A Necessary Autopsy

how did I get here…how do I move forward?

He was only 50 years old. It was a regular day. Just a few hours before, he was rehearsing on stage, and preparing for his comeback tour. But on June 25, 2009, Michael Jackson was found dead in his Los Angeles home. 

Where were you when Michael Jackson died? All of us, I’m sure, remember exactly where we were when we found out the news that the King of Pop had died. His death shook the world like a sudden earthquake. Everyone stopped from their regularly scheduled program to view hours and hours of news footage saying the same thing in a million different ways. But no matter how long we watched, and no matter how unbelievable it seemed, Michael Jackson was gone and we couldn’t bring him back.  

            The prevailing question on everyone’s mind that day was how did Michael Jackson die? What happened that caused this unanticipated death? The only way to get an answer was to do an autopsy. I’m sure most people know what an autopsy is, but for the sake of ensuring that all of us are on the same page, let me break it down for you. Also known as a post-mortem examination, an autopsy is a highly specialized surgical procedure that consists of a thorough examination of a corpse by dissection to determine the cause and manner of its death. A pathologist usually performs autopsies, and because Michael Jackson was so famous, his report was published for the world to see. In preparing for this blog, I happened to gloss over a few pages of this document, and I was shocked at what I found. Here’s a brief excerpt of the report.

This was just one paragraph from a 54-page document that detailed every intricacy and idiosyncrasy of Jackson’s body. The report left no hair unturned. It discussed every fiber and every finding; because a cause of death cannot be determined without looking closely at the details. After careful study of Jackson’s life and death, the cause of death was determined to be acute propofol and benzodiazepine intoxication after suffering from cardiac arrest. Propofol was a powerful anesthetic drug that most used before surgery. But Michael was using this drug to fall asleep. I don’t know if you know this, but there is a level of success that one can achieve, that can make you lose your sleep. There is a level of fame that can keep you up at night. There is a level of public acclaim that can make you lose your center; so while others are hoping to be the greatest “this” or the greater “that,” I’m just rejoicing that I can get a good night’s sleep. 

            But clearly, my blog is not about Michael Jackson’s life, even though he fascinates me as a person. The real reason I mentioned Michael is because I believe that the loss of his life mirrors, in some way, the loss of your purpose. I believe that a crucial component to reclaiming your NOW is admitting when purpose has died. It’s a necessary assessment that most of us skip, so instead of doing the hard work to interrogate what went wrong, we simply enjoy a temporary season of inspiration, followed by a momentary season of implementation, and then, we stop creating, we stop building, and we end up falling back into the painful habit of non-productivity. But if you are going to change anything about your future, then you’ve got to do an autopsy of your past. 

How did your purpose die? 

What happened? 

Where were you when the thrill for life passed away? 

What were you doing when you realized you weren’t doing anything anymore? 

When did it occur to you that you were just going through the motions? 

Purpose used to be your favorite subject to discuss. Your ideas used to be so vibrant and satisfying, and then, almost overnight, you slipped into nothingness. In order to move past this moment, you’ve got to do a detailed autopsy to properly answer this crucial question “how did I get here?”

            This question “how did I get here” can happen at the most random of times. When your kids go to kindergarten for the first time, or when they board the plane to college.  That’s when you realize, my life’s been on autopilot. I need a change. I don’t want to die without producing what God has put me in the earth for. When your friend dies, and you realize that you won’t be around forever. So you go to the funeral, and you make all of these promises; and then, after the funeral is over, and after the repast has happened, and after the wedding bells stop clinging, and after the baby stops crying, you do exactly what you shouldn’t do: you go back to life as usual. You slip right back into the coma of normalcy.And you wait for a moment like this to WAKE YOU UP…again.

In order to change the pattern, you’ve got to do an autopsy. No matter how inspirational the last book you read may have been, and no matter how incredible your pastor’s sermons are, if you don’t do an autopsy of what died, you will never fully live. Autopsies are painful. They launch you into your past and they make you relive uncomfortable memories. But they are necessary because you can’t move forward without closure. You can’t produce when your past is still pending. An autopsy helps you to figure out what happened, so that you don’t repeat the same scenario in a new season.  I’m warning you. It will hurt. But the more you do it, the more power you will possess over it. And one day, you will use your autopsy to help others. One day, your worst days will become someone’s greatest lessons. One day, your test will become your testimony. After all, a testimony is a mixture of pain, process, and perspective. You can’t get over the pain until you face it. You can’t process it until you confront it. And once you process what you’ve confronted, then your perspective on life will change. Until then, you are bound to repeat the pattern. You are bound to be just like your father, even though you despise him. You are bound to go from job to job, or church to church, or lover to lover, until you have the courage to stop, do an autopsy, and figure out “how did I get here?”

Here are a few questions that I would like you to think about in order to begin this hard work. What are 5 painful memories from your past that you try not to talk about often (if ever)? These could be memories from your childhood or your adulthood. Who are the parties involved and how did those relationships affect you? Which memories are so deeply etched into the vault of your soul that you can barely remember what transpired? 

You may have forgotten a lot of the details, but what do you remember? How has this pain shown up in other moments of your life? List each one. List the people involved. Talk out what happened, why it hurt you, and how it has affected you. You can talk it out through a journal, with a counselor, a pastor, or a trusted friend. But after you’ve talked about it, ask this question “is that pain still open?” Is the problem still pending? If not, when did it close and how do you know it’s closed? 

If you do this right, it will cause a lot of discomfort. But it will also help you to locate the exact spot where your “Lazarus” died. 

Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.” (John 11:1-4)

            In John 11, there’s a woman by the name of Martha. Martha has a sister named Mary, and both sisters have a brother named Lazarus. Their brother is sick, and eventually he dies. But when Jesus shows up, they are mad. They are hurting. I can hear the anger in Martha’s voice when she says, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Many of us judge Martha and Mary for not trusting God with their brother’s sickness, but the truth of the matter is, all of us have had a Lazarus moment. All of us have had to grapple with disappointment when things don’t go the way we planned. All of us have prayed for God to do something that didn’t turn out the way we expected it to. But a moment like this, if left to its own devices, can kill purpose. When Lazarus dies and you don’t see him return from the grave, it leaves a hole in your heart. When daddy leaves and never comes back, it changes your understanding of love. When people only call to ask for something but they don’t call to find out how you are, it damages your spirit. With every ignored text message, a part of you gets lost in translation. With every rejection letter, a part of you goes into the grave. With every negative critique, especially when you can’t differentiate constructive criticism from jealous banter, your soul is at war with your future.

            Before I turned 18 years old, I had been violated by three trusted people on three different occasions. All of these people went to church. All of these people knew the Bible. All of these people were close enough to befriend me, but far enough to trick me. Violation tore my heart into pieces. I didn’t know what love was, and I certainly didn’t know how love looked. I didn’t love myself, but I tried so desperately to avoid becoming a victim of my pain; so I overcompensated. I worked more than I needed to. I could never stop working. I graduated from four different schools before I turned 27 years old, and when I looked up, I couldn’t remember one class I had taken, and one book I had read. 

I was in pain. 

I didn’t want pain to become my prison, so I worked through it as often as I could. Some are addicted to drugs. Others are addicted to alcohol. I became addicted to work. Work anesthetized my pain and helped me to feel like I was someone worth loving.I worked in my marriage to be what I did not receive. I worked in my ministry to preach sermons I did not hear. I worked in school to graduate at the top of my class. I did all of those things, and won—but in my soul, I was a loser. In my heart, I was still that little boy whom everybody made fun of. At the very core of my being, I was still the little boy that everyone would ask to sing, or play, or write, or run, but never that boy worth hanging out with. This was just one Lazarus that haunted me for years; until one day, I decided to do an autopsy. One day, I decided that my drama was not going to be my destiny.

I wrote a book titled Blindspots to help people walk through seasons of humiliation, rejection, violation, and addiction. I was determined to use my life for God’s glory. When I experienced violation, I lost my color.  But when I wrote the book, my color came back. When I experienced violation, I lost my zeal. I bottled my life up for years and would blend in with whatever I was around just to disappear.But when I wrote the book, I felt the virtue of healing transfer through my words. For years, I would only wear black. I thought it was because I wanted to blend in. But the truth is, I was perpetuating a never-ending funeral. In fact, 12 years of my life are gone because I forgot how to feel. I fell in love but I wasn’t there. I enjoyed writing but I didn’t care. Then I had a sudden revelation: I had survived. When I wrote BLINDSPOTS, I was able to close the wound once and for all, and help others to confront similar issues. When I wrote that book, I was able to close the casket on my pain. Even though it was painful, I’m telling you from experience: do your work. Because if you don’t, you will remain stuck. When you do the work, you gain the power to turn baggage into a badge. This is my badge of honor now. I survived. And because I survived, I know you can, too. 

            After you have processed your pain internally, identify someone in whom you can confide. I have a pastor, a confidante, and a counselor. You need specialists to help you do your autopsy. Each person speaks to a different part of me. Each person ministers to another side of my brokenness. And after you identify your team of healers, you should surround yourself with helpful resources to give language to your current predicament. Peter Scazzero’s book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality changed my life. His book will help you to ascertain emotional wholeness and wellness. But I’m warning you: it’s a hard book to read. So don’t think you will pick it up today and complete it in a week. My pastor taught me a long time ago, “Don’t just read to finish; read to feed.” And some chapters in that book required me to read the same words over and over again until I was fully able to process and comprehend the condition of my heart. 

            The key is for you to do the autopsy. Figure out how you got here, and remember: just because it died, doesn’t mean it’s dead. 

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