There was a time, not too long ago actually, where I thought I had it all figured out. After enduring two years of hardship that I would never wish upon my worst enemy, I finally arrived at a modicum of wisdom. What I know now that I did not understand before is that I know nothing at all. A sage man once said that with knowledge comes woe; that is because knowledge grows the ego which ultimately blocks growth. The woe that comes with knowledge is the loss of humility and the proliferation of hubris.
Yet, even in this new gained understanding that I acquired after graduating from the university of hard blocks, I occasionally revert to my old ways by letting my ego get the better of me. A few days ago, as I was driving to work, I got into a heated discussion with a family member. This is how I know I am but on step two of a two thousand mile journey to enlightenment: the minute my value was questioned, I threw away years I spent trying to tame my pride and unleashed the very inferno I constantly write that we should go without.
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If only accepting our own advice was as easy as dispensing it freely to the world, we would attain peace on earth. Alas, there is a reason why humanity is in constant conflict; it’s the ego that makes us want to be gods to others while neglecting ourselves. The source of most of our world’s ills can be traced back to this germ of narcissism; the need to prove superiority or the shame of feeling inferior are the twin pillars of vanity that are mugging us all. However, even vanity has a source, our egos become unmanageable when we don’t address our brokenness. From prince to pauper, the whole of humanity has one thing in common—pain. Our internal suffering is the reason why we lash in and punish ourselves and eventually lash out and punish others.
There are people who are broken by their pains, there are others who cope as they mend and others still who refuse to acknowledge that they hurt. I belong in the second camp even though not too long ago I was an all-star on team hurt. This journey called life is onerous; one second we are swimming in satisfaction only for the paradigm to shift as we find ourselves neck deep in the muck of despondence. Yet, as turbulent as life can seem, there really is a connective tissue for most of our pains. The minute we realize this fact is the moment we truly start to rejuvenate.
The root of my sorrows, as far as I can tell, goes back to the time I was a child in Ethiopia. Before my innocence was shattered and I was rudely introduced to the realities of sadness, I used to be a jovial kid who walked around my neighborhood in Bole as if I was the king of the world. But something happened around the age of seven that shook up my world and induced pangs into my soul. It seems trivial looking back at it, but there is nothing inconsequential about pain in the moment we are feeling it.
Up until the age of seven, I was the unquestioned star of my family. I woke up each day puffing my chest as if my parent’s home was my personal fiefdom. Though I had two older sisters, in my heart I felt as though the sun only existed to blaze a path before my feet. However, as much conceit as I harbored, I also felt resentment about our family dynamic. I chaffed at my two older sisters Mariam and Rahel telling me what to do; how dare they intrude in my kingdom and try to impose their will on me. Don’t they know who I am!
I said that last sentence only in half jest; in truth, I really did have that much arrogance in my heart. Whereas my two sisters tried to take care of the house and went the extra mile to live up to their responsibilities, I only saw their maturity as a nuisance. At the age of six, I started praying daily for a younger brother. I wanted nothing more than to even the odds so that I could have an ally to take on the duopoly of my older siblings. Finally, it happened, after a year of praying, the news broke—my mom was pregnant! It suddenly dawned on me that the new addition could be a sister; my prayers doubled upon this realization. The anxiety of being encircled by three sisters was too much to bear for young Teddy.
On March 24th, 1981, I received the good news I’ve been waiting for all along. Thank you Lord! I got down on my knees and thanked God that he gave me a younger brother. I now had my own duopoly; it was only a matter of time before two brothers could rise up and take on my two sisters who insisted on breaking my happy-go-lucky ways. I could not wait for my brother to grow up fast so that we could counteract my sisters’ pestering reminders to contribute to the family and to do my chores. I did not ask for much, I just wanted to be left alone so I could gallivant around the neighborhood with my dog Lucky in tow.
Within short order, I grew to regret my countless prayers. What I did not take into consideration is this one simple fact: a new addition would commandeer all the attention that used to be lavished upon me. One second hamming it up as I held court in front of my adoring public only to be relegated to an afterthought the minute a tyke took my spotlight and hogged up all the attention I used to hoard for myself. Within a week, I started praying that God return the new package back to sender.
I write these things with a bit of mirth now, but back when I was seven years old, what I explained above was my cold, depressing reality. Gone was the exuberant Teodrose who walked around my house with chutzpah befitting Kanye West, in stepped in sullen Teddy who was more comfortable alone than I was giving speeches to my constituents. My first kiss was not from a girl but with a mistress called melancholy before I was old enough to understand the meaning of depression.
I look back at this period in my life not with grief but with levity; there is a part of me that wonders how I could have let such a minor issue develop into full blown ennui. But I know this is not how life works; pain is pain for the person who is going through it. We should really think twice about dismissing the struggles others face, even if we feel that another person’s circumstances are insignificant, we should lead with compassion because hurt is not objective but subjective and real for the person who is enduring their personal crucible.
Earlier, I posed an open question on Twitter and Facebook. I asked what was more painful, a feeling you never experienced or something you loved and was taken from you. The answers were split down the middle, half answered that is was more painful to lose something that is gained and in the process diminished the pains felt by those who never gained to begin with. Others answered that those who gained were the lucky ones and that the true hurt belongs to those who never experienced love at all.
Not saying that I have it figured out, but from my perspective the right answer is that those who gained and lost and those who never gained to begin with experience equal suffering. Pain is pain, the person who broke his leg cannot will himself to feel less pain because he sees someone who doesn’t have legs. I can look back in my life and say that I had it easy compared to a woman who lost her child or a son who never knew his parents, but that will not make my memories of seeing my father Fikremariam Million take his last breath in front of me as he perished from lung cancer or the stress of sleeping in the streets of Greenville, South Carolina any less agonizing for me.
What I am recounting next is not meant to inject distress into your soul but to show you how I’ve grown. My father’s official date of transition is January 4th, 2002, for me, his last day on earth was December 22nd 2001. On that day, as though he knew what was coming, he told me to come over by his bedside and showed me a side of himself I’ve never seen before. With tears in his eyes, he apologized for not being there more while I was growing up. I immediately tried to silence him and told him he did what he did—working four or five jobs at a time—to take care of my siblings and me. He persisted and apologized to me; in my quest to “save” my dad from regret, I missed an important lesson he was trying to teach me before he departed earth.
My dad told me that he was proud of me; this validation I sought since I was a child in Ethiopia eluded me because I was in too much pain to accept my dad’s last words. As we exchanged tearful hugs, all the sudden alarms went off and I was encircled with blue lights. Doctors and nurses rushed in as they pushed me to the side; as I watched in horror, they pushed a tube down his throat. My last memory of my dad before he slipped into a coma was blue lights on his forehead and crimson tracing down his lips.
Instead of crying or calling my siblings to grieve, I walked out of the room calmly as if nothing happened. In a daze, I walked the hospital halls until I happened upon the waiting room and noticed that a football game was on. On that Sunday, I decided to eradicate the memory of my father struggling with death by watching the Washington football team play the Chicago Bears. Shortly after my father was buried, I buried the pains that accompanied the funeral by immediately partying like it was 1999. For close to two decades, I rocked on as I popped bottles and searched for happiness with countless women only to find misery at each turn.
It was not until life forced me to pause and confront my demons that I started to heal. Cocooned in loneliness and homelessness, I was no longer able to escape my past by partying and cavorting like Trump, I was face to face with the hurt child whose pains only multiplied the more I ran away from past. Yet this article is not a sad song, to the contrary, I was able to find redemption through tribulation. I finally accept my dad’s last words. I know he is proud of me and that he only pushed me because he saw the potential in me that I refused to see. I am no longer imprisoned by the need to seek validation by pretending to be a player and turning up for the sake of acceptance. When I changed my perspective inwardly, the world blessed me abundantly—her name is Bethlehem.
This story I recounted is not exclusive to me. Though some might not express it in the same way I did, we all have different gifts, everyone reading this and the totality of humanity have moments of deep dejection and times of anxiety that accompany life’s slings and arrows. Whatever separates us, we are bonded by the ups and downs that are prerequisite of living on this green earth. I know some reading this shed tears the same way I cried while writing about my dad, I celebrate these moments because tears are broken waters that was away hurts. If we only stopped judging each other and bickering over politics and our differences, we would realize that we are all walking the same path as we try to heal and find meaning in this world.
Instead of judging each other and trying to monopolize pains, it would be so much more productive if we actually listened to one another. Not only will we profit by being compassionate to others who are struggling, we also gain because conversations and being kind helps mend our own wounds. We have been conditioned over time to compete with one another; in the process we have lost the very essence of community that we need to thrive. The world is burning as it turns for a reason; the anger from within is spreading outward and consuming society in the infernos of animosity and indifference.
Nipsey Hussle, may he rest in eternal peace, asked this poignant question during an interview with Michael Eric Dyson, “would you rather be at war with yourself and at peace with the world or at peace with yourself and at war with the world”. Most people answer that they would gladly have peace with the world even if they are at war with themselves. But outward peace is not possible as long as we are at war with ourselves. Even if we were to have world peace at this moment, we would never realize it if we are battling the person in the mirror. We have been taught since childhood to seek outward, exploration is the key to humanity’s advancement. If we are to make the greatest leap forward, we must explore and discover our pains and mend in the same spaces we are broken.
Peace starts at one and then spreads outwards; we must each heal the pains that we carry in our hearts first and foremost. As we mend, we pass it on to others. One by one, block by block, state by state, country by country, this is how change starts. Enough of looking up to the stars for the change we have been waiting for is us. True change starts from the bottom.
When a critical mass of humanity decides to be love, to let kindness be our currency and to allow room for debates without violence, the world will change by osmosis:: #PeaceWithinCLICK TO TWEET
“What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lives within us.”Henry David Thoreau
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This article was originally published in The Ghion Journal. It is reposted here with the permission of the author, co-founder