Living an UNCOMMON LIFE
Essential Lessons from 21 Extraordinary People
By John St. Augustine
Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc. Copyright © 2006 John St. Augustine
All rights reserved.
On Being Human
Trust thyself. Every heart vibrates to that string.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
I had my first inkling that my life might not go the way I expected when I was 19 years old. On Friday January 19, 1978 at exactly 10:05 P.M. I died—at least for a moment or two. This was according to a friend of mine who gave me a couple of sharp smacks to the chest that got my heart going again. I was working part time for a major drug store chain, and my job was working with the bailing machine, crushing cardboard boxes into hay-bale-size blocks. The machine had been malfunctioning, so we were using the button inside the fuse box to initiate the cycle. The last thing I remember was pressing that button with my right thumb and holding the iron door closed with my left hand. Then there was a deep humming sound and the strangest thought came to mind—i'm dead.
Somehow I was able to pull myself off the machine. My right hand looked like someone used it for target practice. My skin was so hot it was blue. The eyelets blew out of my shoes, and the buttons burned off my shirt. The pharmacist on duty (who just happened to stay late that night) found me. I remember his name was Mike. He was a Vietnam veteran. He took my pulse and found nothing. He proceeded to pound my chest and give me CPR until the paramedics came. He saved my life.
On that night, it just so happened that Chicago Fire Department ambulance #32 was only a few blocks away, and the next thing I knew they were hooking me up to monitors and IV lines and lifting me onto a stretcher. My parents came to the emergency room in record time, and there was some discussion if my right hand could be saved. My dad convinced the attending doctor that someday I would need that hand, and so they painstakingly cut away the dead and burned skin and bandaged me up the best they could.
By midnight I was in a room with my bandaged right hand hanging from a hook to keep the swelling down. The stench of burnt flesh permeated everything. I lay there wondering what in the world was going on. How did this happen to me?
Still, every so often we discover that what we need and what we want are two very different things.
A few days later, a nurse was teaching me how to clean and scrub the burns on my hand, a very painful process. The second- and third-degree burns were horrible to look at, and I begged her to do it for me. "John," she said to me, "the moment you take ownership of the pain is the moment you begin to heal." Since that day, those words have applied to every area of my life.
I would go on to manage my healing. I underwent plastic surgery and skin grafts on my hand and then, being the bulletproof age of 20, I believed my life had had its bad turn and from then on everything would be just fine. After watching the Iran hostages paraded on IV in 1980, I fully intended to join the Marines. Therefore, a few days later I went to the recruiting office, but the Marines were out to lunch. However, the Coast Guard recruiter in the next office was just as happy to see me. I signed on the dotted line and spent the years 1980 to 1984 in the aviation wing of the Coast Guard, that overlooked branch of the Armed Forces, with responsibility for search-and-rescue missions. Semper Paratus! These remain some the proudest years of my life.
After an honorable discharge from the Guard, I had no real plan for my life. However, things started to happen quickly, thanks to a blond-haired, blue-eyed girl named Jackie.
I met Jacqueline Marie Skaja in the fall of 1984 and fell head over heels in love. We married in May of 1986. Now I had a great job, a smart (and very pretty) wife, and the future seemed secure. Well, perhaps you know the phrase, when everything seems to be going right, that's when things go wrong.
Just two weeks after Jackie and I got married, we were driving home from the Chicago suburbs after picking up our wedding pictures. It was a beautiful spring evening. Suddenly a drunk driver ran a red light with his Cadillac and hit our 1983 Pontiac Firebird broadside at nearly 60 miles per hour as I was legally driving though the intersection. Our car folded like an accordion. I took the brunt of the impact on my left side. My knees and legs went up into the dash and my right hand—the same one that was hurt before—went through the windshield. The car spun in a circle, spewing metal and glass everywhere.
I heard Jackie screaming. I saw our photo album lying in the highway, and my last conscious thought was "Not again. I'm too young to die." Then everything went dark.
Rescue workers—many of whom I knew personally—covered me up while they started to pry the mangled car apart. A nurse who was at the scene checked my pulse and thought I would make it, but she wasn't sure. Then, as if by some weird remote control, I was wide awake under the tarp and could hear everything. I was hypersensitive to the sound of metal being cut, the smell of gasoline on the hot pavement, the sobs of my wife—1 could feel what was going on, even though I could see none of it. Strange as it may sound, I felt fully alive.
The minute the workers cut the door from its hinges, I popped up from under the tarp like a jack-in-the-box. I was ready to walk home—about 20 miles. Adrenaline had kicked in big time. The rescuers calmed me down—amazed I was even alive—and put me in the ambulance for a short ride to the ER. Amazingly, I went home that night with only bruises and a bad cut on the hand. Other than that, I was OK. Or so I thought.
Two months later I was sitting in a scorching hot courtroom and finally locked eyes with the man who had hit us. He received a slap on the wrist for running the light (he left the scene of the accident but turned himself in two days later). There was no charge of drunk driving even though he had priors. I went home that night full of rage. Shortly after midnight, that rage exploded in the form of anxiety attacks so severe that my wife called both her parents and the police. When the police showed up, they were convinced I was in some drug-induced rage and took me to the hospital. Waves of anger swept through me, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. In short order I was sent down to a "facility" on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago where really big guys in white jackets took away my belt, shoelaces, and pocketknife. I was in a room with a guy who talked to the chair next to his bed like it was a dog. I can still hear him ... "Sit ... Sit ... Sit." I thought this guy was wacko—and they thought I was, too.
After a couple of days of observation, the doctor assigned to my case unraveled the mess: too much pressure on the nervous system in too short of a time—getting married, smashed in an accident, off work for a couple of months, person causing accident gets off scott-free, John implodes. I got a private room and more time alone. Jackie had thoughts about divorcing me, and I would not have blamed her. It got worse before it got better. The doctor prescribed Xanax, a powerful drug for anxiety disorders. He told me that anxiety comes out differently in people. For me it was almost like "The Incredible Hulk" metamorphosis: calm one minute, then something would set me off, and bam, I was crushing full cans of Coke without opening them. This is not to mention a few side effects of the drug. Some I learned of were release of hostility and other paradoxical effects such as irritability and hallucinations. Just what I needed—something to add fuel to the fire that burned inside me.
Einstein's been quoted as saying the thinking that creates a problem cannot be the thinking that solves the problem. I had to find a way to harness the powerful feelings that were surging inside me and make them work for me, not against me. The words came back: When you take ownership of the pain, you begin to heal. It had worked for me physically, but what about mentally? I decided to stop taking the drug and began to find little mental games to play when I felt the anxiety well up, like picturing a barbell in my mind. I would bend but never break. In the beginning it was tough; I really felt the weight. But gradually I gained control over my thoughts, and the weight became easier and easier to handle.
To demonstrate how anxious I was, for one year Jackie and I slept on a mattress on the floor with the lights on in the living room of our small apartment. How we made it through that first year truly amazes me—not the best way to start a marriage. Still we must have done a few things right—we recently celebrated our 20th year together.
Through this experience, I began to learn that the mind is our most powerful tool for dealing with any experience, but most of us never learn to master our thoughts or harness our true potential. That automobile accident turned out to be a teacher in disguise, providing an opportunity for me to grow. It was time for me to start on a new path.
Just a few short years later, with a college degree under my belt and a baby girl named Amanda added to the family, our lives found a bit of normalcy. I was a substitute teacher at the high school I had attended and was working with pro athletes in my other career as a sports marketing consultant. In January of 1991, our second child, Andy, joined our family. I thought for sure the hard times were behind us. Not quite yet.
Amanda was born with a kidney defect, and by the time she was five her right kidney had become toxic and had to be removed. We were devastated. I can remember watching her ride the gurney into the operating room sitting up like a big girl with Teddy by her side and then the nerve-wracking hours that followed. After a successful surgery, we rushed into the recovery room where she lay and held her close. Bathed in the glow of the monitors, I began to wonder, "How did all this happen in my life? I've been out of high school for just over ten years!"
For the time being, Amanda's prognosis was good, but she would eventually need a kidney transplant. She rebounded and did well for a long time. Not long after the surgery I found myself in the deal of a lifetime, which would later turn out to be the turning point of a lifetime. The details really don't matter, but in the middle of the deal I was asked to give a commencement address at a high school in Upper Michigan, a place I had visited once and thought of more as a part of Canada than the United States. It was hardly a place I would think of ever living. I accepted the invitation, and we drove from Chicago to the Upper Peninsula, the UP, as it's called. I was overwhelmed to see an entire town attend a graduation for just 27 young people. I half expected Andy and Barney to pull up in the Mayberry patrol car! They had brought me in to tell the grads how to be "successful," but the lesson went in reverse—it was me who learned that success meant community, the support and faith in the future demonstrated by the loving parents, teachers, and neighbors in attendance.
As if by the design of the universe, I was confronted by the proverbial fork in the road: one road meant staying in Chicago and battling my way through a business deal that I knew deep down wasn't going to work, which was going to cost me big time in terms of friendship and money. Or the other road, which meant following that still, small voice inside and trying something new. I chose to take that second road.
Bruce and Pat Hardwick own a small, ten-room motel in Rapid River, Michigan, and their son Tom was in the class to whom I spoke on graduation. We had become fast friends, and they offered my family a place to live. So it came to pass that on one fall day in 1996 the Hardwicks, with a horse trailer in tow, led a caravan from Michigan to our front door, and in just hours we were packed and heading north, leaving Chicago behind.
My family and I began living in the same motel I had stayed in just months earlier as "Mr. Successful." I sure didn't feel very successful. As a matter of fact, I felt that by moving to this small town in upper Michigan, I had possibly ruined my life—not to mention the lives of my wife and kids. There I was at the age of 37, an adult male with a college degree living in a motel. It was at an all-time low—or so I thought. All during this period, I had a recurring dream of myself as a backpacker walking on the side of a curved road lined with pine trees and the sun slowly setting. I took it as a sign that I should get my gear together and get moving. However, it was to be much more than that.
Two weeks after we moved and put the kids in school, Jackie found a job. (She is an incredible floral designer.) We put our household goods in storage and settled into the kitchenette-rooms 9 and 10 at the Hillcrest Motel. I had the dream again. I decided to share this with Bruce, an Ojibway fire-keeper and very respected wise man. He took my hand and led me to the back of his property near the tree line and told me that he believed it was time for me to go on a "vision quest" and that my whole life had led me to this point—or I could choose to go back to the life I had led before. He was crying as he spoke the words, and I somehow knew it was the truth. I wanted to find a new direction for my life. I was tired of getting hit with the spiritual two-by- four. I needed to find the purpose for my existence.
That evening Bruce lit a sacred fire, and I announced to the people—most of whom I hardly knew—that I was to embark on a walk from Rapid River to Chicago (from where we had just moved) and back. There was silence in the lodge and then a man with silver hair down to his waist, Duane Kinnart, stood up and said, "I will be going with you" in such a matter-of-fact voice that it seemed perfect. I had no plans or provisions, no job, no sense of why this had to be done, but I knew I had to walk. Through some amazing connections, a young man, who was related to Bruce's wife, Pat, heard about the journey, and soon 20-year-old Joe Johnson became the third musketeer.
We walked out of that lodge a few days later and made it all of 19 miles the first day. The next morning, we had to help each other out of bed. My father-in-law, Mickey, backed up the walk in his van. I was convinced at the time he did so because he thought I was crazy, but his presence on the trip was invaluable.
The walk itself is another book, but I have to say that I don't know a more spiritually grounded man than Duane. It seemed that he was waiting for me to arrive as a puzzle piece for his own journey. His presence is an example that all of us, especially men, can not only change, but can entirely reroute our primitive energies and, by doing so, create a life that is of the highest order. We made it to Chicago in four weeks. Then, Duane and Joe headed home with their families. I stayed back. The real journey for me was about to begin. I started walking again.
As I proceeded, alone for the first time in my life—really alone—I was somehow able to connect with my true self, the one who exists past all the pain and worry that corrodes the human spirit during a lifetime. My steps got lighter, my thoughts went higher, and I began to put back together the pieces of myself that life had knocked out of place. At one point, in Kettle Moraine State Park in Wisconsin, I took everything out of my wallet except the cash and burned it all—pictures, IDs, you name it—so as to symbolically strip away who I used to be.
Not long after that and just past a small Wisconsin town, as I was keeping a pretty good pace, hoping to make it to a designated point where I would connect with a friend to clean up a bit, I found myself walking on the side of that tree-lined road with a backpack just as the sun was beginning to set. I froze in place. This could not be happening. It was the same place I had seen in my dreams for the past six months. That moment blew away any vestiges of what had constituted reality for me.
I just stood there ... and then a thought leapt to mind: Go on the radio.
That made about as much sense as living in a motel or walking to Chicago or being stuck to a bailing machine or getting hit by a drunk driver. I had no previous interest in radio or knowledge of that field, but what the heck—it seemed like some kind of divine order, and I was in no position to argue.
Bruce followed me in his car the last week of the walk—and it was on a 30-mile trek in one day (up to then, I had been doing about 15 miles or so a day) that I knew the walk was over. It was late fait and as I trudged north along Highway M35 with Bruce behind me in his blue Dodge, I found that the only places I could see to put my feet were illuminated by the headlights of Bruce's car.
At that moment, I had a strange "Celestine Prophecy" moment. While I knew full well the road was being lit by an automobile's headlights, it looked as if the light emanated from me. I thought, "Where I go, the light goes. If I don't choose to let it shine through me, the path is dark. When I allow it to guide my way, my steps are certain." I stopped on the dark road and collapsed like a pile of laundry. Bruce helped me back into the car. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Living an UNCOMMON LIFE by John St. Augustine. Copyright © 2006 John St. Augustine. Excerpted by permission of Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc..
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