Let me start this article with a very uplifting thought…you may very well be disappointed by its message. You see, it would be incredibly presumptuous of me to assume that I can tell someone how to find peace in a couple thousand words or less. Doing so would probably produce an article containing a lot of platitudes and empty promises. I do believe, however, that we are called to share our own experiences if they would help another person sort out the unique circumstances in his personal story as he travels this unpredictable, lifelong journey of finding peace and contentment in one’s heart.
Many would view my childhood as lived in the bucolic, simple environment of rural Indiana in the 1950s and 1960s. In retrospect, I wouldn’t trade the hours spent in the woods building forts and using my imagination to create ever-changing play scenarios with my brothers for any other childhood. I was blessed to witness my Grandfather and Grandmother Delaplane live simple lives of gratitude and generosity. However, for as long as I can remember I was haunted by a sense of discontent that rejected all of that. I was driven by the things that I perceived as negative—living in an old, unpainted farm house built in 1900 (complete with an outhouse behind it), wearing hand-me-down clothes, and sometimes being embarrassed by my parents’ uncultured ways. In order to feel “fulfilled,” my goal in life was to get off the farm and as far away from Indiana as I could. In other words, I was going to re-define myself, and then I would be happy and content.
Later that summer I was blessed to meet my wife Elvira; we married on New Year’s Eve 1977. A year and a half later, our son Aaron was born. Shortly after that we moved to Buffalo, NY where our younger son Nathan was born. At last my plans were really coming together: I had a beautiful, loving wife, two precious young sons, a nice house in suburbia and a secure, somewhat fulfilling job. But the discontentment remained. Over the next fifteen years, we moved five more times resulting in many lost friendships for my wife and boys. But I still pursued better job titles and built bigger homes with each move…trying to fill the void in my heart.
However, behind the scenes, our family was a shipwreck. The last three transfers took place in the span of only four years, leaving all of us physically, spiritually and emotionally drained. Our marriage had become one of simply trying to tolerate one another while each of the boys went into his own way of coping with all of the dysfunction. Matters came to a head in early 1998 when Aaron unleashed his anger at me, telling me that all of the family struggles were rooted in my selfishness, in my trying to impress others and putting my job ahead of the family. As he stormed off, I the first thought that came into my mind was you spoiled brat! If you only knew how hard I have worked to give you a better life than I had. It was then that God spoke into my heart, “Enough is enough.” At that moment I realized that I had spent 30 years of my adult life trying to prove to the world that I wasn’t poor, white trash from Indiana . . . and the world didn’t care.
Like a small child bringing a broken toy to his father, I asked God to fix all that I had broken. “Please take over our marriage, our boys’ lives, our finances…and me!” That moment of humility opened the door to miraculous changes in our family and my attitude over the next two years. The darkness and depression began to lift.
Most of the shadows of life are caused by standing in our own sunshine.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
However, in the midst of the phenomenal changes, an unthinkable tragedy challenged everything that had changed in me. On May 4, 2000 our son Nathan took his life. There was no logic or explanation that could rationalize why this tall, handsome, intelligent and sensitive young man would end his life. Any remaining sense of the control that had dominated my life for so many years dissipated overnight. I remember uttering the words, “Delaplane, you’re not in control of anything!” But both Elvira and I had a choice—either to curl up in a fetal position of indescribable pain or to try to find God’s comfort and direction. We chose the latter.
One can bear almost any pain if one can find purpose in enduring the pain. Finding the purpose is the painful part.
—Coe D. Behr
I don’t necessarily recommend that others take the fast track path that we took. In the year following Nathan’s death, I left my job at DuPont; we downsized to a much smaller home, and we started a non-profit to help others who were in troubled marriages or navigating through grief. Shortly after moving into the new home, I sat in our den and uttered the words, “So this is what contentment feels like.” I had never felt so at peace. I often say, “The bad news is that it took me fifty years to find contentment and peace; the good news is that it only took me fifty years to find contentment and peace.”
A year later, I enrolled in a master’s program for professional counseling. For the past eight years Elvira and I have dedicated our lives to helping others in their life journeys. I consider this work part of Nathan’s legacy to the world.
Our older son Aaron tried to deal with Nathan’s death in his own ways while, unknown to us, he also dealt with debilitating depression. He graduated from college and then went to Eastern Europe to teach English. He eventually came home but his search to fill the void in his heart took him to Seattle for a couple of years after which he moved to New York City. He seemed to be running from the grief.
Eventually the deep depression overcame him and he attempted to self-medicate resulting in more despair. Thankfully he reached out for help and began the long journey of healing that would save his life. Today, Aaron is doing incredibly well; one can easily sense the peace in his voice and in his demeanor. Recently, I asked him what helped him to get to this place.
He was quick to respond, “Dad, there were three key things that I had to embrace. First, I had to learn gratitude for what I did have—my health, supportive parents, and good friends.” He went on, “The second thing was humility. I realized that I was just like everyone else – there was nothing special about my situation. Everyone has a story. Humility is realizing that you’re not totally responsible for your situation and condition.” Without hesitation, Aaron said, “The third thing I had to learn was acceptance. That meant that I had to understand that my present circumstances were only a moment in time; everything is temporary. Also, it meant that I had to accept that pain and hurt are simply part of the human experience.” As Aaron further reflected on his personal journey, “You think that ‘something’ will save you . . . giving up on that thought saved me.”
No Pat Answers
Aaron’s personal journey to peace and contentment is as unique and personal as mine. It is never a destination; it truly is a journey. Each person must find his purpose in this life, even when all is dark and there seems to be no light or direction. What is truly important to you? In my case, God’s patience allowed me to figure it out over the course of a half century. I’m grateful that Aaron is further in his journey at a much younger age. I wish you the best in your quest and as you share your story with others.
Be comforted in the fact that the ache in your heart and the confusion in your soul means that you are still alive, still human, and still open to the beauty of the world…