Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something else is more important than fear.
– Ambrose Redmoon
Last week I was invited by a friend to attend the final seminar of the Landmark Forum. For those of you who don’t know, this is a four-day intensive seminar that is designed to help people realise their life goals by helping them see the blind spots in the way that they view the world. The way that they explain it is that these blind spots unconsciously hinder us from realising those goals in the way a hundred pound weight strapped to the back of an Olympic runner might keep him (okay, or her) from realising the goal of winning the gold medal. Through a number of exercises and seminars, the Landmark Forum seeks to help people see what that hundred pound weight is and how they can take it off.
The trouble is in seeing what it is.
One of the big things that they stress is taking responsibility for your past and not making excuses for it. Now, you may have been raped as a child. That alters the way that you see the world. No one would argue with that, nor that it was your fault.
However, that doesn’t give you the right to see yourself as a victim, or use that event as an excuse for not moving forward in life. It doesn’t give you the right to define yourself by that event—not because it wasn’t an awful thing, but because your moving on and becoming the best version of you possible isn’t worth hanging on to that and not making something amazing of it.
I was talking with my guy tonight and we were having a conversation along these lines. I was sharing with him the things I’d learned in that evening, and I realised after we hung up that I’d been doing the very things I was talking about. That I’d been rehearsing the litany of negative events in my life over and over, like Orual in Till We Have Faces. It’s a vicious cycle, and unless someone comes along to say “Stop it,” we keep repeating the same mistakes over and over.
And we unconsciously put ourselves in situations in order to fulfil those prophesies we set for ourselves—to fail, or be victimised, so that we can say, “See!”—instead of taking responsibility and saying, “No, this is my life.”
An obvious parallel is Joseph from the book of Genesis. If ever there was a victim, it was him. He had so much going for him. He was the youngest son, the favourite of his father Isaac; and then his brothers sold him into slavery and told their father that Joseph had been killed by a lion.
Now, if you recall the story, Joseph kind of had it coming. He was cocky and full of himself. He had the gall to tell his brothers that he’d been shown in a dream that they’d one day be bowing down to him. Who wouldn’t want to get rid of a prick like that? (That’s not to excuse what his brothers did. Selling your brother into slavery is wrong. Wrong.)
So he’s sitting there, sold into slavery in Egypt. I think he figured out what he’d done and why his brothers hated him. So then he had a choice. He could either blame others for his situation, or take responsibility and make the most of what he’d been given. And he did. His master, Potiphar, “saw that the Lord was with Joseph and caused all that he did to prosper.” And Potiphar made him overseer of his whole house and all he owned.
Then Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph, who took the high ground and refused; but it was her word against his (a slave) and it was back to prison for him. Again, he could have whined and complained and recited his litany of woes. But he didn’t. He took responsibility for his situation, and the jailer “committed to Joseph’s charge all the prisoners who were in the jail; so that whatever was done there, he was responsible for it . . . because the LORD was with him; and whatever he did, the LORD made to prosper.”
I won’t tell you the whole story, but it ends up with Joseph as second command in Egypt, and in a twist of divine irony his brothers did indeed come before him to plead for grain for their family. Complete reversal of fortunes. Joseph does play with them a little, and he could have taken advantage of the situation and killed them for what they did to him in the past, but in the end he tells them who he is and he is restored, alive, to his father Isaac.
When Isaac dies, his brothers figure he’s going to take revenge on them all. But Joseph utters one of the most powerful statements in all of literature—”Do not be afraid, for am I in G-d’s place? As for you, you meant evil against me, but G-d meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people’s lives.” It’s incomplete to merely view Joseph as having taken responsibility for his life, as the Landmark Forum suggests people do. I strongly believe that G-d places us in situations to be his effective agents on earth; and regardless of what happens to us, if we take responsibility for our lives insomuch as we see ourselves as having a divine calling and open ourselves to the possibilities of being used in incredible ways, and that the things that happened to us are G-d’s way of equipping us to help someone else, we don’t have time for pity parties.
I’ve gone through so much of my life reading into what other people say, and with my expectations of what they should do instead of giving up that need and giving people the benefit of the doubt. Giving up the need for revenge, because the people who did me wrong back in the day are not going to control the course of my life or keep me in the prison of anger. Not letting the past define me and reciting the litany of my woes and using that as an excuse for not taking responsibility for my life. I am beginning to see how G-d has used the events in my life to bring me to this Now.
He asked me tonight, “Why were you even thinking about going to that when you’ve said all of this?” I don’t know why I was considering going to the Landmark Forum. A change? To take a step? Turns out the biggest step I’ve taken is pursuing him.
We really had some huge breakthroughs tonight. It was incredibly exciting (and frustrating for a while). I was feeling pretty smart, the guy with all the answers. I felt like a therapist who’d just seen his patient make a major breakthrough.
Then, driving home I realised that the things I’d been saying were the things my parents, friends and therapists had been saying for years, and had taken me up until quite recently to grasp. That I need to take responsibility for my life and not blame others. That everything in life happens for a reason and we can either choose to see ourselves as passive victims or as active participants who see life as the chisel that is making us into men out of blocks of stone (to paraphrase C.S. Lewis). That the blows of His chisel, which hurt us so much, are what make us perfect.
I don’t have life figured out any more than anyone else. But I can share what few insights I have and hope that they’ll make some difference. I saw my guy make a huge step tonight, and I’m incredibly proud of him for taking ownership of his life and am deeply humbled to be a part of the process for him. I’m looking back now and seeing how every painful shouting match, every patient conversation my parents had with me, the hours spent with my psychologist, my psychology classes—everything—probably led up to this point.
It would be easy to puff out my chest and say that I did it all. But that would be an arrogant lie. I was positioned here by a much wiser hand. If all those years spent crawling around in the dark were to help him realise his full potential and drop the hundred-pound weight and the blinders from his eyes, it was worth the pain.
He asked what he can possibly do for me. Tonight I realised that so much has been given to me already, and I’m finally giving back. He helped me see that what I have has been given to me, and that he’s such an incredible gift. I really do love him. He taught me something tonight—that it was me lying on the therapist’s couch, not him. And I’m just beginning to realise that.
A happy, healthy little boy named Michal Katurian, on the eve of the night that his parents were to start torturing him for seven consecutive years, was visited by a man made of all fluffy pillows and a big smiley mouth, and the man sat with Michal and talked to him a while and told him about the horrific life he was to lead and where it was to end for him . . . and the man suggested to Michal that wouldn’t it be better if he did away with himself then and there are avoided all that horror?
And Michael said, “But if I do away with myself, my brother will never get to hear me being tortued, will he?”
“No,” said the Pillowman.
“But if my brother never gets to hear me being tortured, he may never write the stories he’s going to write, might he?”
“That’s true,” said the Pillowman.
And Michal thought about it a while and said, “Well, I think we should probably just keep things the way they are, then, with me being tortured and him hearing . . . ‘cos I think I’m going to really like hearing my brother’s stories.”
— Martin McDonagh, “The Pillowman.”