He was in his late forties, early fifties when I met him. Almost black eyes. A crooked smile that moved all the way up to his eyes to push the skin into deep, well-worn lines. He liked to laugh. A quiet laugh that shook his body. He spoke slowly. Measured his words as carefully as the sugar was measured out at the homeless shelter where we met. Sugar is gold in a homeless shelter. He used his sugar wisely.
I’d seen him around the shelter for quite some time. Quite often inebriated. He was always friendly. Laughing. Loquacious.
On the day we officially met, he was sober. Had been for three months he told me proudly. “That’s how I got into this course,” he said. “They wouldn’t let me take it if I was drunk.”
‘This course’ was a three-week job readiness training course the shelter ran to support clients moving on with their lives. I was a guest lecturer, there to give a half-day workshop on self-esteem.
“What is self-esteem?” I asked the 12 participants.
Someone replied quickly. “Something that’s hard to get.”
“What do you think makes it hard to get?” I asked.
At the end of the long table around which we sat the man with the measured words, considered the question. “I don’t think I ever had any self-esteem,” he said. “Residential school beat out any I might have had when I was a little boy and then, I never got sober enough, until now, to even think I might need some.”
It is the same answer for many First Nations. The attempted purposeful destruction of their culture tore apart their familial, social and spiritual roots. Rootless, they have drifted for years searching for what is missing, what was destroyed, what was stolen from their pasts, what was hidden from their futures.
“I don’t understand it,” he said. “I’m sober. My friends here know I want this. I told ’em it’s important to me. But they keep wanting me to drink with them. To get stoned. Why?”
“Why do you think?” I asked.
He shook his head. Side to side. His body slumped deeper into his chair. “It’s hard. Being sober. My friends. They make fun of me. Tell me I’ve changed. That maybe now I think I’m too good for them.” He paused. Scrunched up his face. Smiled. “I don’t think I’m too good for them. But I can’t be around drunks. They’re not good for me.”
And we went on to talk about the challenges of sobriety in a community where ‘getting sober’ is both the dream and the nightmare of everyone involved.
“Is it possible that your getting sober, a guy who’s been drunk for 30 years, is a sign that they could do it too? Do you think they’re afraid?”
He laughed. “Of my getting sober? Nah. But they sure as hell are scared of getting sober themselves.”
He wanted to be a role model, he said. To be an example for the youth on the reserve where he could never go back to if he’d not gotten sober. “I’ve got two sons. They’re adults now. Haven’t seen them in years but I want them to see me as a man they can look up to.”
He never got the chance. Three months later a massive heart attack hit, and he took his last breath.
But the memory of our encounter has remained with me. This morning, while reading Ian Munro’s post at Leading Essentially, “When Did “Busy!” Become the Correct answer to How Things are?”, I was reminded of that encounter from several years ago.
Ian suggests we have to Watch how we measure ourselves. Be cognizant of where we are putting our energies, how we are measuring our time. He mentions in a response to a comment from one of his readers that he is coming off his addiction to ‘busy’. He is happier now. More fulfilled in his work, yet, people at his workplace keep asking if he shouldn’t be doing something more urgent.
For Colin, the man at the shelter who had put a lifetime of energy into being drunk and now was committed to sobriety, his courage in taking those steps away from the past, were a reminder to everyone around him that it was possible. In the possibility that Colin represented, their fear wanted only to drag him back so they would not have to face the truth.
Anything is possible if we are willing to do the hard.
The hard work of getting sober, of getting ‘unbusy’, of taking time to stop and smell the roses, to savour the possible in this moment, right now, no matter how frightened we are that if we don’t fill this moment right now with ‘meaningful work’ we will be wasting our lives away.
Colin only had a few months to savour his new life, to lean into his new possibilities. I like to think that in those months he found his meaning not in the past, but in his courage in letting it go. And I like to think he knows that in his life and his willingness to ‘do the hard’, he keeps inspiring me to step beyond my fear of letting go of the well-worn path to soar bravely into possibility.