My husband and I were driving home from the beach when I received the call. It was my dad’s ex-wife.
“Joy, you need to come home right away,” she said. “Your dad’s in the hospital in critical condition.”
I lived in California, and my dad was in Seattle. We hadn’t spoken in a long time. In fact, I’d been with my husband for five years, and my dad had never even met him.
He was in the ICU and unconscious when I arrived. His head had been shaved to accommodate the emergency surgery from the brain aneurysm. Tubes and machines were everywhere. Nurses were in and out. I was terrified of seeing my dad like that and afraid of my emotions. A dear friend who lived in Seattle agreed to meet me. She stood next to my dad’s bed when I walked into his hospital room, my heart pounding out of my chest. I held his hand and told him I was there. For the first time in years I said, “I love you, Dad.”
I remember being in awe at how many people came to see my father. Friends shared stories about his generosity and kindness, and described him as gentle, humble, and warm. People exchanged memories of times when my dad gave them a place to stay, money for food, or a job so they could pay their bills. The visitors continued for days and the stories of his thoughtfulness seemed endless. Almost every one of them would say, “You’re Joy. He talks about you all the time. He’s so proud of you.” I saw my dad through their eyes.
I thought I knew everything I needed to know about my dad. I assumed I had all the puzzle pieces. I told myself it was okay that I shut him out because he abandoned me first. Sometimes we put people in categories and keep them there. But in the process, you stay stuck too. My teachers’ words were ringing in my ears: “Allow other people the right to change.”
My aunt told me about the abuse and neglect he endured as a child: the beatings, humiliations, and mental cruelty. My heart hurt for him. I realized then that my dad hadn’t chosen alcohol over me, as my nine-year-old self had believed; he was desperately trying to numb out his suffering. His belief window had been clouded with his fears, conditioning, and projections. I was humbled. My dad was human. He wasn’t immune to the disconnection that causes you or me to sometimes suffer. Here I was finding out that life is not black or white. Life is a million shades of grey.
Rising Above Circumstances and Habits
Through the Certificate in Wholebeing Positive Psychology program, I learned about the work of Marva Collins. She was a schoolteacher in the 1970s in the inner-city area of Chicago, an environment she described was filled with violence, drugs, and more than anything, hopelessness. Most teachers had resigned to their students’ inevitability of living a life of gangs and crime.
Marva Collins had a different vision. She brought a message of hope to kids who had none, and she followed it up with action. She told them, “We’re going to do a lot of believing in ourselves here.” She would tell them, “I believe in you,” “I know you can do well,” and “I expect a lot from you.” Marva Collins told her young students, “We’re going to take responsibility for our lives.” She didn’t ask them to deny their conditions; she taught them how to develop a new empowering belief system, vision, trust, and commitment so they could thrive in spite of their environment. Amazing things happened for the kids Marva Collins taught and mentored. Thousands of students who had been written off as “unteachable” were able to lead meaningful, productive lives because one woman refused to give up on them and taught them how to take responsibility for their lives.
Habits, like anxiety, run deep. I remember years ago hearing the story of two men swimming across a lake. At the center of the lake was a small piece of land where they decided to take a rest. After a few minutes, Man Number One was ready to get back in the water and continue his swim to the other side. Man Number Two felt overwhelmed and unsure, so he chose to swim back to where they started. It was the same distance either way. That’s the power of your comfort zone and your habits. Your reactions become automatic. Justifications and rationalizations become a human way of life. You cling to your familiar puzzle even when it’s not better or easier, even when there is evidence to the contrary.
My dad lived for another 12 years after his stroke. My gratitude for those years is immense. We were graced with time to get to know each other. We laughed, cried, argued, and faced as much challenge as we did joy. We grew as individuals together in ways we couldn’t have alone. I was able to change the pattern within myself to run away and avoid the hard stuff. My dad was able to shed guilt and shame and address his fear of not being good enough. We had a meaningful and real relationship that lasted until the moment he died on March 18, 2019. On March 9, nine days before he passed, I received this text from my dad: “With all the people I know with daughters, no one has a daughter that comes close to having the love and compassion that you have. I mean that with all of my heart.” I am so grateful I didn’t miss the person my dad was and the love he had to give.
This post is excerpted from Joy’s book, If I’m So Spiritual, Why Am I Still So Anxious: The Soul Seeker’s Guide to Reclaim Your Joy.
Joy Stone is a Positive Psychology Life Coach and a yoga teacher. She combines the yoga tradition with modern positive psychology to help people move beyond anxiety, fear, and overwhelm, without medication or traditional talk therapy, so they can move forward in life and thrive. Joy works with individuals and groups from all over the country via phone and Skype, and locally in the Nashville area. Find out more at joystonecoaching.com.