In April of 2001, I was sitting in a coffee shop on Canal Street in New Orleans while in town to attend a professional conference. I was in the coffee shop visiting with a former colleague from graduate school days at the University of Illinois. He spoke of how his career and personal life were not going as he hoped. After he spoke for a while, I very intentionally chose my words and said “If every breath I have ever taken has gotten me to sitting right here where I am today, I would not change a thing.” That idea had rolled around in my head for a while, but I never said it aloud until that day. Today, I affirm the same sentiment – my life has perfectly led me to where I am today.
Let me explain.
Today, through the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, I have a life that exceeds the best of any situation I can imagine. I married my bride over 19 years ago and she is truly my best friend and confidant. We have racked up some wonderful adventures together and have more to come. I retired from a rewarding career with a job description completely aligned with my interests and vision. Step 3 of AA launched me on a now three-decade long spiritual journey that continues to evolve. My church home at Rayne Memorial UMC along with activity and friends in the School for Contemplative Living are the bedrock for my spiritual existence. Today, I also live into a life of service consistent with the embryonic values I held over 45 years ago as an inner-city student teacher. My life has a greater meaning than ever before.
An old friend from high school commented to me once that he never realized I had such a “rough life” early on in battling my demons and alcoholism. But today, if I truly would not “change a thing” I am blessed by the lessons of my drunken alcoholic past. Besides sharing my experience, strength, and hope, particularly with students in my classrooms over the years, I know too that those drunken days and the sobriety that followed provide me with the wisdom of how to live today.
Then, this past August, I received a stage 4 cancer diagnosis with a still unknown primary source.
I participated in a recent discussion where someone commented about the need to look for the silver lining in such adversities. I think differently. I don’t need to look for a silver lining for my cancer diagnosis. In fact, the diagnosis was a wake-up call for me to prioritize those things that are important in my life. When I retired in 2016, for the first year, I put nearly the same amount of effort into my career, but I was no longer drawing a paycheck. My wife had retired from her full-time position to take on another full-time position in opening a business that had been her lifelong dream. We both could have continued our separate retirement careers for years.
My cancer had other plans. The original prognosis was that I might be dead by last Christmas. That did not happen. I sat with my oncologist a couple of weeks ago and candidly discussed the unknowability of my prognosis, though he is very pleased with how I am doing.
Cancer has allowed Emma and I to focus on what we want to do in our lives. We are all mortal and we don’t know when that mortality will be called in – as is clear for the 17 in Parkland, Florida. So, I am not looking for a silver lining in my cancer diagnosis. It is all silver and gold and is a wake up call for re-ordering my life priorities in the same way the massacre at Douglas school is an opportunity to take steps to end that carnage. On a personal level, I will not waste the cancer wake-up call, as we must not waste the lives of the 17 in Parkland, and those before, as a national wake up call.
Alcoholism, cancer, mass murder – the only regret I can have is if I do not learn, absorb, and grow from the implications of these life events. I must take the appropriate actions in living into the understanding that we are all truly made in the image of God and must treat ourselves and all those in our luminous web of life accordingly. If I can continue moving in that direction of true self, I will be able to continue saying “If every breath I have ever taken has gotten me to sitting right here where I am today, I would not change a thing.”