Starved My Mind To Save My Soul
By Andy Vargo
I’ve spent the last seventeen months searching for something
I could not find for the previous forty years.
Andy Vargo (author, speaker, comedian)
Tent, sleeping bag, pillow. That’s all I need. Oh, and maybe some food. I should definitely take some food. I don’t know where I am going, but I have to get away.
I’ve been on a journey to find myself, yet the harder I look, the more lost I feel. Last year, I jumped. I leapt off the cliff of comfort and changed everything. That was the night I told my wife of twenty years that I was gay.
I know what you’re thinking. Ouch! But we were not in a happy marriage. Things had been trailing off for years for reasons beyond just my gayness. Though it definitely kept me from bringing my best self into the marriage. Even more, it held me back from demanding the respect I deserved in a relationship.
I did not see it so clearly at the time, but our marriage was toxic. I would like to believe we were two good people who, individually, had great traits, but together brought out the worst in each other. Like bleach and ammonia, which have great qualities apart, but when combined, we were lethal.
I had to separate. I had to save myself.
But the next year and a half would be hell. Sure, it sounds great to finally be yourself, to not have to question what people will think of you. To just go out into the world without hiding under the trench coat of pretense. To experience life like never before, free.
Free from the expectations of those around me. Whether spoken or created in my own mind. Free from the fear of being outed, of my darkest secret crushing the world I had created. Free from the pressure to not let everyone down. Free from the need to pretend, fit in, and be like everyone else, if such a thing exists.
But it’s not that easy. You still question yourself. No one talks about how bad you feel for the lives you’ve changed. Everything that defined me seems ripped out of my hands. No longer a husband. Not feeling adequate as a father. Not knowing who my friends are anymore. Everything is left in question.
Even my career is shot, having been fired three weeks after coming out. They said I was not keeping up, then hired three people to replace the territory I was covering alone. So maybe, looking back, my not keeping up was understandable. But I don’t care. I am glad to be free.
But what does it mean to be free?
I’ve spent the last seventeen months searching for something I could not find for the previous forty years. I thought I would find it the night I broke my silence. Since that night, I’ve had seventy-eight weeks of heartache, wrestling with hope, leaving me exhausted, wondering which one will win in the end. Heartache or hope? I still don’t know.
Which brings me back to where we started, a sleeping bag, a tent, a pillow, some food, and most of all, an open road. An open road and the chance to find myself somewhere along the way.
It’s time to reset. To tune out the things that influence my thoughts. My rules are simple, no outside influence. No alcohol. No movies. No listening to music with lyrics. No social media. In fact, no getting online in any form. Just me and my mind.
I have to starve my mind.
I have to stop letting it fill with the crap that I have been feeding it. The things I think will make me happy are only distractions hiding future let-downs. I have to starve my mind to nourish my soul.
I decide to leave and find a place to settle for a few days off the grid. I don’t know what I want other than peace, quiet, and the chance to get alone with my thoughts.
My drive begins in loud silence, competing with the thoughts racing through my mind. Nobody prepares you for the grief you will have during a major life change, even one you thought you wanted. Your fondest memories turn against you, stabbing your heart as a reminder of what you no longer have.
Two hours into the drive, I see the perfect campground. It’s got hills, forests, and beaches. And best of all, I have never been here. No painful memories to wrestle with. Now that I’ve found a place, I can try to find myself.
Tent, sleeping bag, pillow. I am all set up. I have never camped this simply in my life. But that’s the point. I am not here to be distracted by card games and snacks. I am here for the ultimate search and rescue.
The first night goes by so slowly. I walk down the trail from my site in the upper campground down the cliffside to check out the beach below. It’s the end of a sunny day. The blue skies and white clouds trade places with bright pinks, purples, and oranges as the sun sets over the water.
The families who littered the sand earlier have made their way back in for the night, leaving the beach wide open for me, my thoughts, and the few couples who have found logs to snuggle on as the sun fades into the sea.
Me and my thoughts. I wish I had better company.
I wish they would just shut up sometimes. Immediately the same questions flood my mind. I have been haunted by the same questions for the thirteen thousand hours over the last seventeen months. The worst of all is the big one: What was the point?
What was the point? I have asked myself this every day since I came out. If I did it to be happy, then I failed. My kids hate me, at least, this is the story I tell myself. My finances are ruined. The moments of happiness from my adventures fade as soon as I walk through the door at home and am left alone with my thoughts. The one man I’ve dated long enough to call a boyfriend doesn’t bring the comfort I expected to have when I finally found the one. Maybe he’s not the one. Or maybe he is, but I can’t expect him to be the solution. Maybe I’m just not ready yet.
What was the point? Life is definitely not any better than before I threw myself off the cliff. It’s definitely not any easier, that’s for sure. But I can’t go back. Honestly, I don’t think I really want to go back anyway. But can I go forward? What is there to go forward to?
What’s the point? I am left with this question lingering as I am surrounded by darkness as the sounds of the waves splashing on the shore slap in rhythm with the recurring question. The same sound, over and over again, yet so relaxing and peaceful. Not annoying like a heavy-breather sitting next to you while you are trying to read. Soft, slow, repetitive, relaxing. Soothing my mind as I grapple with the question.
The next morning I awoke to the gentle light of sunshine cracking through the trees and tickling the top of my tent. I don’t remember the walk back up the hill from the beach or falling asleep the night before. But I feel somewhat at peace after a long sleep in the fresh sea air. I don’t know where today will take me, but I am a bit more relaxed.
Fixing my coffee and having a couple of the boiled eggs I packed for breakfast, I am tempted by the urge to check in online. To see what is happening in the world. It doesn’t matter. But it’s the distraction I have taught myself to use instead of focusing on myself. I resist the urge to get my phone out of the car.
I need to get my thoughts on paper. Feeling it’s the only way to sort them out. I grab my pen and notebook, and of course, a snack, then start working my way back to the beach. My log was available from last night. It’s just far enough away from the parking and camping areas that the families aren’t crowded around it. I can sit with the waves once more and let them dance with my thoughts.
Day one is long. I sit for hours waiting for the words to come, but they are trapped in my head, locked behind the doorway of fears I am too afraid to unlock. They stay safe behind the door. What’s the point? If I don’t answer the question, then I will never have to be responsible for making it happen. I want to keep that door locked.
I’m tempted to open the door, but it’s too scary.
Tears stream down my face as loss and loneliness take over. I sit with them, for I have no one else to sit with. Time seems frozen during their visit. I cannot say how long we sat on that log together, but it was long enough to reminisce and know we could part on decent terms.
At dusk, I decided to treat myself to a burger and a cold lemonade from the food stand by the parking area. It’s the most basic burger yet the most delicious I have ever had. Day one comes to a close as I sit alone on a rickety picnic table, eating my burger and watching the families laugh their way back to their sites to light fires and have s’mores. For some reason, it doesn’t sting so much. I don’t know why.
Back at camp, I lit a fire of my own while I sat with more welcoming company than my companions earlier in the day. The fire brings peace and contentment as it pulls my focus away from the darkness around me, enticing me with the waltzing flames of light before me.
I wonder how much time I have spent focusing on the darkness in my life, ignoring the light begging for my attention. I sit with the flames and feel the warmth landing on my body, soaking into my heart as the night continues.
Day two starts the same as day one, the gentle alarm clock of nature easing me into an even more peaceful morning. I feel more at peace as this day starts. I don’t feel the urge to get my phone out of the car. The big question isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Knowing what the point is no longer seems quite as important.
I head down to the beach. I am in no hurry now. I am here to enjoy as much of tis time away as possible before I have to return to the responsibilities waiting for me back home.
I find my log once more. Today grief and loss do not come to visit, but rather peace and contentment sit with me as I watch the families play, and the ships pass by. A thought comes to mind: I feel okay.
I can do whatever I want. I can walk in any direction I please. I can experience whatever I want. Maybe that is enough. For the first time ever, I feel free.
Finally, I have an answer to the question: What’s the point?
To live. To choose. To experience
As I sit on the beach with my answer and a new sense of freedom, I decide that I have the choice to define happiness however I want, and that is the point of it all.
Andy Vargo ~ To those who knew me before I knew myself and to the rest whom I have found along the way, I dedicate to you this part of my journey.
One of Andy’s Favorite Quotes
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
From Bananas to Buddhism
By Mark W. Reid
Unlike the 13-year-old who was so pleased to have an identity, I am more content these days to simply be.
(professor, attorney, and Japanese paper maker)
I knew about God, of course, even from my earliest memories. My parents were self-proclaimed Baptists, but they didn’t attend church themselves. We were the type to say a prayer at Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, and that was the extent of our religious practice.
Things changed for me, and one might say my internal struggle commenced around the beginning of junior high school. Growing up in a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama, assured me that the vast majority of my peers were Christians, primarily Southern Baptists. As a result, many -invited me to their church’s youth group activities on Wednesday evenings. These gatherings were a blast. We ate a nice meal around 6 PM, then moved on to a large meeting room by seven o’clock, where the entertainment would begin with an ice breaker—a group game or a humorous skit that some of the kids would perform. After that, we sat through a 30-minute, age-appropriate Bible study. We followed up by playing basketball, shooting pool or just hanging out. It was the adolescent equivalent of nightlife, like when my parents went to bars after work.
I was a fun and funny kid, so my friends invited me back often. I looked forward to Wednesday nights. My curiosity about Christianity grew in the process. I suppose that was one ulterior motive of the church, in addition to genuinely building a sense of community amongst the congregation. Unlike a lot of the other kids, I actually listened during the Bible studies. I began attending services on Sunday mornings as well. As encouraged, I read my Bible daily. I was, however, different from my peers in one regard. They grew up in the church. The message was spoon-fed to them for as long as they could remember. Since their time in the womb, essentially.
On the other hand, I was just beginning my study of Bible stories and Christian ethics as a 13-year-old. They didn’t have much of a choice in becoming a Baptist. I still did.
One day, a youth pastor from the church paid me a visit at home. We talked about accepting Christ into my heart and saying it aloud. I knew of this required proclamation, but I still needed to understand what it meant. The pastor explained that it was a personal commitment to follow Jesus and live a faith-filled life. I thought hard about it for a few moments. What would I be giving up? Lustful thoughts about girls (as if I could)? Rock and roll music with pernicious lyrics? Saying “cuss” words out loud? These were heavy prices to pay for a 13-year-old boy. Nevertheless, the idea of pleasing God, and doing right in life, persuaded my young mind. I decided to pray “the prayer” and get my ticket to salvation.
In that moment, I felt something shift inside. A weight lifted off my shoulders. I felt a sense of peace that I had not experienced before. I had an identity. I became a Christian and was genuinely excited to start living that way. It was my first mystical experience.
The Next Evolutionary Steps
As I grew older and entered high school, my faith blossomed. While other classmates were goofing off or sleeping at their desks during study hall, I read my Bible. I even became my class chaplain (back when you could still have such a thing) at my public high school. At graduation, I led the assembly in our class prayer, which I had personally written.
Despite my involvement in the Baptist church, I still had questions of faith. I dated a girl who was a Pentecostal. On occasion, I went to her church instead of my own. I found it scary and weird when they spoke aloud in tongues and danced in the aisles, hands raised toward the sky, during the exuberant music portion of the worship service. No one ever behaved in such a way in my much more stoic Baptist church. How come? And if one is correct, the other must be wrong, I thought. My Baptist friends warned me against going to the other church, saying the Pentecostals misinterpreted the Bible.
On the other hand, my Pentecostal friends told me that the Baptists were only halfway living the teachings of the gospels and only halfway worshiping. We should be excited about God and out in the aisles, jumping for joy when praising “Him,” not merely standing there in the pews, as the Baptists did, conservatively swaying and monotonously singing century-old hymns. I found myself standing in between my first religious culture clash.
To find answers, I prayed hard about the conflict and put my faith in the verses that read, “Seek, and ye shall find; knock and the door will be opened.” I felt empowered by those verses to explore Christianity further. Surely, God would shield me from misinformation so long as I was seeking with an earnest heart.
The College Years and The Academic Study of Religion
At 18, I entered a large university, majoring in political science and minoring in Japanese. Those classes and the required core curriculum of science and math made up the bulk of my schedule, but I took a religious studies class as an elective each semester. I thought it would be an easy “A” since I had practically read the entire Bible at this point, starting with “Survey of the New Testament.” I quickly discovered that the academic study of the Bible and religion is vastly different from the point of view one gets at church. I learned a lot more about the historical data, about the councils that chose which books to include in the Bible and which to leave out. Church just presumed God had orchestrated and ordained all that stuff. I came to realize that the decisions made by the religious bodies in charge at the time and throughout history were just made up by a bunch of men. Fallible, sinful men like me.
My worldview expanded exponentially. I no longer saw the world solely through the narrow filter of my Baptist beginnings but through a broader, more inclusive lens that embraced many beliefs and traditions. I took courses on Native American traditions and Eastern religions. I studied Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Taoism, and Buddhism. I was drawn to the philosophical views, particularly of Buddhism, which taught precepts such as “attachments lead to suffering.”
The most significant catalyst in my journey was a professor named Dr. Patrick Green. He was not simply a teacher; he was a mentor, a guide, and a friend. He encouraged his students to think critically and question everything, including their beliefs. His intention wasn’t to dispel anyone’s faith, but rather, if your truth is “Truth with a capital ‘T,’” it should stand up to any level of questioning you could throw at it, right? He challenged me to step out of my comfort zone and explore different cultures, religions, and worldviews. He introduced me to the “social construction of reality.” For instance, a banana is a banana because it was decided long ago that it would be called such, and a specific definition makes it so. We all learn about bananas at some point after birth and really have no choice in the matter. Bananas are just bananas, and that’s it. Likewise, the concepts of who and what God is and means were also determined without my consultation.
By this juncture, I had no choice but to consider, “Did Baptists actually believe that their faith was the only true faith?” That’s what many Mormons might say. The Church of Christ denomination holds a similar view. Add the Jehovah’s Witness folks to that list too. If you aren’t a part of those specific bodies of believers, you are potentially, even likely, on a highway to hell. That view, to me, didn’t seem to comport with the idea that God is benevolent and forgiving, an infinite, omnipresent God to boot. Wouldn’t omnipresence denote that God is with the Hindus in Bombay, India, just as much as the Protestants in Bloomington, Indiana? Would I really be sentenced to eternal damnation if I inadvertently screwed up how I’m supposed to think about and believe in God?
Japan and Graduate School
My first job after graduation was teaching English in Japan, rotating between six junior high schools in the countryside. There, I was finally exposed to a vastly different culture, an experience I had longed for most of my life.
I dipped my toes in the waters of Buddhism. In Japan, Shintoism is also prevalent, an animistic religion that considers objects, places, and especially nature, like trees, to possess a spiritual essence. These things are, in one manner of speaking, “alive.” All of it intrigued me. Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines often exist next to each other. The Japanese accept and accommodate both as a matter of faith and don’t see a conflict between Buddhism and Shintoism. That was a novel idea to me. You don’t typically see a lot of churches and mosques existing side-by-side like that. I was now a far cry from the Baptist theology where my journey began so many years before.
After Japan, I pursued a master’s degree in religion, philosophy, and ethics. I wanted to continue exploring the various traditions and beliefs that make up our world and deepen my understanding of the social and cultural factors that shape them. Most of all, I felt eager to study philosophy in more depth. I was inspired to write papers and read books by Aristotle, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Kant, and Hegel. During this time, I had a monumental epiphany: God was not some external end goal to comprehend or attain. He/She/It wasn’t over there in a book or found high in the sky, away and separate from me. Rather, it was the pursuit itself. The process and effort of exploring my curiosities. The evolution of mind. My lifelong desire to know God, to “do the right thing,” these answers existed within me the whole time.
A Continuation of Spirit,
A Journey With No Destination
It has been over three decades since the commencement of my journey. From Baptist to…well, where I am now. The past twenty years were filled with a lot of nomadic activity. I bounced around the world, New York City, Los Angeles, Vermont, Florida, Seoul, Tokyo, London, and a tiny Greek isle called Ios.
I eventually went to law school and became an attorney for ten years before walking away. That, too, was a part of my journey of self-reflection, as I discovered big money and a fancy Brooks Brothers suit don’t buy you happiness when you are doing work you feel is morally wrong and depletes the energy and joy from life.
So, when my midlife crisis hit in my early 40s, rather than buy the cliché sports car, I just walked away from law practice and returned to a land I love—Japan.
I returned to the path that spoke clearest to me after all of my “seeking that I might find” and “knocking that the door might be opened.” Those verses were right, by the way. I did find it, and the door was opened. For me (and it might very well be something different, just as fulfilling for someone else), Zen philosophy is the best answer that fits me today. Does that make me a Buddhist? I guess. But I don’t pray to the Buddha as a guy in the sky, and I don’t concern myself with labels any more. Those labels are just as socially constructed as the concept of a banana is. Do bananas and Buddhism exist? Sure. But it doesn’t matter what I call them or label myself. Things just are. Unlike the 13-year-old who was so pleased to have an identity, I am more content these days to simply be. To exist. To observe this life without judgment when possible. Will I still feel this way with the passing of two or three more decades if I am fortunate enough to remain here? That doesn’t concern me one bit. All I have now and ever will have is the present moment. And, today, I suppose, I am a Zen Buddhist. Ask me again tomorrow, and you might get a different answer.
Mark Reid ~ Much gratitude to Dr. Patrick Green. Great educators are essential in life to grow well. And to my greatest inspiration of all, my wife, Haruka.
One of Mark’s Favorite Quotes
You are under no obligation to be
the same person you were five minutes ago.