Defining Moments: When the Past Becomes Present

Nov 17, 2023 | Virtues of the Heart

It was not more than fifteen seconds, maybe even less, and it could have passed by like any other forgotten incident in a day full of hundreds of experiences. But it didn’t. This would become etched in my mind like few other experiences, even those that were far more dramatic.

It was the summer of 1968; I was eighteen. The counterculture of hippies and misfits was in full bloom in my native Toronto. I did not consider myself a hippy, but I did dress the part and was very particular about my clothes and how I looked. The ubiquitous bell-bottom jeans, Indian collarless shirt, and long hair were enough for me to fit in quite well.

Yonge Street in the center of Toronto was a melting pot of shopping, restaurants, bars, and a mix of cultural diversity teeming with life, far removed from the Irish/English neighborhood I grew up in the suburbs. I loved to venture into the heart of the city with my friends, where my senses exploded with the sheer volume of people and hyperactivity everywhere. To me, it was life being expressed in ways I was not used to in my small circle of family and friends. My world expanded with every trip to the city.

The sea of characters in the city was different from what I was used to back home. They were multi-cultured, dressed differently, seemed more confident, louder, and rougher in some ways I didn’t understand. It was intimidating and exhilarating at the same time, which was paradoxical. I did not feel as if I was one of them; I felt I did not fit in, but I liked the expansive horizons that the city offered me.

The Defining Moment

I took the subway into the city mostly, and this day was like many others as I climbed the stairs to the street to the familiar sights and sounds of the bustling city. It was a beautiful day, warm and sunny. I paused briefly to decide where I was going to go. As I did, a figure caught my eye. My eyes lingered on this person for a few seconds, and then I became more transfixed on him.

He was just another hippy standing among a small group of young men and women, perhaps a little older than me. He was engaged in conversation with two attractive women, and they seemed transfixed on him. He stood out; he was different, and for some reason, I felt like I was seeing something I had never seen before. But he was just another hippy!

He was taller than me, had broader shoulders, looked fit, and handsome, and his skin was darker than my light Irish skin. His hair was almost black, long, and thick, flowing back down past his shoulders. His jeans were fashionably worn and came down to reveal his sandals. He was definitely not from my tribe. A casual well-worn bag hung over his shoulder, and I thought, “I never carried a bag,” but it looked cool on him.

Everything about him looked cool. He seemed too perfect, making me self-conscious and threatened, feeling “less than” by his appearance. Aside from his looks, he seemed to have an easy self-confidence about him in his mannerisms, and I projected he was confident, strong, smart, and cool.

I clearly wanted to be like him; I liked everything about him. The image, combined with the accompanying feelings, was etched in my mind. I drifted away and made my way down Yonge Street, lost in thought and trying to make sense of this brief experience and why it had such an effect on me.

This could have been just another happening, so brief, forgotten in a moment, and replaced with the next experience. But this was different somehow as it left me absorbed in a cascade of thoughts, imagery, and feelings of excitement mixed with feeling inadequate as my mind made comparisons that were leading me to see myself in a negative way.

This seemingly ordinary experience changed me. I had been exposed to something I had not seen before, at least not in this manner. Once again, the city had offered me a glimpse of a world that was beyond the limited world in which I lived. He was outside the perimeter of what existed in my limited world, and I liked what I saw.

Why did this have such an effect on me?

It would be years later that I would come to understand this episode and what it gave me. My young mind could not assimilate the flood of feelings that lingered for many years.

At nineteen, I was hungry for life, ambitious, open to learning about life, and excited for what I wanted to do with my own life. I wanted all the things most kids wanted at that age: a good job, a pretty girlfriend, a nice car, and to make a lot of money. Yet I was not confident in myself, and I did not have a good self-image, which led me to look for things that would make me look like I was confident and someone who was smart and successful. This would be a lifelong journey of searching for that which would make me look like that “someone” I wanted to be.

This experience with this young man was a reflection of my feelings of inadequacy; here he was right in front of me. He was saying, “See, I’m better than you, I’m better looking, I dress better, I’m more confident, people like me and want to be with me, I’m very cool.” I was comparing myself to him, which was a no-win situation. A painful exercise in self-contempt. But I didn’t know that then; it fueled my feelings of self-doubt and low self-image, and my attempt to prop up my self-image.

The Past Becomes Present

Today I look back and think of that nineteen-year-old kid, and I have compassion for him. I understand his struggle with low self-image, and I am humbled by his willingness to explore the world and have the courage to step outside the comfort zone of his tribe and familiar environment.

That younger self still lives in me; his pain, disappointment, and struggles with life are hidden in the shadows of my inner realm. It takes a moment of focused inquiry to revisit him, embrace him, and let him feel the compassion I have for him, the appreciation and humility of the continuous journey to what he has become. Me.

As I write this, I can feel him inside of me shifting to the side of excitement, self-confidence, and wonder for life, and encouraged to love himself as he is and to continue to move forward exploring his inner creative expressions. The true measure of a life well lived.

He and I are one: one movement of an unbroken consciousness, expanding, exploring, creating, and finding opportunities to shine the light of love on the infinite stage of life.

The past becomes the present in recognition of the interconnected thread of my life with All of Life.

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