Hang on, dig in, strap down, get set. I am going to state a truism that may just rock your world. Ready? Here it is: Life is hard. Yep, I’m sorry to be the one to break it to you, but there it is. Life is hard and there is nothing to be done about it. “Life is pain Highness. Anyone that tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something.”
When I was young (Wait. I meant younger) I thought I was ready for anything that life had to throw at me. I thought I would chew it up and spit it out. Little did I know just how painful life can be. Let me describe what I mean.
I met Beth at Behrend College of Penn State in 1975. Through her feminine wiles, we soon fell in love and planned our life together. Long walks, long talks, gazing into each others’ eyes, we did all those dewy, romantic and saccharine things that young couples often do when they fall in love. Objectively speaking, our romance was (and remains) the best and finest romance in the history of the world. And I wouldn’t trade one single minute for anything.
We married in 1978 (see, Beth? I do too remember) and started with nothing more than an old Chevy Impala given to us by my folks, a cat, and love. What a grand start to a marriage! We moved to northwestern Pennsylvania and I found a job in, of all places, a donut factory on my way to my life-long dream job of being a policeman. I got into police work over thirty years ago, and the trials and travails Beth and I experienced could have wrecked us multiple times. But from the beginning, we both loved God more than anything, and have worked to make Him, and Him alone, the focus and center of our marriage.
Children came along, planned and anticipated. Loved, adored, and our pride and joy. We raised them “purposely and intentionally,” a catch phrase with a set of our closest friends; a catch phrase, but describes our parenting very nicely. Everything we did with them was intended to be a life’s lesson, to instruct them and to train and prepare them for everything that life was going to throw at them. Clearly we were not perfect, and there are innumerable moments I wish I could take back, change, re-do. But we’re not given that option, are we? Even so, no one has ever loved their children more, or worked harder to raise their children to be the best they could be. I went back to school part-time, and worked toward my Master’s Degree from Mercyhurst College in Erie, PA. I found that I enjoyed my class work (as opposed to my undergrad experience) and excelled. Of course, I devoted a ton of time to my school work to do so, but enjoyed it none the less.
In the mid-1980’s, I joined the Erie Police Department in Erie, PA. Having come from a small police department where every sneeze and belch was noted and scrutinized, when I moved to a larger department I was like a kid in a candy store. I had more fun than anyone had a right to. But all things change, and even good things have a habit of diminishing. I finished my Master’s degree program and eventually left the street to become a detective, then a Detective Sergeant working Homicides, bank robberies with FBI agents, Presidential protection details with the Secret Service, Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT), just about any cool thing that one could desire. I had a “patron” that was guiding me in the ways of politics within the city, and I was moving toward higher ranks; meeting people, shaking hands, joining clubs and organizations.
During this time I also worked in our church. I found myself elected to the Deacon board, which at the time was kind of a combined Elder/Deacon position. We made policy for the church, as well as watching for the immediate spiritual needs of our brothers and sisters in the congregation. As was typical, I threw myself into it, and spent a lot of time working for the church.
As are many men, I am driven to excel at whatever task I take on. And for most of the things I try, I push myself until I’m pretty good at whatever it is I am doing. However, as I pushed and struggled to advance, I noticed something. My daughters were in High School, perhaps only a few years from graduating and moving on. And I hardly knew them.
I remembered some of the ideals that Beth and I had as young marrieds and as young parents, and I did not want to look back and regret the time that I devoted to my job; I did not want to regret the time that I should have given to my children. So I did something that was very difficult for me. I took myself off the fast track at work. Man was I disappointed. But, I thought, at least I had my church and my family. Family, church, and work. I measured myself as a successful man by these three things.
Oops, one down. I intentionally gave work away, but that’s ok. I still had the other two. I convinced myself that as long as I “succeeded” at church and family, I was ok. Work was actually the third on the list anyway, so I could be less than at the pinnacle there and still be a success at the other two. However, church is a funny thing; it’s filled with people. And people are the same no matter where they happen to be located. I dealt with good folks and mean folks all across the spectrum. I dealt with issues that I wish I had never known about. Ultimately I kind of flamed out with leadership in church, too. When my term as Deacon expired, I did not seek re-election, and I am not sure how eager I am even now, twenty-something years later, to repeat that experience.
Two down. But I still have my family. And this is the most important of the three. As long as I “succeed” at family, I still have worth in my eyes. I am still a “successful” man.
You kind of see what’s coming, right?
I had read a book once that described a father’s raising his family, and essentially his thoughts were that no matter what success he had elsewhere, if he didn’t raise his children well, what good is he? I agreed with that, and worked accordingly.
Now before I continue, I want to make clear that I love my children. With my whole heart, mind, soul, and strength. Nothing has ever changed that, and nothing ever will. Further, I need not detail more than this. They are good people, working to be the best that they can envision themselves to be. I am proud of them and their accomplishments. Suffice it to say here that they have chosen to walk a couple of paths that I would not have chosen for them. Their lives, their decisions. I respect that and will support them, love them, help them to the best that I am able.
I think that at least in part, I took their “contrary” decisions personally, that it was my responsibility for where they have chosen to be. Of course, each of us will ultimately take ownership of our choices and decisions, but at the time, I keenly felt that I was an abject failure as a father. And for me that was strike three. I was a failure as a man.
Some people turn to drink, some people may become even more spiritual, some turn to other outlets to ease the pain. I have had several.
For years I have struggled with, shall we say, less wholesome outlets. I honestly don’t know how teens can cope with the internet. One can instantly find just about anything one would care to find. With all that one can access today via the internet, I wouldn’t have survived as a teen. Anyhow, through a lot of prayer, working with several dedicated and spiritual men, this particular area is much less difficult for me than it once was.
But there were other ways that one can feel momentarily better. Food is one of my biggest struggles. I love food. I love the smell of good food, I love the taste of food and its texture as I roll it through my mouth, I love the satisfying feel of a full stomach. And Beth is honestly the best cook I have ever known.
For a while this wasn’t as big a problem as it could be. Although my metabolism had been slowing down, I was pretty active. Being on the SWAT team was pretty demanding, and I had to stay in some semblance of shape, so even though I ate big, I burned a lot of it at the same time. Also, at 6’3″, I can hide it pretty well. This changed a bit when I retired from the team. I ballooned to an all-time high of 260 pounds of unadulterated cellulose, and looked every bit like the chubby hubby that I was.
I had other outlets as well. I am a very sensual guy. I love taste, texture, beauty, scents. I love trying new things. I love learning. So when I find something new that tastes great, smells great, and has nuance, I dive in. Especially if it’s not something that a ton of people do. I discovered craft beer and I discovered cigars. Both are topics of endless discussion for me, I can talk for hours about either. For the record, my buddy Matt makes the best beer I have tried; second is Founder’s Breakfast Stout or perhaps Great Divide’s Yeti Imperial Stouts. Oh, man! For cigars, my go to is always an Ashton, and specifically an Ashton Double Magnum, although I love all kinds of cigars at different times. If you’re interested, go see Chris at Leaf Lover’s Tobbaconist in North East, PA for a great cigar. And remember my advice. If you can buy cigars and gasoline at the same location, don’t buy the cigars!!
Anyhow, along with Scuba diving, these were the outlets I used to “cope” with life’s little surprises. I was a far cry from that twenty-one year old that thought he could handle everything. Essentially, it looks like I can’t handle much of anything. Or maybe life just kept throwing its little surprises until I was broken down. Whatever, I was at a point that I needed help with coping. But I didn’t like where I was. That having been said, I think I need to clarify here. As long as this post turns out to be, it is still a very abbreviated version of all this. This entire process kind of evolved over the past twenty years or so, and I am condensing it here to a couple of thousand-ish words. Also, it may look like I was just a total wreck. Not so, but I had come to lean on tangibles, not on inner strength and God’s power.
So, here I was. A failure at work, a failure at church, a failure with my family. “Needing” food, scuba, beer, and cigars. So what happened next? Earlier this year I looked at a couple of photos taken of me, and man, I did not like what I saw. This guy’s a fatty! Beth and I both decided it was time, so we embarked on a weight loss and life style change. Although I started at a lower weight than my all time high, since May, I have lost about thirty pounds with ten to go to my goal. Beth has done even better. I think we both look great, and the next step is to get back to the gym and get in shape.
Food’s gone as a crutch.
Beer has been assuming an increasingly anticipated portion of my life. And I don’t mean nasty or cheap beer. You folks that drink Bud lite or Coors, well, you have my pity. Micros are the bomb! So many different breweries, so many different styles, combinations of hops and malts, I could easily live in a Brewpub. Wait. Clark, what did you just say? Did you hear yourself?
Beth pointed out to me a bit ago that I was consuming more beer than I had before. She wasn’t yet alarmed exactly, but she was kind of concerned. Her concern was justified. Although in comparison to many I didn’t drink much at all, and although in comparison to Europeans I hardly drink anything, I was still using the beer as a crutch. Clark, what are you doing? Yep, I need to cut back. And although I have no intention to cease, my beer consumption has hugely diminished.
Beer’s gone. But I still have my last stronghold, I still have my cigars.
You can see what’s coming, right? Hey, didn’t I already say that?
Many people would say this explains a great deal, but as a teen, I fell on my head a couple of times. Looking back, I probably fractured my spine, but as I could get up and move, I never went to the hospital or even saw a doctor. Fast forward four decades or so, and I now have two degenerative discs. After several years of chiropractic therapy and numerous pain shots, I had my neck fused four months ago on two levels; C-5 to C-6, and C-6 to C-7. The surgery went great, the chronic pain is gone, and the healing has been fine. But. My scuba season ended on the date of my surgery, and I probably won’t get back under water (except for assisting classes of new divers in the pool) until spring.
We went back to my surgeon last Monday. After x-rays, he showed me that the higher level is about 99% healed; essentially completely healed. The lower level, not as much. He gave me a few restrictions, and said that he wasn’t concerned at all, and that the only way he would be concerned at all is if I was a smoker, which I am not. I told him that I haven’t touched a cigarette in my life, but that I do have an occasional cigar. At that point he kind of stared at me, hesitated a second, and said, “You need to stay away from those.”
Ok, I get it. Nicotine restricts blood vessels and inhibits the uptake of oxygen, both needed for healing. I won’t smoke a cigar for months. But that was my last tangible support. I am now officially left with nothing to fall back on, nothing to look forward to (And let’s be totally clear. When I say that, I mean outside my marriage. Our marriage is still great, and getting better every day!). When he said that, I felt like my last pillar was knocked down, my bridge was collapsing. I was bereft. Even Beth felt bad for me, and she is not, shall we say, the biggest fan of my cigars.
So what do I do? As I see it, I don’t have a lot of choices here. My only choice is the one I should have made long ago. My only choice is to depend on God’s grace; first, last, everywhere. A few years ago I coined a phrase that I have tried to utilize. I kind of forgot it, but I’m gonna pick it back up. That phrase is this. Let it go, it doesn’t belong to you. So this is what I am left with, this is what I want to do, what I want to continually tell myself. Let it go, it doesn’t belong to you. I need to give it to God, let it go, live in Him. Fill me Father. Fill me with You. You God. All You. Nothing but You.
I don’t know why it is necessary to be painted into a corner to see that one cannot “do this” on one’s own, but I would not be surprised to find that this is rather common. Even if not, I often find that it is the case for me. I’ve been cornered, and I have nothing that I can use to defend myself. I figure I can go in one of three directions. I can collapse into a puddle of emotional plasma, I can fall back on one of the less healthy things that I used to fall back on, or I can let go and look to the Author and Protector. I think I’ll look to Jesus.
But boy do I want a cigar. Let it go, Clark. It doesn’t belong to you. Yeah, I know…