God grant me the Serenity
to Accept those things I cannot change,
the Courage to change those things I can,
and the Wisdom to know the difference.
– Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971)
“What is your useful skill in a tangible situation?”
Recently I have been encountering, thinking about and hearing synchronistically about people who appear to have become “stuck” in their lives, often from some very real disabilities or addictions. A friend’s son who has been jailed for selling drugs now grows marijuana in our ‘legal’ state of Colorado and trades it for his own “medicinal” portions at a local dispensary. Another friend’s 30+ age son lives mainly in his bedroom, an alcoholic. Neither of these men are able to function in the workplace or have succeeded at remaining in college courses they have attempted.
Others I know of have been apparently stuck in circumstances seemingly beyond their control. These seem to me to have established sets of negative “postulates” that self-replicate very easily. For some it is about “drama”, for others, “illness” that seems to plague their families and themselves intolerably.
Some have chronic troubles with either relationships and/or employment, finding it difficult to maintain a job or to retain a significant relationship. Chronic attitudes might be part of this picture, or simply an odd assortment of skills and interaction modes that find a hard fit in any one situation. Or, these have deep ambitions difficult to realize in the world of common standards and mundanity that they themselves abhor. Many are brilliant, artistic, insightful, finding life in this normalized world too limiting.
And so I wonder, what could be helpful to people who appear (to me, of course) “stuck”. Especially if they likewise regard themselves as in difficult binds that they wish they could move out of, I wonder about what it is they are seeking, or how they are replicating their conditions. On one hand I would say if someone is learning a lot from a particular set of conditions, it’s where they need to be; it serves them genuinely.
Or there is someone like my elderly mother, who is now literally ‘stuck’ in her body, dependent on others for almost all of her mobility, suffering from late stage Parkinson’s and arthritis. Yet, in her case, because of my amazing family members who are able to visit her more frequently than most, I see her smile, when they are there, and then I realize one factor that can help: focussing on quality of life rather than ‘kind’ of life experience.
So what is the basis of a quality of life that someone who feels ‘caught’ or ‘stuck’ in difficult, chronic conditions CAN embrace and maintain? For my Mom, it is the love of her family and friends that sustains her. They can’t be there always, and she experiences pain and depression regularly. But the very fact that she endures all this, I take as a testament to—in turn—her own love for all of us.
Then a few days ago, a friend told me about the story of “Trouble,” a café in San Francisco’s China Beach (originally) owned and created by Giulietta Carrelli, a woman suffering all her life with a schizoaffective and bipolar disorder. She often loses contact during psychotic episodes with her very sense of self, sometimes for months on end. But through the kindness of friends and strangers, inspired by her own desire to connect and to be of help to others, her business has thrived and even is expanding to other locations. She serves the following only at “Trouble”: coffee, coconuts with a straw and a spoon, cinnamon toast, and grapefruit juice. The story I have read ( see below for the citation ) says Carelli herself lived on coconuts and grapefruit juice for at least three years, so they represent survival to her; cinnamon toast she associates with comfort; and coffee she associates with communication. She struck up a daily friendship with a German elderly man, Greg, sunbathing on China Beach, and one day he asked her: “What is your useful skill in a tangible situation?” She had been able to work well in coffee shops; she liked conversing with people. So, with $1000.00 borrowed from apparently a small bank loan and friends, she opened a tiny shop, and it has spread.
I invite anyone feeling stuck, then, to answer Greg’s question for your own situation. How can you maximize what you already do well? What VALUES serve you well in almost any situation? What have you LEARNED well in your present circumstances that you could generalize or expand to other circumstances? Also, though, what holds you back? If you focus on the positive, can you eventually see yourself letting go of the ‘negatives’ and/or the addictions you might normally rely on? What are your goals, your Life Dream?
Some of us think holding on makes us strong;
but sometimes it is letting go.
~ Hermann Hesse ~
Carelli used to “self-medicate” with opiates and alcohol. But she has been sober for years with the success of her business and the expansion of her meaningful connections. She has two children now who depend upon her. She still sometimes needs also to depend upon others, but she is open and practical about that, and when her friends or acquaintances see she is herself in trouble, they are there to help her get home, to cover for her at work, to help in any way needed. Because she is of great service to others!
“Build your own damn house” is one of Carelli’s mottoes and is the name she gives for an order of coffee, cinnamon toast and a coconut at Trouble.
Here’s my insight, for what it is worth: if this woman can succeed at manifesting her Life Dream (and she has!), so can you, in some form!
I absolutely welcome your further insights, comments and stories. How have you or someone you know transcended such debilitating chronic conditions or learned to develop a higher quality of life within such contexts? And, does it matter? If everyone is exactly where they need to be now based on their whole histories and medical/psychological makeups, is it better to help people to adapt to their disabilities (where these are seemingly chronic and fixed), or does it make sense at all to try to intervene, particularly when they are frustrated by their condition and do wish to find relief or to finally overcome the conditions holding them in place?
I do not know the answers but am probing here. I seek our collective wisdom.
My post above is partly based on an article that originally appeared in the January/February 2014 issue of Pacific Standard as “A Toast Story.”