By Fr. Jim Swarthout
(Above photo courtesy of Tim Ok)
Through my work, I get asked a lot of questions from clients who come through our doors and alumni who have completed treatment. Many of these questions are hard to hear and even harder to answer, and interestingly enough they are all rather similar. The wording may vary slightly. One may ask, “How do I heal?” Another, “How do I move forward?” Another still, “How do I become better?” When you boil these questions down to the most basic principle, all of these individuals are searching for the same exact thing—health and happiness.
Individuals and families who I see are desperately seeking the ever-elusive joy that seems to be missing in their lives. Our mission is to try and help them find it. And try I do. When I respond to these difficult, profound questions, I often refer to the 12-Steps, which serve as our foundational tool. Other times, I recite well-known reflections among the recovery community; this one happens to be seasonal…
We all have elements of our past that continue to haunt us—things we aren’t proud of and memories we’d rather not name. Regret is a universal part of life and is wonderfully illustrated by Charles Dickens in his classic tale, A Christmas Carol.
In this story, the main character, Ebenezer Scrooge, is visited by four ghosts. The first of these is Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s former business partner who had died some years earlier. Marley appears laden with heavy chains. He explains that each link in the chain represents a past wrong that has been unforgiven.
His past misdeeds, Marley explains, are burdens he must now bear throughout eternity. Marley’s mission for that Christmas Eve night is to warn Scrooge of the fate that awaits him. He explains that Scrooge’s chains are even heavier than his own, because Scrooge has had several more years of life during which links of regret have been added to his already heavy chains.
Thus begins one of the most well-known stories of guilt, shame, enlightenment, recovery, and new life. At each step in his story, Scrooge must practice surrender. He surrenders to the reality of his situation, and the certainty of his future–that is, the certainty his future holds without change.
Ultimately, Scrooge does change. By the end of that dreadful night, he is transformed into a new and better person. It was the Ghost of Christmas Past who showed Scrooge that he was once capable of love and compassion and reminded him of the potential he once had. That brief vision of his potential eventually rekindled the flame in Scrooge’s heart. He had become aware of a better and more joyful life.
Those heavy chains filled with regrets from his past were lifted. Scrooge was a changed man! Yes, it would take time for people to believe the changes were genuine, but over time, they would come around.
In the rooms of recovery within the folks I meet, I play the role of those startled characters who didn’t know Scrooge back in the days when links were being added regularly to his chains of regret. I see people whom I never knew in their active addiction—loving, compassionate people who smile regularly and have an abundance of joy in their lives. People who, when they relate their past, seem so removed from the person they are describing.
I have so much gratitude for second chances and it is truly a gift to experience people find joy again after such a long period of darkness in their lives; a priceless gift that we can give others and ourselves. We should all strive to drop chains that weigh us down and encourage others to do the same, so together we can be lifted up. I strive for that each and every day, and it’s inspiring and heartening to observe many of the communities we serve adapt that mindset as well.
Consider what opportunities you have today, this week, or this holiday season to drop some unnecessary weight that does not serve you and encourage someone you know or love to do the same. Everyone has the right to have joy, and the first step to get there is to drop the weight.
I am so grateful for second chances. The life I live today is full of love and joy. Yesterday, I threw away those chains that had burdened me for so long. I surrendered them in exchange for a fresh vision of the person I am today.
Blessings to you and yours this holiday season and always.
Jim Swarthout is director of clergy and alumni relations for the Rosecrance Behavioral Health, home of the Florian Program. The Rosecrance Florian Program is designed to address the complex biopsychosocial issues unique to the culture of firefighters, paramedics, law enforcement officers, and military.