BY MARYBETH GRONEK
I've always been mesmerized by documentaries of people who experienced a taste of the afterlife. You know the story: the person died very briefly, saw bright lights, experienced warm & loving sensations, and then was pulled back to earth to proudly tell their tale.
To be honest, I’m not sure if I believe all of those stories, but to say I’m captivated by them would be a massive piece of understatement. There’s something inspiring and transcendent about coming back from a point of no return and then instructing others as an imperative.
I had a similar point of no return in my own life. I don’t claim to have seen heaven, but I sure have seen hell. And it was a hell of my own making.
I was 26 — broke, lonely, and just not where I wanted to be. I had “friends” who didn’t actually care about me, a job that didn’t value me, a threadbare bank account, and no prospects in my love life. I didn’t know how to stick up for myself. I didn’t know how to communicate my value in a productive manner. I didn’t know how to create wealth. I didn’t know how to date. In essence, I was glum about where I was in life and felt stuck in that I didn’t know how to move forward.
It was at this low point that I realized it was my own thinking that was holding me back. Actually, that’s too generous of a statement. It was my own thinking that was ruining my life. And from that point forward I had a long journey of conquering myself to slowly extirpate that toxic and self-destructive way of thinking.
Along the journey, I had an epiphany. I realized there were four things that were ruining my life. This unholy tetrad wreaks havoc wherever it is found. I share it in hopes that you too can spot it, remove it, and step into the life of abundance you were called to live.
That eerie spectre that looms large, stealing your joy and contentment under a cloud of ‘what if?’ Fear of not having enough money. Fear of speaking your mind. Fear of taking a new job and it not working out. Fear of committing to one partner. Fear of sticking your neck out and failing. Fear pertains to your future. Its focus is forward, it’s hues are extreme, it’s light is always negative, and its landscape is context-less. Fear will ruin your life because it immobilizes you — keeping you from taking necessary action to advance in life.
#1 and #2 are related. Fear is often a manifestation of unresolved pain. It’s being scared to do do what is right & necessary as a result of being burned in the past. The man whose heart was broken and uses pain as a reason to never be vulnerable again. The abused child who grows up and builds walls around her heart. The walls that keep out pain but also keep out love.
Pain pertains to your past. Its gaze is backward, its palate is grim, its characters are grizzly and one-dimensional, and its decision-making is irrational. Pain will ruin your life because it allows you to make decisions contrary to your own interests. In trying to protect yourself, you end up limiting yourself. Pain still rules over you, the dominion-less master that continues to steal from you because you let him. Pain is your old landlord — except you’ve bought a home now and he has no business showing up and demanding things of you. But you still listen. And you keep giving.
Abundance is one step away from taking responsibility for your actions. An excuse: seemingly innocent, yet completely destructive. It’s the reason why you’ve been passed up for a promotion, again. It’s the reason why your kids won’t talk to you. It’s the reason why your ex broke up with you. Excuses pertain to your present. When confronted with your own shortcomings, your knee-jerk reaction is to defend: here is why I did that. Observe my beautiful reasons and you’ll understand. I don’t know why we do this. Excuses make us look weaker, not stronger. They kill our impact and gut any sort of respect people had of us hitherto. When confronted with your failings — whether big or small — there is only *one* response that is suitable: You know what. You’re right. I missed the mark, & I see how that negatively impacted you. I will do better going forward.
Some people use “guilt” as a soft synonym for “pain,” but that isn’t quite right. Pain relates to your past, and often, to things done to you. Guilt pertains to your choices and is a direct response of things done by you. Maybe you made a poor decision that had a terrible ripple effect. Maybe you had a drink when you told yourself you wouldn’t. Maybe you weren’t present and engaged while your kids were growing up, and they’ve made a mess of their life and you feel responsible. Guilt hovers between past, present, and future. It’s the ghost that knows no boxes and goes where it pleases. It’s also the ghost who is ravenous, and everlastingly until you lean into acceptance. This means extending grace for what you have done and accepting what has become. Making peace with all that was and is — it’s the only thing that starves guilt and makes a brighter future possible.
Notice the common denominator in all four — you. You are the biggest obstacle in your way. You are Public Enemy #1 in your own story, both the protagonist and the antagonist. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Don’t for a second buy into the lie that other people will ruin your life. That’s intellectually lazy and counterproductive. The more you make your own shortcomings about other people, the less you will succeed. That grievance you have against others? That blame-filled conga line of so-and-so is the reason I’m not happy, or successful, or don’t have the life I want? As Elsa would say, you’ve got to let it go. Others aren’t culpable for what you’ve done with your life. You need to have the funeral for that line of thinking. I say this not as someone from the outside looking in, but as someone on the receiving end of the very grievances you are citing. I’ve been through hell and back at the expense of other people. Yes, others’ actions may have impacted where I am today, but continuing to blame them doesn’t move the needle in my own life. Not one iota. Me owning my life and decisions moving forward does.
What “happened” to you is just the prologue. You write all the forthcoming chapters. The chapters are rich with your adventure, your actions, your stumblings, your triumphs, and most importantly, your agency. You are the protagonist. Never forget that.
And for goodness sake, stop living in the prologue. Can I let you in on a little secret? When I read a book, I usually skip the prologue. Most people don’t care (or care very little) about what got you here. They are more concerned with the person in front of them and what that person is going to do going forward. “Prologue you” matters very little. “Chapter you” matters much more. It’s where the story is lived. It’s where the character depth is woven and worked out. In short, it’s where the magic happens.
Guard those chapters like a prized jewel. Be vigilant in your thinking. It’s your own fear, pain, excuses, and guilt that detract from everything that journey could be. Join my tenacity in ripping out those dangerous weeds along the journey’s path. We were made for more than smallness and self-sabotage. Any success, anything worth having in life, is preceded first by conquering oneself.
I’m going to walk into today — and every day forthcoming — with the belief that I hold the keys to my own flourishing. I hope you’ll join me.
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