Gift of Desperation

My wife and I notice when we do or say the things that we promised ourselves we would never do or say as parents.

“Do you want to do this the hard way or the easy way?”

That one’s mine. I find myself asking my son this question while I’m bathing him. Why even ask, right? When the situation has escalated to a place where that question surfaces, there is no more easy way. What child—in the history of parents asking children that awful question—has chosen the easy way?

The question brings me back to memories of barber chairs and sunscreen slatherings: to places where adults forced me to sit still while they exact torturous devices. I never opted for the easy way. Why should my son? What’s more, why should I expect that question to make the way any easier?

Here’s another.

“Fine, stay home. Miss out on all the fun that your sister will be having.”

Good one, that one—the old guilt trip.

It’s the passive aggressive let me act like I’ve accepted your disappointing decision when I really haven’t. Let me pile on the guilt that will make your staying at home unbearable. Let me teach you while you’re young about a lifelong state of unease and anxiety commonly known as the fear of missing out.

As much as my wife hated hearing it, she now has to endure hearing herself say it.

Then there’s the counting.

You know, the “you have five seconds to start getting dressed, or else.” Whoever wanted to parent like that? Whoever thought parenting would have to continually return to the dramatic conclusion of a hostage negotiation?

Not I.

Not us.

We were not going to be those parents that counted down to our children’s demise. Our children were going to grow up without a proverbial gun to their heads, forcing them to get moving, to clean up, to get dressed.

No sir.

Our children were going to listen to us respectfully the first time.

There aren’t enough laugh-until-you-cry emojis to insert here. I have to do the count to nearly everything. I count down to get my son to start getting dressed. I countdown to get him to put on each separate article of clothing. That means I sometimes countdown four times to force him to put on his socks and shoes.

I am Ground Control and he is Major Tom.

I am the 80s band Europe and it is perpetually The Final Countdown.

I am that parent who can only control his child when the threat of lost screen time is imminent and at hand. I read somewhere recently—I’m nearly positive it was above a urinal—a quote that we civilized human beings spend our entire time on earth in a state of compromise. You may know the quote. If so, drop it in a comment, would ya? I can’t remember it exactly.

My ideals, especially concerning parenting, are in a constant state of bending. Many of them have broken and scattered into the ether, never to be dreamt up again. But there are some which are so important that they become flexible, malleable, adaptable.

Like telling our kids, “Don’t take things for granted.”

I mean, seriously, could there be a more hackneyed parental device then, “don’t take so and so for granted”? It’s usually followed by “there are children starving in this or that third-world country” or “some children don’t have a toy, let alone dozens to play with” or, my personal favorite, “this loved one, your so and so won’t be around forever.”

I don’t know of a more generic but important lesson for children to learn than the appreciation of the gifts that become mundane and routine.

The difficulty is that children and adults must learn this for themselves. Humans never take the easy way. And there is no easy way to truth. I can tell my son to appreciate every meal he receives and every moment he spends with his grandparents. But he won’t know how to fully appreciate those meals and those people until they are gone, when it is too late. How could he? Without some divine intervention or a visit from the spirit of Christmas Past?

To get to that place of appreciation, I had the gift of desperation in early recovery.

It’s a nice acronym for God. As is “group of drunks” and “good orderly direction.” The gift of desperation became my spiritual foundation.

When you’re bankrupt, a dollar can make you feel rich.

One thing I always took for granted was my education: reading, writing, arithmetic. I had a good deal of intellectual pride to boot. I thought I knew most everything there is to know and I acted like it. I thought because I could stay up all night partying and go to work without getting fired that I was in superior control of myself.

How fraudulent is this disease I suffer from?—to imagine I mastered that which enslaved me.

Then I hit bottom. Or, if your glass is half-full, I received the gift of desperation.

At my most desperate intellectually, I lost the ability to read. I’m not being dramatic here, or metaphorical. My fellow inmates at rehab gave me a prayer to read on my third day sober. It is a story I’ve told here and there before.

The prayer was “Slow me down, Lord.” No doubt they gave it to me because I was an outright mental defective. I was the guy who, in his first couple days of rehab, refused to admit he was an alcoholic and an addict; the guy who refused to speak or open up to anyone; the guy who was in the wrong place.

I looked at that prayer, the lamination worn from years of use, from all the other shaky newcomers who clutched it like a life-preserver. The words on the page floated around in my vision the way words do in those magnetic make-your-own-poetry sets on the refrigerator. I couldn’t read.

All that intellectual pride, and I couldn’t read them.

That’s when I first admitted that I was an alcoholic.

And for the near-decade since then, I’ve made a concerted effort to appreciate the gift of reading. I read everything Herman Hesse wrote in my first year sober. Today, I read everything people suggest me to read, eventually. If I were immortal and the universe endless, I’m sure I’d read every word ever written. I have even read all those quirky little sayings and streams of conscious on my Dr. Bronners soap label. I am vigilant in pursuit of words.


I know what it feels like to become so desperate that I can’t read. I know what it feels like to be so self-deluded that I can’t pursue truth because it exists on a different layer of existence than the one I’m living on.

Of course I don’t wish for my son to get to that place before realizing the gift of words. And I hate to subscribe to the theory that everyone must lose everything in order to make a genuine spiritual gain. But I do find it fascinating that a generic parental guideline like, “don’t take life for granted” can possess a lesson with such depth and weight.

After all, what more is the miracle of the mundane than the understanding that all we have, we’ve already got?

Right here.

Right now.

And forever.

Reading whatever I can, whenever I can, because I can.


21 Responses to “Gift of Desperation

  • Jeff Worden
    6 months ago

    I devoured spiritual books from Hindu, Islam, Tibetian Buddhism, Zen and of course had the conference approved stuff and Christian literature, early on. Today I’m onto Coelho, Tozer, Kierkegaard, de Mello, Merton and have recently started consuming poetry from people I’ve found on WP

    • I am in good company then! I can’t help but devour that stuff and keep coming back for now. I just started “the other Wes Moore” which is really interesting.

      Thanks Jeff. It’s great to hear from you.

  • I love that you touched on the process of self discovery here….there was so much good inside of this post, but that one always gets me. We can’t bring someone else along on their journey of learning and insight….in the rooms, or in everyday life encounters. I want to! I still think “if you would just listen to me (or anyone,) do what I say, follow these directions, things would get better for you.) even if I’m right it wouldn’t be an intrinsic life changing lesson that belongs to them….it would be them doing what they are told out of not wanting to shut me up, to be left alone. For our children, for those in the rooms with us, for those we work with and those we live with. It’s an inside job and not one I can control. I am often astounded at how deep some have to go to reach that gift of desperation.

    • It’s so hard Annette. What is harder?

      No matter what we do, we can’t other people see the world like we do. Sometimes, we can’t force other people to see all the blazing light and good in themselves that we see. I’ve been talking to someone about that recently who is struggling with a newcomer.

      It’s that “let go with love” thing that is so hard, but so so important.

      Great to hear from you! Been thinking about that new beautiful grandbaby of yours.

  • Great post! I was nodding my head over and over again while reading it.

    I think the most humbling experience in life comes from trying to be a good parent. And failing. And trying again. I went from easily naming all of the things my parents did ‘wrong,’ to realizing I am now trying to measure up to them as a parent. I think maybe that’s the purpose of having children –to finally appreciate what an incredible task it is to raise kids. And to understand how much your parents loved you, despite their being so painfully human. Ultimately, it helps you to forgive them, and to accept that they did their best.

    • You are so right!

      I mean, this:

      “I went from easily naming all of the things my parents did ‘wrong,’ to realizing I am now trying to measure up to them as a parent.”

      That right there is my experience exactly. You only know after doing it, and by then you’re just trying to minimize mistakes. Thanks for your insightful comment. Nice to know others go through similar turmoil in this parenting game.

  • Oh boy, I ALWAYS had to count for kids in my kindergarten classrooms!
    But they loved it! They thought it was a game!
    Of course, it was sometimes, “If you want to get outside…”
    Reading is a gift that I never take for granted.
    Thank you, Mark for helping so many of us!

    • Thank you Wendy! Oh, man. I can’t handle two, let alone a classroom full of those little rascals. That’s hell to me, to be honest. It takes a special kind of heart. Glad you were there for them. Thanks for dropping by!

  • Oh the parenting road……….

    Nodding. And listing my own phrases in my head as I read along.

  • “When you’re bankrupt, a dollar can make you feel rich.”

    You describe what I am experiencing right now in my husband’s early sobriety, I feel rich in life and daily shared experiences with my husband beyond description. Interestingly it took bankruptcy to realize my riches. To realize that “all we have, we’ve already got” and I have received what I got again, and again, and again…in so much gratitude.

    Beautiful post as always Mark.


    • Thanks Marahu.

      It’s a wild ride isn’t it? Never easy. Simple most of the time. Filled with all sorts of ups and downs.

      Thanks for leaving word here. It’s always so good to hear from you. My best to you and your husband.

  • Lisa Neumann
    6 months ago

    Mark, Mark, Mark,

    My current teen favorites:
    1) “You don’t need it because you don’t have it.”
    2) “Yes, let’s go to the mall and look at all the things we don’t need.”
    I have to stay one step ahead of their ever burgeoning minds.

    The ordinary is the extraordinary because I say so …

    You might enjoy:

    ps. When does school start for you on the East Coast?

    • What a nice piece of spoken word there Lisa. I enjoyed that very much. Thank you for sharing.

      I can’t begin to imagine he way these little machinations and manipulations will grow and layer over time. I’m definitely not ready for it. Thankfully I have a decade to get ready! That’s a crazy thought.

      We start back up in mid-August. Chilling, writing, until then.

  • Elements of guilt reading this Mark…

    My son has a pet Chihuahua, I don’t like her much and in fact she doesn’t like me or anyone other than him and my ex-husband. The damn mutt clearly chose a side that wasn’t even necessary as we do all get along. Anyway…. I am so worried that my son will be in his mid-teens when she dies as she is now 11 and he is also 11. I spent too much time reading and watching information on dramatic events which affect adolescent boys, which has induced fear into my thought process on how to handle the situation when the dog pops her clogs.

    Thank you so very much for this post and I will never say again “look we need to understand that Honey-Mouse (no laughing) isn’t going to be around forever and you need to prepare for this somehow”

    WTF! What have I been thinking, trying to cushion his future possible feelings and mine? No more Mark!

    Any suggestions however in this department would be greatly appreciated

    Michelle :)x

    • What a good mother to worry the way you do. It’s obvious you care about both the little things and the big things.

      My already put to words the only suggestion I would have. Let them be young. My wife tells it to me all the time when I’m hard on my kids, and I’m impatient for them to grow up. The world will demand s much of them so soon, so enjoy what you have with them now.

      Sorry for the crudeness of this adage, but it reminds me of the saying “if you have one foot in tomorrow, the other on yesterday, then you’re pissing all over today” or something like that. Instead of worrying about the pups future, enjoy the pup and bask in your kids love for it!

  • Thanks Mark!
    Wise wife – and yes I must stay present x

    michelle 🙂

  • Ohhhh man this post hits home. Especially the counting.

    My dad would always do the counting, except his would be a countdown to him getting angry. “Son, if you don’t stop talking, in about 3 seconds I’m going to explode! THREE, TWO…” If I was smart, I would leave the room, if I wasn’t…well…I wasn’t.

    And yeah he always called me “son” lol.

    My gratitude comes when I encounter a situation where I feel my father’s anger having the potential to come out through me. If it weren’t for the gift of desperation that lead me to the rooms of recovery, I wouldn’t know or understand that temper, anger, rage are things I can control. I can hit the pause button, and take 5 seconds to think, and make a better choice. My father didn’t have that ability.

    Thanks always for your writing and perspective.

    • Jon- thank you for identifying exactly what this post is about. How the gift of desperation teaches us what no other person or thing could.

      There’s something to be said about breaking the cycle of addiction. My father did what you are describing. He broke the cycle for me to understand what unconditional love means. I’ll always be grateful to him for that.

      We can’t control our family. But we can control how we react to them. I’m grateful for the chance to correspond and swap these similar Recovery findings.


  • john spence
    6 months ago

    Mark, i couldn’t really understand why I found reading almost repellent in recent time, why I had to limit the amount of recovery blogs I read. I knew it was a mental snafu but not beyond that? After reading this post, I see its ‘the truth isn’t on my plane of existence’ that has been the problem. I mean as I read more of the 3amigos (Mark, Dan, Paul) writings im seeing behind my own desperation, more posts are making more sense. Thanks for the pointer to my next insight, I know it won’t be the last.

    • That’s great news John. And it’s really good to hear from you!

      I find that I read the recovery literature stuff over and over again. And it rarely reads the same to me. Each time I read something I’m (usually) in a better place and can hear a bit more.

      Take care until next time bud! DM me with what is new!

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