Back in June of 2004 I experienced what I’ve since come to call “the incident”. Very few people, including some of my closest friends and family, know any details about it. They say when you go through something truly traumatic that you’re supposed to share it with those close to you. But I couldn’t. Not back then. But today I’m going to have a pretty candid talk with my fellow Character-Questers about that incident—my incident and (more importantly) its aftermath. And despite however painful it is to me I’m going to share very personal details straight from the raw edge of my mind…in other words I’m not going to let myself edit-out some of the details that later I’m sure I’ll want to see on the chopping block before it comes time for this entry to go to post.
Why, you might ask, submit myself to that kind of personal torture and perhaps even ridicule? I can answer honestly that I feel that what I have to say here today is among the most important things that I’ve ever said in my life. You’re about to understand a little more about where the concept of Character-Quest comes from and why it’s so important to me. So let’s begin.
Back in that fateful summer of 2004 I was 30 years old. Business-wise I was “successful” in most every way that people judge. It had been seven years since I had taken over the day-to-day operations of one of the departments of my family’s heavy steel fabrication business. In that space of time my department had grown over 400%. We went from being a relatively unknown Mom & Pop shop to a recognized regional power in our industry. Educationally, I had taken some night classes but had no a college degree—and truthfully didn’t really want or need one. I was pretty happy with where I was in life. No—I said I would be honest so let me tell the truth here—I was fully content and comfortable with where I was in life. (That’s better…doesn’t make me sound good but like they say, truth hurts.) Anyway, day to day life was easy. I got up in the morning, did the things that I was supposed to do (and most of the time they were things I wanted to do or enjoyed doing) and then simply worked on whatever projects that I felt like working on. At the end of the day I chose whatever entertainment that I wanted. I was happy and didn’t want to “complicate my life” with anything that involved taking up my precious free-time.
At that time I would have told you that I was “at the top of my game” and I would have been telling the truth—I was. If you were engaged in a conversation with me you would have heard a lot about “3 and 5 year plans” and how we would “use new technology to capitalize on a growing market” and other stuff like that. Business had expanded to the point that it was carrying me overseas and had helped me to meet many high profile and influential people. I was proud at what a poor boy from the two gas-station metropolis of Pavo, Georgia had been able to accomplish. But all of that was before the incident. After that, everything changed.
By early September of 2004 there was a great big crater where my career used to be and a blast radius that covered the shattered remnants of my personal life. I’ve heard the incident (and events like it) called many funny names like Acute Anxiety Disorder, Clinical Depression or even Nervous Breakdown. However, common folk like you and me might just say that I had “slung a rod”. Personally, I like that one because it sounds so real and detrimental—so freaking permanent. Slinging a rod is what happens when an engine becomes overstressed for too long. What did it feel like—this ‘slinging the ole’ rod’ thing? Well, all I know is that one day I was in that previously described state of being “top of my game” where all the cylinders and plugs are firing away like the engine of a fine-tuned ’68 Camero and then suddenly the next day the pistons are locked up tight, the rod is gouging through the hood and hot black oil is rolling out all over the pavement with the kind of enthusiasm that sent Jed Clampett to Beverley Hills.
What led to it? It’s not worth the time to describe. Let’s just say that it was simply the proverbial straw that not only broke the camel’s back, but chopped that sucker up and cooked him in a stew. The details /origins of my own personal Chernobyl reenactment are not as important as what happened afterward. But before we skip too far ahead I really want you to see a snapshot of what I became after that fateful June day in 2004. Let’s think of it like one of those hokey ‘before and after’ diet-pill advertisements that you see in magazines. Ok ready? Before: There’s Michael with a smile on his face and a spring in his step going into work at 6:00 in the morning (two hours before the rest of the crew) in order to ‘build his department’ and thus secure his future. He is fit and strong (after all, he lifts weights during his lunch hour and takes designer supplements) and for all purposes healthy. After: Within two short months later Michael has an eerie pale-colored complexion and is still on his couch at 7:30 in the AM where he is literally being hand-fed breakfast by his lovely but very worried young wife. She has to pep-talk him to get him out of bed. Pep-talk him again to get him dressed. Pep-talk him to eat and also to get him out of the door to go to a place he now hates. He goes simply because he knows there is no other choice. He hates work, hates his department and hates the people there—more than anything he hates himself because he has to go there and be miserable all day. No one understands what has happened to him and he’s not telling. Some speculate that he’s on drugs—others are certain that he’s just hitting the bottle hard—but neither is true. He’s simply lost his will to live because something got broken inside. Remember, he’d slung the ole’ rod.
I was like one of those boxers that you hear about that are knocked out but still on their feet. You know—the ones that take a really hard blow to the head early in a fight but don’t go down immediately. Instead for the rest of the round they dance around on rubbery legs, swinging wildly but never landing a solid blow on their opponent. Finally, after the round ends and they’re walking back to their corner they suddenly drop and are out colder than the pimples on Jimmy Hoffa’s butt.
My family begged me to go on medication. They worried that I was unstable. I was. There wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t consider some new and exotic way to help them collect my life insurance money. Still, like that noble boxer I tried to fight on hoping for the bell that sounds at the end of the round. I honestly did. My health suffered. I became unreliable and uncaring…a dead man that just hadn’t understood yet that he was dead.
In the mean time, I read a lot of scripture and prayed a lot…believe it or not I had been doing so all along. However, my ATTITUDE and APPROACH was different now—much more humble. Now, I’d like to tell you that after I ‘got my heart right’ that all of my problems just went away. They didn’t. Even God wasn’t letting me off the hook that easy. And frankly, I don’t blame Him. After all, if you dealing with someone with my kind of self-righteous pride and ego then you’ve got to keep their head under the water way past where the bubbles quit rising. People like me are too good at holding their breath. So, months went by with no relief at all. I ended up giving away my position and my department because I was no longer mentally and emotionally able to run it. I neglected my friends and extended family. All and all, like a wounded fish, I slipped quietly away into the murky background of things and waited to die.
All right, enough gloom and doom! Writing about all of this has stirred up some kind of inky, black gunk in my head. Since starting this entry a couple of days ago I’ve suffered a couple of terrible nights and even some mild depressive symptoms. So trust me, we need to go ahead and change channels now—while we still can. But that’s okay! There’s something far more important that I need to tell you about—something a LOT better. Therefore, I say let’s steer this ship out of the storm and into calmer waters.
After about a year and a half of misery I came to finally understand WHY my emotional storm had followed the Big-Bad Wolf’s example (Yeah, the famous one, written of in the annals of piggish-lore) and blown my happy little house of cards down. My naïve arrogance and self-righteous pride was not a strong enough foundation to build a truly successful life on! No matter how blissfully happy I thought that I had been before the incident—it was not a real happiness. It had been nothing more than a hand full of thin air. I finally understood that I needed to direct my energy towards reaching forward rather than sitting there sulking and looking backward. It was time for me to quit wishing for life to return to how it “used to be” when I had been idle and content with my life and set about finding my individual PURPOSE for being here.
There’s a lot of validity in the saying “We turn to God for help when our foundations are shaking, only to learn that it is God who is shaking them.” I mentioned before that I was studying the Bible and praying a lot. As the months had worn on I had become compelled into deep, profound and life-changing Bible study. Among the most important things that I learned during that time period was the lesson of the Parable of the Talents. In the story several individuals are charged with doing business with their boss’ money. After a period of time the boss comes and sees what they’ve accomplished with the resources that had been appointed to them. Some have doubled those resources and are given more. Some increase a little but are still appointed proportionally more. But according to the story there was one stubborn guy who was complacent—who didn’t do anything with the resources that he was appointed with. At the end of the story his portion is taken away from him and given to the one who had doubled his resources. I can honestly say that gaining a practical understanding for this parable that has helped change my life the most profoundly.
We are supposed to—no, created to DO something with the life we’ve been given. We may have been born without capacity but we more than make up for it in potential. And if that potential is not used, developed or refined then it simply wastes away. If we choose to not use our talents—not to play the game—then even the potential that we have eventually decays into squandered time filled with miserable “what ifs” and “if onlys”. I can honestly say that being made to understand this principle has made all the difference in the world on my overall outlook in life. There were several things that I knew I had a natural ability to do—even enjoyed doing—but prior to the incident I wasn’t pursuing or developing them in any way. For instance, I had always wanted to be a writer. I had written a few articles and papers for various sources over the years and even had completed an unpublished novel in high school. In addition, I had done some freelance work as an ad copywriter for a couple of years but had quit to “further my business opportunities”. In addition to writing, I had been involved with church and community projects and involved in public speaking. However I had backed out of these opportunities for similarly shallow reasons.
So what happened? Simply put: I changed! I did a complete about face! Instead of doing whatever seemed right to me I decided to go the direction that I was being LED to go instead. So I dedicated myself to developing my potential and talents…not only develop them but MULTIPLY them. And when I finished with that I was going to see if I could attempt something really crazy—I was going to try to multiply them again! And it was with this new fire and zeal for finding and laying hold of my purpose in life that I approached the new (and most fulfilling) chapter in my life.
We’ve all heard stories about the disillusioned young man who one day leaves his community for a lone journey of discovery in the mountains. He sets out to FIND something…some greater understanding of the way that everything fits together and where he individually fits into the scheme of it all. For him the journey becomes a right of passage…a transformation from a mental / emotional boy into a man. I now figuratively began this same type journey through proactive, intensive, multi-lateral study and character-development. And that expedition has changed my life forever. I would like to describe this figurative ‘journey through the mountains’ here if I may. Yeah, I’ve always been a hopeless romantic at heart.
First, I prepared myself spiritually by making the study of scripture the corner-stone of my education. Earnestly seeking and relying upon guidance from my Creator, I set out. I went back to finish my university education but in addition studied intensively many subjects in a variety of disciplines including history, literature and philosophy. I made it my goal to “seek wisdom” with the same zeal that an adventurer would hunt for a legendary lost city of gold. The more knowledge that I acquired the more I recognized that various ‘strands’ of seemingly unrelated knowledge was actually woven together into a large grand tapestry. During this period I was driven mentally, physically and spiritually—compelled by a figurative pillar of cloud and fire to climb cliffs and razor-sharp rocks ever deeper into the mountains gleaning every nugget of knowledge that I could. I studied mathematics, literal and theoretical physics and various other universal scientific disciplines. Still I asked for more. No, begged for more…much, much more. Night and day I continued along winding and treacherous paths. And understanding began coming so quickly that I had to begin using a journal in order to record the things I found before they could slip away. This journal became a well-used tool for helping me to reflect on specific things and also helped me to get used to putting them down on paper. By studying the journal regularly I was able to see more and more about the details woven into the grand tapestry. The further I went—even if the subjects seemed unrelated to my goals—I was shown how to mine the gold and leave the dross. Onward…onward I trekked over raging rivers and through valleys of molten fire…and still further onward I was driven. I studied the mysteries of the human mind, holistic health and the body’s elaborate energy systems. Onward through dark forests and snow capped mountains and caverns deep within the Earth. I hungrily tore into biographies of successful people, studied the science of human relationships and devoured as many classics of human development as I could lay my hands on.
Then one day I understood.
It was the kind of understanding that you can only appreciate when you’re standing on the very top of the highest mountain around. Yeah, part of it is the breath-taking panoramic view of all of the mountains around you—the crispness of the air, the dark blue sky above. But that’s not all. It an understanding that your journey is complete; there’s no need to go forward. You’ve reached the highest peak in this particular range and like the proverbial old bear all that lies in front of you is “the other side of the mountain”. You have arrived at the destination you set out for…though honestly until this moment you never knew where it was. I had now finished my business degree and had years of private supplemental study in a variety of disciplines under my belt. The year was now 2009 and I was once again involved (a lot more sincerely) in church and community responsibilities. I was working again; helping my family’s company to market itself in new and exciting (but also much more balanced) ways. My personal family life had not only been restored but was better than ever. Yeah, I was at that point in the journey where you can lay your heavy pack down and smile back at the path behind me. But not for long mind you…invariably, where one journey ends another always begins.
‘The incident’, as bad as it had seemed while going through it, was God’s way of leading me to discover my very purpose in life: to be a teacher. There was now a new assignment—a new mission—another journey across the mountains for me to make. Why? Because the first journey had been merely to reveal my purpose—but this new journey would be to learn how to fulfill that purpose. It would become my Character-Quest—my opportunity to become all that my Creator designed me to be. There would be no need to expend all of that extra energy trying to “find myself” anymore. This time I could focus on the business at hand: acquiring the skills needed to become the very best teacher possible. What you all know as The Character-Quest Project is a big part of this new journey. It is a tool for me to sharpen and hone my skills (multiply my talents) specifically in the area of writing.
In closing, I want to present a challenge to all of you who are simply “going through the motions” in life. And I’ll extend that challenge to those of you who have not yet been shown your individual, specific purpose in life. I challenge you to take that same journey through the mountains. Don’t wait until you ‘sling the ole’ rod’ or some other traumatic ‘incident’ happens in your life before to start searching for wisdom and understanding. Rather ASK and it will be given to you…SEEK and you will find. Endeavor to discover the person that you’re intended and designed to be! Seek it from God and when He grants that knowledge then NOBODY can take it from you. You won’t have to apologize or hide it under a bushel. And finally, I also challenge you that when you reach your mountain peak—and you’ll know it when you do—that you’ll light a beacon and return through the mountains to help others to find theirs.
Author’s Note: There are SO many people that encouraged and helped me through the process described above. Most of them are absolute masters of life. God provided me with the best teachers and friends. I may have turned my back on them–but they never forsook me. These individuals are part of that pillar of cloud and fire that compelled me through the mountains. I love them all, thank God for them and owe them for eternity.