Finding the Heart by Way of the Mind

My son recently assisted me with the annual ritual of providing a beautiful poinsettia plant for the desk of every employee that works for our family business. It gives the offices a nice holiday spirit, and when we break for Christmas, they take the plants home to enjoy with their families. Even though my husband and I work closely with both our grown sons, it is surprising how little of that time is spent actually talking about things other than work and routine family matters. But on this day, we drove the big box truck to the nursery for the pick-up and had time to visit outside of the usual habit of quick phone calls or texts for a specific purpose.

He is our first born. Now 35 years old and chef/general manager to our BBQ restaurant and large-scale catering operation, he has arrived at this moment the hard way. He would be the first one to tell you that he had a happy childhood, well-loved by his parents and an adoring younger brother. But he had his own demons. Despite a concerted effort over the years, the source of his inner darkness is not fully known, but solid theories abound. Perhaps it was the search for those answers that built the foundation of our close relationship.

His high IQ, identified at an early age, was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing for obvious reasons, but a curse as it was nearly impossible to provide enough stimulation for him to use his gift in a positive, productive way. Not the kind of intelligence that made him a high-achieving student; instead, his analytical skills drove him to question everything and particularly social injustice. He crusaded for friends that he considered less fortunate than himself and acted as leader of the oppressed minority. That helped him justify operating a local hood ornament theft ring and even a brilliantly-orchestrated pencil heist in first grade. One of his teachers described him as the most socially-gifted child she had ever taught, a dubious distinction. He rejected the prestigious private Jesuit college preparatory school he attended in his freshman year because the students had the financial and intellectual means to successfully hide their rampant drug use while still accepting and promoting a national award for peer drug counseling. The hypocrisy nearly drove him mad.

A therapist told us he suffered from some type of "global depression" due to his advanced ability to understand and empathize with others. He recommended drug therapy, but when my son came to my bedside in the middle of the night complaining that the drug made him feel bad, we threw away the pills. He began self-medicating with alcohol, luckily showing no interest in street or prescription drugs. He supported himself along the way, rejecting jobs where he felt he was treated unfairly and excelling at jobs that interested him as long as he was not subject to what he perceived to be incompetent authority. The world of food satisfied his creative instinct and required him to use his intellectual talents as well. Soon he was running a large-scale catering operation for a successful BBQ company and making a good living.

One morning he called and announced that he had just met the woman he would marry. Less than 1.5 years later, he did just that. Intuitively, she seemed to understand him and his perpetual pain and healed him with a healthy dose of pure love and reasonable expectation. She let him know that she understood his drinking but wasn't going to enable it. He entered an out-patient rehab that she found online, and he successfully completed the program with her by his side. On the night I was invited to attend as a family member who had been impacted by his drinking, I realized the gift this woman had given me when he acknowledged that he was an alcoholic and was remorseful for the pain it had caused. He recently celebrated one year sober.

His wife also taught him how lucky he was to have such a loving family and urged him to embrace his place in it. In so many ways, she returned my son to me, the one who had gotten lost along the way and felt so sad and lonely for so long. And she did it by finding a way for him to accept love -- hers and ours. And he began to thrive. But I knew that these were major changes for him and worried about how he would give up his life long issues and settle into this quieter, more peaceful existence. I knew it must be creating a lot of conflict along the way.

And so on the day of our Christmas errand he explained it to me. He said that his old self no longer existed, that he had decided to give up being that guy and just "be" instead. This requires no worrying about his painful past and involves no fussing about his future. Instead he is just a man who loves his wife, works hard at the family business, and strives to be a good son and person each day, moment by moment. He described learning how to be present at any given time and said that on occasion he has a small epiphany just doing the laundry.

As far as I know, he has never read Peace is Every Step by Thick Nhat Hanh, does not meditate on a regular basis, and is oblivious to the world movement of living in the moment. No, instead he just figured it out for himself and came to the simple, joyful conclusions that many strive for a lifetime to achieve. And so in that moment, he became my inspiration. A good teacher can appear in the most unlikely places. This one surprised me more than any other, the child that love created who was revived by a powerful love of his own. It really can be as simple as that, if only we are smart enough to realize it.

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