“I don’t want to be hard. I just want my softness to know how to defend itself.” -Lindsay Young, a poet from Long Island, New York

When I read these words, they penetrated to my very core, penetrating the scarred surface of my soul and caressing it like a heaven-sent cool breeze that offers desperately needed relief from a scorching, merciless sun.

It was a powerful reminder that now that I have the tools and blessings to function in this world, I am no longer easy prey for cruel, exploitative, hateful people.

I am not that little boy whose caregivers weaponized words, withheld love, outlawed emoting, demanded achievement, and indoctrinated shame -which inflicted my deepest and most profound wound.

I am not the young man with undiagnosed, untreated Bipolar Disorder, indoctrinated shame, and a propensity to become addicted to nearly anything AND who would not be alive today were it not for his hardscrabble persistence and for a Higher Power he didn’t even know had his back until he crawled into AA, feeling such intense desperation that it was consuming his being.

No, no. I am not those people anymore. And for that I am grateful. Because when I was, vulnerability was the most terrifying experience I could imagine. It was a “weakness” and provided an opportunity for predators to shred me like a school of piranhas devouring a small Mammal.

I wanted to be hard. I worked at being hard. Do I could be safe.

Hitting the gym with a vengeance, I built my muscles and stamina to ridiculous levels. I got tattoos (when sailors, bikers, and prison inmates we’re the only ones who got them). Lots of tattoos. I built an emotional barrier that would rival the walls in Trump’s wet dreams. I got a motorcycle. I ran with a rough crowd. I got into verbal and physical fights. I tortured myself to reach grueling goals to “prove” I could do it. Go it alone. Fuck you. Those were my mantras. Nietzsche’s “will to power,” and my will, were the foundations of my existence.

And what a miserable existence it was. As a child and young adult, I had had empathy and compassion. I remember finding a wounded bird when I was working in a park when I was 20 or so and insisting to my co-workers that we take him to a vet. Afterwards, I felt weak and foolish as I absorbed my co-workers’ scorn. Often I felt so much empathy for others that I began ruminating and obsessing about their well being until it became painfully pathological.

Eventually, I could no longer endure the agony of the peer pressure and the obsessions, so I beat the empathy out of myself and began embracing apathy and mean-spiritedness as necessary traits to survive in what I perceived to be a Darwinian society where everyone was out to get everyone.

I went on like that for a number of years. But over the last 26 years, I have learned through a variety of means, including therapy, reading, AA, a spiritual awakening, a great support network, and simple practice, to reconnect with my empathy, compassion, and softness.

And what an amazing experience it has been. It is through softness, vulnerability, and mutual suffering that I have connected with my wife, sons, and dear friends at a very deep level over the last few years. If done the way it is meant to be done, nearly every AA meeting is a soul-bearing experience. And I have been to thousands.

Over the course of time, my softness has learned to defend itself. Assertiveness; permeable, flexible boundaries; discerning whom to trust as safe; risking vulnerability with the realization that it takes far more courage than cynicism or defensiveness; expressing my feelings; and shedding the hobbling shackles of shame are a few of the ways my softness defends itself.

Today, Nietzsche is dead to me.

And while he isn’t my religion, the impoverished itinerant Palestinian prophet who sparked a revolution with his teachings of radical love, forgiveness, and service, AND the Fellowship of AA, provide my guides, inspirations, and purposes in life.

Living this way, ample opportunities for my softness to emerge and defend itself abound.

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