“What am I now? What am I now? What if I’m someone I don’t want around?” ~ Harry Styles, 2019
I was sitting on a barstool at the Beer Hut, a dumpy little bar hidden in the corner of a strip mall on the east side. It was a Tuesday or Wednesday night, I think. Maybe it was 1984 or 1985. I don’t know. I’m not too sure because the years between 1982 and 1985 were a blur. For all I know, that hazy memory is a hodgepodge of many drunken weeknights my best friend Rudy and I spent at the Beer Hut and other dives that dotted east San Jose.
Sitting at my left was a grizzled veterano drowning his sorrows while hunched over a bottle of beer and an empty shot glass. To my right stood Rudy. He was bullshitting with the other drunks standing at the bar. As usual, he was making them howl with laughter at one of his many entertaining stories. We had some great times during those days despite the reality that I was numbing the pain of academic and personal failures.
Fast forward some 20 years. As an executive at Comcast, I was mingling with other guests in the Los Altos Hills backyard of some Silicon Valley zillionaire. The occasion was a Democratic Party fundraiser hosted by former President Bill Clinton. Standing on the large lawn offered a birds-eye-view of the majestic San Francisco Bay below. I took my daughter Marisa so she could meet Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, the House of Representatives Minority Leader.
Already quite the feminist and political animal at the tender age of 11, she was excited about the prospect of meeting the person who would one day become the first woman Speaker of the House. Unlike the foggy memory of that night at the Beer Hut, the Los Altos Hills event is clear as that cloudless fall day. Marisa and I rubbed shoulders with some of the country’s most powerful people. The widescreen view of the bay matched the unlimited possibilities before me.
I’ve told the story about that high-powered backyard event a whole bunch of times. It’s one of the highlights from a career path that I didn’t know existed when growing up on the east side. Until now, it never crossed my mind to share stories of the Beer Hut days with anyone but family and a select few close friends. It was during a time that I drifted from one dead-end job to another while filling my emotional emptiness with meaningless short-term gratification.
That’s nothing to be proud about. I’ve always been ashamed about the shortcomings that litter my lifetime. That’s why I haven’t told that kind of story outside of my intimate circle. Shame is a powerful emotion. Best-selling author and professor Brené Brown describes shame as “that warm feeling that washes over us, making us feel small, flawed, and never good enough.” Yup, I know that feeling. She refers to the inner voice that reminds us of shame as “gremlins.”
Living life at full throttle, ambitious career climbing, and indulging at family parties were my defense against the gremlins. I know that exposing a not-too-flattering characteristic of my personality is risky, especially in such a public forum like this blog. What if people outside of my family circle see me differently? This revelation could potentially lead to embarrassment and more shame. So why am I sharing so much information about myself, and why now?
In her book Daring Greatly, Brown illustrates how vulnerability is the first step toward developing courage. Her ideas fascinate me, so I’m taking a shot at being vulnerable. She also writes that we can build shame resilience by facing it head on. Rarely have I looked at my years in the emotional wilderness with serious reflection. I was afraid of getting to know myself. I wondered, as Harry Styles asks in his song Falling, “What if I’m someone I don’t want around?”
I had lots of amazing personal and professional achievements in the 2 decades between that blurry night at the Beer Hut and the inspiring day in Los Altos Hills. It didn’t matter. Failure and imposter syndrome gremlins danced around me waiting to strike at the slightest hint of a foul-up. Life took a sharp turn during the decade and a half since Marisa and I rubbed elbows with the high and mighty: a massive heart attack, living with heart failure, and a transplant.
My decade-long winning battle with heart failure and the transplant have been miracles. There’s no other way to say it. One would think that both experiences would naturally lead to a life of gratitude and emotional security. I hear it often. “You must be so grateful.” “It must be nice to be retired and not worry about anything?” Not so fast! When your life is literally turned upside down, emotions and sense of worth are ripe for exploitation while the gremlins giggle with glee on the sidelines poised to attack.
I no longer have the distractions of ambition, a rewarding career, and drink to keep the gremlins at bay. In their place, an amazing spiritual journey came to the rescue. The odyssey started tentatively during the difficult days of recovery after my 2010 health crisis and gradually gained momentum in the decade that followed. In the darkest days after transplant when uncertainty reached its peak, my spiritual journey went into high gear.
Studying ancient Stoic philosophers, exploring diverse spiritual traditions, and learning about the basics of psychology opened the door for me to look at the world in a different way. Practicing vulnerability in therapy inspired me to dig deeper into my mind, soul, and past. Reading the daily Catholic Mass and reflecting on its words, stories, and lessons expanded my understanding of God and strengthened my relationship with Him.
With that said, I get it now…I think…maybe. Here it goes. There are 3 easy steps to living a peaceful and fulfilling life:
(1) Accept what we can’t control.
(2) Have certainty that what happens to us (good or bad) is what God intends to happen.
(3) Give of ourselves for the sake of others.
This is what St. Paul the Apostle meant by “faith, hope, and love.” No matter what life gives or takes away from us, Paul wrote in is First Letter to the Corinthians, “these three remain…But the greatest of these is love.”
It’s not easy to follow Paul’s guidelines. I still haven’t completely accepted my new “normal.” The desire to be active like before the heart attack quietly lurks in the back of my mind. Even though I intellectually understand that whatever happens is part of God’s plan, uncertainty clouds my thoughts from time to time. I try to fulfill St. Paul’s vision of “the greatest of the three” by focusing on my mind, body, and soul to stay healthy for the sake of Sandra and the girls.
Putting into effect what I’ve learned on this spiritual journey is really hard work. With thousands of years of wisdom from philosophers, religious thinkers, and psychoanalysts at my disposal, I make an effort to live one moment at a time. Using Brené Brown’s well-researched advice, I also work on shame resiliency and embracing my shortcomings. Together these ideas and practices bring me a sense of peace.
We all have a lifetime of unwanted baggage heaped on us by things we can’t control. Embarking on a voyage of self-discovery is the first step in unpacking the mess. Give it a try. It’s working for me. I’m getting to know myself better and I’m starting to like what I see. After it’s all said and done, I’m someone I want around for a while. I know that Sandra, the girls, and family and friends would agree.
Oh yeah, one last thing. Through 45 years of friendship, Rudy is still my oldest and best friend. He’s been on his own spiritual journey for much longer than I have been on mine. He’s also a spiritual advisor and has been a comforting presence through every step of my health ups and downs. Although our relationship isn’t based on bad old fashioned fun anymore, we still laugh until our cheeks hurt reminiscing about the party days of the 1980s.
Harry Styles’ song hit me in the gut the first time I heard it. It’s as if he wrote Falling about me circa 1983, or maybe 1985. Who knows? (LOL) Thanks to my daughters for introducing me to his music and expanding my musical world.
Falling, by Harry Styles
My therapist recommended Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. Buy it today! It will open your eyes to things you don’t want to see at first. Once they’re open, it just might help you find the path to your journey.
Daring Greatly, by Brené Brown