The Wilderness Experience: Ins & Outs, Whats & Whys
***EDITOR’S NOTE: In lieu of my experience in the Wilderness from September 2004 until May 2009, I felt compelled to write about it from the multitude of angles that I’ve discovered through constant trial, turmoil, headache, bad breaks and utter misfortune…
… only to be glad I went through it all now that I am out of it as I write this nearing the first day of June, 2010; nearly six years later.
In order to accurately paint the picture, however, I must go back to the previous four or five years.
Everything had always come easily for me, or went well. And I don’t recall a point in time when I wasn’t legally allowed to work where I was broke. Ask anyone who has known me since high school and they will tell you I had every number of the Jordans, in every colorway, the nicest colognes, rocked the armaniexchange before the cornballs began to take it over — and because I knew how to manage my money, I always had plenty saved even after shopping sprees weekly (sometimes twice in a week). I had gotten away from my original plan to get my foot in the door at Madison Square Garden (MSG) and learn the ropes of the front office at the feet of Dave Checketts. Yes, go ahead, laugh, but I had an opportunity to intern there had I finished my undergraduate degree at Long Island University out in Brooklyn. Checketts was and still is a big role model for me in the field of sports, because he became a GM in the NBA at age 28 and was running a big-time team in the World’s Most Famous Arena by the time he was 35. Who better to learn from?
I was on the fast track to success and aside from a 6-year bout with Erythrodermic Psoriasis (I nearly died from a by-product effect of it in 1996), I hadn’t really had to endure anything that was “character building” in my life up until that point. Things would certainly change a few years later.
By 2000, I was a full-fledged Claims Analyst (a position that would require most people to have an insurance license or some major training now — 10 years later. I was 21 years of age. Although I had to leave New York unexpectedly just before this, and did not initially finish my degree at Long Island as I had originally planned, I accomplished this by the grace of God, who opened the door for me to even work there to begin with, and then be able to do it all without the college degree?
At any rate, being consistent and diligent, I worked my way up and exceeded goals daily, weekly and monthly for nearly five straight years. The only breaks I ever took from the job in that time were to come back to New York every spring and for most of every summer.
Most importantly, my relationship with God had taken off in 2000 — after being mostly incidental and dormant by this time — and was at its best during this time (in some ways, the ups and downs in said relationship mirrors the chronology of my fortunes). I was making very good money and getting offers from competitors of ours to jump ship and join up with them. I saw no benefit other than a couple hundred here and there, but nothing more than a lateral move for me. I thought I was doing so well up until 2003, when I reached my psychological nadir.
One day I woke up and just couldn’t take it anymore. It was a mid-life crisis — the early version 2.0, if you will. Here I was, 24, involved in real estate, speculating on property (could have had my first house when I was 20 had I not balked at the idea; a mistake in hindsight, because I could have over $50K in equity easily right now, not to mention the houses I would’ve been able to renovate and sell later). I had an offer from St. John’s University out in Queens to move back to New York and finish my education. I balked, because St. John’s (notoriously) never had dorms. They didn’t even develop apartments for students until around the time I passed up the opportunity. My rationale being that I did not like the idea of commuting from Harlem to Jamaica daily and then have to travel back to Manhattan to work.
The apartments were built that fall, as it turns out. Fail — on my part.
Side Note: to be fair, it wasn’t as clear cut of a decision as it appears, because my then-car, a 1999 Mazda 626 with 133K miles was dying on its 2nd transmission and the car itself was in a total state of disrepair. I was in the midst of being pre-qualified for a house purchase the summer of 2003, offered an opportunity to finish my undergraduate studies at St. John’s and needing a car just to get back and forth to work. I took the “safe” (or so I thought — and remember later that I highlighted “safe” here) route by just ensuring I had reliable transportation to my job and bought a brand new 2004 Nissan 350Z. Again, mid-life crisis.
Nevertheless, I woke up, aged 24 and wondered aloud “what am I doing here???” I was mired in a slump and feeling stuck. I wondered why I was working at Aetna, why I was even yanked out of school at Long Island to begin with, why I hadn’t gone back to school since (5 years at that time) on my own volition, and why I was in Greensboro — where I had exactly TWO FRIENDS and only a small handful of relatives. I began hating my job. I had as many bosses within a 3 year period as Jason Campbell has had coaches and offensive playbooks since his high school football days. The home office began requiring us to work full 8 hour days, instead of the 7 and a quarter we would work with a shortened lunch (which enabled me to go get 3-4 hours of good run in playing basketball 5-6 days a week), yanked away a good bit of our bonus money and reduced our ability to sell stock — even though the company flourished majorly from 2001-2005 (the year I left). I had little motivation to remain there. And with the glass ceiling and buddy-buddy system of promoting in place there, I became increasingly dismayed.
I was depressed throughout 2004. I could barely force myself out of bed to go to this job and I spent the entire fourth quarter of 2003 and the first 8 months of 2004 doing so. A friend of mine who shall remain unnamed (but knows who she is) made it a point to challenge me and encourage me to get back in line with the Word of God and the purpose that He had set forth for my life. I had strayed a bit, gone back to immersing myself in Hip Hop (which, if we’re talking pure spiritual effects, is like oil to Gospel music’s water — and do not mix… regardless of what anyone will tell you, you cannot worship God and recite the lyrics contained in 99% of rap songs, you will either love one and hate the other or serve the one and shun the other, but you can’t maintain a duality with them, as they are mutually exclusive in terms of effects upon someone from a spiritual standpoint). She gave me a prophecy back in early August 2004 that I would be a financial advisor “to the stars”. I had always shown great acumen with managing finances, had some stocks and bonds knowledge, as well as demonstrated insurance and real estate experience. I hadn’t taken a step back to realize all that I had learned, but I was really well-rounded and could do this. Coupled with my mother’s nearly 20 years in the legal field and my previous knowledge in that field, it all made sense to me. It was time to go back to school and finish this undergraduate degree and figure out the best path to fulfill this prophetic reminder (because God had shown me many years ago what I would do, and many of my teachers at Ben L. Smith High School discouraged my love of writing about sports, compiling data about sports and conducting research — all things that are central to what I believe I have been called to do — KNOW THE PROFESSIONAL SPORTS ARENA INSIDE AND OUT).
I had hated that school, because I felt like I could’ve gotten a fair shot at Juilliard, or at least gone to a school (Manhattan Center) where I would’ve been around some people who would have later given me easy access to the music industry or even plied my craft at LaGuardia or Talent Unlimited. In retrospect, it was agreed upon that I should have gone to high school here in New York instead of Greensboro, because when I say I did not learn ANYTHING in four years at Smith (and not from a lack of effort), I am not exaggerating. My gifts and talents were stifled and snuffed out, replaced by curriculae and nonsense, and thus began a 7 year, involuntary wandering away from my passions to which I am only able now, some 15 years later, to immerse myself in fully as I did in high school.
At any rate, upon receiving that prophetic word, I IMMEDIATELY applied to two schools. At the time, I was in North Carolina, so I applied to UNC Greensboro. I was conditionally accepted, but I had owed Long Island a large sum of cash, so my transcripts were being withheld pending payment. I had been accepted to The Hall (Seton Hall University, out in South Orange, NJ) on three occasions — the first in 1998, then again in 2004 (this time around) and once again in 2008 as I was seeking to transfer and “grandfather” my way into their Business school. I was able to put up the $10K to pay off Long Island and begin UNC Greensboro in August 2004. I decided to wait until January, because I would have started off rushing and had no schedule flexibility (again, keep that in mind) with my job.
Interestingly enough, and worthy to note — I initially applied as a Business student. But the department was full, and because I applied in August, I was on a waiting list. They gave me an option for a backup major and I signed up for Spanish, since I am a native speaker and figured it would be easy.
YEAH RIGHT. I got two F’s in that major, one of the professors gave me one solely because she found out I (along with other students who simply dropped the class — as I should’ve) had inquired about getting out of her class and joining a professor who taught the same class and was more “sensible”, if you will. Before this professor got a whiff of what was going on, I had a B+ average and she loved to call upon me to share my work and read, as I didn’t struggle with the language like 97% of the students in the class did.
The other F came because the then-department head accused me of plagiarizing my work (listen, I love to talk, I love to write, I love compiling research and have never cheated nor plagiarized any works in the past — all those things points to someone who finds the task of citing work the least of their worries). People who plagiarize are lazy, hate research, find writing to be dredging and are looking for a way out. I wrote on a topic that I am acutely knowledge about and had a plethora of sources which I cited. I do not know what my chances were of winning an appeal with the Dean vs. this department head, but after being burned out throughout 2007, I hadn’t the energy to go through the entire process. She overheard me mocking her choppy English and took exception to it. My work was consistent, but once she caught win, I went from doing my OWN work on a thesis that I did NOT plagiarize and maintaining a B/B- average all the way until the final thesis to failing the ENTIRE CLASS because of an unfounded assertion that I had plagiarized ONE thesis paper? Even if I had gotten a “0” on that thesis, my grade for the class would have been a high “D”, not an overall “F”.
In retrospect, I wish I had dropped the first class before I got to the point where she could give me an “F”, and I wish I had appealed the second one. I lost a FULL POINT off my GPA as a result of these two classes, and it is still hurting me today, because I graduated with a 3.0 instead of the 3.7, 3.8 that I would have otherwise have had.
Side Note II: I had all A’s and a couple of B’s and a High C in all my Spanish classes — several of which were MUCH HARDER and required much more writing and discipline than the two that I received F’s.
January 2005 comes and I start off light; with two classes, while I maintained my 50 hour a week schedule (I worked as much OT as was allowable the final two years I was there), had become the President of the Singles Ministry in the church I was attending at the time, and Vice President of a Non-Profit Organization I had co-founded with my cousin in September 2004. I managed to carry this workload for over a year. My grades weren’t affected (straight A’s), my work performance didn’t suffer, even throughout the depression (exceeded all KPMs), the ministry moved from being stagnant to active and brought in more men — which was highly necessary at the time and the non-profit was being built brick and mortar from the idea in my cousin’s mind to full fruition within a matter of 9 months.
However, after that spring 2005 semester, I received an ultimatum from my boss. I had wanted to work a split schedule, or even work from home (all things that other people at the company were allowed to do, as they either had families or were in school themselves), but my boss (and her boss) wouldn’t allow it — for what everyone in the know understood to be personal vendettas. That’s neither here nor there, but the important thing is to understand that I was perfectly fine remaining with the company until my hand was forced. Starting the non-profit organization was a huge risk for me, because it required a large chunk of my time and a good deal of sacrifice financially. Once my boss ultimately required me to choose school over my job, I had to leave Aetna in August 2005. At the time, it was a weighty decision that was a little easier to make because of the circumstances under which I made the call.
In retrospect, outside of my KNOWING it was God leading me — I would have had to ask myself what on earth I was thinking. However, again, I knew God was leading me, He will never leave His children begging for bread nor lacking and I knew that if I didn’t exercise my faith, then what purpose was there in having it to begin with?
The more time wore on in the latter part of 2005, the more worrisome they became. Although I was able to get the paperwork handled for our NPO to receive designation for tax-exempt status from the state and our 501(c)3 in November 2006 (after a year-long wait), it required a humongous amount of time. My grades were still 3.85 after my 2nd full year at UNCG, but I became a bit worried. I had plenty of cash saved when I left Aetna in August 2005, but after applying for a half dozen grants (themselves very time-consuming) and not winning a single one, my cash reserves were depleted by May 2006. I had a $540 car payment, the corresponding insurance and a host of bills that equated to a mid-level mortgage (no joke) that I had paid monthly even in the months after I left Aetna. That’s how well I had managed my cash previously. However, with no grant funding, our NPO was in No Man’s Land.
I began to get behind on my credit cards, then my car, then everything. I drastically set out to find a job, and struggled mightily. A fellow minister helped me for a couple of months while I served on board with her NPO as a consultant. Then I went 4 months without any success landing employment. I got hoodwinked (thinking I would be doing retail clothing sales, but ended up working the dock ALONE) into doing a job that further compromised my back (which was mildly injured after being low-bridged in a pickup game in August 2006 by a guy who was tight because I was locking up his game AND scoring at will on him). It turned out to be a seasonal-only job and I was definitely in trouble by Thanksgiving 2006. My car needed to be sold, and I took a near-$10K loss on it. However, this left me in a mess of sour pickles, because I was NOT in New York and in Greensboro, trying to rely upon Public Transportation is just not feasible. Needless to say, EVERYTHING became a chore.
Did I mention I only had TWO friends when I moved down here? When I left North Carolina, most of my “friends” graduated with me — and went worldwide, literally. Most of them proved not to be friends, because during my bout with the aforementioned Erythrodermic Psoriasis, they deserted me and many even led the charge of those taunting my condition, which was dire at BEST. The few friends I had acquired at UNCG were obviously people I had just met, and hadn’t endured anything with them — so you never know if they’re flaky or not when the times get tough.
I FOUND OUT QUICKLY WHO WAS WHO.
By the time I sold my car in December 2006, it was my parents, and that’s it. They extended themselves a great deal in order to make the ordeal less of a burden to me. Besides, I was still carrying a full 15-18 credit load in school, presiding and serving over a ministry, handling the day to day issues with the non-profit AND trying to pay my bills and find a job. It was beginning to take its toll. My grades slipped for the first time in the late part of the Fall 2006 semester, and I had to move on campus into a DORM. That was humiliating, because I was just weeks short of my 28th birthday when I moved into Cotten Hall in January 2007. I didn’t know a soul — amongst those who lived on campus.
The few people I came to know were those who I had met in class, clubs/organizations or people I had met as mutual acquaintances of a young lady from UNCG who I had been dating before I had to sell my car. One of them became my roommate after my annual summer return to New York the summer of 2007. I had struggled for months to resolve a financial aid issue with UNCG and it culminated in July 2007 with them finally dispersing the funds I was owed (well, only HALF of them). Little did I know I would have to fight with UNCG over financial aid EVERY. SINGLE. SEMESTER. for the remainder of my time there. That same summer (2007) I had toyed (for the 10th time, probably) with the idea of permanently moving back. I didn’t take it seriously, but I could have transferred to NYU that summer and finished by December 2008 had I been better prepared. I had had bad experiences with City University of New York (CUNY) in the 90s, so I knew trying to transfer to City College in Harlem was not wise — even though I know a couple of people on the inside there. After the year of sharing a dorm with one of my friends, I had made my mind to move. All the while, I was struggling mightily just to survive because I had no car and no job/income in Greensboro. I had hoped to still find something AFFORDABLE in Harlem on my own, but I have quite a bit of family all over Uptown so I was able to crash at a cousin’s in Harlem that summer while I researched the best options for me education-wise.
What is important to note is that beyond the financial struggles, I had broken my back slightly (yes, it was “thpinal” as Tyson once said) in 2007. I had hurt it in the 2006 pick-up game fiasco that I previously mentioned, and my job working the truck for Ann Taylor in late 2006 only compromised it further. By the summer of 2007, I had gained 20 pounds and was carrying 195 pounds for the first time since high school. I was woefully out of shape and attempted to play basketball 5-6 days a week with my roommate and lift weights (which definitely made it worse, as my doctor confirmed). I attempted my patented “step-back” move, hard dribble to my right, stepped back 5 feet with all my weight on my left leg/hip and ***CRUNCH*** I hear something cracking like a tree limb in high winds. My roommate was right there, having passed me the ball as I had come off Reggie Miller-type screen to receive the pass.
When you are severely injured, it is one of those things you remember in great detail.
I was able to get the shot off and make it, but when I attempted to run back on defense, my legs felt as if they were bound and my back felt like someone had me in a death grip. I collapsed to the floor in agony and couldn’t stand at all. I lay there writhing in pain for a good 15 minutes before I hobbled away and then back to the dorms. I would attempt to go get a few runs in with my roommate the rest of that Fall 2007 semester, but each time I played, what I thought was a spasm was really my L5 lumbar disk protruding further out of its sac and eventually rupturing due to the intense wear and tear that sports places upon back disks. I have a high tolerance for pain, given all my near-death experiences with a high speed car accident (went right back to work the same day, car totally smashed, did 15 grand in 1999, the E. Psoriasis as well — which was extremely painful 24/7/365/6.5) so I thought nothing of it. Maybe I was just out of shape, or just getting old (28 and not 21 anymore), needed to stretch more and drink more water. Maybe I needed to begin lifting, since I always got by on the fact I was a natural athlete from the get-go and never needed weights. I tried everything — and all it did was make the situation worse, as I completely ruptured the L5/S1 and hobbled in agony throughout the rest of 2007 and all of 2008 (including a very tense summer) before having surgery in September 2008.
I was accepted to City College, but they are notorious for being bad with financial aid. I had the option to transfer my acceptance to Hunter College or Baruch, and I chose Hunter because it is ideal for Social Sciences majors (I changed my major to Sociology following the Fall 2007 semester — the fiasco with the Spanish Department head was the last straw). Again, the CUNY Effect comes into play and the school does not process my financial aid in time for me to attend for the Fall 2008 semester. I had landed an internship with CBS Sports to help produce the NFL Today pre-game/post-game show. But because the internship was credit-based and I needed to be in school to accept it (the financial aid disaster precluded this), I had to regretfully pass up the internship. The guys at CBS Sports were aghast, because I had wowed them in my two interviews that summer. This was the only break I had caught in 2 years since leaving Aetna and hadn’t received any breaks SINCE until the week prior to my writing this. And naturally, I lose it on something that wasn’t even under my own control. FAIL.
Side Note III: Had I been able to do this internship, I would’ve been in Glendale when the Giants hoisted up the Lombardi Trophy following Super Bowl XLII. TRIPLE FAIL. FML and ALL THAT.
I go back to UNCG in August 2008 with the mission of doing my absolute best in Sociology, with professors who know me and whose classes I’ve aced previously. I did my best, except for one class — Statistics (RIP Dr. Mitchell) but 2008-2009 was probably the culmination of all my failures, disgust and angst. Here I was, broke, applied for 1,500 jobs and didn’t land a single one, lost out on a potentially BLOCKBUSTER internship, finding out that some of the buildings that were for sale in Sugar Hill (Harlem) in the late 1990s were sold for ONE DOLLAR and now I cannot afford to move into my own apartment 10 years later, and struggling just to survive as my 30th birthday arrived. This wasn’t what I had in mind when I thought about where I would be at age 30 coming out of high school. I was highly dismayed. And most of it was beyond my control. I had always planned well, had several businesses in mind, had already started an NPO and my own parent company (which still exists), very meticulous, detailed and managed finances well. But hey, many before me — much better than I am — have failed, so I couldn’t focus on that long. Only losers and people who like to make themselves miserable would rather focus on failure than see how they can take from that experience and learn more about themselves so they can succeed later.
I learned I really only had the same two friends I had when I came here.
I learned that while a few other people BECAME friends of mine while at UNCG, they all went their separate ways post-graduation just as my high school friends did, except this time, many of them were marrying, which changes things — unlike high school, where most people are either entering college, the corporate arena or the military — not really marriage.
I learned that faith is nothing if you don’t ever have an instance for which to use it (I’d say numerous days and nights of not knowing how I would eat, even though I was always diligent about finding a job and making $1 out of 15¢ — qualifies as an “instance”).
I have developed more compassion than ever for my fellow man. And I wasn’t a harsh or (extremely) selfish person before.
I have learned that it is better to humble yourself rather than to have God publicly humble you (as He had to do with me).
I learned what’s most important in choosing a wife — although I always KNEW, from my upbringing at home and in the Word of God — but now actually putting it into practice at age 26, 27.
I have developed STEALTH patience that I am proud of.
I have learned many techniques that are going to be instrumental in achieving success in my business endeavors, academic career and personal relationships — all as a result of the Struggle.
I have become willing (read: desperation) to do some of the very things I was unwilling to do in order to advance in life. I took “safe” routes in the past, but the very thing that I would have needed to do in order to take advantage of that full-ride at St. John’s I am having to do NOW in 2010 just to have my own roof over my head 8 years later. And to think, it wasn’t even hard work. Just a matter of doing — especially now with my current mindset.
I always knew HOW to cook, but it is so second nature now that I actually prefer cooking 5 or 6 days a week now, whereas I considered it a mundane chore (also because I was spoiled growing up by my mother’s cooking).
And to sum everything up, I really truly believe that God orchestrated all of these things. He knew where He wanted to take me, He knew I desired to get there (through my constant prayers throughout my depression in 2003-2004 and throughout this Wilderness) and He knew what it took to get me from where I was spiritually and psyche-wise in 2003 to where I am in 2010 where I am completely fearless, truly willing to do whatever it takes and I know who my friends are (and have no problem allowing people to walk out of my life or having to cut them out of my life myself if need be and not think anything about it past that point — something many people cannot do). I never went to bed starving, God placed people in my life like the birds who gave the Israelites manna daily. Some of the people were those who didn’t like me (or I was convinced didn’t like me), some of them were people I didn’t like. Some were people I hadn’t seen nor spoken to in YEARS. But the common denominator is, God would not allow me to die, wouldn’t allow me to starve and beg for bread and He can use WHOMEVER He wants in order to bless you.
The bottom line is, we are entering the most perilous times known to man in recorded history, if not at ANY point in history. If, by being a child of God, I don’t learn to cling to Him, trust Him, pray and speak His Word back to Him and believe that He is going to provide, then why carry on? We are heading toward times in the very near future that if you do NOT know God for yourself through Jesus Christ — YOU’RE GOING TO WANT TO KNOW HIM.
I am completely grateful for all the trials, suffering, loss (which is actually GAIN) and all the life and eternal lessons I’ve learned. I have reached catharsis and the rest of my time on this earth is just gravy from here.
I have reached Self-Actualization. And when you do this IN CHRIST, you’re ready to take on the world.
That is why I say everyone should go through a Wilderness Experience.