A Classroom Called Hope

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Educational ConceptWhile still an active alcoholic, while still whoring it up on a regular basis, my hypocrisy knew no bounds. Six and a half days a week I was a degenerate, but for an hour on the Sabbath I rested from my degrading ways and taught a Sunday school class for sixteen year olds. Most of the time this wasnt too challenging, I simply regurgitated what I was taught in my youth.

However one particular Sunday the topic was the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. When I first saw the topic I thought “piece of cake.” Faith is the strong belief in something not seen. Charity is pure love. Hope is … ummm… I expected a quick thought, but I was stumped. The more I tried to think of a definition, the less my mind was able to process the word.

Heavy drinking had rendered my brain cells a little soggy and very foggy. My muddled thinking could not wrap itself around the concept of hope. I tried the dictionary. The words jumbled and crossed. Reading one sentence would push the previous one out of my consciousness. At this point in my drinking career processing the written word was often challenging. I read, but I did not comprehend. I had nothing to say on the concept of hope.

It wasn’t until I got sober and thought back on that incident that it occurred to me that I couldnt understand the word hope because my life was, at that point in time, utterly and completely devoid of hope. Like a shipwrecked passenger without a life preserver, or even debris to cling to, I was adrift and floundering.

I treaded water each day barely functioning at work. Come evening, I pulled myself out of the dank pools of the workplace and sat like a blinking toad staring dumbly at the television. Each night I waited anxiously for my wife at that time to retire to her separate bedroom so I could drink myself back into the dark brine of oblivion.

During last years of my drinking, hope was a scarce as potable water in the Sahara. Even coming through to the other side of drunkenness and mania there were occasions when I stumbled through the darkness of life devoid of hope. But fortunately, when it felt like I could progress no further, there were sparks that rekindled that flame of hope which illuminated the path I was to follow.

The first spark was meeting my first sponsor. Like me, he had attended Twelve Step meetings for years for before achieving permanent sobriety. The fact that he had broken the demoralizing cycle of relapse held the promise of better days to come. I hung on his every word and found hope in his promise that if I would but work the steps I could achieve sobriety.

But after the initial pink cloud experience of early sobriety began to dissipate I found myself slipping slowly into the wallow of self-pity. Why did my genetics predispose me to alcoholism? What was up with this double whammy of addiction and mental illness? What was I to make of all the shame-filled episodes in my life due to drunken and insane behavior? What kind of God predisposes someone to such a life?

It was then that my increasingly steely heart struck the flint of a timely Twelve Step gathering and hope was sparked again. At about two years sober I found myself at a Sunday morning prayer and meditation meeting where a woman spoke on life being a classroom. This concept was life changing.

She noted that we do not choose the class we are in. Sometimes we are in the forgiveness class. Other times the patience class. We don’t choose. If I chose, it would always be recess.

Albert Einstein once said: “Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.” The question I try to remember to ask is “What is this experience supposed to be teaching me.” Simple to say. Harder to put in practice.

At first, treating life as a classroom-everything that happens is meant as a teaching moment- only worked when I was far removed from the event in question. Free from the immediacy and emotion of a given moment I could look back, reflect and learn. But with practice, I found that I can catch myself in the moment, pause, question, and learn without having to wait it out.

For example, while writing the book this blog is leading to, I often shared drafts with my wife. On many occasions she was full of praise, helpful suggestions and clarifying comments. But on one occasion I caught her on the day she had just learned that the medications necessitated by her lung transplant has killed a portion of her right hip and surgery was required.

Not only was she in great physical pain, the post I chose to share contained my view of the events surrounding the time she had me arrested while I was in the midst of a manic break–I unwittingly hit on deep emotional pain.

Though I was most pleased with the post, she made it but halfway through before putting it down and commenting that she wasn’t in a place where she could read any more. My ego wasn’t stoked, the mood in the room was tense, old wounds were re-opened.

My initial reaction was to take the pages and throw them in the trash–undoubtedly a most mature move. Then I thought, what is going on here? Was there something to be learned?

Of course there was. First, I had my ego blinders on. So desperate to solicit praise I sprung the post on her without thinking first of her physical condition. Secondly, I did not consider of her point of view on this particular episode in our lives. Lessons on ego and forgiveness were in order.

Rather than wallow in rejection and hurt feelings it was incumbent on me to take a step back, spend some time in prayer and meditation, and to do the next right thing. Rather than being a stumbling block in our marriage, it served as an opportunity for learning and growth.

The first thing I needed to do was make amends for being so thoughtless of my wife’s condition. Did my ego so need to be fed that I could just ignore the fact that she hadn‘t seen me all day- the day she learned a hip replacement was on the menu-and maybe needed me to be present and empathetic. That day was not all about me.

And what about the wound that was re-opened? Had I not taken a plea deal after the eye opening revelation from my attorney that assault doesn‘t necessarily mean there was violence or the intent to cause violence? The mere fact that the victim felt threatened–intended on my part or not–constituted assault.

My actions while manic were certainly disturbing and threatening. My intentions had little to do with how my actions were perceived. Getting to real forgiveness required that I honestly and lovingly acknowledge that I had freaked her the heck out when I was manic. Forgiveness proved to be the key that freed us from the prison of our shared past.

Aristotle Onassis once said “We must free ourselves of the hope that the sea will ever rest. We must learn to sail in high winds.” Life is not an exercise in sailing on smooth oceans. There are sloshing rollers and roaring breakers and ever shifting winds. Our hope shouldn’t be for a challenge free life, but for the strength and wisdom to learn and overcome whatever challenges are presented.

I often confused hope with unfounded expectations and was often left disappointed. Hope is not wishing, it is the quiet confidence that all will work for my betterment. No longer do I attempt to merely wait out the storms of life. I do not suffer passively. Rather I hope to find serenity and understanding in the midst of the storm.

Hoping for a lottery-winning, pain-free life is juvenile and immature. It leads to comments like one from that little cup of sunshine Friedrich Nietzsche who said, “Hope, in reality, is the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man.”

Viewing life as a classroom has altered my concept of hope. It is not always the same thing as optimism. Episodes in our lives may not always turn out well. People age, suffer and die. Hearts are broken. Planted seeds do not always sprout. But it is my hope that there will be valuable lessons to learn in all the twists and turns of life.

Knowing that I can learn from whatever the universe throws my way instills me with a sense of inspiration, vitality, and hope. For it is through learning that I grow. And growth is the hallmark of life.

I find hope in the darkest days, and focus in the brightest. I do not judge the universe. Dalai Lama

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