When I Rebuilt My Life, I Built A Cathedral

Refusing to abandon a broken life.

Man rebuilding life, bigger and better StockSnap, Andrey X | Canva

I sat alone in my car outside a 7-Eleven, crying. I was sick to my stomach. Three hours prior, my church musician wife of eight years came home from work and announced she wanted a divorce. I didn’t see that coming.

Divorce happens all the time — but this was happening to me.

At the time, I was a poorly paid teacher struggling to make ends meet. I certainly lacked the financial firepower to afford everything my wife wanted. Contemplating divorce, I wasn’t sure I could support myself as a single man.


A few days later, I discovered that my wife had found someone who could more completely meet her needs — a wealthy choir member twenty years her senior. She was the director of that choir.

We had a two-year-old son with profound special needs. My wife had never wanted to be a mother and had rebuked me bitterly when she discovered she was pregnant.“You did this to me!” she screamed. That was not how I envisioned learning that I would soon be a father.

She had plunged into denial when I pursued special programs for our child funded by the state. She refused to acknowledge that he wasn’t developing normally and needed help.


“What will happen to my son?” I thought. “Who will get custody? Will I ever truly be a father?”

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Sitting there in my beat-up Nissan, I held in my hand a bottle of wine I had bought from the store and pondered whether I should sit there and drain the entire thing. I needed numbing … badly. I came so close. Given that I had about a five-mile drive back home, I chose to wait until I was in our driveway to start drinking. I was fortunate that a police car didn’t drive by then. I drank the entire bottle over the course of an hour.

In a matter of months, I lost everything. Almost everything. 


I lost my marriage, son, home, job (I couldn’t afford to remain where I was), and friends. I even lost my church community, who, when they learned that their beloved choirmaster was having an affair with a member of her own choir, treated me as being tainted by association.

I felt like I had been dumped on a deserted island in the middle of the Pacific. Here is a sampling of thoughts that floated through my mind:

“You’re broke, and if you don’t stop teaching, you’re screwed. Your college degree is woefully outdated — your skills are antiquated.”

“You will be lonely for a very long time — who wants to be with a broken man?

“You’re a loser, pal — just deal with it. Life sucks.”

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The divorce process took less than three months. My former wife attended the court hearing, and I elected to stay home. Two days later, I received a copy of the divorce decree from my attorney. My wife had custody of our son.

I was divorced in the summer, which gave me time to find a new job and relocate. I gave almost everything we owned to my wife, except my books, clothes, and running shoes. I wanted to start over with a clean slate.

The clutch on my old Nissan pickup gave out the day I was supposed to move to a new city and a new job. I could have just broken down, like my truck, but I didn’t have the energy. I stayed with a friend until my car was repaired and then began a cross-country road trip to South Florida, my new home. 


You can choose to do a lot of good or bad thinking when driving alone. I chose the former. The four-day drive through the Midwest and southern states was cathartic. I was distancing myself by the mile from the trauma behind me. The gravitational pull of grief was slowly weakening.

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Here are 4 building blocks to rebuild your life:

1. See a therapist and prioritize your mental health

The first was my decision to see a therapist recommended to me by a colleague — his name was Don. Picture a lanky young Albert Einstein, and you’ll have a pretty good picture of his appearance. That man was a saint. Saint Don. 

Ryan Holiday says that when we are at rock bottom, we should look for angles, not angels. I agree … mostly. Yes, I began making decisions that amounted to taking different perspectives, but Don, that guy was an angel.  I continue to work with a therapist to this day.


2. Don’t allow self-pity to overwhelm you

My second decision involved my physical well-being. I had been a long-distance runner for about ten years and leaned on that to help me process the grief. I could have just as easily abandoned running and laid down on my couch with a glass or two of wine, but that’s not what I did. I got out of bed when it was still dark and started running ten or twelve miles daily. It was either drinking heavily or running, and I chose running. That decision probably saved me from visiting a very dark place.

3. Return to graduate school and earn a PhD

Lastly, there was my love of teaching. Before I left town, I submitted an application to a Ph.D. program in education in Florida. Rather than turn my back on teaching, something that fed my soul, I decided to up my game. Earning an advanced degree would improve my job prospects and increase my salary. It would also surround me with highly intelligent people and extend my network of connections.

4. Stop drinking

Alcohol can effectively numb pain temporarily. But when you recover from a bad night’s sleep and the accompanying hangover, that pain comes roaring back. It’s a vicious, destructive cycle that swallows hope. I saw that I was emotionally vulnerable to the relief promised by alcohol, and that vulnerability could absolutely cripple me. So, I stopped. I have not touched alcohol in a very, very long time. I don’t miss it. 

Therapy, running, graduate school, and no alcohol — those four decisions not only prevented me from plummeting but were also stepping stones to soaring.


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When I look back on the aftermath of my divorce, I see the classic image inspired by Robert Frost’s "The Road Not Taken": the two paths in the woods, each beckoning me to follow them.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

I finished my doctoral program in six years, studying part-time while working full-time. My dissertation topics were agency and self-efficacy. In hindsight, it was no accident that I chose to research agency and self-efficacy. Self-efficacy, an idea developed by Albert Bandura, refers to the strength of our belief to make things happen. Agency, on the other hand, refers to actually doing them.


My four decisions, taken collectively, allowed me to choose the path toward joy. They were made with the hope that they would, in time, reinvent my life. That was self-efficacy. Showing up and doing the work to create that transformation was agency.

When I was at my lowest point, before the finalization of my divorce, I visited with an elderly Episcopal priest whom I admired. I told him that my faith was wobbling and that I felt lost.

“I don’t think I can rebuild my life,” I told him. Without saying a word, he reached behind him and pulled a paperback book from his shelf. It was The Christian Agnostic by Leslie Weatherhead. 


Full disclosure: I am not religious, but I turned to faith, almost instinctively, when I desperately needed hope. I turned to this man because he seemed wise, compassionate, and grounded, so I was surprised to see the book's title. Does this man experience doubt? Does he ever lose hope?

As he handed me the book, he said, “This is for you. All of us find ourselves in dark places in our lives. We doubt our ability to keep our ships afloat, to keep from drowning. I, too, doubt my faith all the time. I think that’s the way it’s supposed to be. You can doubt yourself without abandoning hope. You hold onto your faith like you would a life preserver. You trust it to keep you afloat. It offers you hope for a better tomorrow.”

And then he added one more thing: “I once heard a story about two men building a church somewhere in Europe. When asked by a stranger what he was doing, the first man said, “I’m carving stones.” The second man said, “I’m building a cathedral.” It’s all about perspective, isn’t it”

I took the book and reached over to the Kleenex box on his desk, grabbed a tissue, and wiped the tears from my face.“This man sees me — he really sees me,” I thought to myself.


I thanked him. He walked over and hugged me, which was exactly what I needed right then. As I was leaving his office, he said, “Go build yourself a cathedral, John. One block, one decision at a time.”

I did exactly that. I built myself a cathedral, one block, one decision at a time.

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John Clark is a writer and an emotional archaeologist. His purpose is to inspire people to live lives that make our world a kinder and more joyful place.