There are few roads more difficult to navigate, more fraught with peril or more emotionally and psychologically challenging than the one leading out of the bottom of the chasm left behind by a life-interrupted. The interesting thing is: it really doesn’t matter how you found yourself at the bottom. Maybe it was the death of a loved one, the unexpected loss, by a sole breadwinner, of a job, a battle with an acute or chronic illness or addiction, a financial crisis or the break-up of a relationship, partnership or marriage. Whatever the cause, the emotions left in the wake of such life-altering events are almost always the same: grief, anger, discouragement, frustration, guilt, shame and, in some cases, a sense of hopelessness. In fact, if you ask anyone who’s “been there” most would tell you that the struggle to get back on the proverbial horse is just as, if not more challenging and painful than the “falling off” was.
Such certainly was the case with Hassan Whiteside, a 7 foot tall center from Marshall University, who had been selected 33rd overall by the Sacramento Kings in the 2010 NBA draft. At the time, many believed Whiteside’s potential was limitless, given that, in his first and only season at Marshall, Whiteside had broken a national record for most blocked shots by a freshman in a single season (182) that had stood for nearly 20 years! However, after knee surgery sidelined him for much of his rookie season, Whiteside spent the better part of the next 4½ years bouncing around the NBA equivalent of the minor leagues, including stints on the Reno Bighorns, the Sioux Falls Skyforce, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers and the Iowa Energy – hardly household names to even the most ardent of NBA fans. He also played overseas for Al Mouttahed Tripoli and the Amchit Club and (in Lebanon) and the Sichuan Blue Whales (in China).
Just how complete was Whiteside’s slide into the abyss? Well, as recently as three months ago, Whiteside was working out and playing in pick-up games with friends at a YMCA in downtown Charlotte, North Carolina – all the while hoping that someday the phone would ring and he would find his way back to the NBA. To say that each step taken during those 4½ years likely was a humbling if not, at times, humiliating experience would be a considerable understatement. But Whiteside kept believing, kept fighting, kept moving forward , even if, on occasion, moving forward meant taking a few steps backwards or to the side first. And then one day in late November, 2014 the phone did ring – and Pat Riley, the General Manager and President of Basketball Operations for the World Champion Miami Heat signed Whiteside to a 10-day contract – the NBA equivalent of a second chance.
Less than 3 weeks later, in a nationally-televised game against the Chicago Bulls, Whiteside recorded an unconventional triple-double, with a Heat team-record and career-high 12 blocks to go along with 14 points and 13 rebounds. After the game, the media asked Whiteside to reflect on his journey from the Charlotte YMCA to the Miami Heat’s all-time record book. “It’s a blessing,” Whiteside offered humbly. “Like I told my teammates, you can’t believe how things work out in life. Three months ago I was at the downtown Y just chilling, working on my game. I couldn’t get a team to even pick up the phone – and now this.” Now this, indeed! In just ½ a game (24 minutes) and after having missed 2 games with a sprained right ankle, Whiteside blocked more shots than any Heat player in history, including such greats as Alonzo Mourning and Shaquille O’Neal. How do you explain that? How is that even possible?
It’s possible because, consciously or subconsciously, Whiteside stumbled upon 3 keys that I believe are essential to not only “finding” but successfully navigating the road back. First, he didn’t allow his perspective to be defined by what he had missed in the years he was relegated to the role of NBA spectator. Instead, he adopted a mindset committed to showing the world (and the NBA) what they had missed in his absence! Second, rather than further burden himself (and his heart) with the weight of bitterness on an already difficult journey, Whiteside nurtured an adventurous and expectant heart – one open to the possibility that at any moment the phone could ring and provide the open door he was longing for. Finally, but as importantly, Whiteside robed himself in gratitude – for his Life, for the gifts with which he has been richly blessed and for those who never stopped believing in him.
I’m the last one to suggest that any of this is easy. Far from it. It’s one of the most difficult things a human being will ever be asked to do. But as the Rumi quote that titles this post suggests and as Hassan Whiteside’s and so many other overcomers’ stories confirm, it not only is doable, the doing of it is spectacularly rewarding, affirming and enriching. A few weeks back, Glennon Doyle Melton, a woman I respect and admire greatly, who herself is no stranger to brokenness and a life-interrupted, received the following letter from one of her many social media followers & offered a response that I think beautifully captures the essence of this road map out of the abyss:
My husband left me. I live in a small town, everyone knows. I started drinking again, everyone knows. I’m at rock bottom, everyone knows. They ask me how I’m doing. What do I say? What do I tell them?
You’re ready to begin. I can tell. So tomorrow morning, get out of bed. Take a shower. Dress up nice. Then walk out of the house and, with your head held high, tell them this: You’ve seen my descent. Now watch my rising!
Love you. G