This is a section from the first chapter of a book I am aiming to write.
----Get Out of the Truck Already!----
“Why We Stay Broken-Down”
When we believe that reality is confined to only what we see, we become prisoners to our perceptions.
In the middle of every difficulty, arises opportunity.
When I left John 3:16 (a homeless shelter in downtown Tulsa), the early morning birds were announcing their awakening as the exhaust-like smells of downtown were filling my nostrils. All my belongings fit into the small, black strap-over bag my mother had filled right before she dropped me off and left me for dead. Everything I would have for the next year was in this bag: a change of clothes, some loose change, a necklace and a book –“The Purpose Driven Life.” Slowly walking to the Tulsa Day Center for the homeless, I felt like a death row inmate about to expire. John 3:16 kicked everyone out at 6 a.m., and I wasn’t ready to aimlessly walk the streets of downtown Tulsa again, not yet. Numb, my mind was emptied of thoughts, I watched as people went to their jobs, appearing unaware of the level of pain and nothingness that some humans—I—had to endure. Sitting there, staring straight ahead listlessly, I waited in line to get into the Day Center.
Then, on the sidewalk next to several of my fellow destitute peers, with my head resting on my black bag, it hit me: I was never going to get out of this pit! It’s over, being homeless, penniless, foodless, friendless, without a car, self-confidence or self-esteem had finally become too much for my wayward soul. It was all I could take; I had had enough of my family thinking that I was just irresponsible and that I couldn’t keep a job because I was too lazy. I mean, nobody could ever understand why I quit school because I couldn’t give a speech. They never realized that the real reason I couldn’t hold down a job was because I was terrified of the ridicule of others or that I drank to ease my anxieties, not just because I loved to party. This is it; I’m done...game over!
I would catch a bus to my mother’s house and find a way to end it all. After all, that’s the only place I could think of where I wanted to die … near my family.
Have you ever broken-down in the middle of absolutely nowhere—or anywhere for that matter? If so, then you know breaking down can be no fun. To begin with, you have to deal with the emotional breakdown that inevitably goes along with it. And that can be…well… a drag: “Why did this happen on the way to work?” “Why not on the way home?” or “Oh no! I left the jumper cables at home.”
A breakdown in life, much like one on the side of the road, can quickly go north or south depending on how prepared or unprepared we are for it. If you don’t have the right tools or, worse yet, you don’t know where you are, or, you have little or no help, then much like a breakdown on the side of the road, (as it’s possible you know) a breakdown in life can be devastating.
When I broke down while on the road to my self-actualized (ideal) life, I didn’t possess the right tools, or I didn’t have the knowledge of how to use the ones I did have. So I just stayed broken-down, for years.
Wrapped up in The “Why Me” Syndrome of life, I needlessly stayed on the side of the road for far too long – endlessly trying to figure out how to get myself out of a rut of hopelessness and despair. It was like the tools I had (ones I may have known how to use) were setting in the trunk and I didn’t have the key to open it. And like you might be able to relate to, I felt stuck in survival mode; I just kept running in circles around the same dead-ends, just trying to make sense of life, but really never getting anywhere.
What’s That Smell?
Why do we stay with people who cause us harm? Why do we stay in dead-end jobs? Why do we stay broken-down despite apparent ways out? I mean, let’s get real, who in their right mind would continue going down a road that they knew was a dead-end, and—at that—was even posted dead-end? When I’m driving and come across a big yellow sign that says dead-end, I turn right back around. I don’t know about you, but I don’t keep going –unless, of course, I’m going fishing, then the rules change–in that case, anywhere is game.
Evidently there is an alluring quality to constantly going down the same mental or spiritual dead-ends time and time again—after all, we all do it. What keeps us headed in the wrong direction when we have just passed a huge yellow sign telling us—in big, bold black letters—to turn around (besides fishing of course)? Likewise, what keeps us headed in the wrong direction in our lives when we are clearly headed for destruction? The devil…could be, but not likely; other people…again, possible (although a bit more likely), not probable; our conscious minds…again, not likely.
How about this, now stay with me here. While there may be several reasons for our constant circling around the same mountains, one reason we stay broken-down, and the one I want to drop anchor on for a bit, has to do with what are called secondary gains, that’s right—secondary gains. Secondary who you say? Is that that psychobabble junk, Jeff? To that, I would have to say...maybe. But, nonetheless, I strongly believe that one reason we tend to stay broken-down (or headed in the wrong direction) even when there seems to be a clear path to healing is because we are getting an—often times—unintended, but reinforcing payoff. A payoff that is, at the time, apparently worth more to us than our long-term health and fulfillment in life
To illustrate this point, and going along with the whole breakdown theme, take the not-so-hunky teen who is going on his first date with his high school’s potential prom queen—a real beauty! They plan to go to dinner and a movie, when suddenly, after dinner, the truck dies (in the eighties by the way—no cell phones). Johnny Johnerson, exuberant about his first date with this high school hottie, Suzy Suzerson, postpones getting out of the truck to take a look. You see…he is so caught up in her spellbinding looks and her intoxicating perfume (Oh that smell!), that he neglects to even get out of the truck to see what is the matter. (Did you spot it? The enthralling smell, her enchanting looks and the mesmerizing feelings associated with them are the secondary gains).
Knowing that Suzy has to be home by eleven and, at the same time, slightly doubting his ability to fix the problem, he stalls getting out of the truck. So the two stay in this broken-down, idle state for an hour and a half before Johnny finally gets out to do some serious investigating.
After he finally breaks out of his teenage, euphoria-filled coma, he gets out of the truck, pops the hood, and realizes that all that is wrong is that one of the battery cables has nudged itself loose. Something little, not-so-hunky, Johnny can fix after all.
Now your reason for staying broken-down may not be as invigorating or even as obvious as staying awhile longer in the truck with the captivating Suzy Suzerson. But, nevertheless, it’s there; needlessly holding you back—keeping you from living a life uninhibited by emotional, psychological, spiritual and all other forms of baggage.
I’m not a gambler, but—for you—I will make a wager. I dare you to get out of the truck and take a closer look at what could be the problem; I would bet that, like Johnny, what you find just might not be as bad as you think.
Later we will to take a closer look at the secondary gains in your life; you never know—what you discover just might surprise you—or better yet, it could set you free. It’s likely that you just may discover that these secondary gains are not worth you staying in the truck with the spellbinding Suzy Suzerson after all.
Whatever the payoff may be for you, I want you to grab hold of something here. Secondary gains serve a vital role in keeping your life stagnant—fueling the “Why Me” Syndrome in your life. They become a kind of silent motivator that “props-up” your need to stay unhealthy.
The term “prop up,” makes me think of a microwave I installed a couple of days ago for a project at my church called Clean Slate (a program that—at no charge—renovates schools, churches and houses for people in need; great outreach!). Well, I cut the hole for the back vent (a daunting task for someone who was only considered a master carpenter), my wife signed me up on the wrong volunteer form; she made me a lead carpenter—by accident. When, Jason (a fellow lead volunteer who I also think signed up on the wrong form) and I, finally got the microwave on the wall, we realized that without a support (or the proper support) this huge cooking machine would plummet to its death -with hast.
So we built a makeshift support out of a 2x4. We wedged it under the front of the massive cooking machine to “prop” it up until we could get further supports (the proper ones) to hold it in place.
Ok, what’s the connection here, Jeff?
What I want you to see here is that secondary gains are like that 2x4; they should not be permanent. Leaving that 2X4 support there would have obviously been dysfunctional. For starters, the enormous oven would not have gone back in its place. And if someone tripped over it and knocked it out of the way, the gargantuan microwave would be heating up no more spinach or ham and cheddar hot pockets.
You see…in life, if we leave these secondary benefits in place (helping us stay broken-down) we will never experience true freedom. Until we find real supports, ones that will hold us up for good, life will be a never-ending search for comfort and rest in all the wrong places.
Face the Gorilla
The school I work at is doing something with the yearbook; not sure what it is (given my reserved nature, I don’t usually have a front row seat to these things). All I know is that it has something to do with a gorilla. Every time they try and sell yearbooks at lunch, one of the yearbook members puts on a gorilla outfit and walks around with another student harassing the other bewildered students—and me. Maybe this increases sales; I really don’t have a clue—really. I always do lunch duty, but, as I said before, I am usually pretty unaware of things of this nature. But lately I keep seeing this gorilla and signs in the hallway that say things like: “The Gorilla is coming for you; watch out for the Gorilla, or watch your back; the Gorilla might be behind you.”
These signs posted around the school, have served as a vivid—not so pleasant—reminder of what happens to me (or any of us) when we try to escape the gorillas of our past. A wise man once said, you might as well “open the cage and face the five hundred pound gorilla; because—eventually—he’s going to come after you anyway.” In the same respect, if you hide from the real issues in your life, the very problems you’re trying to avoid will only get worse, and subsequently (as you will learn in chapter two) grow stronger and smarter in their hunt for you anyway.
At this point, I think it is safe to say that, essentially, avoiding trouble only serves to strengthen trouble. It’s like grass; you avoid cutting it…well, you get the point. In fact, as I am writing this manuscript, my lawn decided to have some fun with me. The in-laws and I went on a vacation to Michigan (a book in and of itself—trust me!) We were gone for a week and when we got back, I realized the grass did not have the same plans as I did: sitting on the beach, drinking lattes and enjoying the cool lake breeze. It took no brakes. It just grew…grew…and grew some more. And because I had chosen to dodge facing the gorilla before I left, I now had a whole mess of gorillas chasing me when I arrived home. For starters, because of the stress of cutting the thicker, taller grass, the mower belt busted. And not sure if you’ve ever had this problem, but after a couple of weeks of no love, weed-eating the grass around the house and along the fence line is like taking down a Sumo wrestler–with a stick. As you can imagine, this all made the job take longer than it would have had I just taken the time and effort to cut it before I left for the trip.
In the same respect, while leaving the secondary gains in your life in place provides some temporary comfort, over the long haul, it can create unnecessary, unwanted consequences. First, like a child who is never forced to leave home, the person who hangs onto these secondary benefits will further disable themselves from dealing with the real world, and at the same time, needlessly extend their recovery time. The longer they (and you or I) choose to cuddle with these false, seemingly less painful realities, the more slippery and steeper the walls of change become. What results is like the compounding interest on bad debt. And the stresses created by this avoidance, (as you might know) can reach unsettling proportions.
Run! Run! Run as you may—but you cannot escape reality. I like the way Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend put this concept into words in their outstanding Boundaries series, they say, “in an imperfect world, imperfection will always seek you out, and if you tolerate it, you will certainly find all of it that you can handle.”