John Michael

Life Is a Sweet, Tender Bruise LXVII: My Definition of Success

John Michael’s column Life Is a Sweet, Tender Bruise ponders life and people. In “My Definition of Success,” he talks about meditation through painting, and success. 


When I first started painting, it was never about concentration. It was about getting color out there and keeping my fingers moving fast enough to keep my mind from making decisions about where to put paint. I could get out beyond myself as a meditation.

I can focus and concentrate better these days as reflected by the watercolor below, painted on a notecard-size piece of paper.



November was a fairly peaceful month overall, and I enjoyed Thanksgiving very much. However, a couple of days ago, I found myself in a cynical mood. Cynical was my overall mood for much of my life before I went homeless. When I occasionally feel it now, I know I have some deeper emotions coming up, or that I’m hiding.

I was just plain grumpy yesterday and I’m aware enough now that I don’t automatically start taking it out on other people. Today, I got to the core of what I was avoiding. I couldn’t break free, I thought, as I was headed out the door this morning. Couldn’t break free from my sexual attacker, that is. I struggled hard for a minute, but eventually just froze. This was when I was 9 or 10, mind you. I’m 57 now and wonder when I’ll move beyond letting that old wound affect my peace.

I was glad to have a friend I could process with over coffee this morning. What came of our conversation was that I thought that I deserved punishment for not being able to break free somehow. Why I added the punishment, I do not know, but in my observations that tends to be who we are as a people.

A while back, some Angel whispered to me that I was excellent at judo. Indeed, before I got molested and quit, I had won a couple of tournaments. I think I punished myself by not allowing myself to be successful at much of anything after that, including winning at sports. When I saw success or promotions approaching during any of my jobs, I would find a way to get fired or simply move on.

My definition of “success” has changed now that I have some insight into my own behavior and how much pain we are all in and hide from ourselves. Also, some of the best people I know have no status and next to nothing at all. My new take on success is this: You breathing? Well, then, you are very successful.


My definition of “success” has changed now that I have some insight into my own behavior and how much pain we are all in and hide from ourselves. … My new take on success is this: You breathing? Well, then, you are very successful.


Thinking back, I went homeless not long after a couple of people told me that some reporting I was doing on a rigged sewer deal in the Florida Keys was worthy of a Pulitzer. That was the last real news story I did and was fired within six months, essentially for refusing to do any kind of real reporting after that.

I was an angry, isolating prick back then without even knowing it. I was new to the Keys, didn’t have any friends or anyone I could trust, not that I trusted anyone anyways. The reporting was successful in stopping the sewer deal and squashed the rising political career of a County Commissioner. This was hard as well because, in many ways, at the time, I was a people pleaser aching to be loved. And the sewer company was from New Jersey, and I had paranoia the contractor was going to kill me.

With this being a day of old emotions arising, it became a morning of healing panic and healing tears, as I break free from sad old ideas and judgments I carry against myself.

I’ve been moving from a self-punishing self-loather to a person who loves and cares about myself and loves and cares about others, ever since I was on the streets that decade or so ago. I think about reporting now and again but may honestly be a little too soft-hearted for that kind of work. I mean, I can think of one person who isn’t in need of a little mercy in these times. But I do believe in the truth and don’t see a lot of it in the news and have dreamed of starting a local online rag.

A word about forgiveness. Depending on the depth of the wound, it can take some time, maybe even a lifetime. I’ve been using my mind to forgive and send love to the guy who molested me for over 12 years now, and still occasionally I want him to be hurt. But I do feel progress as I’m much less anxious now when I think of that night.

Later on this evening, I was at a community dinner in a very small town about twenty minutes east of here. I wrote a while back about not being able to grieve fully the passing of my mom because I was still blaming myself for her, not-perfect end-of-life care. When I was able to forgive myself for that, I was able to cry deeply for her loss.


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I have worked through years of rage and panic around the molestation, but at that community dinner I felt some tears rising up for that sad 10-year-old boy who buried his emotions because he felt ashamed.

As my heart was softening toward myself, a woman I know was telling me about how she went out to a hobo camp and was able to bring one person back to dinner. My heart went out to those homeless men and women drunk at the camp, too ashamed to show up for a hot meal. For a second there, my heart has never been more tender or compassionate.

I have very good manners, was taught good manners, was scolded when I didn’t use them. Being well-mannered can be a burden, however, as they can hide the truth. I saw many moments of kindness as a kid but was never really taught kindness.

Life teaches kindness, however. I know many aggressive men of my father’s generation who had to absorb every punch they threw, eventually. Call it karma if you like, Christ said, “What you measure out will be measured back to you.” I know many men now in their 70s and 80s who exude a natural kindness, true grandfathers.

Are you willing to examine your pain, what drives your painful emotions and behaviors? Are you willing to look at the pain of others, what drives their behaviors good and bad? Doing this will accelerate your kindness development and you won’t have to absorb a bunch of punches to soften your heart. Kindness can become an automatic response in a world sorely in need of it.

I had one night of deep terror in childhood, yet I know many, and am sure some at that camp, whose entire childhood was all deep terror. They deserve every tenderness. If you’re reading this, I imagine you have had some nights of terror in your life. Be tender with yourself. I love you, and so does God. Whom I should probably mention more in these stories as he has restored my sanity and my happiness.

As a painter today, it was no time for concentration and notecard-size paper, it was time to smear paint quickly with my fingers onto the largest size paper I had.



John Michael

Hello, good people. I am rarely sure how to describe myself. If I say I am a Christian, many things may arise in your mind that ain't necessarily so. I was homeless for seven years and learned more about myself in that stretch of time than in any other segment of my life. I read the Bible a lot out there and came across a passage in Proverbs that has shaped my approach to life: "A man's pursuit is his kindness." I am well educated with a Master of Social Work degree and have worked a wide variety of jobs in my 52 years. None have lasted too long however. When I was homeless, the beauty of Texas wildflowers made me decide to want to live again. Along with kindness, beauty, play, and self-expression are life-guiding ideas. My shadow contains things like feeling sorry for myself, a truckload of defiance, a desperate need to please women, and no small amount of cruelty. A quote from Luke also has had a lasting effect on me: "For God is kind to the ungrateful and the evil." When I read that I thought, "Hell, I have got a fighting chance." I am here to tell you, you have a fighting chance as well. Besides Christianity, practicing Buddhist and Shamanic techniques inform my relationship to God and the world.

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