Is Life Keeping You A Prisoner?

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There is so much whining on Facebook these days, everyone is now a victim.  I am here to tell you that your wounds are self-inflicted (as were mine).  Being a victim is voluntary, and takes your active participation.  In the words of a very wise seven year old girl:

Suffering is wanting things to be different from what they are.

Reverend Jiso, my Buddhist spiritual teacher, added the following insight:

Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.

Admittedly I am not a very empathetic or compassionate person.  I suppose that there are deep-seated psychological reasons for that, but those wouldn’t be particularly germane to the discussion at hand.  It is a little weird, however, that I followed a formal Buddhist path for over fifteen years without developing a compassionate side to my personality.  I’m pretty much of the mindset:  you take care of yourself and I will take care of myself.  The exception is my relationship with animals.  I seem to have deep reservoirs of compassion and empathy towards my animal friends, especially dogs (just not toward my fellow human beings).

Setting aside that lengthy preamble, I do find myself feeling sorry for my friends and acquaintances who are still wallowing in toxic environments back home (maybe I have a smidgen of compassion and empathy after all).  I sometimes delude myself into thinking that I handle stressful situations better than I used to, but the truth is I have just removed most of those situations from my life.  Periodically stress will rear its ugly head to taunt me, and I find those negative behaviors still have a home in my psyche.  First among them is anger.

My working career spanned almost fifty years including:  military service, sales, sales management and banking (at the management level).  Almost every job I’ve ever held has included a fair amount of stress, both external and internal (stress applied to me and stress that I’ve applied to myself).  Stress is toxic pure and simple.  I’ve heard business coaches and gurus pontificate that there is bad stress and good stress.  Empirical evidence would suggest to me that all stress is bad (just my uneducated opinion of course).  I hear corporations preaching the value of balance in their employees lives, but their preaching is so hypocritical (as most preaching usually is).

A typical example is my former employer JPMorgan Chase bank.  I was a tenured manager and Vice President with almost thirty years of banking experience under my belt.  I was treated like a child, and my many years of experience counted for nothing.  They wanted me out (I was getting too old and expensive) and they finally got their way in the end.  With that much time-in-grade I accrued vast amounts of vacation time, five weeks a year to be exact (and I usually had another five weeks just sitting on the books).  I was pressured to use it, but only two weeks at a time was allowed.  When I traveled abroad I had to go to war with my management to circumvent that rule (and boy did I pay the price).

Finally at the end of my career (at age 63) I got sick and wound up on longterm disability for three months.  On the plus side I was finally able to use all of that accrued vacation to supplement my disability insurance; on the minus side my career was in a shambles and effectively at its end.  I made an effort to go back and resume my duties, but I only lasted a month before realizing it just wasn’t going to be possible.  So at age 64 I announced my early retirement, and extricated myself from the most toxic work environment I had ever experienced (including my time in Vietnam as a young Marine Corps Sergeant).  I still have friends and acquaintances working in that very same environment, but many have since been forced out just like me.

Home is supposed to be a refuge, a safe haven as it were, from the stresses of a toxic work environment.  But what happens when your home life is every bit as toxic as your work life? Well, to state it plainly, your entire life completely unravels.  I won’t go into the gory details of my home life, but it had been on the decline for years.  Leaving my job was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, as my value as a revenue generator came to an end.  I’ve rehashed the results before on this blog:  divorce, foreclosure and bankruptcy.  However, I had extricated myself from yet another toxic environment (painful as the process was).  So at age 64 I found myself virtually penniless, but finally free after fifty years of hard labor.  Yes, I had been in prison (self-imposed for the most part) for the better part of fifty years without parole.

Freedom.  What a wonderful word, what a wonderful thing, what a wonderful feeling.  That left one final hurdle, extricating myself from the third and final toxic environment:  the United States of America.  Leaving its dysfunctional government, its dysfunctional economy and its dysfunctional culture.  My goal was to live my remaining years abroad as an expatriate, pursuing my photography and my writing, and living life to its fullest.  It took almost a year, but a month and a half shy of my 65th birthday I made my escape.  With my camera and personal gear stowed in a small pack and duffel, I boarded a plane to my first stop in Merida, Yucatan, MX.  It is now four years later, and I have learned some profound lessons about life, those lessons have been distilled into the mantra:  live simple, live cheap, live free.

Stress is toxic.  It will kill you, both physically and spiritually.  Experiences are important, stuff is not.  Security is an illusion (delusion), you can die at any time.  Fear is ephemeral, and when faced head-on goes up in a puff of smoke.  Money is not an end in itself.  Ego, like security, is an illusion (delusion).  Creativity (the act of creation) is life.  Freedom is your passkey to the Magic Kingdom.  It is never too late, and you’re never too old, to rediscover the “real” you.  If you buy into the American model (dream) of consumerism you are doomed to be forever dissatisfied with your life.  A couple of quotes that have helped me through this life changing process (this metamorphosis):

The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation . . .

– Henry David Thoreau

Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose . . .

– Kris Kristofferson (Me and Bobby Mcgee)

Freedom implies loss.  That to be [truly] free you must be willing to give things up.  That’s probably why most people are afraid to be free.  Paradoxically something strange (and wonderful) happens when you give things up:  complexity is replaced with simplicity, toxicity is replaced with cleansing, things are replaced with experiences and the spirit is rejuvenated with creativity.  In losing it all, you magically gain everything.  That’s the part they never tell you about.  People feel that I have lost everything; I on the other hand feel that I have gained everything.  Who is right?  I will stick with my version thank you very much.  But I am not simply a pie-in-the-sky idealist, I am also ruthlessly pragmatic:  I am free, I am one hundred percent my own man (I no longer answer to anyone), I am debt free, I have 3 to 5 years living expenses in my travel fund (where I was once penniless), I travel full-time, I am a successful photographer, I’ve owned my own photography company, Indochine Photographywww.IndochinePhotography.me, since 2009, and I’ve been writing this blog, Expat Journal, since 2011.  Both the idealist and the pragmatist are happy.

I’ve shared these thoughts many times before on this blog, and in many different ways.  This is my affirmation, my renewal, it reaffirms that my life decisions in recent years have been the correct ones (for me at least).  If this post helps you to see more clearly then I am pleased.  If it helps you in any way then I am pleased.  If it does neither of those things that’s okay too. We are each given this life to live in our own unique way, I cannot live your life and you cannot live mine.  And that’s how it should be.  Very few people ever really come to terms with their life, and many die with regret in their hearts.  Is that what you want?  Probably not. It doesn’t have to be that way, but it takes work (usually hard work) to make it otherwise. Shining the light within can be a scary proposition, but fear not, fear is only an illusion and disappears when you confront it.

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Stephen F. Dennstedt

Photographer, Writer and World Traveler

Huaraz, Peru

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