding road filled with potholes and roadblocks that can keep us from getting to our destination. To overcome these challenges, we need a roadmap that can lead us in the right direction. That map is the word of God delivered through his many disciples.

I value and respect the right of people to practice their religion or philosophical tradition, including those who don’t believe in God. Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson once told a friend that his grandfather said, “religion is like a mother. However good your friend’s mother may be, you cannot forsake your own.”  In the spirit of Gandhi, I trust in the roadmap drawn by my Catholic Christian tradition.

The first step in understanding faith is the full acceptance of the way things and circumstances are, rather than how you want them to be. Marcus Aurelius put it this way, “Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart.” That’s powerful advice. At first glance it doesn’t jive with a “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” philosophy.

On one hand, God tells us to accept what we have and on the other hand He didn’t settle for a small following. I struggled with this inconsistency. Recently at Sunday mass, the priest shared Jesus’ Parable of the Three Servants (Matthew 25:14-30). The moral to the story is that God gives us all a set of tools and rewards those who make the best of what they have. That resolved my dilemma. God gave Jesus the means to expand His flock. In other words, He wants us to accept what we have and do the best we can with it.

Three major events reveal how the road to fully accepting God’s will has impacted my life. The first incident happened in 1983. After a rocky start at San Jose State University, I failed miserably. The university disqualified me for poor academic performance at the end of my third semester. I couldn’t accept what happened. It was a crushing blow that spiraled into years of drinking, partying, and working dead end jobs.

Rather than accepting the disqualification as a mere technical hiccup on my academic record, I sought to cover up the pain of that “failure” by vowing to never fail again. I worked tirelessly to get reinstated to SJSU and continued working relentlessly after graduation to rid myself of the failure demons that haunted me. I married Sandra and we had a family. I found success in the corporate world and in public service, but the demons never went away.

The second episode was a series of “failures” between 1996 and 2008. Although I eventually had the great privilege to serve my community as a school trustee, I lost four elections during that time. I refused to accept what happened after each defeat so I worked hard to erase these “failures” from my psyche. As an appointed school trustee, I labored restlessly and prepared for election as a popular incumbent in 2010.

The third life event was a massive heart attack and a rare lung complication that struck that summer. There was no election for me. All my dreams came crashing down. When I awoke from a medically induced coma two months later, I was paralyzed as my muscles deteriorated while I lay motionless on a hospital bed. I didn’t want to accept what happened to me. I was depressed and contemplated giving up, something I had never done before. Sandra summoned the hospital chaplain. Her name was Terry Becker.

Terry talked about the power of accepting God’s gifts. It was a miracle to survive two harrowing medical events, she said. I was paralyzed from loss of muscle strength, instead of blunt physical trauma like a car accident. Physical rehabilitation will make me like new. God had given me the tools to recover. I just needed to accept what happened and use what God provided. I took a chance and decided to give myself completely to God’s will.

That changed everything. The story has a happy ending. It started with accepting what is, rather than what should be. I also turned to acceptance to expel the college disqualification and election failure demons from my soul. I now understand that those events weren’t failures, but merely stepping stones toward fulfilling my destiny. I’ll write more on that in future posts.

The end of that part of my story doesn’t mean that challenges disappear. Real life is quite the contrary. The loss of my executive salary and financing two college educations make our financial struggles seem impossible to overcome at times. Parenting two adult daughters is no easy task. Advising and coaching replaces scolding and reprimanding when they make risky and unwise decisions. This leads to many sleepless nights. The rollercoaster of managing personal and professional relationships is never ending. That’s life.

All of these obstructions on the roadway of life can cause extreme pain if we don’t have a trusty map to get us through safely.  Each of the world’s religions and philosophies has a map. I rely on God’s word as told in the accounts of Jesus and his Apostles to chart a safe course forward. Their stories provide me with a guide to confront any situation that may cross my path.

The first step in the journey is accepting what is. Gratitude and caring for others come next, there will be more on that later. Taken together, practicing these three acts of faith have brought true joy and happiness to my life. It can do the same for you. You just have to have faith.