“I want to be able to get to the point where I’m on your side of the table.”
Fernando takes a couple of seconds to let his own comment sink in. The calm he exudes while telling his story contrasts with its content – anger, hurt, resentment. Alcohol is his coping mechanism. During the silent pause, I glance down at his light blue non-slip socks. He leans back and crosses his feet over the hospital scrubs that match, the only one not wearing an ID badge in the room saturated with chaplains. This week, no one else in the detox unit wants to participate in the group session.
Fernando’s comment rattles me. The comment isn’t anything particularly provocative. What a gift his lived experience would be to any recovering addict he might accompany. It’s just that I hear myself saying his words. The old adage comes to mind – the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.
I take off my glasses, close my eyes and massage the bridge of my nose. I’ve been staring at this screen for hours. There’s no grass even visible from the territory I’ve claimed in the library – just the smell of old books and a panorama of concrete outside the nearest window. I’ve been working on a thesis inspired by my detox unit ministry for a number of months. The excitement I had at the beginning of the project has withered and the looming pressure literally forces me outside to catch a bit of life I feel seeping out of me.
Mesmerized by the green-ish grass and breathing in the cold air of a stubborn winter, I think about how much “good” I could be doing if I weren’t stuck in the library. I find myself daydreaming about stops I’d make along the camino de Santiago 2 or 8 years from now – anything other than writing. I’m craving positive feedback, not the persistent critique roaring in my ears like a passing lawn mower.
Emerging out of the silence, Fernando says: “I’ve been on this side of the table for so long – I just don’t know where to take my first step. I’m not an educated man.”
My interior, emotional response is lightning-fast. Education?! There is no classroom that can give you the education your experience has given you! I’ve sat in classrooms for the last three years and very little of it has taught me how to sit here with you!
Rather than vocalize that charged response, I reflect Fernando’s quiet and calm. His humility and vulnerability are schooling me and I observe him intently, gleaning the lesson being offered.
I have a tendency, especially considering my detox unit ministry, to minimize my struggles. My admiration of Viktor Frankl resurfaces as I come to grips with this particular tendency. He makes an analogy of suffering being similar to the behavior of gas – it fills the empty chamber into which it is pumped completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber.1 The gas of Fernando’s struggles is much denser and more toxic than mine, to be sure. But our unique struggles fill our respective chambers completely and evenly.
“What do your relationships look like when you’re sober?” I ask.
“When I’m clean, my kids and my wife know it. They run to me when I get home to give me hugs and kisses. My wife holds me closer. I see the hesitation in her eyes, though. She knows this moment isn’t forever.”
Rattled again. I do not envy the crosses this man has to bear or the fragility that alcoholism brings to his relationships. But all I feel in this moment is a deep longing for the affection he just described. The green-ness of that scene makes the proverbial grass I’m standing on seem pretty dried out.
When I’m standing on the soccer field to play in one of my NYC recreational leagues, the grass is definitely green. On our Bronx-bound train back home, my teammate Kate brings up my thesis. She’s heard me lament about it throughout our season.
“It’s so cool that you get to explore ideas that interest you! I opened up my undergrad thesis last year and made some edits on it! I can’t wait to take on another big project!”
Her cheerfulness punctures my chamber, releasing some of the toxic attitude in which I’ve been stewing. I know she’s right and I let her optimism clarify my perspective. It makes me see the fence I have up. Kate, because she cares for me, hops right over it.
I think of Fernando in that moment because he took his first steps toward something better by inviting me to his side. No fence to hop. And, in spite of myself, I joined him there. And together, somehow, we head toward greener pastures.
- “A man’s suffering is similar to the behavior of gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber.” Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 1946. ↩