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My story from Entitlement to Gratitude
In Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilych, Ivan, a judge, married his wife because it seemed the right thing to do and secretly blames her for pressuring him into a career and lifestyle because it seemed prestigious. In the final days of his life, Ivan has a clear realization of the difference between an artificial life, such as his own, which masked the true meaning of life and makes one fear death, and an authentic life. On his deathbed he utters the question: “What if my whole life has been wrong?” and then he dies.
My near-death experience at age 36 for me was the catalyst to arrive at that same question.
Up until that experience, I lived a largely unaware, entitled, completely enabled, and narcissistic life, starting in childhood with patterns of behavior repeating and repeating and deeply intensifying into adulthood.
To the outside world, my life appeared carefree, almost perfect, starting with my physical appearance, to career, romantic relationships, owning my own home, and the list continued.
Looking back at that time prior to this shift, prior to my near-death experience, I knew deep down inside how inauthentic much of my life was. It was not a moral life built on virtues; it was a life based on what I wanted and how much I could get and completely lacked “what can I offer,” “what can I give,” and “how can I serve.”
Since I only knew myself through the lens of my ego, any attempts to dismantle it to arrive at my real true Self were immediately blocked by my ego identity. Each human deep down inside has a knowing of what is right and wrong, what is morally correct, what is benevolent and true, and this knowing originates from our connection to Source itself. It stems from us being a piece of the whole, a tiny sliver of the benevolent universe, a child of God. This knowing is always there; however, for myself at the time, the connection had been lost, completely veiled by layers and layers of ego and self-righteousness.
We often don’t recognize this veiling on our own, and learn only through a form of intense suffering. This is just like a sudden crack on a jar those manyfold layers of ego crack and break open to reveal the emerging light of our soul, illuminating areas of ourselves previously left unexamined.
My near-death experience initiated this suffering.
Lying there on the side of the freeway after my blackout from a panic attack while driving home from work, I had been pulled into space of light and bliss, of pure love, a feeling and experience I still struggle to describe in words, a space of complete peace.
Everything in my life after that day would never be the same again.
A mental unravelling occurred almost overnight and continued for weeks and months. Waves of shame about how I had treated people, misled others, feelings of deceit, guilt, and regret washed over me seemingly unstoppably, culminating in the question, “What if my whole life has been wrong?”
In all great suffering, the benevolent universe always provides an escape, and as the saying goes: “It takes a village to raise a child.” In my case, it took a village to help me make sense of it all, spiritual writers, psychologists, friends, family, animals, nature, God, all played integral parts in finding my new footing and comprehending what was taking place, ever so slowly.
What also slowly started to appear was light. It was the same light that I had experienced during my near-death experience. The light allowed me to rebuild my fragile new identity, confidence, trust, and a new understanding of my place in the world, yet this time, it was not built on ego, but on authenticity, on truth, on kindness, compassion, empathy, and connection. A new kind of carefreeness arose, one rooted in Source, in God, in Truth. The grounds were still shaky, and the understanding of this new “divine world order” existed largely only in theory, and it would take years before I would learn to integrate it more fully.
At this time, I was still completely unaware that l did not want to be here. Here in this life. I knew and said growing up that I did not want to be here.
My large sense of entitlement early on informed my opinion that my mother who brought me into this life was responsible for my existence, and so I was entitled to it, and there was no input or gratitude required on my part as it had not been my choice to be born. Looking back at my conflicted relationship with my mother, it was almost as if my hatred toward her throughout my teenage years was the direct result of subconsciously blaming her for never challenging me, for never disciplining me, so that at the very least I could have recognized my true Self sooner.
Blaming her and many others for enabling me to live an inauthentic life.
I now know that it is the authentic desire of each person’s soul that each individual recognizes and fulfills this call to an authentic life during their human lifetime. Suffering and disease are designed to push us to crack open and recognize that.
During the first few days right after my near-death experience because the multitude of sudden realizations of my apparent failure came as a huge shock, I actually did consider discontinuing my physical life. Luckily, my mom who had flown in was there and asked me if I knew that God gave me this life as a gift.
At age 39, three years after my near-death experience, when the nurse confirmed the diagnosis of breast cancer, my first reaction was a deep peace. It was a somatic reaction; it didn’t come from the mind, but it was almost as if in that moment, while I sat down deeper into her office chair, this warmth of peace filled every part of my body.
That same peace that I experienced during my near-death experience.
Source was there. I immediately felt it, this time like a deep knowing. Everything I had learned the three years prior, particularly present-moment awareness, came to inform my every thought, feeling, and ability to take next steps. There was a deep knowing too, a knowing that told me it was time to integrate. My first actual thought after hearing the diagnosis was: “Thank you God for giving me the chance to be strong.”
As someone who had always been enabled, I had learned to believe and portray myself as weak in order to have others do things for me. It worked like a charm prior to this shift that I went through.
Now, however, with my new understanding, I had a deep, profound gratitude for the opportunity to finally be able to show that I was actually capable of being strong myself, and I had a real first task, and the task was to survive cancer.
Based on the insights and awareness I had gained as a result of the unravelling over the past three years, I immediately saw breast cancer as a gift. It was like I was given the chance at a do-over of my life, Life 2.0 if you will, a second chance to live according to life’s virtues, and I fully embraced this opportunity.
Up until then, I had not really explored gratitude, what it meant to be truly thankful, thankful from the heart. Gratitude had thus far been a rather elusive concept, something that felt forced growing up, being forced to say thank you. Now, however, the magnitude of this second chance at an authentic life and the opportunity to be truly strong made me feel incredibly grateful for this undeserved opportunity.
With this newly afforded chance came also the resurfacing of my previously held point of view of not wanting to be here, here on this planet, and so far, never intentionally choosing to be responsible for my own life. No matter where I looked, the question confronted me, “Do you want to be here?”
My therapist at the time, as well as a friend, and a healer, all independently of each other during the time leading up to my surgery pointed out that, energetically, they sensed that I did not want to be here.
The night before my surgery, my mom, who had flown in, had a dream about my father. He had died six years prior, and we both had been estranged from him due to his criminal past. My mom had never before dreamt of him. In the dream, they drove together in a car with a valuable box in the trunk. Upon arriving at my house, where my father was dropping her off, they got out and they each wanted to take the box with them. My mom said that she will keep the box with her, and my father allowed it, let go of the box, and drove away.
When she told me about the dream I burst into tears because I knew what it meant, and it was in that moment that my decision to stay here on this planet with her was affirmed. As part of the surgery, I chose to remove both breasts even though it was not needed, and to not reconstruct them, to finally break the cycle of having been objectified my whole life, and to forever shed the temptation to identify myself based on my physical appearance.
I was ready to take responsibility for my True Self and to fully integrate the shift from entitlement to gratitude for life.
Lao Tzu reminds us of the four virtues of life: reverence for all life, natural sincerity, gentleness, and lastly, being of service.
In the months and years now after surgery, having gone through the milestones of my life, reverence, sincerity, and gentleness have become increasingly part of every moment, to the point where I cannot imagine living life any other way.
Being of service to others has now become my focal point. Arriving at a place where you are no longer focused just on yourself, and the things that you really want for yourself, you begin to say: how can I want them more for someone else than I want them for me?
Having received this priceless gift of awareness of life, my questions have now become: “How can I help? “What can I give?” “How can I be of service?”
And part of that is writing and sharing my experiences, in the hope that it might be of service for anyone who it is intended for.