C.J. Hobgood & Jamie Tworkowski

Your Best Days Are Yet to Come…

This story begins with two high school kids. Both are from Florida. Both love to surf. Both became role models. Both have unique spheres of influence. Both are still close friends. Both are important characters in each others’ stories.

C.J. Hobgood is one of the best surfers in the world. He’s a former U.S. Open of Surfing champion and currently one of the toughest competitor’s in the sport.

Jamie Tworkowski founded To Write Love on Her Arms (TWLOHA), an organization dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury and suicide.  Its vision seems simple enough, yet over and over again people respond like it’s the first time they’ve ever heard these words: “You were created to love and be loved.  You were meant to live life in relationship with other people, to know and be known. You need to know that your story is important and that you’re part of a bigger story.  You need to know that your life matters…. You need to know that rescue is possible, that freedom is possible, that God is still in the business of redemption.”

For both Hobgood and Tworkowski, their story continues.  And together they bring the message that, “You are not alone, and this is not the end of your story.”

The world is broken, families are shattered, pain is real; and all the problems this life presents seem to overshadow any of the available solutions for many people. But TWLOHA exists to encourage, inform, inspire and to present hope in a way that resonates and makes one really truly believe their best days are still to come.

The statistics are staggering:

• 121-million people worldwide suffer from depression (World Health Organization)
• 2/3 of those suffering from depression will never seek help
• Untreated depression is the #1 cause of suicide (National Institute on Mental Health)
• Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death among 18-24 years old (NIMH)

TWLOHA’s message is that statistics can change. The organization believes that statistics are just numbers and those numbers can be altered. TWLOHA has responded to hundreds of thousands of messages from all over the world… these are issues of humanity and by balancing honesty with compassion, they are confidently leading a much needed cultural conversation.

The conversation is one that both men know all too well. Tworkowski and members of his family have had struggles with depression. But he’s been able to get the help he needs and work through it in a healthy fashion. In fact, that help includes leaning on one of his closest friends for support. “C.J. Hobgood is a friend and I feel like it’s a short list of guys that you just do life with,” says Tworkowski. “It’s people that you know, who invite you into their story and it’s reciprocal.”

Hobgood shares he also has had struggles when it comes to “family, and divorce, and a lot of real world things.” He adds, “I know the biggest thing for me with the struggles I’ve gone through, is that others have gone though it and we’re supposed to talk – that’s what makes sense. And that’s exactly what TWLOHA is about. TWLOHA is about connecting the dots so people can hang out and be real.”

The core of Tworkowski and Hobgood goes much deeper than this introduction encompasses.  That’s why Risen took time to talk individually with these guys to capture the essence of their hearts.

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A Moment that Lead to A Movement:
Meet To Write Love On Her Arms Founder
Jamie Tworkowski

It was meant to be a short story to help someone in need. And although Jamie Tworkowski loves to write, he couldn’t have predicted that his words about a self-destructive girl on drugs that he met through a mutual friend, and spent five days with in the Spring of 2006, would produce life-changing results.  Real results that not only transformed her life, but changed his life as well.

Tworkowski used his gift of storytelling to share what took place during a week of detox with Renee, in hopes that the rehab center would finally accept her for treatment. Titled, To Write Love On Her Arms, Tworkowski uploaded the article on Myspace. The following words along with the rest of the piece resonated with many suffering people:

“She hands me her last razor blade, tells me it is the one she used to cut her arm and her last lines of cocaine five nights before. She’s had it with her ever since, shares that tonight will be the hardest night and she shouldn’t have it. I hold it carefully, thank her and know instantly that this moment, this gift, will stay with me. It hits me to wonder if this great feeling is what Christ knows when we surrender our broken hearts, when we trade death for life.”

Tworkowski recognized the need for those hurting to feel loved and have hope. Hope in the fact that they are not alone and the belief that a better life is possible. To Write Love On Her Arms (TWLOHA) became more than a story; it became a movement. That in turn led Tworkowski to establish an organization of the same name to reach out to others. Risen recently sat down with this founder who has much to say about the stigmas surrounding mental health, addictions, faith, friendships and family. And he’s quick to share about the vision of an organization leading a conversation so few are willing to have.

Interviewed Exclusively for Risen Magazine at the U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach, CA

Risen Magazine: When you wrote the story about Renee and asked, “What would you say if this story had an audience?” I couldn’t help but wonder if it was at that point you realized you were being prepped for something much bigger than this single story.
Jamie Tworkowski:  I think it was really simple. It was just an idea that I wanted to write about and share. I was starting to realize that I enjoyed writing and for me it’s always been all or nothing, and in that moment I felt like I had to write, I felt like I had to tell this story. I didn’t know exactly what that meant, and certainly didn’t know it would lead to where it has.

I didn’t have a platform at that time. I had just written the story and Renee was in rehab and I knew that we wouldn’t have any communication with her for the first 30 days, but I started to realize her treatment was going to cost money. I was at a Coldplay concert in Orlando and somehow walked out of the show and decided to make a Myspace page to give the story a home as well as print and sell T-shirts to raise money for her treatment. Everything really changed with Jon [Foreman, Lead Singer] wore the T-shirt at his Switchfoot show. He didn’t even give out the web address; he just mentioned it from stage and people found their way to the page. Instantly people started to write in with questions and saying the story we were telling was their story, they had lost someone to suicide, they had a family member dealing with addiction, and really that is still true today. Those are the same stories people share, we still get the same questions, and it just snowballed. The guys in [the band] Anberlin started wearing the shirts, and then we started to connect with other bands and people with this unique amount of influence. So much of it has been people sharing with others – like kids at school, people at work, strangers at airports saying, “Hey what does your shirt mean?”

RM: Now it’s more than a moment and an actual movement, did you think it would ever get to this point, and so quickly?
JT:  I don’t think I ever knew what the next year would look like — there certainly wasn’t a Five-Year plan. So much of the story has been these really surprisingly open doors. From the very beginning when Jon Foreman was literally the first person to wear one of these T-shirts, to being invited to be part of the Vans Warped Tour, to getting a call from Hot Topic that they wanted to sell our shirts, to getting invited to speak at colleges and tour with bands and then to be here at the U.S. Open, all are surprising dots that connect and doors that open.

RM: Is this something you always envisioned yourself doing or was there resistance at first to the idea of running what has now turned into a major non-profit?
JT:  Well it’s funny, my mom says that this is everything I love and everything I’ve ever learned all under one roof; that this is totally me. I’m grateful for all these things – writing and music and T-shirts, and caring about people and all the different circles we run in that don’t often overlap – to me I love the uniqueness about that. At the end of the day, it’s about these issues that people deal with. So the heart of the matter is people and it doesn’t really matter if you’re a surfer, or what music you listen to.

But I definitely didn’t grow up thinking I would run a charity, or even wanting to. But I do think that is part of what’s helped because my heroes aren’t in the non-profit world. And to be fair and honest I hand off a lot of the nuts-and-bolts business stuff. It’s not the stuff I’m good at, and it frees me up to focus more on the creative and the vision, and to better use my gifts. So we’re able to lean on other people and I don’t have to pretend to be CEO-guy.

Your life matters, your story matters; you are living a story and it’s worth fighting for…you deserve other characters in your story.

RM: How to you stay emotionally invested so that the compassion is real, yet detached enough that you don’t let the brokenness manifest inside you?
JT:  In the beginning it was just me responding to these Myspace messages and that was overwhelming compared to now, because now it falls on a whole team. Not only our staff, but our interns – we respond to every single message, note, e-mail, all of it – so it feels a lot healthier. People assume the hardest part is hearing other people’s stories but I think for me, I’m a person who struggles with depression and so my own stuff is always a lot more difficult. You definitely hear stuff that is heartbreaking, you hear stuff where you don’t know what to say, or maybe there is a question that doesn’t have an answer, but I think what we’re in a position to do is to have hope for people. We’re not pointing to ourselves as the final solution, we’re hoping people would step into counseling, or treatment, or even step into community and friendship. A lot of that is very simple and we really believe in it. To me the stuff I hear from other people is not paralyzing; the inside of my own head is the hardest, and that’s probably true for most people.

RM: So then talk to me about what goes on in your own head. Have you fully worked through your depression and was that a catalyst for helping others?
JT: It definitely makes it personal. And it’s not just me, there are people in my family that have struggled with depression and I think part of it was not being satisfied by a lot of the responses that I saw. Even within the church people will say, “I’ll be praying for you.” As if that is the best response someone could give. And that always felt kind of cheap to me. In some ways even at the very beginning it was an attempt to say, “I don’t have the answers to all these questions, but I think we can stay up all night with this girl [Renee] and make sure she is safe and get her food to eat, and get her into treatment.” As opposed to just saying, “Oh I’m sorry, good luck with that.” It’s something people don’t really talk about and a lot of times that is true in the church, and almost any circle. But hopefully that’s starting to change. We see evidence of that and we get to be part of that as well, which I love. We get invited to talk about these things.

RM:  Do you think stigmas around mental health are changing? If you were diabetic, you wouldn’t think twice about taking insulin shots, and most people would support that decision. But if you suffer from depression, or anxiety, or bipolar disorder, society passes a completely different judgment on treatment and medication.
JT: We definitely talk about that. Even within the church. If someone broke their arm we wouldn’t just pray for them. It’s almost laughable because it’s so absurd. You could pray, but hopefully it’s in the ambulance on the way to the get the arm fixed. When it comes to mental health and addiction, sometimes we don’t treat it the same. But for me personally, I’d never been to counseling until a few years ago and so for me walking through my own story over the past few years, I’ve kind of had to take my own advice, or our [TWLOHA] own advice. I’d gotten really comfortable encouraging people to take those steps, but I’d never taken them in my own life and I think that’s been a really healthy thing. Some of that was learned the hard way. Flying around and driving around talking about community a lot but not really having that; just coming to a place of having to put a hand up and say, “Hey I need some help. I need to talk to someone.” So I’ve had a couple different seasons of counseling and now I’ve been on anti-depressants for the last year and a half to two years. I share that when I speak at a school because I feel like I get to share that, not just for pity, but I’m thankful for those tools and that I’ve been able to take those steps in my own life. But at the same time, I’ve had to walk through it and understand it’s a scary thing to walk into that first meeting or to sit with a psychiatrist and that’s a vulnerable thing that’s really hard for a lot of people.

RM:  I loved the sentence in your initial story you wrote about Renee that said, “Tell her something true when all she’s known are lies. Tell her God loves her.” What role do you think faith plays in the recovery process?
JT: I think for everyone faith is the lens we see the world through. We have a friend who is a counselor and would consider himself a follower of Jesus and he would say the church definitely doesn’t have the market cornered when it comes to helping people. Obviously when you look at the 12-step program there is the language of a higher power and for a lot of people I think that is God or what God means to them, but I think people define or explain hope and God in different ways. I come back to that a lot. Everyone has faith in something.

RM:  Depression, addiction, suicide…for way too many people, this is the reality they live in. But TWLOHA offers hope. What is the message you bring to those searching?
JT: I think the biggest thing is just to encourage people not to be alone. So often these things are born out of secrets or shame and they live that way and stay that way, and a lot of people feel very much alone when it comes to their struggles and their pain. Just trying to push back at some of those lies and letting people know that it is part of being human and that we all need other people. I think everyone needs and deserves a support system. And beyond that if things are too difficult or intense for friends, then we believe in professionals. We believe in counseling and treatment.

I think sometimes I’m surprised by the simplicity of it. We haven’t invented anything. We didn’t come up with hope. All the ideas we are communicating are incredibly simple. I think we just believe that they are true and try to communicate in a way that meets people where they are and relates to them. The church is known for its answers, they tell people how to think and how to vote, and how to live and what’s right and what’s wrong, and for us we really feel called to meet people in their questions. Just to tell them that the questions matter. I believe the questions matter to God, but regardless of where people land with that, I think we can say the questions should matter to us and other people. So we don’t feel any pressure to be a one-stop shop in terms of giving people every answer. I love the idea of saying, “Your life matters; your story matters; you are living a story and it’s worth fighting for and you deserve other people who meet you in that. You deserve other characters in your story.” And it’s such a privilege to get to say those things. I think there is something about truth that is compelling and speaks to people and you can’t really figure out why or when, but we’ve seen it touch people.

We’re not pointing to ourselves as the final solution, we’re hoping people would step into counseling, or a, or even step into community and friendship.

RM:  How has your personal faith shaped your decisions and they way you choose to live life?
JT: I grew up in the church. I grew up with incredibly loving parents. I was a sensitive kid who was always sort of on the outskirts. I got along with everybody, but kind of bounced around. I had a heart for people and I think a lot of that came from my parents. I always grew up with this belief and understanding that there was this God that loved people and we were made to know him and to know each other. I was super involved in Young Life growing up as a student, and then as a leader; I went to camp every summer. I always wanted to communicate in a way that everyone could understand so part of Christian culture felt strange to me with the language and kind of this world unto itself. That was kind of uncomfortable for me and still is. I think more and more I gravitate toward not wanting to be preachy, not wanting to have all the answers but believing in a God that is not afraid of our questions and a God that really cares deeply about people’s pain. I think we lose sight of that and a lot of people grow up thinking, “Hey, become a Christian and you’ll be happy and you’ll be healthy and you’ll have money”. All this stuff that I don’t think is true. When you look at all that happens on this planet like Japan, and Haiti, and the news, and all the stuff we hear at TWLOHA, there are some really enormous questions that people live with. I always wanted to be respectful of that and not offer things that were cheap or small in response. I think at times, even in different ways – not trying to walk away – but to whatever degree I would let go, I couldn’t escape this feeling that there’s a God who loves me and loves people and there’s a way things are supposed to be. There is a bigger story and a bigger picture.

RM:  The bigger picture includes your family and some of your family members are involved with you at TWLOHA, so what is it like all working together?
JT:  Yes both of my sisters and my mom. My dad is pissed he doesn’t have a job. [Laughter!] My dad likes to tell people he’s our best volunteer and I don’t argue with that. There are times, especially with my mom, when I’m like, “Hey I just want you to be my mom;” Especially if it’s at night or on a weekend. And she’s funny, there is always this disclaimer like, “I know you don’t want to talk about this, but we have to.” But it’s great. She’s amazing. My sister Jessica really runs the day-to-day – the office, the team, the finances. So I give her a ton of credit. She’s super gifted in ways that I’m not. And then my youngest sister does a lot on the road. She comes with me when I speak and helps talk to people and a lot of it is just for me not to be alone and have someone with me. So that’s been something I’m really thankful for. Obviously working with family presents some challenges because you end up having difficult conversations with people you love, but at the same time you get to work with people that you love and trust and respect. They really understand me and how I’m wired and I think the good outweighs the bad for sure.

RM:  You’ve had several key friends step up and get involved with TWLOHA including Pro Surfer C.J. Hobgood. I understand the two of you went to school together. What was that relationship like and what does it mean all these years later to have his support?
JT: I grew up competing as an amateur surfer and had sponsors and stuff and the first contest I ever surfed in, the first heat of that contest, I was against C.J. and his twin brother [Damien, also a pro surfer], so I didn’t do very well. It was always clear from an early age that they were headed for this [US Open of Surfing]. We were friends in high school and I would stay at their house, and we were buddies, but we’ve definitely gotten closer in the last few years. I think C.J. would share this with you, but he was going through a divorce a few years ago and that is when our friendship really went to a different level. I think we would both say we are one of each others’ best friends now. And it’s funny because a lot of that has happened in strange places – like France and Australia. Just because he’s been really generous and gracious and when he’s been competing he’s invited me to stay with him for a couple of weeks. We’ve just walked through each others struggles and stories and have been a source of encouragement for each other. We’re good at rooting for each other.

In December I got a call from him when he was without a major sponsor. He called me and said. “Hey I want to wear your stuff. I want to wear, To Write Love On Her Arms, I want to put stickers on my board.” And that’s huge. In this [surfing] world there are guys that get paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for that. Not only on a big scale, but in the industry and the guys he competes against, everyone asks him, “Hey what does that shirt mean? What is that sticker?” So as someone who grew up surfing and loves that world, and came from that world, it means a lot to know that pretty much all the best guys in the sport are aware of it. And the cool thing is you never know where that may lead…or for whom it might be personal.

RM:  Speaking of celebrities and their images and such, bad behavior and addictions are nothing new to that realm, but with heightened coverage and access to the stars, do you think their struggles bring more awareness to destructive issues or glamorize the vices?
JT:  I think it can do both. I think so often those people are talked about as if they aren’t human. There are people who made Amy Winehouse jokes when a photo would show up and she obviously wasn’t doing well. And now she’s gone and it looks like addiction probably was the reason and all of a sudden she was very human and people are compassionate. I think we definitely want to take the stance that these [celebrities] are people. This is somebody’s son, this is somebody’s daughter, and this is a real person. They have a unique amount of attention, maybe they have unique talents, but this is a person. I think whatever they do, good or bad, they have a platform. I think it’s an opportunity to show addiction is real; it kills people, ruins lives, and destroys families. It’s sad what it takes for people to wake up or think about that.

RM:  How can people help and what’s next for TWLOHA?
JT: To me it’s always been more of a creative project so I’ve always shied away from the Five-Year plan because there wasn’t one. My hope is pretty broad, that we’ll continue to be creative and hopefully brave in bringing this message of hope and health to people. That we’ll continue to run in all these circles, and I think the internet will always be home base for us since it allows us to communicate with people all over the world. And obviously so many doors have opened with music, and for me personally so many doors have opened on college campuses. My hope is that it all will continue. For me the pet project is the surfing stuff and it’s really C.J. and I daydreaming about how do we bring this message to this community we care about.There’s also a section of our website called MOVE specifically for how people can get involved. It’s everything from buying a T-shirt to moving to Florida and joining our team.

For more information visit:  www.TWLOHA.com 

Riding the Waves Offers Challenge and Opportunity For Pro
C.J. Hobgood

C.J. Hobgood didn’t waste any time making a name for himself in the surfing world. In 1999, he was the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) World Tour Rookie of the Year; a short two years later he became ASP World Tour Champion. In 2007, he was still at the top of the sport winning the U.S. Open of Surfing.  Risen was able to catch up with the superstar in between heats at the 2011 U.S. Open of Surfing to talk about competition, criticism, and how he and a high school friend are sharing an unexpected dream.

Interviewed Exclusively for Risen Magazine at the U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach, CA

Risen Magazine:  You have a twin brother, Damien, who is also a pro surfer… what was your relationship like growing up? Were you competitive with each other, best friends?
C.J. Hobgood: Because he’s my twin brother, we had similar likings to everything. There were times when we were kind of at each other’s throats and competitive with each other. We had to work to be different, but had similar interests so it led to some friction, but we were able to keep it healthy.

RM: What is your relationship like now, as adults?
CJH: Completely different. He has a family, he has his priorities, and he lives on the West Coast. I have my family, my priorities and I live on the East Coast. We really only hang out when we’re on the road and competing and it’s actually a good balance. We’re focusing on the same job. It just works.

RM:  When did you know you wanted to make surfing your career, and then when did you actually realize it was possible to live your dream?
CJH:  The idea has always been in my life, not necessarily to surf for a living, but that whatever job I would have, I needed to be able to surf. I think that was the first seed that was planted. Obviously, the fastest, easiest route is to become a pro-surfer.

I remember one time, I was 17 years old, and the best surfers in the world that were my age, and in my mind were really making it big making it big… and I thought, “I’m similar to their caliber of talent. There are only a handful of us [that can surf professionally] and I think I’m one of those people. I think I can pull this off.” I didn’t know exactly what that looked like, but I thought, “I can pull it off enough to have people give me the opportunity to do it.”

RM: You certainly could, because fast-forward and you become Champ of the U.S. Open of Surfing (2007), amongst numerous other wins and titles. What goes through your mind during competitions?
CJH:  Surfing competitively is interesting. I’ve been doing it for 10-12 years now so it’s changed a little bit, but you always have to remember every time you show up to compete that you are trying to hit a moving target. It’s never; this is what worked for me last week, so this is what will work for me this week. You’re dealing with the ocean, different boards, and a lot of things out of your control. So you find the things you can control and make sure you do your homework with them like being on the right surfboards for the right conditions. As much as you make a game plan, the balance is you’re still free styling, you’re still thinking outside the box… and then trying to let go of the result of winning and losing. It’s really putting all those in the blender and hitting blend.

Obviously you get a rush from competing, and ever since I was the littlest kid before competition I had trouble sleeping. It stirs up these things – butterflies or nervousness or what – but I’ve always thought these feelings are super-duper healthy. [It’s] the adrenaline. I’ve always told myself those things are going to help me compete better. I still have those today and obviously when those feeling go away, I need to stop.

RM:  In regards to competition with the other pro surfers like Kelly Slater or Taj Burrow… how does that work? Are you friendly with each other, or do you keep it pretty professional?
CJH:  The surf community is a small family. You’re competing most every week, so it doesn’t do you any good to not be friends. Everyone is pretty friendly. Taj and I have been competing for 12-14 years against each other. For example there was a premiere last night and we hung out and had a good time, but we knew we have a heat against each other today. [Laughing] We are able to be fiercely competitive against each other because the respect factor is there. Trust and respect are crucial.

RM:  It seems like the lifestyle would be difficult for relationships and to weather the constant judgment of others. How do you know criticism is constructive or when it is just noise?
CJH: Relationships are hard and I think a lot of surfers question their choice. I’m comfortable with myself and I understand the big picture. Plus, I kind of thrive off people not talking me up.

Every time you surf someone is judging you. It’s so interesting now especially with the kids growing up in this culture with anyone being able to write anything about you and judge you. Not all surfers can handle that or want that constant judgment. You have to grow up real quick and take it for what it is.

I feel like I just have a foundation of how things work, it’s my faith. I understand how things work when I read the Bible and then see it become true in my life.

RM:  It seems like you have a good head about it. What helps you stay so grounded?
CJH: I feel like I just have a foundation of how things work, it’s my faith. I understand how things work when I read the Bible and then see it become true in my life. Of course I have days where I drop the f-bomb and get frustrated, but I still have a peace and understanding through my faith. At the end of the day, I just want to surf well.

RM:  Do you think of yourself as a role model to others and then in turn does that affect the choices you make or your behavior?
CJH:  In any walk of life there is a responsibility factor. I don’t feel like I necessarily have a bigger responsibility because of my influence. I feel everybody has responsibility. The biggest thing is to treat everyone with respect whether they are a friend or an enemy.

RM:  Speaking of friends, you went to high school with Jamie Tworkowski [Founder, To Write Love on Her Arms (TWLOHA)], what were you two like at that age?
CJH:  In high school, we both had passion for surfing. We had the same friends and the same understanding. As time ticked by, it became more of a reality for me to go pro in surfing and Jamie was realizing he’d need to pursue other options within the surf context.

RM: Jamie went on to found, TWLOHA and you’ve been able to be a part of that process as well and now have his organization as one of your sponsors. How has this impacted you?
CJH:  What means the most to me is watching TWLOHA grow. I was there when Jamie wrote the story, when he made his first shirt. I was there through all the communication and to see where it is now is fun for me to watch. The sacrifice he puts into TWLOHA, and what he does can be so draining because he gives and gives, and gives. I can help him charge back up. It’s been tough, but I can understand – and a lot of times I can understand without even speaking any words. We find comfort in each other because we both know where each other is at; we are in the same place in our lives.

We used to talk about if I could pick a sponsor I’d want to rock TWLOHA and that would be great because it would be different. It wouldn’t be a job to promote it; it would be what I would believe in and want to be a part of…it would be a dream. Our friendship is effortless and we are just there for each other when we need to be. He’s one of my closest friends.

RM:  It’s special to be able to have a friend you can confide in and do life with. I’d think it must be pretty hard to find peers with solid character in the surf community with the constant partying and alcohol and drug messaging that appears to be greatly accepted. Is this just the perception or do you think there needs to be some accountability within the sport?
CJH: That lifestyle is a reality and we definitely deal with it in surfing. It’s a very real thing that I do think needs to be addressed. The [partying] behavior is almost encouraged, and there aren’t any ramifications for the behavior. There isn’t drug testing like in the other sports. I think the surf community needs a wake-up call. I don’t think we’re there yet as an industry, but if by TWLOHA being part of the tour, if that can bring some truth, then I think that’s a great start.

RM:  Reflecting on your career so far, what has stood out to you most?
CJH:  I’d say the key relationships that I’ve made. I still don’t feel like I’ve made it… not until I’m retired and have time to reflect on my career will I be able to pinpoint the highlights. I don’t love winning because I like to win; I love winning because I hate losing so much! I love surfing and I like competing. Even when I don’t win, I think everything happens for a reason and there must be something bigger in the future.

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