Archive | July, 2014

Pay It Forward

29 Jul

When I was a college student in Philadelphia, a good friend and I would occasionally venture downtown to take in a little culture with a concert by the Philadelphia Orchestra. The Academy of Music often made student tickets available just a few minutes before the concert was about to start. On one occasion, Midori, the famous young violinist, was scheduled to perform. We knew that chances were very slim that we would be able to get tickets as the concert would likely be sold out. We decided to give it a shot and at least enjoy a nice dinner in the city and try our luck.

When we got to the box office, just as we thought, the performance was completely sold out. No student tickets, or any other tickets for that matter, were available at all. As we turned to go on our merry way and head back to campus, an elegantly-dressed old woman approached us. She was apparently waiting for a friend who never showed. “You look like a nice young couple,” she said. “Would you like my tickets?” My friend politely asked her how much she wanted for them, expecting the price to be much higher than we could afford. “Nothing” she replied. “Perhaps one day when you are my age, you will do the same thing for someone else.” We gratefully took the tickets, thanked the woman profusely and found our seats. Sixth-row center. They didn’t get much better than that. They would have cost a fortune, at least for two college students.

The concert was beautiful and Midori’s playing was simply magical. For about two hours, I wasn’t a college student in the throws of exams and stress. I was a million miles away, escaping to a peaceful, melodic haven. I couldn’t help think throughout the entire concert about the woman who gave us the tickets. Who was she waiting for? Why didn’t they show up? Why didn’t she stay and enjoy the concert herself? Did she leave the box office feeling lonely and disappointed by being stood-up? Or was she happy knowing that her kindness brought some much needed peace and respite to two young students? I closed my eyes, listened to the glorious sounds of the violin and orchestra, and pondered all of those things. Her misfortune turned into our fortune. Another God-wink? Perhaps.

I’m not sure there is a better representation of the expression “pay it forward”. Will my friend or I, or both of us, do the same for someone else some day? Yes. Here it is, more than twenty years later, and I remember that night, and the natural high it brought, like it was just yesterday. I hope that when I am her age, I’m not standing alone waiting on someone who never comes. I hope I continue to hear the beautiful music. And I hope that night ended peacefully for her, with a simple explanation for why her friend never came. But if I do find myself in the position to pay it forward, I most certainly will. When we open our eyes, we can see the God-winks all around us. And sometimes, God places the “winks” in our own hands to do with them what we will.

As Plato said, “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination
and life to everything.” A pretty amazing thing to pay forward.

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Consider It Pure Joy

22 Jul

I had never even opened a bible. Perhaps I looked at one or two sitting in nightstand drawers at hotel rooms. That’s about it. I participated in my first bible study at the same time I started my battle against alcoholism, a little over two years ago. A friend asked me to join her, thinking it would be a good idea to get me to turn my attention to activities that didn’t involve drinking. While I didn’t know too much about bible studies, I was pretty sure they didn’t involve sitting around doing tequila shots every time someone said the word “Jesus”. It was amazing how much the two things were compatible and reinforced each other. In my twelve-step program I was learning about the need to turn to faith in order to achieve and maintain sobriety. The bible study taught me the need to turn to faith in order to achieve and maintain sanity and grace.

The study focused on the book of James, which has been described by Bible Hub as “a book about practical Christian living that reflects a genuine faith that transforms lives”. A good place for a bible newbie to start, and an excellent place for someone seeking transformative faith to start. I’ll never forget one of the first lines of the book of James: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance”. My personal translation was this: “Be glad that you are going through living hell because it will make you stronger.” In other words, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and there is a reason for it. Whatever your struggle, there is a reason behind it and somehow, someway, even though we may have a hard time seeing it or understanding it, God has a plan and will produce some good from it.

With the bible study homework, I did a fair amount of soul-searching. This is going to be great, I thought. I can’t wait to figure out just how the hell my decades of alcoholic drinking, blackouts, falling down stairs, etc., would bring about something good. So far, all I could figure out was that it got me to open a bible and to meet some very interesting women. Not to mention the fact that I went to an activity from which I emerged as sober as I was when I arrived.

But I noticed that while I started to read “the word”, worked on turning my will and my life over to God (Step Three), and simply became more present in my life by being sober, I began seeing “God-winks” all around me. Squire Rushnell has an excellent book called “When God Winks at You”, all about certain “chance” circumstances that can only be explained by divine intervention (God-winks). I started writing a blog about my journey through recovery. The more I wrote, the more cathartic it was, and the more it helped in my soul-searching and self-awareness. People started to comment about my blog, pull me aside and tell me that they shared it with their friend/mother/father/cousin/uncle/aunt/brother/sister/butcher….anyone they knew struggling with addiction. The more I heard, the more I realized how much addiction touches almost everyone in some form or shape, and the more I wanted to help.

There were several other God-winks, but one of the biggest came on a Sunday morning when I grabbed my coffee and turned on the television. I flipped it to the well-known evangelist, Joel Osteen, at the exact time he was saying these words: “God can take your mess and turn it into your message. God knows how to use what you’ve been through. He doesn’t waste any experiences. He can use what you’ve been through to help others in that situation. Nothing is wasted—the good, the bad, the painful.” It was as though he was speaking directly to me. It strongly reaffirmed my feeling that I am supposed to take my mess, my bad, my pain and not waste it, but rather use it to help others in a similar situation. That situation doesn’t have to be alcoholism. It can be whatever trial or tribulation you suffer in your life. It reinforced the fact that it’s never too late to change something bad into something good. To consider it pure joy.

Another major God-wink came in the form of an opportunity a few weeks ago to speak to women in a local jail. It was a small group of women in what they called the “Sober Living Unit”, who had committed to try to live a clean and sober life when they left their incarceration. I had no idea what to expect, and even less of an idea what I was going to say. But somehow, the words just came. God gave me the guidance and the words I needed.

I began by telling my story, and then went on to share two pieces from my blog, which were very well-received. At the end, there was no awkward silence as I feared, but rather an extensive, interactive discussion. Each woman shared some of her story, but not all explained what they had done to land themselves in this dreadful place. Several were there for selling drugs. One woman drank so much that she passed out with her small child next to her, only to be awakened by a police officer and arrested for child abandonment/neglect. That prompted me to share the story of a friend of mine who had relapsed twice after brief periods of sobriety, each time with major repercussions. The first time, she picked up a drink simply because it was a nice, sunny, spring day. She finished a bottle of vodka and decided to drive to the ABC store to get more. She realized she was in no shape to be driving, pulled over and passed out in her car. She, too, was awakened by police officers, and lost her license for a year for driving under the influence. The second time, she drank so much after being upset by an argument that she again passed out. This time she woke up to find police and Child Protective Services at her door because someone had called saying that the children were alone with an incapacitated mother. Two relapses. Two major screw-ups. But her mess turned into my message. God didn’t waste it. Does she consider it pure joy? I doubt it. But perhaps just one of those women will remember it when they return to their normal lives and think twice about picking up a drink or selling drugs.

The entire time, I was well aware of how incredibly blessed, and lucky, I am. But for the grace of God, I could be in there with them myself. Have I driven when I shouldn’t have? Yes. Have I been incapacitated around my children? I’m so incredibly ashamed to admit yes. All the more reason why I feel strongly about my need to make what they call living amends. I have been given the chance to live my life in a much better and healthier way, so why wouldn’t I take that and use it in the best ways I can? I’m in no position to preach or give advice, but I told the women as I was leaving that it was not too late for them to change and turn their lives around. They have to start in there as we do out here, one day at a time.

The book of James also includes what I like to call the “Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is” message. “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.” Sometimes it’s really hard to look in the mirror. Often we don’t like what we see. Look. Really look. Listen and act. Read and do. James also says “faith, by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead….Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.” I have faith that I can stay sober. But if that faith is not accompanied by action—by hard work, rewiring and praying—it is dead. For a relatively short bible book, James contains so many other powerful messages. “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” Quick to listen and slow to speak. Advice everyone could benefit from. And “the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark”. There is so much good stuff in here. Why didn’t I pick up this book in the hotel rooms?

Finally, the last chapter of James leaves us with this: “….if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins”. I’m not sure I have the power to bring someone back from sin or wandering in the wrong direction. I have to start with myself. However, I have a friend, an older woman, who is a very nervous driver and gets completely frazzled when people behind her are driving too close. She called me over to her car in the parking lot one day after a meeting and said she wanted to show me something. There, taped on her steering wheel, was a piece of paper with a simple message and reminder to herself: “Consider it pure joy.”

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