Self-reflections on resiliency
while sheltering in place.
by Ken Breniman April 14, 2020
As I reflect on growing up in rural Pennsylvania as a gay youth with a deep appreciation for nature, and how each of us is a humble yet essential part of the whole, I realize how comingled the blessings and challenges of my childhood affected me. While sensing the risks as too big to reveal who I truly was to myself or others, the way to navigate what I perceived as a dangerous environment, was to hide my essential self from the rest of the world. The effort it took for me to move through the world and attempt not to be seen took its toll on my ability to stay true to one of my core beliefs, as I was plagued with the doubt as to why I was in this world at all.
While I, like many who do not feel welcomed by a heteronormative society, contemplated taking my own life as a pre-teen, I only attempted suicide once. This bold yet fortunately unsuccessful endeavor was enough to learn a crucial life lesson that sticks with me to this day: I must have a purpose here in this existence, and rather than avoid figuring out what that is, my time here is better served actively engaging in the game of life to see what happens next.
But the lesson learned left its mark. Even today, I am not completely able to articulate why this soul wound had riddled my earlier years with self-doubt. Yet, at age 15, after surviving my attempt to extinguish the growing waves of psychic pain, and landing on the other side of a near death experience, I was left with a profoundly simple approach to life as I stopped demanding definitive answers to the existential puzzles of the purpose or meaning of life. It was at this time of regaining consciousness and somehow re-experiencing myself and the world around me as if for the first time, when my ears heard a whispering: “I am enough. There is enough. And, that is enough!”
“I am enough. There is enough. And, that is enough!” The first ‘enough’ is an affirmation that I, like everyone else, has a purpose and is worthy of love. At age 15, the only response I could muster to this statement was a humble shoulder shrug and averted eyes with the mumbling of, “well, I guess so”.
The second ‘enough’ is a reminder there is indeed ample resources for everyone’s need, but not for our greed. This was a game-changer because of my propensity to fear there was not enough food, money, or love to go around. My upbringing in a small town where everyone seemed to work hard but still struggled to make ends meet, I came to believe in that scarcity was the norm. Yet, after this life changing incident, as the whispered mantra slowly soaked deeper into my soul, I found new footing in the grounds of abundance. My teenage self’s initial response to that was a humbled yet definitive, I will do my best to take only what I need and share what I can with others.
The third ‘enough’ was a stern yet compassionate response to the negative self-talk, which filled my head and poisoned my spirit growing up. At first, this third ‘enough’ did not have much gusto behind it but the other parts of me have since adopted “that’s enough!” as a rebel roar which has allowed me to more creatively and consistently confront this self-doubt. For it is good to recognize the doubter and listen to what it has to say, but to also understand the doubter is not always right. In retraining the doubter as part of the team, I find myself more able to discern where my time and energy are better used.
Committed to reengage in life, and with some unexpectedly discovered resiliency, I navigated my teens and young adulthood with a inquisitiveness and zest for exploration. The zest was mostly outward, as Paulo Coelho in Veronika Decides to Die, reminds us, “The two hardest tests on the spiritual road are the patience to wait for the right moment and the courage not to be disappointed with what we encounter.”
This ‘enough’ mantra followed me as I explored the world around me and the realms within me. The road to discovering my inner self took longer, but I eventually found satisfaction in my soul as well as my sights. Oh, by no means did this mean I had figured everything out and could skip to the finish line. Quite the opposite, actually. As we all know, life tends to bring us ‘the next level’ of challenge just as we figure something out, and feel we might be able to coast for awhile.
Life was at last looking pretty good when tragedy reared its ugly head. Just as I was settling into my junior year of undergraduate life in Japan and coming to embrace my identity as a gay man, my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The instant I heard the news of my mother’s malefic prognosis, my emotional state became immobilized, and I lost any access to the power of my mantra. Nobody including myself would be able to do enough to save her life. There would not be enough time to even contemplate what her bucket list might be let alone manifest any of her wishes. And the only pounding emotions I could hear in my heart were doubt, fear and anguish.
In an upcoming “Breathing Wind’ podcast where I am interviewed by Sarah Davis, I share more about how my mom’s illness and her death forever changed me. It is when death, whom might win the award for being the most unwelcome yet inevitable teacher for us mortal beings, shows up, each of us are faced with a seemingly impossible task of somehow eventually making meaning out of what seems utterly senseless. It took me years to crawl out of the deep dry well of prolonged grief, and realize I had the courage to grieve openly and frequently. For more on how I found a response to my mom’s illness and death, listen to Sarah Davis’ interview.
Even though I couldn’t be fully present with my mom during her last two months of life, I have come to realize we all did the best we could at that time. It was through this resistance to opening my heart to my mom, that I came to see just how much more soul work was required. It was through not being able to drop in and be my mom’s death doula, which has helped me find my purpose as to what I am now able to offer those around me.
I continued to revisit my ‘enough’ mantra throughout my young adulthood, and managed to work through the guilt and anguish of losing a parent at a young age. Yet we have all heard the saying, we don’t grow up until we lose our parents, so in a way this increased the pace of my own self-discovery.
Fast forward to today. I, along with most of the world, have committed to some form or another of ‘sheltering in place’ or ‘physical distancing’ to help curb the spread of a new and fierce virus. Covid-19, by claiming so many lives, continues to hold a mirror close to our faces and hearts, reflecting what shadow work each individual might be required to do, and what we as a society must do. This pandemic provides a rare opportunity to sit with ourselves and ponder how we want to live our lives and what areas of our souls remain unhealed. Sheltering in place is frustrating, but it’s also an opportunity to take the time and space to unravel how to tend to my own life long struggle with self-doubt. While we await what the post-pandemic world might be like, I feel this is an opportune time to deepen my commitment to meditating on this mantra gifted to me years ago, when things also seemed bleak, when I doubted myself, and wondered how I might ever move forward. “I am enough. There is enough. And, that is enough!”
As we each sit in our own cocoons, the imaginal cells which help transform a caterpillar into a butterfly have been activated in every single one of us. The ego may not be completely content with its caterpillar status but the ego so seldom is on board with the icky, messy ‘there’s no going back’ process of metamorphosis especially when we are uncertain what waits for us on the other side. This is not going to be easy, and I suspect some of us are struggling way more than we might be willing to admit. I subscribe to the teachings of my 15-year old self, that we need not go to extremes such as self- harm to access inner resilience. Further, I sense amongst my immediate circle of tribe members, there is a stirring below the surface allowing each of us to see what mantra, gift, or practice might align with our desired path.
I hope each of you finds a way to reassure your fearful heart. I hope you have found some grounding and can hold your composure in the current situation, and that you reach out and share your approach with those around you. I am optimistic you will find a mantra or practice, which can be a beacon of light in the most stormy of nights.
I light a candle at my altar and commit to serving you, my fellow beings. I humbly accept and trust the ‘enough’ mantra, which came from the shadows, will continue to guide me in a lifelong commitment to self-acceptance. For me, for now, it has to be enough. May it be for you as well.