Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Shoplifting, turning 32 and the hardest thing I've ever done.

Shoplifting, turning 32 and the hardest thing I've ever done.

Today I turned 32 and I am sorry to say that I did not awake awash in new found maturity. No new gray hairs of wisdom lie upon my head, the truth gained from experience is but a fleeting thought ushered away with the morning’s coffee. But what I do have in the midst of this long December is a story about shoplifting, the egg and the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

It starts back in Central Massachusetts when I was in 9th grade. My friend Kris and I were riding our bikes to a meeting for youth group leaders. We were going to discuss ways to help other teens as we were clearly role models of virtue and grace. Instead we ended up taking a ride in a police car.

I don’t know why we thought about stealing that day at the Rich’s store, an early version of Wal-Mart. But we did, and our plan was the kind of master crime that only oily skinned high school students can launch.

Kris had on a thin red windbreaker. I think the 90s must have been particularly windy because we seemed to be combating a lot more of it then with our clothing. Everyone owned some sort of plastic feeling coat best suited to gusts aboard a boat. It had a hood and the front had a big pocket with a zipper. The plan was to empty out a packet of Big League Chew gum, which is designed like a pouch of chewing tobacco, and hide some packs of basketball cards in there.

I would stand in line and buy something while Kris made his great escape. I don’t remember being particularly sweaty waiting in line, but the moment I saw some adult leading Kris back to me, I burst out like I was in the rain.

They led us into a small room upstairs and made Kris slowly empty out the pocket. A man wrote down everything we had stolen. When he wrote the gum down I protested since we had bought that earlier at a convenience store. But because I didn’t remember the name of the store he charged us with that too and refused to hear my side of the story.

The police were called and my sad little ten speed bike was lifted into the cavernous trunk of a squad car. When they called my dad, the town minister, he thought they were calling to sell him tickets to some sort of police ball. He was not the happiest I’ve ever seen him.

What I realized last night about that memory is that I’ve spent most of my life trying to hide things in my big pocket. Good things, bad things, just things I’ve collected over the years. My zipper is busting with each new item I put in there. Maybe that’s what people call baggage, those emotional experiences from the past that shape the way we behave in the future. And it’s heavy, bigger than me, bulging and thick. Regret is never light.

And in the summer of 2005 it almost killed me. I was not suicidal, it is not my intent to fan a small flame into what seems like a blaze in the hope that you will believe I am some kind of tortured artist. No not that. But that summer I remember journaling that I was in a place where I understood suicide. I did not want it, but I was beginning to see how for some it could be a viable option. The logic of it as a solution began to gel for me and that was a little terrifying because suicide is not logical. It is never a solution and as I wrote those words down in my five star notebook, I began to worry about how big and deep my pocket of stuff really was.

What was inside? What had I run from? What was I too afraid to deal with? What would happen when it came out and make no mistake, whether it breaks like a damn and you cry in the frozen food section at the grocery store or it just seeps out slowly and quietly ruining every relationship, it will come out.

I’d get my answer to all those questions and more in the form of a hand-drawn egg.

As I’ve mentioned before, I took a 16 week course for men that have broken things. The core of the course was an exercise called the “Trauma Egg.” That sounds so silly and dumb. I agree and this would actually be a great time to exit the post, but the truth is the trauma egg is the hardest thing I have ever done.

It’s simple really. On a big sheet of manila paper you write in one corner the unwritten rules your family lived by. In another corner, the roles different members of your family played. In the bottom corners you describe your mom and then your dad. In the center of the paper you draw a huge egg. Inside it, in little bubbles, you draw every traumatic experience you’ve ever had from birth to present day, from bottom to top. You draw the events because this artistic approach forces your brain to think in a different, more honest way.

What was so hard about this little art project was that it was the opposite of how I had lived my life. Instead of shoving the bad deep down into the dark and forgetting it, I asked my heart to google pain. I asked my head to search out hurt and pull it up to the surface. For two weeks I would walk around and suddenly be jolted by something I had forgotten. Inside I would hear, “Hey, I just found something. Remember that thing that happened in high school. That was big and gross and you’re still making decisions based on it. Draw that.”

And so I would scribble down a stick figure of me in high school. Skinny, nervous, wearing a coat and tie because it was a Catholic boy’s school. When your egg was finished you had to present it, to take an hour and walk through every experience with the other 7 guys in the room and the two counselors. Then they would point out patterns and discuss everything that was there on the drawing.

Ultimately, what walking through this experience did for me was force me to name the stuff I had hidden. See, for me, regret used to just be this shapeless black ball. At any given point in my life it could take any form it wanted to hurt me the most. I had never dragged it into the light, so I never knew which part was a lie and which part was the truth. In some ways, it was like those fireworks stores you see on the side of the highway. In order to look big and exciting, they often build 50 foot tall walls on the building. But if you look carefully you can see that it’s just a wall, behind it is nothing. It’s not a three story fireworks emporium. It’s a trailer home with a puffed out chest trying to get you off the highway.

That is what regret was for me. Whenever I was moving along at 70mph, driving toward happiness, it was there. Big, bold, reminding me I didn’t deserve to be on any highway. I didn’t deserve to be headed anywhere.

But naming my stuff, looking at it with people I trusted, made it smaller. The tiger became a housecat, the gun a water pistol, the open wound a scar. One by one, memory by memory I started to own those experiences. And I gave them to God.

He didn’t react the way I thought he would. I thought he would be like that security guard, as Kris emptied his pocket. Writing down everything we had stolen, blaming us for things we hadn’t done. Making a list of my sins and my failures that would go into a permanent file inside I drawer I didn’t have the key to.

But instead, that night was really liberating. I felt freedom there in that room. I wasn’t afraid of my past anymore. I didn’t have to run. I could be still. I could see that my junk was a trailer home not a skyscraper and that felt true.

I’m not saying you need to do trauma egg. I’d never suggest you dig in the past alone. I think that’s a really dangerous thing to do by yourself. But I do think you have a pocket. Maybe yours holds your divorce inside. The way you became a different person and “lost” 15 years of your life when you lost access to that other person who lived those experiences with you. Maybe you’re missing some of the beauty of your children because if you look too closely at their lives you’ll see the ways they duct taped themselves together in elementary school when your divorce pulled them apart at the seams.

Maybe your stuff is completely different. Maybe something happened when you were in high school that made you into two different people. I’ve done that. Distanced myself from the person that did those things, fractured my life into multiple me’s just to not be associated with those mistakes.

I’m not sure what you’re carrying around, but I promise, if it’s anything, it’s too heavy. It’s exhausting and it might be time for you to let it go.

Tomorrow I’ll tell you what will happen if you do.


Ben said...

Haven't read the whole post yet, but happy birthday none the less. Now it's back to reading.

Jason said...

Happy Birthday! I just had mine last Tuesday, but I wasn't quite as good at navel-gazing as you were.

Regarding the past, I think it's important to deal with it, but once we've dealt with it we should leave it where God does -- forgotten. I have a hard time with the psychology idea of constantly dredging up the past and blaming my life on it.

Hope said...

Just when I think my pockets have been sufficiently emptied of my two sets of divorce papers, release papers from a mental hospital, hospital papers from an overdose ... blah, blah, blah... it seems that I put my hands inside to keep them warm and poof - a handful of crumbs from what I thought was gone. I understand now that God is a gentle healer. He doesn't do radical surgery if your heart can't take it. He removes the malignancies, one at a time, or bit by bit until they are gone. I can live with than. The enemy however is constantly trying to convince me to refill the pockets. He tries to leave me with phantom pains, the kind you get after an amputation. Sometimes I take the bait but at least I don't take the morphine anymore. Thanks for the post. Happy birthday.

Donna said...

Google my heart? Multiple Me's? You are on a roll - must be a birthday gift. Something starts happening in the late 30's and early 40's, I am certain of it. Except for some people I know, and they aren't pleasant to be around. Happy Birthday! Thanks for the post(s).

Karen of Scottsdale said...

happy birthday, Jon!

Touching and profound. I find your writing hits a nerve now and then. Thanks for sharing.

OB1 said...

Hello John. I was so impressed with your blog I thought I would try it out. Check mine out at

Love reading your stuff. Merry CHRISTmas

Abby said...

Happy Birthday! Thanks for sharing so much of yourself. I can relate to a lot.

Kris said...

Jon - Happy Birthday pal...a story that brings back so many memories. Really enjoy the website. Feel bad I don't take the time to read it all the time but really enjoy everything. All my best to the family - Merry Christmas....let's talk soon!!!!

Ben said...

Jon - I just came across your blog (a counselor shared it with me as I work on my own trauma egg). It is one of the hardest things I've ever done (and I'm not done yet). After reading your post, I don't know whether to cry (this egg work makes me want to do that often) or smile knowing that there is purpose and healing in all of this. Simply put, thank you... this post is one that I have read and will re-read often. Your story means a lot to me, in part, because I hope that it becomes my own...