The Inner Bottom Line®
A Syndicated Column on Personal Choices & Ethical Dilemmas
As Christmas approaches and choices become stressful, realizing what we have and how our example can impact those we love grows more apparent. Nothing makes that more evident than this heartbreaking message.
I’m writing in the hope someone else will learn from my mistakes. I’ve been a cheat, a louse, and an all around nasty guy for a long time. I was unfaithful to my wife, I gambled and lied about it, I never missed the chance to make a buck, even at the expense of someone else, and while I’ve never broken the law, I’ve walked a fine line doing things I’m not proud of. It took the death of my sixteen-year old boy to wake me up and by then, it was too late. He was killed last spring when his truck rolled over. He’d been drinking and was driving home at two in the morning and went off the road. I drank for a month after the funeral, not talking to anyone. My wife finally gave up and left me in September to go back to her folks in Texas. She won’t talk to me anymore. For the last two months, I’ve stayed at home, not working, not able to face my buddies. I admit I did feel sorry for myself for a while, but not anymore. I had a night in November when I sat up all night, looking at the sky. I’d been sober for three weeks and that night my mind was clear and I was able to think. That was when I knew it was time to admit that the way I’ve lived my life had a lot to do with setting a really lousy example for my kid. I’m afraid I figured it out too late and now I’ve got nothing left, but I hope this helps somebody else tell the truth before it’s too late. Believe you me, it hurts when you do it, but it’s never soon enough.
When I read your letter, a line came to mind from my favorite movie, “An Affair to Remember.” In one scene, Cary Grant’s character, Nicky Ferranti, is being discussed by his grandmother and Deborah Kerr’s character, Terry McKay, with whom Nicky is falling in love. The wise grandmother, who’s already spotted this budding romance, tells Terry, “I’m afraid life will present Nicky with a bill he won’t be able to pay.” It sounds as if you’ve gotten a similar invoice.
What I found so touching and admirable in your letter is your willingness to be accountable for the situation you’re in. While I repeat that sentiment over and over, it’s absolutely deserved. It’s easy to read about someone else’s mistakes or troubles and pontificate about what they should or shouldn’t have done or should do now. When you’re the one in the middle of the mess, it takes a lot of honesty to see things clearly and even more courage and maturity to say, “I made this mess, I can’t blame anyone else, and I was mistaken; I was wrong.”
Whenever we find ourselves in regrettable moments, and we all do since we’re imperfect humans, we inevitably find ourselves facing three basic challenges that must be explored and resolved. First, what, if anything, can we do to make restitution or assuage what has already happened? Next, what can we do with our current status to make certain we don’t fall back into old abusive patterns again? And finally, what do we want and deserve in the future?
Like the beginning, middle and ending of any plot, our lives are a journey with never-ending, constantly occurring segments. Before, now, and later. Too often, we’re so preoccupied with ‘before’ or ‘later’ that we neglect and fail to fully experience ‘now.’ You’ve been placed smack dab in the center of your ‘now’ and have realized and seen what you can’t live with any longer. In order to figure out what you want, you first need to deal with the present and the healing that needs to happen before you can move on.
The huge load of guilt and regret you’re carrying can take the strongest person down and accomplish nothing except perpetuate anger, pain and remorse. No matter what you did before, no person deserves endless purgatory. While there’s no guarantee your son wouldn’t have driven drunk even if he had been given a different parental example, the sad reality is he’s gone. Nothing you do can bring him back. But in the midst of that immense and unimaginable loss, you have the chance to honor his life by living the rest of yours in a way you believe would make him proud.
In order to do that, you first have to forgive yourself. You’ve taken the first, difficult step and told yourself the truth, but finding forgiveness and acceptance are the next healthy steps towards clarity that will help begin to rearrange and realign your future. While your wife refuses to talk to you at present, there’s no way to know right now if by setting a better example for her in actions, not words, she might be compelled in time to at least talk with you so that you can both find closure to the mutual, heartbreaking loss of your son and your marriage.
If only we got hindsight in front, we could make many different choices in our lives. While it appears that you’ve used up many precious years in pursuits that now leave you empty and ashamed, at least you’ve found the strength to see that path clearly and to want to move in a different direction. You need not apologize or defend that desire to anyone. Far too many people live their entire life steam-rolling over others while never acknowledging to themselves the results of their actions. That is truly tragic.
That’s not where you are now, and that’s a positive and hopeful sign. The old cliché, “it ain’t over ‘til it’s over” has never been more true. Kahil Gibran, a gentle poet and philosopher, believed that the depth of our failure and pain determines our capacity for and height of our happiness. You’ve been pretty low. You know how that tastes and smells and you understand what that feels like. Happily, you no longer choose to stay there. As you begin this New Year, you have a wonderful opportunity to start fresh with forgiveness and humility and write a new personal list of values and ethics that matter most to you and that you want your life to honor and respect.
Once you’ve sorted out your Inner Bottom Line and determined what values aren’t negotiable, other choices will be much easier to make. It won’t be easy or quick, and I suspect you already know that or you wouldn’t have written. But as challenging, uncomfortable and painful as this sorting process may prove to be, the clarity, serenity and simplicity that awaits you on the other side will be more than worth the effort. Good luck!
You can submit your questions or book private phone sessions with Olive at theinnerbottomline.com, explore her new site at whatskeepingyouawakeatnight.com, or call into her blogtalkradio.com show, “The Inner Bottom Line,” at 661-449-1425 with your questions. All letters and calls can be anonymous and confidential.
Kindle and audio versions along with the hard cover of Olive’s book, The Nude Ethicist: A Simple Path to The Good Life, are now available on amazon.com.