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As Parents: We Do the Walk of Life

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Walking along a beautiful promenade beside a lake surrounded by mountains covered in the glorious colors of a New England fall, I was struck by the variety and unique expression of life in all the people walking by.

Parents Doing the Best We Can

It struck me, that we are all doing the best we can. Each of these people, fragile or strong, similar to me or wildly different from me, are all managing their lives as best as they can. From the perspective of compassion for these swimming souls, I became acutely aware, only for a moment, of how fortunate and fragile I have been in my life. As we understand the frailty of our fellow travelers, we can begin to soften our approach towards “everyone else.” And even in this most amazing moment, I can feel the loss and struggles that have delivered me to this very moment.

I am here as a result of all my actions in life thus far. In divorce, I found myself as separate from my children and then-wife. I lost everything and had to find a reason and a way to pick it all back up again. And I keep trying. Even holding the hand of an amazing woman in an amazing moment in an amazing environment I could feel the nostalgia for the lost times. I was supremely happy. I was also aware of the struggles of all those passing by. Again, something inside me shouted: we are all doing the best we can.

Compassion for Our Own Struggle

Things are not exactly as I would like in my life. I have struggles ahead, of course, and struggles in the current moment. And, I am aware that I am doing the best that I can. It seems to me, we are all, always, doing the best that we can. Even people struggling with addiction or unemployment or depression or loneliness, who appear to be flailing, who appear to be listless or acting in ways that appear (to me) to be against their own best interest… These people, all of these people, including myself, are wrestling with demons of their own. It is easier for me to see the struggles and efforts in the stream of people walking by than it is for me to recognize and appreciate my own tender and fluttering heart.

As I am able to imagine the hard lives of those passing by, I am also able to hold a bit of compassion for the past that I have slogged through and the joyful spirit that I have regained as I approach my 57th year. “What a long strange trip it’s been.”

Memories of the Fall in New England

Two of my most amazing and devastating years occurred while I was a prep school student in New Hampshire and then Maine. As I wandered through the woods, far from my Texas home, I was humbled by the beauty of my surroundings as well as the loneliness I felt at being apart from my family. My family that was crushing itself back in Texas. Alcoholism. Dysfunction. Codependence. Even as I was experiencing a new high in my life I was acutely aware of the father who was poisoning himself relentlessly, working out some dark demons of his own.

I’ll spare you all the details of the TWO major crashes I experienced, but know that both years ended in aborted happiness and ultimately a return to Austin to face the ultimate challenge of my young life: my father.

And as I walked through the woods in a recent vacation, I could still feel the hope of that young boy. (14 – 16 years old) The hope is still inside me. Hope that helped me survive my father’s disastrous decline and death during my freshman year in college. Hope that kept surfacing during my dark days, whispering prayers of future joy and happiness.  Hope that has kept me alive. Is this hope God? Faith? A legacy of my mom’s resilience during her traumatic divorce?

Even as I write over the older tapes of New England fall walks, I am able to hold both parts of myself. I am here now, happy, in love, and hopeful as I approach the holiday season. I am also still that young boy who is simply trying to figure life out, doing the best he can, as he walks through the beautiful, sparkling woods in a mixed state of joy and despair.

Holding the Past While Embracing the Present

Yes, we hear a lot about “staying present” in our lives. This is a very good practice. AND, it’s also important to let our lives be guided and informed by our past experiences as well. Finding myself in a nostalgic revery about my teenage years in New England, even as I was experiencing a blissful present moment with my partner… It’s important to honor our past. I was not sad. But I was also partially “walking” in the woods of my failed prep school adventure.

I like to refer to these moments as “writing over old tapes.” My teenage sadness was still in my soul and heart, AND it was being nuzzled back into memory by the exquisite beauty of the moment I was experiencing in that present. I was allowing the joy of the moment to burn over the ache of that sad memory. The two moments, past and present, existed together and wrapped around my heart in a new configuration.

In our joy, we can re-experience some of our sorrows. By writing over those old tapes we can come to a new understanding and compassion for ourselves.

A Reflection in Passing Souls

Again, walking beside a beautiful lake I was able to let the moments of my past struggles merge with the present moment elation. I was in the moment. I was also feeling uncovered laments. Each of us is carrying hope and aspirations. As we consider others in our lives, we need to be conscious of how little we know of their struggles, internal or external. And in this compassionate and empathetic awareness of others, we can open up to the idea of having that compassion and empathy towards ourselves.

My young scholar self in New England entered his foreign adventure with hope and energy. Life’s tumbles took some of the wind out his sails and ultimately crashed his ship. That same hope and energy is present in my life, at the moment. I have an abundance of joy to share. Walking through the crowd of people on a beautiful day I am able to hold each person in my hopeful prayer.

A Mindfulness Meditation from
Susan Salzberg:

May you be safe
May you be healthy
May you be happy
And live with ease.

May we all.


John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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*photo of my journal

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