The Broken Road
The well from which we receive grace is only filled by sharing it with others.
—CHARLES JAMES’S DIARY
SUNDAY, APRIL 24 (FOUR YEARS EARLIER)
St. Louis, Missouri
My name is Charles James. I have waged a fierce internal struggle over whether to share my story—the devil on one shoulder saying it would only serve to humiliate me, the angel on the other saying it might help others. If you’re reading this, the angel won—though not without a few cuts and bruises.
That’s not to say you will like me. You won’t. Some of you will hate me. I don’t blame you. I have spent a fair amount of time hating myself. But I ask that you might extend me just enough grace to hear my story. Not so I can excuse what I’ve done—there is no excuse for what I’ve done—but so you can see how even someone as lost
as I was can find himself. Who knows? Maybe it will help you with your struggles. Maybe it will even help you find a little grace for yourself.
You might assume that my journey started the day I died to the world. But it started long before that. The day of my death, Tuesday, May 3, was just the day the tracks switched beneath my life. I’ll begin my story a week or so before.
It was a rainy evening in St. Louis, Missouri. I was doing what I do—preaching the gospel of wealth to an auditorium of hopefuls and believers. There were about twelve hundred people in the audience that night, each attendee bought and paid for through advertising. There was a science to the numbers and a price placed on each attendee—$327 for each butt in a chair.
I took a last swig from a can of energy drink as the announcer boomed, “Ladies and gentlemen, the moment you’ve been waiting for, the man of the hour, the direct descendant of the legendary outlaw Jesse James, the incomparable . . . Charles James!”
Music blared as I walked out from behind the curtain, both of my hands raised triumphantly in the air. Somewhat appropriately, my theme song was Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”
I walked to the center of the stage as the crowd roared. I snatched the microphone from its stand and just stood there, looking out over the cheering audience for more than a minute, waiting for the applause to settle. When
I sensed it was starting to slow, I raised my hand. “Thank you. Thank you, you’re very kind. That’s enough. Now calm down. Time’s important. We’ve got things to talk about. Important things. Vital things.”
When the crowd had hushed, I said, “Henry David Thoreau wrote, ‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.’ There is one great truth in life that will determine whether your life is one of success or one of quiet desperation.” I stabbed at the air with my index finger. “Just one. Do you want to know that truth?”
I paused for their response. After more than seven hundred presentations I already knew how they’d respond. I always did. I saw some heads nodding. Then a few brave souls shouted, “Yes!” or “Tell us!”
I looked at the audience in feigned disappointment, tapping the microphone against my chin. “That’s not promising. I saaaid”—holding the word like a television evangelist—“do you want to hear that truth? Because I’m not casting pearls before a bunch of swine. Not here. Not now. Not ever. In fact, will all swine please leave the hall right now.”
Not surprisingly, no one stood. Someone in the crowd shouted, “Sooey!” Everyone laughed.
Perfect. I looked the crowd over until they again quieted. Then, speaking in a softer voice than before, again asked, “Do you want to hear the one great truth?”
“Yes!” came the resounding response. “Tell us!”
I took a deep breath, feigning disappointment. “If that’s all the passion you can muster for the one great truth of life, you might as well leave right now. In fact, you might as
well just die right now, because your life is going nowhere.” I looked at them for another thirty seconds for effect, creating a strained atmosphere in the room. Then I said, “All right, let’s do this one more time. Last chance. I want to hear winners, not whiners. Do. You. Want. To. Know. The. One. Great. Truth. Yes or no?”
The chorus was deafening. “Yes!”
“All right then,” I said, lowering my hand. “All right. I knew you could do it. Now you’re sounding like winners.” I walked to the edge of the stage, looking into the eyes of those in the front row. “This is it. Listen very carefully.” I knelt down on one knee and softened my voice. “This is the one great truth.”
The room fell dead quiet. You could hear a credit card drop.
“In life, you are either the butcher or the sheep. There is no in-between.”
I waited a moment, and then stood. “You are either the butcher or the sheep!” I shouted. “Which are you? Am I talking to a room full of sheep?” I looked out over the audience. “Anyone who is a sheep, stand up and walk out right now. I don’t waste my time with swine and sheep. If you’re not strong enough, if you don’t care enough about your life enough to choose to be an apex predator, to be a warrior, then go right ahead and join the millions of sheep outside this convention center. There’s always room in their flock. Go ahead, I’m waiting.”
Again, predictably, no one stood. They never did.
“All right then. You want to be predators. You want to be lions. That’s good. But even lions must be taught how
to kill. They must be prepared and tested. But lions have an advantage over you. They are raised to be lions. You, on the other hand, were raised, by society, to be sheep. To be timid and weak. Not your fault. Society fears lions. A world of lions is impossible to control. Impossible to slaughter. While a world of sheep is easy to lead, easy to butcher. Many of you came here today as sheep. The good news, if you have the courage to choose to win, is that you will leave as lions.
“What I’m talking about is change. Deep, personal change.” I pounded my abs. “Core change. And change is coming whether you like it or not. Sometimes you can feel it, the way old people can feel changing weather in their joints. Change is always coming. Nothing is more unchanging than change, just as nothing is more certain than uncertainty.”
I looked out over the audience, their faces barely visible in the dark, as the hall’s spotlights were all on me. “Look around you. The wave is coming. Not just any wave, but a tsunami. Will you ride it, or will it rush over you, drown you?”
It was the perfect segue into my near-death story. Every presenter I knew had a good “brush with death” experience, even if they had to make one up. I didn’t. I just embellished it.
Nine months earlier, my now ex-girlfriend and I had spent the day at Flamands Beach in St. Barths, an immaculate white-sand beach where beautiful people sunned be
neath skies as clear as the turquoise water while white-clad beach servants ran from chair to chair taking drink orders.
I had swum and bodysurfed for several hours and was just about to head in to shore when I saw a large wave coming. I swam into it, catching the crest. I soon discovered that I hadn’t caught the wave, rather it had caught me. I felt myself tumbling through the water like a sock in a dryer. My tumbling came to an abrupt stop as I hit ground.
“There was a loud snap,” I told the crowd. “As sharp as a breaking tree branch. My first thought was that I had broken my neck. It’s remarkable how quickly your thoughts run in crisis. This is how you die, I thought. Right here, right now, underwater, unseen. I imagined my lifeless body washing up on shore.
“I was angry. Death wasn’t on my to-do list when I got up that morning. It never is. But I was still alive, and I knew I had a choice. I knew I was broken, but I still had a choice. I could give up or I could live.
“At that moment, I decided to live. In spite of the pain, in spite of my body being in shock, I began clawing my way toward shore. It was only when I had got my body halfway out of the water that I passed out.
“I woke in an ambulance. They drove me to a small medical clinic where no one spoke English. I had crushed my scapula and broken all of my ribs. I was bandaged up and given nothing but Tylenol for the pain. That night, I flew back to Chicago and the emergency room at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. I’ll never forget the doctor walking into my room carrying my X-rays.
“?‘You shouldn’t be alive,’ he told me. ‘That’s the worst break I’ve seen on anyone still breathing.’?”
The audience listened intensely. It didn’t matter that the story wasn’t true. At least, not completely. I had been bodysurfing in St. Barths when I broke my arm. But that was it. The truth didn’t matter, just the story.
“You’re either living or you’re dying,” I said softly. “So what is it? The financial waves of life are drowning you. Every time you think you might get ahead, they pound you down again and again. Will you live or will you die? That’s a question only you can answer right now.” I took a deep breath and said, “For the survivors in this room, for those who choose to be warriors and apex predators, for those who choose to live, I’m going to teach you how to ride those waves. I’m not just talking about treading water, I’m talking about surfing those babies onto white-sand beaches. I’m going to teach you how to make money in your sleep. Who is with me? Where are my lions?”
The crowd roared. A half hour later people lined up with their credit cards, checkbooks, and hope.