Wild Bill and Sweet William: Transforming Ourselves and the World

This post is by contributing blogger Lynne Westmoreland, long-time music instructor and a humane educator. Lynne is a graduate of our M.Ed. program, and is the instructor for our online course, A Better World, A Meaningful Life, which is designed for people who want to put their vision for a better world & a more joyful, examined life into practice (next session starts September 2).





It is considered common knowledge that people don’t or can’t change much beyond a certain age and/or stage of their development. This is a wonderful concept to ponder when people are behaving well and mindfully, but not so great when people are behaving badly or blind to the damage they are doing. Most of us tend to look around at the great challenges of our current world affairs and believe that collectively things are going badly, and there is little hope for improvement. I’d like to challenge that notion. I want to suggest that people and events can change suddenly and dramatically. I want to propose that, just as individuals can become aware of the personal destruction they cause to themselves and others, our global community can become aware of the terrible amount of unnecessary suffering we are creating for ourselves, others, the planet, and for all of her inhabitants (human and non-human). The reason for my hope is embodied in my father.

My father is a recovering alcoholic. He had an extremely difficult upbringing during the Depression, with only his mother to raise him and his sister after their father was critically injured and institutionalized when they were young. My father never received the love, attention, and kindness that children so desperately need to form healthy self-esteem and a sense of personal empowerment. My father’s response to his family’s inability to care for him well was to act out in ways that were first self destructive and ultimately destructive to those around him. My father drank to drown his rage, fear, and impotence. My brothers, my mother, and I were afraid of him and his unpredictable moods and violent temper.

At some point, however, my father experienced an epiphany. He realized that his behavior and attitudes stood in the way of the kind of life he really wanted, and he stopped his most destructive habit: drinking. I would not be truthful to insinuate that we all lived happily ever after as a result of that decision. In fact, my father and I moved in fits and starts, across decades, to redefine and reconnect with a vision of what life could be, even with all of its wounds, pain, and resentment. We each had to look at how we had been hurt and learn how to forgive. More importantly, we began to realize that we had to look at how we had been the cause of so much pain for the other and ask for forgiveness ourselves. As we healed, we were each able to incorporate service and compassion for others into our lives more and more often. Or maybe I have the order of spiritual healing backwards. Perhaps as we become more aware of the needs of others and we work toward their well being, our own sense of joy and fulfillment increase exponentially.

My father was a sought after speaker for many decades, and he would always open his talk with the words “They used to call me Wild Bill but now they call me Sweet William.” This reference to his drinking days as the "Wild Bill" phase and his sobriety reflected in the "Sweet William" persona always got a big laugh, but there is such truth in that opening. My father has become a man who thinks of others’ needs, a man who listens more than he talks, a man of gentleness and humor, and a person of integrity and conviction. He treats others as he would like to be treated, and he models a way of living that is inspiring. Last week I was with him to lend moral support as he nears the end of his life. In addition to a chronic condition that is terminal, my dad had to endure two very painful outpatient surgeries on consecutive days. On the day after these surgeries and in a great deal of pain, I awoke to find him gone before dawn. My father was taking the newspapers that had been delivered to the end of his neighbors’ driveways and carrying them up to their doorsteps. The neighbors he was doing this for are those who are more infirm than he. In this simple act of kindness my father taught me a lifetime of lessons.

My father is not perfect nor is he a saint. But his life does reflect the enormous distance we can travel, individually and collectively, toward healing for ourselves and for the world we live in. Our global community is in the Wild Bill phase right now but tomorrow, or next week, or next month we are capable of entering our Sweet William time of understanding, healing, and strength through compassion and gentleness.

Image courtesy of Nossirom.

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