Chris Cornell – Rest in Peace

Chris Cornell, a prolific singer-songwriter died Thursday.

Chris’ death, not unlike that of any other individual at his age was sad news. Unfortunately, the Internet is alive and well with best guesses about his death. He died, one report said he had hanged himself, another that the death might have been either an accidental hanging or an accidental overdose.

I knew of Chris as most others did, through his songwriting. I recall hearing one of the first songs I heard from Chris was the song “Hunger Strike” when he was with Temple of the Dog. I listened to the song lyrics like I did when I was a teenager, replaying the track again and again and again.

I had heard Chris had been troubled by many demons, many of which could be heard through his lyrics. I heard Chris tried to manage those demons with heroin and other drugs and that just before his death an assistant was asked to provide him with two Ativan tablets. This, his family believes was the true cause of Chris’ death.

As a social worker for over 30-years and having spent much of that time as an addiction counselor I was overwhelmed by the sadness of his and the decisions of others to use some type of drug to help manage our feelings. Unfortunately, the one truth which I know is that when we don’t feel we don’t learn to understand our feelings and as a result, we can’t learn to manage those feelings. None of us, I’m fairly certain that’s a correct assumption, don’t like to feel feelings like sad and hurt, fear, loneliness, guilt and shame. These are pretty powerful feelings who many of us didn’t have good mentors to help us navigate. We gravitate like most others to feeling “good.” We learn to do whatever we need to do to “feel good, not feel bad and to not feel pain” both physical and emotional. Unfortunately, the modes of coping which we choose tend to lean toward the unhealthy.

I won’t speculate why Chris died. I will only say that when I see people Chris’ age who have died, I’m just two and one-half years older I feel sad.

To have such a life cut short. I can’t say Chris had an “amazing life” because I don’t know that he did. He had money. He had fame. He had the ongoing adoration of millions of fans and I am sure his family; but what Chris struggled with no one knows. None of us will ever know the struggles of another. Chris’ secrets will remain with Chris.

Rest in peace, my friend…

Death

It is with hands grasped in gratitude and thoughtfulness for Anthony, Harold, my family, my life and those whose paths my life has crossed which I write.
Last Sunday evening I lay in bed reading from my Kindle. The light of the screen the only light illuminating the room. I put down my Kindle and glanced at my Facebook feed. To my surprise, I was informed of the death of Harold Nichols. Harold was 53 and was murdered in Jamaica. Harold and his wife had lived in Jamaica for approximately 15 years and were missionaries for a local church. Harold and his wife selflessly provided to others what those individuals were unable to provide for themselves.
Tuesday, while sitting at my desk, I heard a ping. I was unable to identify the source until I closed several windows on my computer screen and found a message from a previous coworker. The message informed me of another death. this one a 56 y.o. male with whom I had worked.
Both individuals were quiet and humble and caused those of us who are introspective to examine our place in the world as well as what we offer to the world. This news comes to me just 6.5 days into the start of a new job. I left my last job as a result of the stress which I have felt for the past year and which I was concerned would result in more significant complications
As I was writing this post, a message popped up on my computer indicating the arrival of a new email. I opened the email and found this message forwarded to me from a friend.
Keanu is 50. He posted this photo and this message: “You see these people behind me? They are rushing to work and not paying attention to anything. Sometimes we get so caught up in our daily lives that we forget to take the time out. Say Hi to someone you see and maybe give a hug to someone who looks like they’re hurting. Help out someone. You have to live every day like it’s your last. The person who was holding you back from your happiness was you. Every day is precious so let’s treat it like that. Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed, so live today!”
Keanu
I am sitting outside on this Mother’s Day, enjoying the warmth of the sun on my face the taste of a fine cigar mingling with the smooth taste of a glass of scotch not taking anything for granted. As I grow older I realize with more certainty that another day is not promised to any of us. I have also learned to accept this fact and live my life accordingly. I rise each morning and go for a run. My pace is slower but that matters none to me. What is important is that I have the ability to still run.
Run I will. I will also continue to live each day to the best of my ability not complaining when things do not go my way but accepting what is and changing what I can.
Namaste.

Why I’m not afraid of dying

I felt compelled to share this beautiful story written David Menasche at CNN. I was moved by this story because it was a teacher who shared her passion with me that helped me to be where I am today and also helped me to share my passion for life and for change with my patients.

For 16 glorious years, I taught 11th-graders at a magnet high school in Miami. For me, teaching wasn’t about making a living. It was my life.

Nothing made me happier or more content than standing in front of a classroom and sharing the works of writers such as Shakespeare, Chaucer, Jack Kerouac, Tupac Shakur and Gwendolyn Brooks and watching my students “catch” my passion for language and literature.

I loved watching these 15- and 16-year-olds grapple with their first major life decisions — future careers, relationships, where to live, which colleges to attend, what to study– at the same moment they’re learning to drive and getting their first jobs and experimenting with identity and independence.

There wasn’t a day when I didn’t feel privileged to be part of their metamorphoses and grateful for the chance to affect their lives.

My classroom was my sanctuary, so on the day before Thanksgiving in 2006 when I was diagnosed with an incurable form of brain cancer at 34 and told I had less than a year to live, I did what I always did. I went to school. I needed my students to know that I trusted them enough to share life’s most sacrosanct passage. Death.

They, in turn, helped me to live in the moment and spend whatever time I had left living well. For six years, the only time I wasn’t in class was when I was undergoing brain surgery. I never avoided the topic of my cancer, glioblastoma multiforme, with my students, but it was not something I dwelled on, nor did they.

I covered my bald, lacerated head with a woolen hat and scheduled chemotherapy around my classes, and I got so good at being sick that I could run to the bathroom, heave into the toilet, flush, brush my teeth and fly back to class in under three minutes. They pretended not to notice. During that time, I even won “Teacher of the Year” for my region. I was grateful for every breath and felt as if I could live that way forever.

Then, two summers ago, the tumor in my head decided to act up. I was playing pool with a friend when I was struck with a catastrophic seizure that left me crippled and mostly blind. After two months of physical therapy and a grim prognosis for improvement, I was forced to face that I could no longer be the teacher I once was and I tendered my resignation.

The cancer had finally succeeded in taking me out of the classroom, but I wasn’t ready to let it take me out of the game. I wasn’t afraid to die. I was afraid of living without a purpose.

To paraphrase Nietzsche, a person who has a why to live can always find a how. My “why” had always been my students. I just needed to find a new “how.” Since I no longer had a classroom for them to come to me, I decided that I would go to them.

My students had taught me the greatest lesson of all…what matters is not so much about what we learn in class, but what we feel in our hearts.
David Menasche

In September of 2012, I posted my plan on Facebook. I said I wanted to spend whatever time I had left visiting with former students. My purpose was to have a chance to see firsthand how my kids were faring and to witness how, if at all, I had helped shape their young lives. It was an opportunity that few people ever get, but many, and particularly teachers, would covet.

Within hours of posting, I had invitations from students in more than 50 cities across the country. In early November, I set off on my journey, traveling across America by bus, by train, just me and my red-tipped cane.

Over the next three months, I traveled more than 8,000 miles from Miami to New York, to America’s heartland and San Francisco’s Golden Gate, visiting hundreds of my former students along the way. I had hoped I would discover that I’d instilled in at least some of them a lasting love of books and literature, and a deep curiosity about the world. But what my trip taught me was something even more gratifying.

What I learned from my travels was that my students had grown up to be kind and caring people.

People who picked me up when I fell over curbs, read to me from books I could no longer see, and cut my food when I could not grasp a knife. They shared with me their deepest secrets, introduced me to their families and friends, sang to me my favorite songs and recited my favorite poetry.

As I had hoped, they recalled favorite lessons and books from class, but, to my great surprise, it was our personal time together that seemed to have meant the most to them. Those brief, intimate interludes between lessons when we shared heartaches and vulnerabilities and victories were the times my students remembered.

And it was through them I realized that those very human moments, when we connected on a deep and personal level, were what made my life feel so rich, then and now. My students had taught me the greatest lesson of all. They taught me that what matters is not so much about what we learn in class, but what we feel in our hearts.

I am a pragmatic man. I know there is no reason I should still be alive. The cancer never lets me forget that it and not I will ultimately win this battle of wills. I know the disease will have its way with me, and sooner, rather than later.

My limbs are withering and my memory is fading. Yet as my world dims from the tumor growing in my head, I see ever more clearly the gifts the promise of an early death has brought.

My travels are done, but my students are never more than a phone call or an e-mail or a Facebook message away. And from the lessons I learned on the road, I, to borrow from the great Lou Gehrig, will die feeling like the luckiest man on Earth.

The next twenty-five years

This summer, August 28th to be exact, I turn fifty. Fifty years old!

It feels strange to say in the same way it felt strange to say “I’m turning thirty” or “I’m turning forty.” I’m still trying to figure out where fifty years has gone. I feel as though the time has raced by with little acknowledgement.

I have been told “You’re only as old as you feel.” I don’t feel old but not feeling old does nothing to stop the days from passing. Inevitably I am turning older.

My dad turns seventy-five this year. As the turn of the year arrived, I began to think about his age and my age. In twenty-five years I’ll be the age he is. I began to think about how fast fifty years has expired and bean to think about how the next twenty-five will expire. I began to think about where I am in my life and where I want to go. I began to take stock in my life. I began to clean out the clutter and have begun to move toward a more minimalist, more meaningful life. I have removed relationships which are not beneficial to my emotional health. i have removed possessions which i thought would bring happiness but instead have added stress.

I don’t want to waste the rest of my life, however long that may be.

There are a number of things I would do over but since this is not possible, I don’t dwell in that arena. Instead I focus my thoughts, my energy, my life on making the next twenty-five years more meaningful than the first fifty.

I am lucky, although I am not sure how much of a role luck has played in my life. I have put in a great deal of effort to be a better person; a better husband, father, friend, social worker, etc. For the most part I am happy with my life and with what i have achieved. When I honestly think about the future, I think about building on the successes I have experienced.

Namaste

A good life lived

I have thought much recently about death, my own death. I’ll stop here for just one second and say “I am not suicidal and I have not been diagnosed with a serious illness and given a predetermined amount of time to live.” That said, let’s move along.

The ying and yang of this discussion is an easy to understand. In Chinese philosophy, ying/yang means “co-arising” and “interdependent.” You cannot not know one without the other. Darkness would be impossible to know without light. Pain would be impossible to know without joy. It is difficult, impossible even to think about life without also thinking about death.

As a social worker/mental health therapist I see people everyday who struggle with anxiety, depression and panic attacks. We con ourselves into believing we are actually living our lives when in reality we are living the lives dictated to us by others. We have all been handed a script by our parents which contains the words “should, would and could.” Another fantastic word to add to this list is “can’t.” We embrace these words, develop an unhealthy relationship with them, make love to them and allow them to dictate every action, every attitude. We are afraid not to. We use the safety net they provide for us and go on living a life that is safe but often unfulfilled. A heard a story not long ago about the actor/comedian Damon Wayans. In that interview he told his father he did not wish to attend college, he wanted to become and actor. His father urged him to “get a degree so you have something to fall back on.” Damon responded, “I don’t want anything to fall back on. If I am aware of the safety net I won’t be successful because I won’t take the chances I will need to take to challenge myself and succeed.” 

We are drawn to a big paycheck or a fancy title. We sit in an office enveloped in fear; fear that I might lose my position. If I lose my position I lose my salary. If I lose my salary, I lose all of the material possessions I have accumulated over the years to let others know and to remind myself of my superficial success. Is this success? Have we achieved success? If this is the manner in which we define success, then the answer is a resounding “yes.”

But is this empire we have built, this castle in which we live…do these things bring true happiness? I saw a patient recently who has these things, these possessions. He sat in my office, both legs vibrating violently, head buried in his hands and tears streaming down his face. He cried. Through the tears told me how unhappy he was. He told me the one thing he “loved” about his job was his ability to “help others.” He hated, even despised his job. He found it an energy drain. We discussed options and he looked at me and through his tears and said, “You don’t understand. If I quit my job, my wife won’t love me and my kids won’t like me because I won’t be able to afford the things I can now afford.” He claimed he wanted to be less depressed and less anxious but was not willing to face those things which were causing the depression and anxiety.

Is this the life you want? A life filled with grief and sadness; of energy robbing people, things and activities. Do you want to live into your eighties or nineties, look back at your life with regret and count the truly happy moments on one hand? This is surely one way to meander through this great puzzle we call life. It is not the way I choose to navigate through my life.

I have achieved a great deal of success in my life. If we define success by the traditional means, then I have not achieved success, then I am among the poorest of individuals. For many years, I have used Emerson’s quote of success as my barometer: 

To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people
and the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics
and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child,
a garden patch or a redeemed social condition;
To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.

Get up, go outside. Put one foot in front of the other and live, truly live your life. 

Namaste