AUTHENTICITY AND TRANSFORMATION
By Bob Paris
HOW SHALL I LIVE?
Most of my adult life has been driven by two fundamental concepts: An active, ongoing quest for authentic living. And a willingness to reinforce this search by undertaking regular bouts of personal transformation, no matter how difficult the path, or uncertain the outcome.
To me, this approach represents a living, breathing answer to the one core question each of us must eventually ask ourselves: How shall I live? When we strive to answer this foundational question in an honest and insightful way, we can discover our own truest desires and individual purpose. Beyond all else, my experience tells me that this is the best way to travel the path with heart. It represents an inner pilgrimage that transcends religion, dogma, selfishness and us-vs.-them myopia.
To be certain, looking deeply into our lives to find the authentic (and to continuously embrace transformative efforts) isn’t necessarily the easiest way to live. In fact, facing the truth of our own lives can present enormous challenges. It is, however, a quest that provides great personal reward of the sort that really matters – the ever-evolving journey toward profound personal integrity, fueled by sincere, heartfelt compassion and understanding directed first toward ourselves and (perhaps most importantly) radiating outward to others travelling through their own unique pilgrimages. It is the first step in being able to walk-a-mile in another’s shoes. And in these troubling times, when it often feels as if the world is once more slipping off its axis, a deep understanding of ourselves and others may be the only way to cross the turbulent storm-ravaged river of today.
So, how to go about doing this – establishing an authentic, transformative way to live – without walking around so deep in philosophical thought that we stumble off a cliff and into the abyss of our own self-absorption? To answer this question, it’s vital that each of us understand our own unique story, learning to embrace that which works, allowing for the development of strategies for effective change. In other words, open your eyes to your own lived experience and set your priorities according to what you believe will take you in the direction where your own authentic purpose resides. This all begins by understanding that, beyond basic survival, your needs and longings are your own. At your true core, you must come to realize that you aren’t an anonymous cog in a meaningless wheel. On the contrary: You matter. Each one of us matters. It is essential to understand and embrace this.
In my experience, nothing can replace a healthy respect for your own individuality in the search for personal transformation in service of authenticity. So many times the most well-intended self-improvement plans fail because they don’t take into account how unique we all are. Understanding that we are each unique in our desires and outlooks represents, in itself, a personal challenge. But, I truly believe that inside our challenges lay opportunities for tremendous life-altering growth.
To illustrate how one might consider approaching all of this, let me use my own individual journey as it relates to one of the most central tenants of life itself, and one that causes so many of us a world of confusion: FOOD.
HOW SHALL I EAT?
I was raised in the U.S. – in the deep Midwest, an area where north and south blended together in both culture and cuisine. Much like everyone around me, I grew up eating a diet one might call deep-fried everything. From chicken to catfish to pork tenderloin – if it used to be alive and was headed for the supper table, it could be battered and fried (and often smothered in some kind of gravy). Generally these fried-meat-centric meals were accompanied by side dishes of over-cooked, heavily buttered vegetables, potatoes and so forth. All of this was served in gigantic gut-stretching portions. And we were expected to eat every bite, apparently because there were starving children on the other side of the world who would love to have that last giant helping of meatloaf and corn-fritters.
Then my parents divorced and – at 15 – I went to live with my dad. Neither of us was what anyone would consider a great cook. So, eating became a fairly random affair of utilitarian grazing on a blend of fast-food and whatever happened to be at hand.
After a year of living and eating this way, a miracle took place in my life. On a swampy summer day, not long before school let out for the summer, one of my teachers sent me out in search of a fan. This search led me down a dark hallway at the back of the basketball gymnasium. Inside a small storage room, I discovered a dusty, cobweb-covered weight machine. As an artistic, athletic (and self-destructive) young man, I made a discovery that literally saved my life. I threw myself into weight training as a young bird takes to the air. It was both authentic and transformative.
When I later discovered that there was an actual sport to be had as a result of all my efforts – bodybuilding – I made the choice to also transform the way I approached food. If my goals were to be met, I needed to see the way I ate as a tool, just as fundamental as the carefully constructed, intense weight workouts I pushed myself through. For the next decade of my life, my meals became intentionally utilitarian; highly structured, but not very interesting. On point, but very basic. I knew exactly how many calories, grams of protein, carbs, fat (and so forth) were in each bite. I had to know all this; to do otherwise would be akin to being an accountant who doesn’t understand math.
Then, I retired from competition and very quickly moved away from bodybuilding (and all that it entailed) and toward an even more authentic calling – becoming a writer. And as I transitioned away from my sport, almost immediately, my eating habits reverted to the casual style I’d had as a fifteen-year-old. I grazed and satisfied myself with anything that was at hand. Food was a total after-thought. Not being a natural foodie, I was eating to live, rather than living to eat.
Then, another miracle: I met the great love of my life. And one of the things I loved right from the start was Brian’s passion for food – and by this I mean healthy, well-prepared, proper meals. I once again quickly understood that I needed to transform my own outlook toward the way I ate.
Brian’s love of food grew out of profound personal hardship. Starting when he was sixteen, he began having frequent bouts of cancer. This led him on his own transformative journey toward authentic living. If cancer was going to chase him, he was going to stand his ground and fight back with every tool at hand. He became an expert on what was good for the body. Healthy meals became his sword and shield – an alchemic method for transmuting rage and fear into a loving, nurturing craft.
I still remember going to Brian’s house when we first started dating (we’re now twenty years into our marriage). I wandered into his kitchen and opened the fridge (I must confess, I was looking for a beer). What I saw inside hit me like a bolt of lightning. It was packed full of fresh vegetables and fruit and fish and home-made healthy snacks – and beyond all of this, there were also twenty containers filled with these healthy meals he’d made for himself, for the entire week. I was truly amazed. And transformed.
As Brian told me about his marathon cooking sessions, he also explained his medical history and how, having been raised in a loving home where good cooking and family meals were common-place, he had found this truly authentic way of approaching food. I also learned that Brian would devour cook books the way I would ravage a stack of literary novels. I saw genuine passion in action. I saw the future.
These days, we make our home on one of the Gulf Islands of coastal British Columbia, abutting old-growth woods and the wild sea. It is truly a healthy food paradise, with a mild climate that allows gardening all year round. I still look on lovingly as Brian selects what’s fresh and in season and then undertakes his Sunday cooking marathons, packing our fridge with the healthiest, most delicious meals one can imagine. I have actually allowed myself to evolve away from my natural tendency toward utilitarian grazing (or boring tool-like structure) and truly appreciate the wonders of the kale and chard and beans (and so forth) we gather from our garden – or from the local farmers’ market, or farm-gate stands. We harvest apples, pears, cherries and walnuts from the trees in our yard and buy salmon and shell-fish right at the local dock. After decades of trying to get it right, I am finally home – and it’s a place filled with amazing food and tons of love.
As I count my many blessings, I remind myself that the authentic path is truly possible – if we simply allow ourselves to embrace our own true nature and work toward transforming that which doesn’t work into the journey that overflows with all that makes our own individual hearts soar.
(c) Bob Paris 2017
(c) Bob Paris 2017