Making the Choice to Live

Originally printed in the Chicago Phoenix October 15, 2013

Making the Choice to Live

I was on the phone with my mother the other night and she told me someone in our extended family died quite suddenly. She was at a function, went home and the next morning she was dead.  I have to say that put my life in perspective.

Unfortunately, none of us are guaranteed the time we have on this planet.  One of my friends went to the gym and died suddenly on the treadmill. He was only thirty-some years old. Another friend, diagnosed with terminal cancer, was supposed to be dead two years ago. She is still treading water, waiting to die. As she told me, it’s hard to plan for the future when you aren’t supposed to have a future.  It seems like she hasn’t been living because she’s been too busy dying.

From a coaching perspective, two thoughts come to me about all this:

1     HOW PROUD ARE YOU OF THE LIFE YOU ARE LIVING?  If you were attending your own funeral, what would you want others to say about you? What accomplishments, what things would you like to be remembered for?   If you died today, are you happy with how your relationships stand? Where are your resentments keeping you from connecting to those you love?  I hear over and over that when people are on their deathbed resentments fade when their final goodbyes are said.

For me, I want people to remember me for the 1-on-1 moments they have encountered with me. I want them to say, because of those moments, their lives were changed for the better.  This is something for me to remember when I am tired and grumpy on the bus and the guy wants to engage me in a conversation. What an opportunity for me to live my purpose.  My experience is when I do remember this and engage, I usually leave those encounters feeling rejuvenated and peaceful.

2)    ARE YOU PRESENT FOR YOUR OWN LIFE?  Life is about being awake and present. The present moment is really all that matters, it is the only thing that is real. Being up in our heads about the past or future is literally the same as living our lives in a virtual reality machine.  The past is memories clouded by our own interpretations of what really happened. The future we make up based on our hopes, expectations and fears.  As a lot of the spiritual gurus have said, we just need to do the task at hand, right here, right now and not worry about the past or future.  The past is already over and the future is coming whether we worry about it or not.

I went to a retreat this past weekend. My experience started with me running for the bus Friday night. I then found myself nervous about who I would be rooming with and what kind of exercises we might be doing that might leave me feeling vulnerable. I hardly remember anything about that first night. I was anything but present. The first exercise Saturday morning was to go outside, breathe and get present.  As I did this, I was suddenly slammed into the present moment.  What an amazing experience! The leaves were changing.   My breath was literally taken away by the surprise of discovering such beauty.  Finally I was present.  And what a “present” I got when I got present.

Not sure how to go about doing the above? I have heard that a lot of terminally ill people get clarity around their lives when they receive their diagnosis.  The report is that, for many, the struggle for money and success sudden disappears.  Their priorities simplify and usually center on people in their lives.  For them, it becomes about savoring the moment.

How would your life change if you knew you only had 3 months to live? What are you putting off till tomorrow that you could do today?

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming "Wow! What a Ride!” ― Hunter S. Thompson





Families of Choice-

Originally printed by the Chicago Phoenix- February 7, 2013


I feel bad. I told a fib to my dad.  See every week, my dad (I’ll call “G”) edits my articles. I email him my rough drafts and he, lovingly, sends me his edits.  “G” is an accomplished author, professor and one hell of a father.  He and my mother (I’ll call “M”) are, by far, my biggest supporters.  This week, however, I told him I probably was not going to have an article so I didn’t need his help.

Why did I do this? I didn’t want him to read this week’s article before it came out.  I wanted it to be a surprise for both my parents. Technically, this article is about Families of Origin VS. Families by Choice.  Personally, this is an article of gratitude for two people who, literally, saved my life. “G” and “M” are not my Family of Origin, but rather my Family by Choice. I am their adopted son.   

Picture this: One three year old boy (me) whose mother had just died left living with his alcoholic father. Enter two people (“G” and “M”) who took in this boy, treated him like he was their own son, made sure he knew he was loved, made sure he was safe and did their absolute best to make sure he grew up to be a successful, productive adult.  The result: a Family by Choice.

When I was 15, “G” and “M” formally asked my father if they could adopt me. For a long time he had been unable to care for me due to the progression of his disease.  They also asked my permission.  I remember having conflicted thoughts. What about “blood being thicker than water?” I loved “G” and “M” but I also loved my father. The guilt I felt about abandoning my father and my Family of Origin was overwhelming; yet I needed the love and safety my Family by Choice provided.

When I was making my decision, my aunt of origin questioned how I could even think of allowing “G” and “M” adopt me.  She said it was not right.  She said Family of Origin always trumps Family by Choice.  I thought about it. Was this true?  The one truth I did know was my blood relatives had not been there when my father’s alcoholism threatened my life.  My aunt actually did the opposite and distanced herself from my father and me.  I don’t blame her.  It must have been tough to witness.  The fact remains that when push came to shove my Family of Origin did not or could not step up to help me.

However “G” and “M” did. Even before they adopted me, they set up a room in their house, stressing how important it was for me to have my own, safe place to go. They even paid for my doctor bills when my father couldn’t rise to the occasion to get insurance. I remember the nights they stayed up with me, allowing me to cry because as a kid I couldn’t understand why my dad was the way he was.

When “G” and “M” finally adopted me, they stressed that though we weren’t a Family of Origin, we were a Family by Choice. We had chosen each other. To them, that was the same or even a greater commitment than if I had been born to them.  They also assured me that it was okay to love both families.

Families of Origin can be a very powerful support system.  We are naturally tied to our blood family, especially parents. We are programmed to want our parents’ love.  When we receive it, it lifts us up like nothing else. In strong Families of Origin, they often become Families by Choice.  These people would choose each other whether they were related or not.  But when our Families of Origin aren’t capable of extending the love we need, we can internalize that experience to mean we aren’t deserving of love.   

Love is love no matter where it comes from. Every person deserves to be loved. Families by Choice are valid families. Too often I hear clients conflicted about a misguided loyalty or obligation to their Families of Origin.  It’s okay to go towards the love.  Whether in the context of relationships with lovers, friends or children we adopt, it is okay to dedicate our love and lives to our Families by Choice.  

At one time it was the guilt and sadness of letting go of my Family of Origin that overwhelmed me. Today it is the overflowing gratitude for my Family by Choice that lifts me up. 

“Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.”  - Jane Howard