Why are addicts emotionally unavailable?

The partner or spouse of an active addict often has a difficult time trying to comprehend the addict’s immature behavior and inability to participate fully in a loving, respectful partnership. There is no question that addicts are not as emotionally mature as their biological years would suggest.

Addicts are emotionally immature because their emotional growth was stalled or slowed down at the age at which they started drinking or using. For example, if someone began actively drinking or using at age 15, then if at age 30 they are still drinking or using, they would still have the emotional maturity of a 15-year-old. In addition, their immaturity is also compounded by the fact that a high percentage of addicts come from chaotic homes where healthy relationships were not modeled because of addiction or other challenges.

I recently asked my first wife to describe what I was like when I was an active addict. She said she could sum it up in two words: emotionally unavailable. I didn’t know I didn’t have the emotional maturity to be able to contribute to a healthy, mature, intimate relationship, and I don’t believe I was any different from most addicts. As the disease of addiction progresses, addicts become more emotionally distant and remote. We are too busy being sick, sad, sorry and tired, or otherwise too preoccupied with our own unhealthy needs to be truly emotionally available to the ones we love. Our energy, time, and life-force are, for the most part, taken up with our drinking or using and everything that goes with it.

Emotionally unavailable people can’t fully commit to being an equal partner in the process of creating a long-term, in-depth, meaningful, intimate relationship. This is despite the fact that deep down it is what they most yearn for. Addicts are very manipulative so they can usually attract a partner when they want. But when the courting stage is over, they go back to their preoccupation with the drug of their choice and their dysfunctional lifestyle.

In my experience it is not unusual for addicts to carry on with others outside of a relationship because moral values such as monogamy often get hijacked by their addiction.  The lifestyle is one of lies, deceit, and defensiveness and it significantly hurts the ones who love them the most or who would like to love them the most.  A statement I always use with the loved ones of addicts is: “How do you know when the addict is lying? Their lips are moving.” Addiction is the most selfish disease known to humankind and is recognized as such, for the addict always wants what they want, when then want it, in the way they want it and no other way, and they want it now, or to hell with you.

A sign of immaturity that I have noticed with many addicts is that they like to be rebels and intentionally go against the tide, just to be different or defiant. It is a classic case of addicts saying something is black when we say it’s white. These people are generally quite proud of being rebels. 

Many addicts suffer deeply rooted fear and anger issues which are usually linked to the past and have a lot to do with trust. Underlying anger issues get lived out either aggressively, expressed by acts of verbal or physical violence, or passive aggressively, where it simmers inside as a silent resentment and often gets expressed as sarcasm and abrasive humor. In either case, an addict’s way of handling anger becomes a conditioned pattern of behavior that he or she believes is acceptable.

In the early months of recovery, it is likely that much of the addict’s accumulated anger and resentment will bubble to the surface and will need to be managed appropriately… or there will be a strong likelihood of relapse. There is a saying that anger is just one letter away from danger (d-anger), and this is very true for the addict in recovery.

It has been my experience that when addicts have quit using, maybe even for years, and they start drinking or using again, they quickly revert back to where they were at emotionally when they were using, or maybe even further back. The illness is awakened and all of the pain associated with drinking or using is forgotten, and they promptly return to the same way of thinking or acting, and to the same mental/emotional place they were in when using. This can happen even if people have worked on their emotional and personal growth during the years they abstained from drinking/using.

Becoming emotionally mature is a process that takes considerable time and effort. Through working a 12-Step program and working with our Higher Power we can learn to grow ourselves up – learn to love ourselves, to forgive, to act with honesty, honor and integrity within a relationship, to express our innermost feelings, to no longer be selfish, to be empathetic, and to act with compassion.

As for the partners of someone in a relationship with an active addict the best advice I have is to work their own program of personal and spiritual growth, and then decide what it is they need to do for themselves.

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Tolerance – Accept others without judgment… and gain an appreciation for all life.

As with all Spiritual Principles, tolerance in interconnected with numerous other principles…  for it is in the mosaic of their inter-relationship that the strength of the cloth of full recovery is possible. In the Alcoholics Anonymous book, As Bill Sees It, there is a quote on page 312 taken from a letter written by one of AA’s co-founders, Bill Wilson in 1943. The title of this writing is “Tolerance Keeps Us Sober” and it reads: “Honesty, with ourselves and others gets us sober, but it is tolerance that keeps us that way.” 

What is interesting and of great significance was the timing of this letter in 1943. History shows that what is now a worldwide fellowship of recovery for alcoholics began on June 10th, 1935 in Akron, Ohio with the meeting of its two co-founders. They had met by fate, two alcoholic individuals desperately searching for an answer to their uncontrollable drunkenness. The writing and publishing of their first book took from 1936 to 1939. It was just four years after the printing of their basic text, Alcoholics Anonymous, that Bill writes his letter, “Tolerance Keeps Us Sober.” One can only imagine what challenges these everyday citizens and pioneers of recovery witnessed and went through themselves as they and their fellowship matured. Think for a few minutes of the principles of acceptance, honesty, patience, tolerance, surrender, and forgiveness that would have to be experienced as the first woman joined recovery; and what about black men and women joining? How did the recovery process and its members even survive back then? But, not only did they survive they thrived, celebrating their 75th anniversary on June 10th, 2010.

When Bill Wilson wrote this article in the formative years of AA when the organization was only 8 years old, he sent a clear message to people in recovery. By then Bill knew from experience that the future of the AA fellowship would find one of its greatest footings of longevity in each of its member’s ability to learn to embrace and accept the differences of all members through living and practicing tolerance. 

Addiction, by its very nature, is an illness driven by and wrapped up in the personal selfishness of the addict themselves. No matter the drug or behaviour, no matter the education or principled life, no matter the culture or ethnic background, no matter the wealth or status, no matter the lifestyle, all addicts at the point of feeding their addiction/compulsion are selfish. They want what they want, when they want it, in the way that they want it, and they do not want it any other way. Many active addicts, however, are quite giving people; most are caring, sensitive, feeling individuals. Unfortunately many, if not most, have wounded spirits from their childhood. Thus they are needy and crave recognition, acceptance and love beyond that which is normal, necessary, and the right of all children. 

On page 92 of the AA book, The Twelve by Twelve, it states: “Finally we begin to see that all people, including ourselves, are to some extent emotionally ill as well as frequently wrong. When this happens, we approach true tolerance and we see what real love for our fellows really means.”

In the pursuit of full recovery we must commit to an entire psychic change process. The tolerance spoken about in recovery from addiction is all about transformational tolerance, a new and different way of being and living. It is not about simply tolerating this or that for the next hour or day and then carrying on with our usual attitudes and actions. There is a quote by M.K. Somi that says: “True love means infinite tolerance for each other’s differences.” To be able to live from a place of true love with infinite tolerance for each other’s differences for most of us requires a complete change in our attitudes and actions. But in doing so, the rewards are infinite.

In the writing of our Spiritual Principles card on tolerance we stated: “When we practice tolerance we make an effort to understand others beliefs, practices and habits, even if they are not what we’d choose… When we learn to take a non-judgmental stance, we cut off our negative thinking and are able to reach a place of acceptance. Practicing tolerance helps us to move forward in our recovery because we are free to focus on our journey without being stuck in judgment.” I believe this is precisely why Bill Wilson said the spiritual practice of tolerance is what keeps us sober. It is truly one of the golden keys to a life of full recovery in which one can live happy, joyous, and free.

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Detachment – Let go and have trust… and discover that life always has a way of working out for the best.

The essence of detachment involves learning to able to observe our feelings without them controlling our actions – to find a place of calm and peacefulness within where we’re no longer buffeted by life’s changing currents. When we detach from an addict, it doesn’t mean we give up hope and abandon the person. It means we no longer get pulled down into an emotional situation. What I eventually learned with my dad, and I describe this in our Act of Surrender book, it that the more you love, the closer you are, the more you see, the more it hurts, the less capable you are of changing that person, – love them, learn about the addiction, and get out of the way! That is detachment.

My father was completely unaware of how his addiction was stealing quality of life from my mother and his children. This is the selfishness of addiction which affects all addicts and it blinded him from the truth – just as it would me during my addiction and is now doing to my son in his addiction. It is no wonder that the three most accurate descriptive words of the illness of substance abuse disorder are “cunning, baffling and powerful.”  This illness not only robs all the personality and potential of the addict, it deeply affects immediate family members. Research tells us that the spouse, partner, and parents of an active addict are at a significantly higher risk for a serious medical or psychological disability through their close proximity to an active addict, than the addict themselves. This is because the addict has the distinct advantage of being numb during all of the troubles he or she is creating. Through this looking glass one can more clearly see the disastrous results of the enmeshed co-dependent lifestyle and the need for detachment. 

In my more than 30 years of professional clinical work with addicts and their families I have consistently found the wisdom and practicality of 12 Step literature to offer some of the best advice available. To understand the meaning of detachment let’s first look at its opposite behaviours;: enmeshment and co-dependency. In the book How Alanon Works for Families and Friends of Alcoholics it says: “We have become so enmeshed with another person’s life and problems that we have lost the knowledge that we are separate individuals…..We perceive ourselves to be so connected that, if something happens to the alcoholic, it seems only right, only natural, for us to respond. Having interceded for so long on the alcoholics behalf, constantly reacting, worrying, pleasing, covering up, smoothing over, or bailing him or her out of trouble, we have often taken upon our shoulders responsibilities that don’t rightfully belong to us…..The result is that we lose the sense of where we leave off and the alcoholic begins….We lose the ability to distinguish between the alcoholic and ourselves until the alcoholics past, current and potential actions become our focus….This is obsessive, we can no longer live our own life because we are so preoccupied by the lives of others, our behaviour is motivated by fear.”

This description of the enmeshed co-dependency lifestyle and related behaviours give us a very clear and vivid understanding of the opposite of detachment and a desire to more accurately understand the meaning of detachment. The same book goes on to say: “We need help to separate ourselves from the symptoms and effects to the disease of alcoholism without separating ourselves from the human being… It is important to remember that establishing personal boundaries is not the same as building walls. Our goal is to heal ourselves and our relationships with other human beings, not to coldly distant ourselves, especially from the people who matter the most to us. In fact, detachment is far more compassionate and respectful than the unfeeling distancing or the compulsive involvement many of us have practiced in the past, for when we detach with love, we accept others exactly as they are… It takes time and practice to master detachment.”

So Alanon, thank you for your pioneering work and leadership on the subject of detachment and other similar subjects. 

For those of us in recovery, we can use the spiritual principle of detachment to deepen our recovery as we learn to let go of that which is outside of our control and place our trust in a Higher Presence. When we have a deep abiding trust in HP, we can detach emotionally from those situations we may be struggling with and know that events in our life will work out for the best.

When Nancy and I undertook writing our book An Act of Surrender in 2006 and then the Spiritual Principles cards in 2009, I gave little thought to the personal value I would benefit from in doing so. I have done a lot more of “growing myself up” and am now much more capable of effectively practicing detachment. It is paying off in changed lives and new freedom for me and for those I dearly love.

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Dignity – Believe in yourself and your value to the world… and walk through life with poise and grace

When Nancy and I decided to write our Spiritual Principles cards it was for a very specific and focused purpose. We wanted to help addicts and their loved ones begin to deepen their journey toward full recovery through supporting them to identify, better understand, and practice spiritual shift on a daily basis. It is all about shifting emotional gears or positions. 

Why? Because we all know far too well the decay and demoralization of the dignity of the human spirit addictive/compulsive living brings into our lives. In its early days, whether we are the addict or their loved one, we often do not see this depletion of personal dignity, but as the illness progresses the downward slide takes its toll on everybody.

In the Spiritual Principles we don’t talk about the progressive medical aspect of the disease of addiction, instead we talk about the emotional and psychological aspects of the illness. This is the part which the co-founders of the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous chose to call the “spiritual malady” of addiction that every addict and their loved ones suffer from. It matters not what their level of knowledge, education, wealth or status, all would experience this malady. It is recognized by the ever-increasing personal inability to live life on a daily basis by a set of principles or virtues all of which would rebuild the human spirit – therefore they are spiritual in nature. 

The co-founders of AA, Dr. Bob Smith and Bill Wilson chose specifically to not call these principles ‘virtues’ as most of today’s society would. They chose to call them ‘spiritual principles’, a guide for living life on a daily basis in increasing harmony and balance within the addict themselves and at the same time extending this way of living outward in never ending circles of influence. Thus we can see that to fully address addiction, we need to address both aspects of the disease, the medical as well as the spiritual. Addressing one without addressing the other fails to bring the addict and their family to the place and possibility of full recovery. 

It is also true that for this state of full recovery to be achieved and maintained, there will be daily medical and spiritual commitments and practices that both the addict and the family will have to make and maintain. If they do not grow in their understanding of the need and value of this commitment, then full recovery is unlikely to be obtained and relapse will inevitably occur.  Relapse will generally always occur if the person is not living by spiritual principles. If this way of living and being goes uncorrected the addict will be living in that state of a ‘dry drunk’. This is where and when they once again go back to treating themselves and those they love in the same way emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and physically as they did when they were drinking or using, but in fact they are not presently drinking or using.

The statement “no man is an island unto himself” could not be more accurate when referring to the addict and their addiction. The addict and their family must learn to reach out to others for the help and support they so desperately need. And they need to keep that initial engagement of support active and alive. This is the commitment to full recovery and to the spiritual solution of a spiritual malady – learning to live life with dignity on a daily basis by living according to Spiritual Principles.

Dignity was a lost virtue for me in my active addiction. Yet in my heart I so desperately wanted to believe in myself and abilities, but my actions never allowed it to be present. I may have tried to present it in my false outward image, but deep in my being I knew it wasn’t there and I was a phony, living a lie in an attempt to show myself as being and living in a way that I wasn’t. Dignity is described in the World English Dictionary as: “having a proper sense of pride and self-respect.” The self-respect and pride in being ‘proper’ would be lived in balance and harmony, with stability and humility, and would include the presence of self-esteem and self-worth.

The following quotes on of dignity are all perfect for this writing. When we reflect them against the actions and attitudes of us addicts, we can easily see the need for and value of shifting our emotional gears through accepting the love and support of others who have travelled the road of recovery before us, as well as those who are new to this spiritual path.

  • Dignity implies reserve or restraint in conduct prompted less by obedience to a code than by a sense of personal integrity. ~ Unknown
  • Integrity implies trustworthiness and incorruptibility to a degree that one is incapable of living false to a truth, responsibility or a pledge. ~ Unknown
  • To free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves – there lays the great singular power of self-respect. ~ Joan Didion
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Connection: Value the oneness of life… and experience the sacred.

 In my clinical work with addicts and their family members, without doubt every one of them will soon share with me how there is a huge ‘dis-connect’ in their relationships, especially as such relates to the ability of the addict to be emotionally available to their family members. After Nancy and I had completed an early draft of our book “Act of Surrender,” I asked my first wife, Sylvia, if she would read it through and give us her comments prior to it going to print. It was important for me to have Sylvia read it as she was my wife in the latter years of my drinking and using and during my early recovery. She had witnessed the worst of my addiction, as well as the hope of a new beginning.

After Sylvia finished reading the book I met with her personally in order to hear her thoughts on it. She said to me, “Jim, in your description of the characteristics of an active addict you completely missed the most painful and frustrating aspect of your addiction for me as your wife and partner.”

I remember wondering what it was that I could have so completely missed! She went on to explain: “Jim you were totally emotionally unavailable to me. You were unable to provide the support, love, and care that I desperately desired, and I so missed receiving it from you.” Sylvia shared this stark truth out of the kindness of her heart. I sat there stunned as I took in the truth that I could have been so ‘dis-connected’ during in my active addiction and even into the years of my early recovery. 

As a result Nancy and I added a section in the book on this important subject. Without its inclusion, the book would have been sorrowfully incomplete in its message. I thank you Sylvia, for your courage, truthfulness and, of course, for your forgiveness and ongoing friendship.

While in the description of ‘connection’ in our spiritual principles cards we talk about the connectedness of all humanity, in this writing about ‘connection’ I want to focus more on our family relationships. Specifically, I want to talk about the possibility for addicts and loved ones to use the tools and the work of recovery to grow ourselves up to a place where we are joyfully, willingly, and increasingly more emotionally available to ourselves and to those we love the most. 

Recovery from substance abuse involves so much more than stopping the use of the substance or activity which is sucking the life out of us and thus our ability to connect with others. The pain we cause our loved ones is immense. Unless they also do the work of recovery for themselves, whether the addict does or not, they too will end up feeling disconnected from life. Full recovery takes us into healing our body, mind, and spirit and requires a complete transformation of our way of being – our thinking, attitude, actions, and reactions. 

The journey of recovery depends on our willingness and openness to working on healing our spiritual, personal, and external connections. I put spiritual first because our connection with our Higher Power is the foundation we need to work from throughout our journey. Next is doing the work of healing our personal wounds and learning to love ourselves, so that we are then able to love others. Then comes healing our relationships; this is done through the work of forgiveness and making amends. It is also about creating connection with others with whom we can relate – thus the value of a recovery fellowship. Connection is also about being in service to others.

It is my opinion that through the active daily practice of spiritual principles such as reflection, forgiveness, kindness, generosity, surrender, and unconditional love that we can move towards living in that place of being happy, joyous, and free. It is absolutely possible to live there regardless of whether or not the people in our world around us choose to live by similar principles. 

In closing I would be remiss if I did not mention the beauty, joy, and wonderment Jan and I experienced on our recent visit to connect with family and friends in the Shetland Islands, mainland Scotland, and England. I met, for the first time, a total of 31 cousins. Their warm, loving welcome was as immediate as if I had grown up with them. To Jan’s family in England and to mine in Shetland and Scotland we love you and thank you. We look forward to our future connections!

To those of you reading this blog, I value my connection with you and look forward to sharing this journey with you in future!

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Kindness – Show compassion and understanding… and develop a deeper connection with others.

As I write this I am sitting at a garden table in Frimley Green, Surrey, England at the home of my wife Jan’s sister Kate and her husband Jeff. We arrived here late yesterday by train, having left Edinburgh, Scotland in the morning and then spending some time in London before catching a train to Surrey. It is a warm, sunny, beautiful day. In the next hour we are heading into Winchester where we will attend a two-day celebration of recovery convention. My recovery mentor and coach, Lew, has travelled from British Columbia to be the opening speaker tonight. 

Now that you are up-to-date and what I’m doing, I’ll get back to this week’s spiritual principle.  Kindness is described as “the act of being kind, marked by charitable behaviors, mild disposition, pleasantness, tenderness, and concern for others.” True kindness is always done as an act of selflessness where there is no expectation of return, gain or favor. 

My mother taught her five children that “it is better (or greater) to give than to receive” and that “it is in giving that we receive.” During my active addiction I wasn’t very good at practicing this. When we are living addictively and compulsively, our lives become all about our own needs and wants, and have very little to do with the needs, feelings, and emotional rights of others. There is no question that from time to time addicts will do what may be perceived as acts of kindness, but often behind the curtain we thought that somehow it would make us look or feel good, or get us some recognition as we were seen to be doing a good thing for someone else. 

It is only through doing the work of recovery that one begins to discover and appreciate the truth. It is only then that one can acknowledge their previous selfish and self-centered ways, embrace, release, and change them. .

The statement “fake it till you make it” is often used in recovery circles. Kindness is a great way to start to put this statement into practice. When doing something for someone else, it’s always good to check out what our motives are and make sure it isn’t about us. Practicing small acts of kindness without ever saying a word to anyone about it is great therapy. When we do this we immediately begin to feel the joy, peace, and excitement in our hearts, minds, and spirits – this is what “full” recovery is all about.

 If I had undertaken this soulful journey to Scotland during my active addiction, or even in the years of my early recovery, it would never have produced the outcomes I have received from doing it now at this stage of my life and my recovery. In the past I had not surrendered deeply enough and I was still too much ‘into myself,’ and I definitely did not know how to be kind to myself. 

However, at this time in my life I am able to appreciate that every “kindness” I have felt from relatives and others, from the spectacular weather, and from the beauty of the earth I have walked upon and touched have all been the result and reward of the Creator at work. This is the beauty of working one’s recovery based upon the practice of living life daily with the conscious application of spiritual principles.

Before leaving Canada I had been looking forward to writing my two newsletters, one from the Shetland Islands, Scotland and this one from Surrey, England. I did not select what spiritual principle to write about until I sat down to do so for I wanted it to be what was happening to me right at that moment. My next newsletter will be written after our return to Vancouver.

 In closing I would like to reference a worldwide study on virtues that I came across: “In a study of 37 cultures around the world, sixteen thousand subjects we asked about their most desired traits in a mate. For both sexes, the first preference was “kindness.”  Kind of makes sense, doesn’t it?

I sit here in awe, humbled and inspired by the Creator’s love for each of us.

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Peacefulness – Release your worries and fears… and experience tranquility in the present moment.

I am sitting in the sunroom of my third cousin’s home in the beautiful Shetland Islands of Scotland. It is late in the afternoon as I look out over the ever-rolling hills which are spectacularly covered in heather and crisscrossed with ancient stone fences. Black and white sheep with many young lambs speckle the hillsides. In the valley directly below are a few old church graveyards, with gravestones dating back centuries. Off in the distance I can see the sparkling shores of the North Sea. At this point and time in my life and in my recovery, with my heart feeling so full, there couldn’t be a better place to share about the power and joy of peacefulness…

Shetland Islands

This is the scene that welcomed me to my ancestral home for the very first time. It truly is one of the great gifts of my journey of recovery to be able to travel and experience such beauty. My sojourn from Vancouver, BC to the Shetland Islands took me 36 hours of travel time, but 64 years of living to return to the ancestral roots of my mother’s father, the Nicolson and the Anderson families, which can be traced back as far as the 15th century. 

 It was not many miles away from where I sit today that my mother’s father, Malcolm was born in 1886, as was my great uncle Jimmy in 1894 – the man I am named after, James Cameron Nicolson. My great grandmother named my uncle after the young Dr. James Cameron Bowie who travelled by foot to their croft to help in the delivery. Ten years later the same doctor would marry my uncle’s 19-year old sister Mary, a beautiful love story that lasted a lifetime. My great grandparents, William Nicolson (1844 – 1877) and Christina Anderson (1856 – 1937) were also born in the same area, as were their grandparents, great grandparents, great, great grandparents and great, great, great grandparents, dating back to 1684. 

Never before in my life have I so fully experienced the depth and power of peacefulness. It fills my heart and soul with a beautiful sense of satisfaction, stability, and connection to my family roots.  

Peaceful is defined as being untroubled by conflict, agitation or commotion. Peacefulness is defined as being undeterred by strife, turmoil or disagreement. Synonyms for peacefulness include calm, gentle, kind, quiet, relaxed, serene, and tranquil. Quiet is defined as free from disturbing noise or uproar, and calm is defined as free from storm or physical disturbance.  Given these descriptions from the Miriam-Webster Dictionary, one has absolutely no need to look any further into the understanding of what peacefulness is and what it is not. 

I have a deep appreciation and respect for the value of this spiritual principle as it relates to recovery from addiction for both the addict and their loved ones. Full recovery, which is much more than the absence of consuming alcohol or drugs, is achieved as a result of continually doing the work of recovery. Peacefulness is the opposite place of where addicts and loved ones of addicts live emotionally, mentally, and spiritually as a direct consequence of existing with years of living with active addiction. This is a life of living each day where one is restless, irritable, and discontent, where dreams are destroyed, hope is lost, joyfulness is gone, and despair, disappointment, deceit, and disillusionment become common companions.

It is my experience that as we do the work of recovery, a sense of peacefulness will begin to fill up our souls. Peacefulness is a core spiritual principle that many other spiritual principles are related to. For example, living a life of honesty and integrity will result in a greater sense of peacefulness in our life. When we forgive someone and/or make amends, we regain a sense of peace. When we learn to act with patience, we experience peace. And of course, when we surrender and let go of fear and resistance, we cannot but help to know profound peace.

In our Act of Surrender Recovery Cards we say that the greatest obstacle to experiencing a sense of peace is fear. “In addictive living much of what we do is motivated by fear, whether we realize it or not. In recovery, we want to release those old thoughts of fear and separation and replace them with thoughts of love and unity.” This past week here in the Shetland Islands I could not help but be filled with thoughts of love and unity.

It is my wish for all of you reading this newsletter that you too will have a similar opportunity in your life to experience such profound, deep personal peacefulness that I’ve been privileged to enjoy this week during my sojourn to the Shetland Islands.

May we all know peace this coming week… I look forward to writing my next blog while visiting my wife’s family in England.

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