This guest post was penned by my friend Rob Sullivan. I saw that he shared this on his Facebook page and was so moved by his story, I asked him for permission to share here. Thankfully he said yes.
Rob Sullivan, Author/Speaker/Executive Coach.
Visit his website: robryansullivan.com
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What I am most grateful for right now are those unexpected and seemingly random encounters that instantly transport me to another place and perspective.
I had one of those tonight.
I awoke this morning with Temporo-Mandibular Joint syndrome (TMJ) – It happens when your jaw muscles are so sore from being tight and clenching that they hurt) and a very unsettled feeling about life in general. Unfortunately, traveling from Chicago to Albany to Baltimore starting yesterday afternoon didn’t exactly give me a chance to rest and recover. Despite my efforts to start the day with a healthy breakfast of fruit and oatmeal, all I managed to find was a diner that made the uninspiring continental breakfast buffet at the hotel look like gourmet fare. Lacking proper nourishment, the hunger headache and short-tempered feelings that quickly followed came as no surprise.
Despite a few early logistical frustrations I won’t recount here, I gave today’s workshop a strong effort and even managed to keep the group laughing throughout the day. By the time I got to the airport though, I was feeling even worse than before. To complicate matters, I had no fewer than three consecutive reminders of some unresolved issues I’ve had on my mind a lot lately.
At 7:30pm, I landed in Baltimore. Desperate for a healthy meal, I asked the concierge at the hotel for directions to the nearest Whole Foods. Fifteen minutes and one cab ride later, I had a shopping basket filled with Perfect Bars, great local kombucha, pomegranate seeds, kiwi, mango, and protein shakes. I could feel my smile return as the fog in my head slowly dissipated.
After finishing one of the protein shakes, sampling the kombucha, and eating one of the large containers of pomegranate seeds, the mile and a half walk back to the hotel seemed like the perfect option—especially after spending 8 ½ hours in a windowless training facility.
Four blocks from the store, I crossed the river on Pratt Street and looked left to behold the largest Coast Guard vessel I’ve ever seen. It looked more like a Navy ship. At that moment, I heard a voice say, “Hey man, do you have a cigarette I can buy?”
Turning to my right, I saw an unshaven homeless guy with long, grayish white hair and a matching full beard. He stood only about 5’ 5” and would have been taller had he not been slouched over. Picture a 52-year-old Willie Nelson with the posture and borderline frenetic energy of Dobie from Harry Potter and you’ll have the right idea.
When I said, “Sure don’t,” most homeless people would have continued on their way. Not Jay. He slowed down, looked at me, flexed his arms like an ape and said, “Hey, anyone ever tell you that you look like Arnold?”
“Schwarzenegger?,” I asked in disbelief.
“Yeah,” he replied.
Occasionally people will tell me I look like someone famous, but Arnold? This was a first.
As I looked Jay in the eyes, I was surprised to see deep red scabs running down both of his temples. In addition, the white part of his right eye was almost completely blood red. He had either fallen down or been in an altercation of some sort. But what struck me most weren’t the obvious signs of trauma. Instead, it was the kindness and light in Jay’s vivid, faded blue eyes. Even in the dark, Jay’s eyes had an almost supernatural glow.
For the next hour as Jay and I walked, he shared his story. I didn’t hear the beginning until later because Jay started in the middle with the 23 years he spent in prison. He talked openly about his experience with the lawlessness of a notorious motorcycle gang, drug addiction, and severe alcoholism. At one point, Jay managed to survive hospitalization with a blood-alcohol content so high it earned him a featured spot in a medical journal–much to the embarrassment of his now ex-wife, the Director of Nursing at a prominent local hospital.
Throughout Jay’s story, I found myself admiring the utter absence of bitterness, regret, or self-pity. He even spoke lovingly of both his ex-wife and her new husband, a military man he clearly admires and respects.
I also noticed that Jay didn’t talked about his struggle in the past tense. Instead, he spoke honestly and compassionately about his ongoing challenges. Just minutes before he saw me on Pratt Street, Jay walked out of an AA meeting in which he shocked everyone by receiving what he called his “Day 1 badge.” After seven years of sobriety, he slipped recently and had less than a shot glass full of alcohol. Miraculously, it didn’t lead to a binge. Pointing to the sky, Jay said, “Until tonight, He and I were the only ones who knew about it.” Nevertheless, he made no attempt to hide what he had done or excuse himself. He simply said, “Today I started the count over at Day 1.”
Only after we had been talking for 45-minutes did I come to appreciate how far Jay had fallen. He was raised in a 17,000-square foot mansion complete with a 625,000-gallon pool, a gas pump, 31-foot ceilings in the entryway, crystal chandeliers, helicopters, and house guests that included well-known bands at the peak of their prime. But Jay didn’t tell me that to brag. Or so I’d feel sorry for him. It was simply part of the mosaic of his life.
Through it all Jay has found peace while he continues to struggle with his addiction issues. He also finds both strength and compassion for himself in the insight of his ex-wife’s new husband who told him this: “Jay, you are in a battle far more challenging than what the military faces in Afghanistan because the enemy is you—and you know every move you’re about to make.”
Reflecting on the lessons of the evening proved to be a wonderful and timely reminder of an affirmation my friend Herschel Lazaroff created for me recently:
“I love who I really am, not who I thought I would be.”
My challenge is to fully accept and appreciate the truth in this statement. Jay, on the other hand, seems to be already there. Or extremely close.
Jay and I parted ways expressing the deepest gratitude for what we learned from each other, what we have learned from the many people and teachers in our lives, and for the many opportunities we have every day to create a new story of possibility for ourselves.
For this reason, I am grateful, amazed, and energized.
When I awoke this morning, I never could have predicted a stranger on the streets of Baltimore would alter my perspective so powerfully.
As I put my head on the pillow tonight, I am in awe of the gift I just received. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say how humbled and happy I am to know that Jay, this angel of wisdom and compassion, made sure I knew that I had enriched his life as well. That may have been the best and most unexpected gift of all.