We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark. The real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light. ~ Plato
Transformation: A marked change, as in appearance or character, usually for the better.
I hate definitions that use the word being defined to define the word, don’t you? One of the definitions I found for “transformation” was “the act of transforming.” Helpful, eh, if you don’t know what “transforming” means. It sort of throws the process off-course to have to go looking for the definition of successive words in order to figure out the original definition.
While transformation, according to the definition above, may usually be for the better, that is by no means necessarily the case. I went through a transformation at the end of my teens that was decidedly not for the better. One thing, though, that is usually true about any type of transformation, good or bad, is that it is gradual. There’s no question my life took a very sharp turn at seventeen and seemed to have happened overnight. And, that’s true to some extent. However the reality is that the transformation had only just begun and would continue for many years.
Allow me to illustrate my point about the slow movement of life. I once aimed a video camera into my home office in Austin before leaving for work. We had four dogs at the time and one new puppy – a miniature Schnauzer. Baby was very small and, in the beginning, sickly. We discovered he had something called a “portal shunt” or “portosystemic shunt.” I’m not sure which is more expensive to correct, though often the more sophisticated the name you give it, the more you’re charged for it. I ended up driving to A&M in Bryan/College Station with that tiny puppy in my lap so he could have micro-surgery to correct the problem. As with many things in life, the surgery could only partially correct the problem. But it did give him a second chance at life. It transformed his life.
“Portosystemic shunts (PSS) are vascular anomalies that divert blood from the abdominal viscera to the heart, bypassing the hepatic sinusoids and carrying intestinal absorption products directly to the systemic circulation.” See how expensive that sounds? Bottom line, not all the poisons were being filtered before the blood returned to his heart. After the surgery, we renamed the puppy Million-Dollar Baby.
Okay, back to the video camera. There really was a point to my little detour to the expensive veterinary school. I was afraid the other dogs might be rude, mean, or otherwise beat up on Baby after his surgery. The dogs were kept in my home office during the day. So, I started the tape running and off I went to work. When I later rewound the tape to watch the results, I discovered I had to fast-forward through the tape to see movement at all. Not only where the other dogs not being mean to Baby, they could barely stay awake long enough to move from one spot to another to sleep. It was a like watching grass grow. Talk about the life of Riley!
So, you see my point, right? No, it’s not that you really should never have five or six dogs at once, though, by the way, that’s an excellent point. It’s that very often life moves along at what seems like a snail’s pace, even when it seems you can’t find time in your schedule to do one more thing. Think about changes in the way you look. When looking at photos from years before, it’s difficult to imagine how you could have changed so much. That, of course, is because those changes didn’t occur overnight. Day after day you see yourself in the mirror. How could you possibly notice the microscopic changes in your appearance in any given twenty-four-hour time period? But, unquestionably, the changes are taking place.
I have a friend who uses the phrase “little by slow.” Transformation is like that, changes coming slowly, a little at a time. Spiritual transformation is rarely the Damascus Road experience of Saul that resulted in his becoming Paul, ceasing his persecution of early Christians and, instead, converting to Christianity and becoming one of its strongest advocates. We may all have minor burning bush experiences, but rarely are our lives changed completely in an instant. No, we usually discover it’s quite difficult to make major changes of any kind and stick to those changes, especially if they involve too great a change. A major shift in our perception usually arrives with an equally major amount of fear. No matter how much we may dislike our lives, there’s still something comforting about the status quo. We’d prefer the world change around us rather than being expected to make changes to ourselves in order to move forward. And so, most of us have some aspect of our lives where we are hesitant to make changes despite knowing we would be better off by making the change.
But, transformations can truly be miracles in slow motion. This, at least, has been my experience over the past several years. My life has changed from that of an apparently hopeless, helpless drunk to that of a healing human being, ready to share that healing and hope with others where I can. That, I assure you, did not happen in a flash of brilliant light. No, it was much more like a hand had been hovering over the dimmer switch for years, slowly bringing up the level of light so as not to frighten me unnecessarily.
Years ago, a dear friend and mentor said to me, “Ben, more will be revealed.” I can’t express in strong enough terms how disheartening that was to hear. I’d spent most of my life attempting to remain in enough of a fog so as not to have anything more revealed. I already knew the pain I’d been through, right? It took a long time to realize the unrevealed parts of my life were keeping me from living a life with any kind of peace. I knew a little about a lot of those unrevealed things, just chose to ignore them. The healing couldn’t start, however, until I dragged some of those things, kicking and screaming, out into the light.
Over the years, virtually unbeknownst to me, the changes were taking place. There was a softening of my heart, perhaps even a little less fear. Something was changing, even though I refused most of the time to acknowledge those changes. The changes didn’t fit with who I believed myself to be by this point. And, had I known all at once the changes that were taking place, I most likely would have balked even more than I did. The likelihood is that I would have thrown the walls up even higher as I retreated into my own status quo, certain that would protect me.
I’m very grateful my mother had the chance to see a little new growth appearing around me before she died. I feel certain she’d watched for years for any growth in barren soil, saddened as she watched me wither a little more with each passing year. In thirty-three years, I never drank in front of my mother. It was only after I sobered up that I realized I’d been drinking in front of her every one of those years. Even if she didn’t know how much I drank – never once saw me actually take a drink – she had to be able to see the effects of the alcohol as my world continued to get smaller. That transformation didn’t happen overnight, either. I didn’t go from taking that first drink at fifteen or sixteen to the person at the end who would think, “Well, I’m sure I could have just one drink before breakfast.” No, it had taken thirty-three years of transformation to get me to that awful place.
But in a way, it turns out that transformation was also one of my miracles. I’ve been told it takes what it takes. I was probably going to have to consume every one of those drinks in order to get to a place where the hopelessness became so unbearable that the thought of continuing to live that way forced me to face the necessity of change. The transformation began the day I decided I could at least try to go one day without a drink — and succeeded. I won’t lie, it took a long time before I felt like thanking God for yet another sober day. In the beginning, it was just too painful, too frightening, for me to be thankful. It happened, though – little by slow.
It took years again before the thought of going one more day without facing some of the things I’d needed to face for decades became more unbearable than hiding from those things. I had a therapist who had to work overtime to get me to stop talking long enough to admit that there might be a few good things about me. Any good I was able to see lived many years in the past in a person whose good side I believed no longer existed.
Gradually, however, I got tired of pretending the “I” I’d once known so long ago no longer existed. I got tired of seeing that good part as belonging to a completely different person I no longer knew. That was another beginning. The dimmer switch was being pushed a little higher. My life was getting a little brighter.
While I was in therapy, I had a dream. In the dream, I was back at the high school where I graduated. I was talking in the hall to some people I’d recognized. After a while, I noticed a boy standing off to the side, watching me but holding back. He looked familiar, but I just couldn’t quite place him. After a moment, though, he walked up to me and said sadly, “Don’t you remember me?” Before I could answer, I woke up.
It will probably come as no surprise to you that I was the last one to figure out who that boy was. I was trying very hard to understand why he looked so familiar. Tom said, “Oh, I knew who it was while you were telling me the story.” My therapist had also realized who I was talking about before I finished telling him the story. I was the only one who hadn’t immediately realized the boy was the seventeen-year-old me I’d walked away from so many years before, determined never to be that vulnerable again. My therapist asked me to say out loud who the boy was. I started crying as soon as I told him the boy was me. I hadn’t seen that seventeen-year-old for forty years — at least not the real one, but only the one I thought needed to be forgotten. It was the beginning of being able, finally, to grieve the loss of that boy so very long ago. It was the beginning of admitting to myself that he still existed — of admitting I still existed.
As I was working my way through therapy, I had no idea I would show up in church in a matter of months. If you’d suggested that would happen, I would have laughed at you and made some profane remark about what was going to freeze over before that would happen.
It’s taking a while, but I’m learning it’s never a good idea to say “never.” A few months later still, I found myself standing at the front of that church as I joined. I looked out over the congregation and thought to myself, “I wish I could see myself a little the way these people seem to see me.” Then, I realized they were, just perhaps, seeing something I was still refusing to see. Again, the light got a little brighter.
Another few months and I was being baptized. My first baptism had been almost fifty years earlier. I had gone from telling a friend, “Yeah, like that’s going to happen,” when he suggested years earlier that some day I was going to have to deal with that resentment I had against organized religion, to shivering in a pool of cold water in church. They’d forgotten to turn on the heater in the baptismal early enough so it was a somewhat invigorating experience. But there I stood, waist-deep in frigid water and happy to be there.
Standing in the baptismal, my pastor said, “Baptism is not magical, nor does it mean a person will be perfect forevermore. Rather baptism is a promise not to let our brokenness make us forget that we are meant to be sons and daughters of a living and loving God. Baptism is giving what you know of yourself to what you know of God.” I love that part, “giving what you know of yourself to what you know of God.” I admit it seemed there was very little I knew of myself at that point, though I was gradually learning more. What I knew of God was what I’d already known all my life and was just then beginning to allow myself to remember.
I wrote about it in my Memo to God [from My Life Described in 1481 Words — to be continued], but I believe we arrive in this world already knowing God because we came here through God. We may not know why we had to leave the presence of God in order to come here for a while, but we trust that it will be okay. I think we forget what we know of God as the world gradually takes us over. So, we’re left trying for a lifetime to find our way back to even a small part of the understanding of God we had when we arrived.
As I was pulled up out of the water, my pastor said, “Benjamin Edward Eakin, child of God.” I think a couple of floodlights were added to the dimmer circuit as I felt a peace I had perhaps never felt in my life.
I was presented with a sterling silver ichthus1 at my baptism that day and I’ve worn it every day since. When I walk, the ichthus taps me on the chest, reminding me that I am, and have always been, a beloved child of God.
Today, when I get frustrated that things aren’t moving along quickly enough, I try to remember I’ve spent most of my life trying to rush death. Now, I think it’s time to breathe a little. Death will come when it comes, nothing I can do about it. In the meantime, I have so many more things I need to learn about me. I have so many more things to learn about God. And, little by slow, there are so many more things to learn about me and God.
Transformation. Most of the time the changes are barely perceptible. If you look closely in the mirror, though, you may catch a glimpse of a slightly more rapid change. When I remember how grateful I am to live today in the amazing, transforming grace of God, a smile appears on my face.
Now, that is transformation.
1 The ichthus is the fish symbol associated with Christianity.