Sunday, August 14, 2011

On Being True to Yourself

The last couple of years have been very confusing and frightening for me, but also very enlightening as well. Most of my adult life has been spent performing primarily military, law enforcement, and intelligence work. However, after over 20 years in this career field, I began experiencing terrible attacks of anxiety and panic. I could not drive a vehicle by myself. I feared being around people, especially large groups. There were even some days I was too scared to even leave my home. There were also physical symptoms like dizziness, memory loss, high blood pressure, headaches, and poor balance. Why? I haven't the slightest idea. When these symptoms did not go away, I was eventually forced to say goodbye to everything I spent almost a lifetime developing. Doctors were useless, and psychiatrists were even worse. Eventually my condition became labeled as Anxiety, Panic, and Somatoform Disorders. The symptoms have lessened somewhat but they are still present. You might say I have just gotten better with recognizing them and learning to adjust. What it comes down to is that in my mid-40s, I am forced to re-create myself, to build a new career and life. That covers the confusing and frightening part, but how is all that enlightening? Let me explain.

When I was growing up, I was a totally different sort of person than I am now. The Steven Sanders of my youth was a musician, an artist, and a writer. I was compassionate to others. I began playing in the band and orchestra in the 3rd grade. I played the tuba, trombone, baritone horn and, later on, learned to play the guitar, bass guitar, and even a little piano. I sang in the chorus at school and the choir at church. Every summer, I went to a performing arts camp on Long Island in N.Y.. While other boys were getting in trouble for fighting at school, I would get notes sent home saying I was off in my own little world, humming and whistling music to myself in class. Besides music, I excelled in English. I read about any book I could get my hands on and wrote poetry and short stories. I wasn't a total nerd. I played soccer, little league baseball, and enjoyed playing football with my friends. But my passion was always for the arts. It came natural to me and it made me feel alive! So naturally, after graduating high school I joined the Army. Whaaat?!

Well, you see, my family never had alot of money. I never knew much about things like student loans, scholarships, or grants. So while I dreamed about becoming a musician, I had no idea how to make it a reality. The military seemed foreign to me, but it at least seemed a better option than working on the loading dock at the mall where I had been slaving away since graduation. My enlistment into the military would set the course for roughly the next 25 years of my life. I spent a number of years in the Army, worked private security of all sorts, and spent time working for government law enforcement and intelligence agencies. I learned how to be an authority figure. Much of my training was focused on observing people, profiling people, subduing people, and yes, killing people. I learned to be proficient with firearms and weapons of all sorts. My learning taught me the tactics and mindsets of the "bad guys". I even came to learn that some the "bad guys" were playing on our team. I have since come to realize that my own mindset had drastically changed as well. I became distrustful of almost everybody and everything. Inside I became hard and cold. When you live in a world where very little is as it seems, there is really very little to trust in.

While I was quite good at this kind of work,  I can't honestly say it came naturally to me. Were there enjoyable times? Certainly! There are also certain skill sets that serve me well in serving others. Life is what you make it, but most good memories over my past career had more to do with the people I worked with or with certain experiences, rather than the work itself. In the rare moments when I was honest with myself, I mostly felt like an impostor, like I was playing a role. And then...after all those years of training and service, I just sort of melted down. Now psychiatrists will theorize it was the result of too many years of bottled up trauma...too much exposure to death, danger, confrontation, and stress. Perhaps that played a part. But I think there is more to it than that, and it has to do with being true to yourself.

I have given this great thought over the past few years. I have come to believe that God graces every person with certain gifts when they are born. Certainly we can learn skills and develop tendencies from parents, friends, and teachers. However, there are certain talents people have that come naturally to them, that bring out a passion in them, and cannot be explained by genetics or education alone. God's gifting can be witnessed in a pair of couch potato parents having a child who is an exceptional athlete, or a brilliant musician being born of parents who are, shall we say, rythym-impaired. How many youth are forced into careers by their parents for the stated objective of achieving a high standard of living, when the child has a passion and a gifting for something totally different? Every person has a gift or gifts that is unique to them. Wise parents will recognize these gifts in their children and  encourage them to develop them to their full potential. Smart youth will recognize their strengths and passions and run with them. To do anything less, to deny your giftings, is to be untrue to yourself. Worse yet, it is a denial of who God intended you to be and a waste of a gift from your creator.

So to the youth who may read this blog I would say this: Develop your strengths and follow that which brings you joy. Allow no one else to determine who you will be. And don't listen to people who tell you that you can't achieve something. They are usually people who never followed their God-gifts and just want you to be as miserable as they are. Believe in yourself...because God certainly does.

As for myself, I think there will be much more writing in my future. Who knows...I may be persuaded to pick up a musical instrument again. These things bring me joy. But my greatest joy is found in compassion and service. I want to spend what time I have left sharing from the wealth of my mistakes, to have compassion on those who struggle, and to help them find the joy that God has intended for their lives.