In your closest relationships, is the real you even there?

Driving home the other day, something struck me while I was listening to Nora McInerny’s (amazing) podcast (that you should listen to) Terrible, Thanks For Asking. In an episode called Don’t You Want Somebody to Take Care of You?, a woman named Gina recalled growing up with a depressed mother. Each morning her mom would retreat to her bedroom, leaving the kids to fend for themselves. Then, shortly before dad returned from work, mom would appear, all made up and ready for the day. Looking back now, Gina realizes, her mom was “just trying to keep shit together, and not let my dad know how much she was struggling.”

That struck a nerve. It struck a nerve because I think I’ve lived both versions of that. The version where you hide your struggle and the version where you say “You know what? This is me.”

We hide things. It can be depression, as in the case of Gina’s mom. It can be addiction of all kinds. It can be insecurity. It can be anxiety. It can be compulsive spending on Amazon Prime. It can be our unfollowed preferences, desires, even dreams. It can be our anger or heartbreak. We hide things. Especially stuff we’re struggling with. Like loneliness, mental illness, guilt, and shame.

Why do we hide these things from our closest people? Gina’s mom didn’t need to advertise every detail of her depression to the whole world. (Some do find freedom in being an open book to the world–that’s not bad–nor is it wrong to want privacy.) But why did she need to hide from her spouse–the love of her life, her best, best friend? And why do you and I hide the stuff we’re struggling with from our closest friends? And especially our life partners?

We hide because we’re scared. Scared of being alone and scared of losing love. And we imagine scenarios like, “If only he knew, he would leave me,” or “If she found out, she would be so angry,” or “If I was honest about what I really want, we could never make this work.”

So we keep our struggles under wraps, desperately clinging to what love and acceptance and companionship we think we have.

Imagine you’re Gina’s mom. You never feel happy anymore, you never really feel much of anything–but your husband doesn’t see you as “a depressed person”–he doesn’t know. And you’re so afraid that if he finds out, you’ll lose the good you have, the love you have. Strangely, of all the people in the world, your life person is who you most need to hide the truth from. If the person ringing up your groceries finds out you’re depressed, no big deal. As long as my husband/wife/significant other/best friend/family doesn’t know!!!

The person who could be our biggest support is often the one we’re the most careful to hide our struggles from.

Why?

Last night on a Zoom double date, I told my wonderful psychologist friend Glenn that I quote a particular analogy of his all. the. time. It’s true. This concept sticks with me, because I think this analogy explains so much about our closest relationships: A close or intimate relationship (like marriage) is sort of like walking a plank over the Grand Canyon. Lay a narrow board on the ground in your backyard and you can stroll right across without skipping a beat. Place it over a canyon, and suddenly two things become true: Walking across it will be the most breathtaking, exhilarating, beautiful experience; And it will be the scariest, shakiest thing you’ll ever do. And that–in a nutshell–is a close relationship. The best and scariest thing in your life. When the board’s on flat ground, one misstep isn’t a big deal. Like when some person you barely know decides they don’t like you. With one misstep high above a beautiful canyon, however, there is so much to lose. Like when your spouse decides they don’t like you.

So shaking, white-knuckled, we grip the board and desperately try not to move, not to tip, not to misstep–we become paralyzed. There is too much to lose. This, unfortunately, is a fairly normal experience in our most intimate relationships. Protecting the bond we have feels so important that we can’t afford to show up as our real, messy, vulnerable, struggling selves. We have to keep it perfect. Too far to fall.

When I was a kid, I learned to hide everything. I hid everything because so constantly the things seen in me were corrected, condemned, and shamed. Choices, interests, activities, tastes, requests, dreams.

I actually don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that I can probably count on my ten fingers the number of times I got up the courage, as a teenager, to ask permission to go hang out with friends. I knew that the reaction would almost always be about having something better to do with my time, not being around bad influences, or that I should love my family more than my friends. About to head overseas to work with a missionary for the better part of a year, 18-year-old me asked, “Hey, can I go spend an afternoon with Ben? I really want to see him before I leave.” The response was a mixture of anger and despair: “How could you ask that when I’m busy cleaning floors? Your family clearly doesn’t matter to you at all!” It was confusing.

I’d venture to say most of the people you and I come in contact with don’t leave us with scars and dysfunctions. All it really takes is a few important people to teach you those yucky lessons. Like that you are bad, or that you need to be perfect.

When we heard footsteps in the hall, my siblings and I would jump up from whatever innocent, carefree games we were playing and quickly start “cleaning” or “reading a good book” or something to show we were “redeeming the time.” Because most of the “enjoy” type stuff would be met with disapproval. To this day, I don’t think my parents know that I finally got to watch Beauty and the Beast on YouTube as a 17-year-old. The kind of stuff I had to keep to myself.

Those lessons don’t just go away when you “grow up.” The urge to hide all my stuff worked its way deep inside me. I don’t think I really noticed as an adult how much the urge to hide controlled me day to day. The assumption that real-me-stuff would make people hate me or judge me or disapprove of me.

I remember one time I heard my wife’s keys in the door and quickly turned the TV off and picked up a book instead. I didn’t want her to see me nerding out to a Marvel documentary. What if she didn’t like that about me? Better to just hide it. And more than a few times I made sure to hop out of the luxurious eucalyptus bath and dry off before she got home so that she wouldn’t think I was . . . . . taking a bath?

I know this sounds silly. But it was a lesson I learned as a kid: People will disapprove of the stuff you do. People will not like the real you. Hide your stuff.

The funny thing is what happens when we hide. It was a sort of subconscious way to keep my wife from disapproving of me. But slowly it made me feel like . . . she must not approve of me. After all, if I can’t be myself around her. . . . Spoiler alert–my wife doesn’t give a shit if I enjoy a bath or a yummy drink or making a spreadsheet of the MCU timeline. She’s not a bully. She wants me to be happy. But in my fear of rejection, hiding my happy stuff, I kept writing the same old story in my head: She wouldn’t like you.

Instead of keeping me safe, hiding my most basic self made me lonelier and lonelier and more afraid and more afraid.

I bet a few of you grew up learning that it was safer to not be your real self, too. I bet that just about all of you grew up learning that it was at least safer to not be your real struggling self.

Maybe feeling like you have to hide the innocent little personality-stuff doesn’t resonate at all with you. But I bet you do feel the need to hide the yucky stuff. The struggle. The dark, sad, scary, exhausting, hurtful, “bad” stuff. The stuff you’re afraid “could change everything.”

Back to Gina’s mom. She and this guy loved each other so much that they decided they’d be lifelong buddies, best friends: Marriage. And this friendship mattered so much to her that she couldn’t risk admitting, as time went by, that she was struggling. If I tell him how depressed I am, will he be angry, disappointed, unsatisfied? Will he want to leave? Will he think he’s better than me? Will he regret being with me? Will he get tired of me? So she kept it under wraps. Played her part. A façade.

Hiding the struggle keeps you . . . “safe.” Sort of. Safe from the chance that someone will reject you for it. And, as you hide, the struggle slowly pulls you down and holds you under. Ashamed. Alone.

What is your deep struggle that you can’t share with your most important person?

If you’re in a relationship, think about what sparked that interest, that desire–for you and your life person to belong to each other? Why do we attach to someone and share our deepest soul with someone in the first place? It has something to do with needing to be seen and loved. Something to do with being accepted. Something to do with having someone on our team. Someone by our side. Someone who says, “I see you and I love you.”

We need this so badly.

We finally get it.

And then we guard it. At all costs.

So when we struggle, we can’t let our struggle threaten that love we found. So we keep it to ourselves.

And all of a sudden, we’re alone. No longer seen and loved for who we are.

Listening to that story recently, it struck me just how relatable that story was to so, so, so many people: Slowly falling apart, but not being able to tell your life person just how broken you are.

I have something really special with my wife. Something I haven’t always had and may cycle in and out of in the future, but right now it’s pretty special. I’d say that I’m not sharing this to brag, but I guess after admitting to the Marvel spreadsheet thing you know I’m not here to impress. . . . So the special thing: Listening to that podcast, it also struck me just how opposite my experience has been with my own wife during some really, really, really deep struggle times. Resting my chin on the couch pillows, feeling every muscle weakened by this weird sort of gravity, I answered Lyssi’s “I want to know how you’re really doing” question: “Honestly, I’m not okay these days. I’m not happy. I feel hopeless. I don’t even care about the stuff I usually care about. I don’t want to run, I don’t want to write, I don’t even like watching movies or playing the piano. I’m so lonely and I don’t think anyone likes me. I don’t want to do anything anymore. I just want to lay in bed.”

A few powerful things could have happened just then:

She could have rejected me: Sorry, I can’t deal with this.

She could have desperately tried to fix me: You have so much to be happy about! Don’t be hopeless! I need you to feel better, okay? Which really translates to: Sorry, I can’t deal with this.

Or she could have unconditionally accepted me: I hear you. It’s okay that you’re feeling that way. I love you and I’m here for you.

And in that moment, she picked the unconditional love route. And it made depression so, so, so okay. Like, still not all better, but at least I had her. I wasn’t alone. She wasn’t mad at me, she wasn’t threatened by me, she didn’t need me to stop being me, she just . . . was going to be with me. Okay. Maybe I can do this.

Like I said, my own life hasn’t always been–still isn’t always–marked by such open vulnerability met with perfect acceptance. But when it has been, that has been life-giving. Life-saving.

Struggling alone doesn’t work.

When we finally learn to share our struggles, we can discover that . . . our life people get it. And they love us. And . . . our struggles aren’t going to take away our most important relationships.

Sharing our struggles with our people opens up a world of safety, security, dignity, understanding, support–maybe the only conditions in which we can heal, or make it through at all. A space where we discover that struggling-Peter is no less valuable and loved than doing-great-Peter. A place where maybe we can go ahead and love our struggling selves, too.

So an invitation: What do you need to stop hiding? What is your struggle? And who could you tell?

If this sounds terrifying and panicky, that totally makes sense. The whole Grand Canyon thing. What if you share your struggle and it doesn’t go well? What if you lose that friend? That life person? At this terrified-point I’d encourage you to think back, again, to why you needed that relationship in the first place. Why the closeness? Because you needed to be seen, to be accepted, and to be loved. So my question to you is: If you are not letting yourself be seen, accepted, and loved–is that relationship still even there? Like . . . the relationship you needed in the first place? Sure, you may live together or text each other every day, and it may get awkward in a worst-case-scenario where they walk away from you. But . . . if you can’t show up as yourself to be accepted and loved, then maybe the relationship you think you’re protecting is already gone. So do you really stand to lose by giving that relationship a chance to be real?

Not to downplay how crushing it will be if you give the openness a shot and it doesn’t go well. That would be terrible. Heart-breaking. And it may leave you with bigger scars. Of course, the alternative is to just keep your real-self hidden. Alone. Unloved. Both options suck.

The only route with any hope is saying “Yeah, this is the real me” and inviting someone to see and love that real you. And if that is a relationship they can’t handle, maybe it wasn’t there all along. And maybe it’s time to go find a person or two or three who want to know and support real-you.

(Hey, truth moment here. If you’re trying to share your real self with your closest people–spouse, parents, best friends–and it’s going badly, you’re being met with rejection, losing your most important relationships–that’s the start of an incredibly scary and fragile journey, one you probably need to take, and the absolutely number one biggest one hundred percentest thing I can tell you right right now is: Go ask a therapist for help. Don’t think twice, just go. This is not a journey you should take alone.)

When I started therapy I bought a beautiful handmade Italian journal to accompany me on what I knew was going to be a momentous journey. Opening it now to its first page, I find the very first entry quite fitting. A life-changing principle my therapist offered me: “Friday, October 26: Openness brings you closer together, no matter what the feeling you have to be open about. Not being open pushes you apart, no matter what the feeling–positive or negative–that you are keeping to yourself.

You know the stereotype of the dad that can’t express emotions? He loves his kid so so much but can’t really say it. Keeps the sloppy, choked-up love feelings to himself. And the kid grows up never hearing that dad loves them. And they drift apart. When we can’t express something–whether it’s a thing that makes us mad at our person or even our good feelings about our person–we drift apart. On the other hand, when we do share the stuff, then and only then can we grow closer. Even when it’s tough stuff, like “Hey, it really upsets me when you-” or “I’m not doing okay these days.”

Our closest relationships–the epic ones that can be as beautiful as the view walking above the Grand Canyon–they need vulnerability. They need us to show up, our real, messy selves. We can take the shaky steps and experience the beauty, the love, the acceptance. Or we can close our eyes and hold on for dear life, unable to take a step, and completely miss out on the love. In reality, alone.

So here’s your invitation to say your stuff–no matter how messy. Your life person is your life person. You need them to know YOU. So share.

And, just as importantly, another invitation–or maybe a plea: You and I are going to have people who finally take the risk of exposing their struggling insides to us. And in those moments, we can respond in a few different ways. We can reject. We can panic and try to make them change. Or we can say “Oh my goodness, thank you for telling me, I love you so much!” And your reaction in that moment just might change their life forever.

So please be the person someone can be real with. Especially for your best friend, your life person.

It’s not easy. But it’s vital.

Remember that each time our loved ones bare their hearts to us, we can make them feel safer, or we can make them feel like they need to keep it to themselves next time.

A girl I know finally opened up to her mom: She, their star child, their smart, confident girl, was depressed. She was even thinking about suicide. How would you respond if your kid blindsided you with “I’m thinking about killing myself”? The reply this girl got from her mom went something like this: “I had no idea! I’m sorry you’re feeling this way. I want to commend you for how good a job you’ve done not being negative, not burdening others with these awful feelings. I encourage you to keep pressing on with being strong and not making others take care of you.” . . . what?! . . .

In those moments, you and I can prove to someone that they’re not alone, or we can prove to them that they are alone. And when we tell them they’re alone, that is a lesson they learn deep. All it takes is one experience to keep someone from ever sharing their real self again.

In other words: Those moments matter.

We need our loved ones to be a safe place for us to show up with our struggles. And they need the same from us.

So invitations all around: Say your stuff to your person; and unconditionally listen and love when your person tells you their stuff.

I should note that unconditional love doesn’t mean enabling–and expressing your deep down feelings doesn’t always mean acting on them. In other words sometimes unconditional love–sometimes being a safe space–means looking your loved one in the eyes and saying, “I understand this addiction. I get that you are struggling and I love you to death. And I can’t let you or me continue stuck in this. You need to get some help.” Like, it’s messy. And when he cheats on you, you don’t owe him “Oh honey, I get it, I’m not going anywhere.” Right?

But when your person is trying to hold on, barely able to keep their head above water, and finally says “Hey, I’m not okay”–that may be their last hope at finding support, and your reaction can break them or give them hope.

I think we’re all so scared of rejection that these vulnerable interactions don’t come naturally to us. Which means if we want to be good at asking for support and giving support when things are dark and scary, it might help to practice the deep openness right now. To get intentional, to get maybe even a little dorky about it. Like, “Should we schedule times to just tell each other all about how we’re feeling?”

Nurturing a safe space before you’re at rock bottom makes all the difference.

One little thing I’ve learned about nurturing that safe space is to notice each time I feel, for whatever reason, “Oooh, I’d better keep this to myself,”–reminding myself that’s an old story of rejection, of the need to be perfect, creeping up–softening into the thing I’m afraid of, and saying, “Hey, I think I need to share this thing, because I’m feeling scared of you knowing it, and I don’t like that feeling.”

Another thing I’ve learned about nurturing that safe space, I’ve learned just from observing my own best friend. People seem to share their stuff with her. A lot. When someone shares their stuff with me, I tend to automatically start calculating and fixing and offering and rescuing, and for whatever reason it only seems to make things worse. She, on the other hand, just listens. She listens. She just . . . . . is there with the struggling person. Just there to listen. To accept. Just being proof to them that they’re not alone, and that it’s okay that they’re struggling.

When you and I have to hide our deepest selves–especially the struggles–in our closest relationships, we slowly fall apart and we lose the love we thought we had. When you and I show up in these relationships by sharing our deepest, messy selves, and by showing up with love when they share their deepest, messy selves, we create a safe place to make it through this weird adventure called life together. We find hope. We fine healing. We find magic. We find love.

If you’re struggling deeply right now, why add hiding your struggle to the weight you’re already carrying? Why add wondering if you’re alone? What if you told someone? Imagine how good it would feel to get it off your chest. You may be surprised to learn that your people are okay with you being human. In fact, maybe they’ll just love you more.

And remember the life-changing gift you can give someone the next time they open up to you about something they’re scared to share.

We’re all a little weird. Let’s give each other some hugs about it.

Didn’t I tell you I hear what you say?
Never look back as you’re walking away.
Carry the music, the memories, and keep them inside you.
Laugh every day.
Don’t stop those tears from falling down.
This is who I am inside.
This is who I am, I’m not going to hide,
’cause the greatest risk we’ll ever take is by far
to stand in the light and be seen as we are.
With courage and kindness hold onto your faith.
You get what you give and it’s never too late
to reach for the branch and climb up leaving sadness behind you.
Fight hard for love.
We can never give enough.
This is who I am inside
This is who I am, I’m not going to hide,
’cause the greatest risk we’ll ever take is by far
to stand in the light and be seen as we are.
Riding the storms that come raging towards us we dive,
holding our breath as we break through the surface
with arms open wide.
This is who I am inside.
This is who I am, I’m not going to hide,
’cause the greatest risk we’ll ever take is by far
to stand in the light and be seen as we are.

Jordan Smith

P.S . Sometimes the things you’re afraid to let people see because you think they’ll judge you end up being the very things they really love about you.

If my weird-human-stuff complements your weird-human-stuff, throw your email below and we can keep thinking through this weird life together. :)

Is the world a dangerous place?

Woman Smiles and Waves at Stranger

Hard-Working Cashier Promoted to Management

Local Man Reports He Still Has Wonderful Relationship with His Family

Single Mother Laid Off but Is Doing Fine with the Assistance of Unemployment and other Support

Nobody Was Murdered In City Today

Group of Friends Really Enjoy Laughing Together Every Week on Game Night

These are a few headlines we will never read.

Because . . . why would anyone care? Right?

Except, now we have a problem. . . .

“Bad news travels at the speed of light; good news travels like molasses.”

Tracy Morgan

How many minutes a day do you scroll “news”-feeds?

How many headlines do you see in those minutes hours?

If you had to guess, in all those daily headlines, what is the ratio of terrible news to amazing news?

Or how about the ratio of terrible stories to everything’s-just-fine stories?

In this quick-look-for-all-the-dangers-NOW world (which, yes, may have helped us survive as a species), we don’t really hear about how frequently life goes well, things work out fine, and days go by peacefully.

We hear the bad stuff.

All. The. Time.

So much that we might start to believe that the bad stuff is all the world’s made up of.

What have you internalized, from the daily intake of “oh-no” stories, about how safe the world is or isn’t?

And what could help remind you daily that reality may actually look very different?

That maybe things will be okay . . .

2 impactful things to do every day–ONLY 2

The other day I sat down and wrote a schedule that would help me actually do all the things I want to do every day, every week. I did that a while ago, too. And before that. And again and again and again. And it HAS HELPED. Every time. But it has never “worked” impeccably. Schedules, to-do lists, planning sessions–they’ve never guaranteed lasting consistency in my life. I’ve had to keep trying again.

Like in meditation, where you keep wandering, so you keep gently redirecting your mind.

For years I saw the ebbs and flows of life as a weakness. And “weakness” meant BAD. I don’t really see it that way anymore.

Life comes in waves. In cycles. In “I’ve-got-this” weeks and “I-can’t-even” weeks. And I’m thinking, more and more, that . . . c’est la vie.

Imagine the alternative: Being ALWAYS ON. Going at the same pace through all of life. Never feeling the low times again. Never taking a break from your productivity. Never understanding the “struggle” that all your friends and family experience. Being perfectly consistent. I don’t think that’s how life works. In fact, I think the cycles help us self-regulate, and help us change with life’s seasons.

The cycles in life help us make little mini-course corrections–or sometimes not so mini. Sometimes my heart or my body or my subconscious says something like “Hey, too heavy on the socializing these days,” or “I think you might need to slow down,” or even “I think it’s time for something a little more meaningful.” And then for a while, I become a little more this and a little less that. For a season. Until it’s time to correct again.

In other words, it’s okay for life to be up and then down, back and then forth, busy and then slow, happy and then sad, productive and then relaxing. It’s okay that today-me and tomorrow-me and next-year me are each going to be a little different.

Let yourself not be always “on.”

Let yourself change. Let yourself throw caution to the wind today, stay in bed all day tomorrow, and then go conquer the world the next day.

In the context of that disclaimer, and only in the context of that disclaimer, I’d encourage you to try two little things every day. The mountain-top days and the valley-days. Two little things with big impact:

First, keep one centering ritual:

One thing that brings you back to who and where and why you are. Some days the ritual will open your eyes to exhaustion in yourself, and some days the ritual will open your eyes to an almost limitless energy. How important to know which days you need a break and which days you need to give it everything you’ve got! Some days the ritual will show you that you are at peace, and some days it will show you that you’re torn. Good! You know what you’re working with! It’s about slowing down and seeing you and your world.

Over the last several years I’ve learned that for me it’s a mixture of quiet time, meditation, and yoga. And if I can do it first thing in the morning, I will be so much more present that day. Not always more “happy” or “productive,” just more present in reality. Able to show up for my real life instead of wishing it away.

What is that centering ritual for you?

And second, keep one difficult ritual:

Being who we want to be every day, choosing our reaction to life’s roller coasters, takes strength. And not the strength to choose “positivity” every single time, or to choose “productivity” every single time. Just the strength and discipline to say, “Today, I think this is what I want or need,” and then to follow through. Don’t underestimate the power of doing one difficult thing–maybe even one “painful” thing–every single day. If you were able to do that tough thing–that thing you don’t “like” or that didn’t feel good . . . then when the consequential choices show up later in the day, the opportunities to be who you really want to be . . . you’ll remember that you are strong!

At times, for me, that has looked like really uncomfortable running training. Pushing myself past what I thought my limits were. Keeping up that pace even when it’s not “fun.” I’m not always a proponent of that, but it has had its incredibly effective place in my life as a tool for learning discipline. The correlation between the running-as-discipline and making-the-choices-I-really-want times of my life has been pretty shockingly close. Lately, it’s been wrapping up my morning shower with a blast of icy cold water and just standing under it for a while while I find my controlled, capable breath. It just proves to me first thing in the morning that today I can pick the uncomfortable option or make the tough decisions or do the scary things if I need to.

What is that difficult, strength-finding ritual for you?

Good luck, my friend, as you show up for your life and choose to be the Light you want to be in the world, every single day. And it’s okay that it will look different day to day. Just don’t lose YOU in all the waves.

~ namaste ~

P.S. And if you ever do lose you, just wake up the next morning, check in on your heart, and take a cold shower.

P.P.S. You’ve got this!

Peter Elbridge - can't be always on can be always you

Death

To my friend Peter F.
You’re one of the tenderest souls the world has known.
Be at peace.
~

Death is yucky.

It’s been on my mind this year. A lot.

One of my first, best work-buddies died suddenly the other day. His name was Peter, too, and we used to set up a cup across the room and take turns trying to throw pens into it. We got into trouble together–a lot. We drank Monsters together and always, always made each other laugh. He did this hilarious thing where anytime you’d tell him anything–anything–he’d whip his head around and, in an exaggeratedly defensive voice snap back, “I know!!!?” So much laughter. Peter was the best, and he was a deep, deep, loving human. . . . One of the hardest things about death, to me, is that you can’t talk with the person about it afterward.

This weird year . . . I’ve watched videos on the news of Black Humans dying who didn’t need to die. I’ve looked at graphs representing hundreds of thousands of people dying in a pandemic. I’ve been there with people barely hold on–wishing I could fix it, knowing I can’t. We’ve adopted a 13-year-old dog who we absolutely adore, but who we know doesn’t have too many more years or months to snuggle with us and eat yummy treats. We’ve talked through preparing for and dealing with “if you or I die,” since that’s a thing adults do, especially this year. And I’ve wrestled with some of my own fears and associations and assumptions and feelings about death.

A close friend recently asked the question: Why aren’t we using this year to reflect on death more? It seems like a healthy activity. But sort of like cod liver oil is healthy. It’s healthy but it is no fun. Cheese tastes better.

Another close friend recently suggested being honest more about the stuff we don’t have all put together. The stuff we aren’t confident about, or don’t know what to say about. The stuff we do struggle with. None of us have all the answers. So it’s good to get real with each other.

So, real from me to you: I don’t like death. Death gets to me. Like all the way.

Since I know you think about death sometimes, too–here are my thoughts–very random and disorganized, as this topic is for me. Once you’ve read this, maybe you can share your thoughts with me? Maybe they’re words I need to hear. Or words you need to say. Maybe you can share those words with others? Maybe we can face these yucky things together more.

First and maybe most of all: When someone dies, there’s this urge to say the right thing to make it feel a little better, to relieve a little pain. Don’t. It doesn’t work. At all. It’s almost hurtful–it is hurtful–to think your words can somehow fix the sting. Death is the worst. Let the pain happen. It needs to happen. Death is awful. Don’t downplay it. Don’t deny it. Don’t “at least” it. Maybe there’s nothing to say, and it’s just time for hugs and for just sitting next to each other.

That being said . . . here are some thoughts to (maybe) help prepare for it? . . . to give the awful experience of death some context. . . .

In some communities, death is very normal. For example, free climber Alex Honnold talks about how routine it is in his community to hear “[this-friend] just died.” Their sport is so full of passion and aliveness. But it’s an incredibly dangerous sport, so they become more used to death. From what I understand it still hurts, but it’s . . . different. It’s more . . . normal. The death? Not surprising. The full-tilt life? Worth the risk, and worth celebrating. “They died doing what they loved.” . . . Sometimes you hear doctors talk about how dying is just a part of the life cycle. In some poor parts of the world, early or painful death is much more “normal,” too. Maybe the experience of death is somewhat subjective.

A Buddhist view on death stresses how natural it is as a part of life. The flip side of the same coin. That it is such a struggle because we try so hard to deny that flip side, clinging to the things we love as if they are permanent, and seeing our individual selves as extra special instead of as one little part of a big, unified, flowing world of life.

“We can reflect on and contemplate the inevitability of death, and learn to accept it as a part of the gift of life. If we learn to celebrate life for its ephemeral beauty, its coming and going, appearance and disappearance, we can come to terms with and make peace with it. We will then appreciate its message of being in a constant process of renewal and regeneration without holding back, like everything and with everything, including the mountains, stars, and even the universe itself undergoing continual change and renewal. This points to the possibility of being at ease with and accepting the fact of constant change, while at the same time making the most sensible and selfless use of the present moment.”

~ Geshe Dadul Namgyal, Feb 26 2020 interview in the New York Times . . . maybe you should read that whole interview!

So what about after death? Do you know exactly what happens? Are you sure? Pretty sure? Not a shadow of a doubt? . . . Or do you not know? Are you comfortable with being unsure? At least able to accept it? Is there some “trust” somewhere in there? Do you think you could find a way to know for sure what happens? And do you think it would change things? . . . Do you need to know? . . .

What will you leave behind? . . . You loved and treasured your moment of life. Will you leave behind a better chance for others to treasure their own lives? Will you leave the world a little better, a little happier, a little more hopeful? Your friends and family? Or the strangers you do or don’t smile at?

Death is uncontrollable. But there is a lot we can do to probably influence the quality and length of our life. Taking care of our bodies, of our health. Taking precautions. Not being a free-climber. Never ever eating happy yummy treats. Steering clear of poor inner cities where violent crime is more common. Not volunteering in war zones. See? It’s not that straight-forward. There are some “good” things we can do to probably lengthen our lifespan . . . and there are things we can do (or not do) that give us more days on the calendar, but days with less meaning.

“You may be 38 years old, as I happen to be. And one day, some great opportunity stands before you and calls you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause. And you refuse to do it because you are afraid. . . . You refuse to do it because you want to live longer. . . . You’re afraid that you will lose your job, or you are afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity, or you’re afraid that somebody will stab you, or shoot at you or bomb your house; so you refuse to take the stand. Well, you may go on and live until you are 90, but you’re just as dead at 38 as you would be at 90. And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit.”

~ Martin Luther King Jr

What evil or hurt do we do to each other and to the world in our desperate attempts to cling to our fleeting lives? . . . And what unhealthiness do we inject into our own lives to try to escape death, or to deny its pain and fear? . . . Stop and think . . . . . . .

But the good things we can do–taking true care of ourselves, and not to an extreme . . . pause and ponder how deeply you treasure your life. Imagine knowing your last breath. That deep, unsettling feeling of loss . . . it’s real. Life is worth holding onto, for yourself and for others, in every healthy and balanced way you can. So maybe do eat your veggies?

Just, also eat pizza sometimes. Balance. . . . And consider doing some big, brave (if scary) good in the world.

In other words, while you’re clinging to life, don’t forget to taste life and to help others find their lives, even if it may cost you a couple years.

At the end of the day, you can’t control death. I keep catching myself wondering, day-dreaming, hoping–maybe I can find a way to help our furry friend Willoughby bypass death, postpone it, live an extra whole lifetime. But eventually, reality steps back in to say: You can’t control death. I can’t control my furry friend’s. I can’t control my wife’s. I can’t control mine. And you can’t control yours. It could be an accident tomorrow. It could be disease a few years from now. Or it could just be time to go when you’re old and grey and full of memories. And I think it may help to accept that–the fact that you can’t control death. It may make your grip a little looser, your fears a little calmer, and life a little sweeter.

One sort of sick but sort of true silver lining–which doesn’t take away the sting but might offer just a little peace: Think what will be over at death. What will be no more. What will be done. Life does include plenty of suffering. And our bodies seem to see more and more pain as we slowly grow older. Some live to see such pain and helplessness that they choose no longer to cling at all costs to their life, knowing it is time to stop fighting a brutal fight. And when there is that much pain, the fact that death will someday relieve it is not an entirely unwelcome thought, though it never makes life less precious. Pain can’t last forever. And so we hear people at funerals give the over-simplified, maybe unwelcome encouragement, “At least they’re not in pain anymore,” and no, it doesn’t fix it, but . . . it’s sort of true. . . . There is a natural end to suffering, just as there is a natural end to life.

Yes, it still stings.

What experiences, feelings, emotions, treasures–are only a part of our lives because we know that one day we will die? There is a sweetness. There is a deep love. There is attentive, expressive, desperate love that comes along with mortality. Because every minute counts.

“If we were vampires and death was a joke,
We’d go out on the sidewalk and smoke,
And laugh at all the lovers and their plans,
I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand.
Maybe time running out is a gift,
I’ll work hard ’til the end of my shift,
And give you every second I can find,
And hope it isn’t me who’s left behind.
It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever,
Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone.
Maybe we’ll get forty years together,
But one day I’ll be gone,
Or one day you’ll be gone.”

~ If We Were Vampires, a song by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Time is a strange and arbitrary measurement of our lives. We crave and cling to our youth, our “prime.” And we don’t want to grow old because we believe growing old means we will lose those things–the things we’re passionate about, the things we do, and love to do. Does this interpretation of time do us a disservice? Does it rob us of what we have? Of the parts of us we never really lose–that just show up in a different “time” of our lives?

“You will always, always, always have the miles you’ve run. You’ll always have the countries you’ve visited. You’ll always have the people you’ve loved. You’ll always have the dances you’ve danced, the songs you’ve sung, the books you’ve read, the letters you’ve written, the rock walls you’ve climbed, the parties you’ve thrown, the puppies you’ve snuggled, and the accomplishments you’ve accomplished. . . . Why do they count less ten years later? . . . The love for the thing is still there. The memories are still there. The reality is still there. The identity is still there.”

~ You still are and you still can, a blog post I wrote a little while ago

Here is the most comforting thought I’ve ever found about growing old–about the irreversible passing of time–though to be fair, I’ve shared it with some who don’t find it comforting–so, in case it does happen to help you, too:

“I should say having been is the surest kind of being. . . . The pessimist resembles a man who observes with fear and sadness that his wall calendar, from which he daily tears a sheet, grows thinner with each passing day. On the other hand, the person who attacks the problems of life actively is like a man who removes each successive leaf from his calendar and files it neatly and carefully away with its predecessors, after first having jotted down a few diary notes on the back. He can reflect with pride and joy on all the richness set down in these notes, on all the life he has already lived to the fullest. What will it matter to him if he notices that he is growing old? Has he any reason to envy the young people whom he sees, or wax nostalgic over his own lost youth? What reasons has he to envy a younger person? For the possibilities that a young person has, the future which is in store for him? ‘No, thank you,’ he will think. ‘Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past . . .”

~ Viktor Frankl, a psychologist who survived Nazi death camps, in his beautiful little book, Man’s Search for Meaning

So . . . time. It passes. We grow old. Death comes. But I am still me. You are still you. The reality, the identity, the beauty–it always IS. It will always be real. One day we’ll be done looking back, but all the love and passion and beauty will still be there, will still be real. . . . any comfort in that for you? For me, there is.

But death still hurts. It’s the worst of the worst of the worst. So . . . how do we face it? I honestly don’t know. I’ve heard that people really need someone there to hold their hand. So maybe we focus on how we can help each other face it. We do need each other.

Spoiler alert, if you haven’t seen Frozen II and you don’t want to know any bits of what happens, skip down to the next paragraph. Remember or imagine with me: Olaf the larger-than-life little snowman is suddenly dying. Anna comes over and holds him as he slowly fades. “I’ve got you.” Wrapped in her embrace, Olaf says, “Hey Anna, I just thought of one thing that’s permanent.” “What’s that?” “Love,” says Olaf. “Warm hugs?” offers Anna. “I like warm hugs,” says Olaf, at home in the love of Anna’s arms. And then he goes. . . . And there it is. . . . “Warm hugs.” If we have to go–and we do–can we go with warm hugs? Can we give someone the warm hugs they need? This year, so many people are dying alone in hospital beds, too far from the loving arms that would give anything to be there to offer warm hugs. So–maybe warm hugs aren’t just physical, in-person, immediate. Maybe we can provide each other a love, a sweetness, a tenderness that proves those warm hugs, even just felt deeply in the heart. Maybe it would help to talk about death more with each other . . . to express, to promise the warm hugs, so that when the time comes, we can feel them, no matter how it happens.

Maybe you get the chance to be right there with someone to hold their hand . . . to hold them. That is a gift you can know is good.

So I don’t know what to do about death.

I don’t.

It is indescribably bad.

But the sadness and hurt of death gives you and me a meaningful purpose in each other’s lives:

Treasure people now. Give happiness now, while people are still here to feel it. Life has plenty of hurts, and death is scary. So when we see each other, maybe we can remember the hurt and the fear we’ll each face, and we can take the opportunities we have, while we still have them, to ease each other’s pain in any way we can . . . to bring love and light and laughter and warm hugs into each other’s impermanent, beautiful lives.

Willoughby 1 (2)

Can you love humans AND cut people off?

How do you feel about these two “truths?”

  • Deep down, everyone is just human, with their insecurities and feelings, needing love and, as a human, no matter how broken, worthy of love.
  • Some people are toxic, narcissistic, cruel, and unloving, and permanently ending your relationship with them is the healthiest choice.

I bet most of us would agree at least in some sense with each of these statements taken separately.

But. When we put them side by side–these two ideas feel like they don’t fit together: If So-and-so is so toxic and hurts me so much, how come other people can love them? And if I admit that, deep down, they’re still lovable–how can I cut them off?

So which truth will you hang on to, and which one will you let go of?

Think about what happens when you hold onto just one of these truths, and let go of the other.

Rejecting the first truth–that everyone is lovable:

We learn to set boundaries. Some of us have to learn to set pretty big boundaries–tough ones. My own long story very short, I no longer have a relationship with my parents. It took years of therapy and soul-searching and trying and crying. And it wasn’t a clean break–for years and years, I walked away to varying degrees, a number of times, from the family and friends I grew up around. Honestly, it was the way I could be healthy. I was surviving. In the end, walking away brought freedom. But it also taught me a dangerous lesson. See, if the trauma is bad enough to permanently end a family relationship, it probably hurt you more than words can describe. That probably results in extreme emotional reactions when you think about those people who hurt you so badly. It probably means you have a hard time thinking clearly or calmly or kindly about them. Out of self-protection, I learned to label those people in my life “monsters,” totally “bad.” “Toxic.” Never to be trusted, absolutely the worst. And, depending on what you mean by those labels, I wasn’t wrong. So I left that relationship. And it has been incredibly freeing. It feels healthy. My life has become livable and full of hope. But in the end, through this deeply emotional and significant, drawn-out experience, I learned a really loud lesson: People who hurt you badly ARE NOT SAFE and must be cut off. They’re Bad.

So what do you think that did to me? I began to see the world as totally black and white. In his novel, The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho wrote, “Most people see the world as a threatening place, and, because they do, the world turns out, indeed, to be a threatening place.” And that’s what happened to me. When I felt the sort of deep hurt, rejection, or betrayal that I had learned to walk away from once or twice, I began having to walk away from it every time. I began to assume that anyone who hurt me deeply must not be a safe person. And as I discovered that deep hurt is a pretty common and inescapable part of relationships–intimate, personal, professional, all kinds–I found myself walking away from relationships every time the hurt showed up, or even threatened to show up. If people that deeply hurt me are unlovable “monsters,” then I need to watch out for those people. I need to protect myself. When I see “toxic,” I need to turn and run. It hurts me too badly. Since I rejected the truth that even the hurtful people are lovable, I learned to walk away quickly from any hint of “toxic.” Problem is, of course, just about everyone in my life will feel a little “toxic” from time to time. I developed a protective habit of immediately giving up on anyone that hurt me. I couldn’t see that everyone is on a spectrum of kindness and unkindness. And that unless I accepted that people who have “bad” in them also have “good” and “humanity” somewhere inside them, I was going to live a pretty lonely life. (Oh, and–I hurt people, too–so . . . what do I do with that?)

So rejecting the truth that deep down, everyone is human and lovable, left me very much alone. But where does it leave others when we reject their humanity? Well, imagine that you’re the abuser-character. You’re the one that’s been labeled “toxic.” And maybe you really did do a number on someone. Maybe you were an absolutely terrible parent. Maybe you are really arrogant or really disagreeable. Maybe you rub a lot of people the wrong way. But when you wake up in the morning, you don’t think, “Muahahaha, let’s be an asshole today!” You think, “Oh man . . . I hope this day goes better.” Somewhere inside, you’re trying. You want good. You wish you weren’t mean, that you could control your words. You need another chance. Maybe it took you fifty years to see your immaturity for what it is. Maybe it took losing a bunch of relationships. So what will it take to change? To recover? To grow? Well, among other things, you need support. You need friendship. You need someone to give you a chance to do humanness the right way. You need hope. You need good examples. You need people to practice with. You need a shoulder to cry on when you have to face the damage you’ve done in the past. But–we’ve already decided you are “toxic.” So if everyone else rejects that first truth–that everyone is human and lovable–and clings to the idea that every hurtful or bad person must be written off, shunned, shamed, and “cancelled” into oblivion . . . you will never have a chance. Let’s be honest–we all know what regret feels like. We all know the feeling of hoping for another chance, because we screwed up with someone–maybe with a lot of people. We’ve had ours lows. So when you feel tempted to sentence every “toxic,” mean, negative, obnoxious, or immature person to a permanent identity as a hopeless “Bad” person–remember your lows. Remember when you needed people to give you another chance and show you a “love” that they could have said you didn’t deserve. It is wonderful to show up for broken people.

So keep this truth. Live by it: Deep down, everyone is just human, with their insecurities and feelings, needing love and, as a human, no matter how broken, worthy of love.

Rejecting the second truth–that you need to completely walk away from some relationships:

We also learn not to set boundaries. We learn to accept bullying or abuse or mistreatment or disrespect. Some of us learn to accept it from many people, always afraid to stick up for ourselves. Some of us learn to accept it from just a few special people. Case in point, “but they’re still your family” is one of the most dangerous phrases that we’ve all heard a thousand times. Cultural expectations pressure us to patiently, silently accept behavior from family members that we’d never accept from non-family. A parent’s passive aggressive commentary on every single one of our life choices or preferences. A sibling repeatedly guilting us into “lending” money we’ll never get back. A spouse’s constant berating. Sticking up for yourself in the face of abusive treatment from family is not a life skill we talk about. When we do finally stick up for ourselves, we discover whether or not they’re going to listen and accept our boundaries. If they won’t, maybe the relationship is too unhealthy. Maybe it’s too damaging. Maybe it was never really a relationship at all. So can you take care of yourself by walking away? The general cultural expectation is: No. “They’re still your family.” “You only have one set of parents.” Etc. Families aren’t the only area where we can learn not to set boundaries. We can feel too guilty to stick up for ourselves when a friend starts taking advantage of us or hurting us–we don’t want to hurt them. We learn to grin and bear it when co-workers make mean jokes or take their mood out on us–need to be a “team player.” I think deep down we each know that some relationships need to end, but we can’t do it. We’re afraid. We don’t know what others will think. We care about the person we need to walk away from. We worry for them. We want to “be the bigger person,” and give them another chance, and another, and another. So we tell ourselves and each other that Love says that you shouldn’t cut someone off, that you should be there for them, no matter how yucky it gets–after all, maybe one day they’ll hit rock bottom, and if you’re not there for them, who knows what might happen. So “cutting off” a family member, a friend, even a co-worker–establishing such a final boundary–is not cool.

So where does this leave you? It leaves you being abused, mistreated, disrespected, bullied, hurt, taken advantage of, pushed around, made fun of. It leaves you exhausted, crying, fragile, insecure, powerless, hopeless, lifeless, stuck. It leaves you, year after year after year, holding your breath when you show up for a family reunion, and then flying back home in tears, disappointed and crushed and re-traumatized again and again and again. It leaves you stripped bare of energy. Maybe stripped bare financially. It makes your life a living hell. This is not the life you want. This is not a life of love or of purpose or of hope or of beauty or of peace. This is miserable. . . . Please, please, please, please, please hear this: You are worth more than that. . . . You do NOT matter LESS than the people who are systematically hurting you. . . . You are a precious human being. Pretend like you’re your friend–looking at mistreated-You from the outside. You know that the You you’re looking at through a friend’s eyes MATTERS. You matter. You matter. You matter. Your heart matters. Your life matters. Your happiness matters. Your peace matters. Your human dignity matters. Your dreams matter. You absolutely, 100% do not have to put up with abuse. So if someone refuses to have a healthy, functional relationship with you–you absolutely can walk away. Yes, even from your parents. As someone who’s lived this, I can tell you, despite what 99% of the voices around you are saying, it IS better when you end the relationships that are too far broken and damaging to you. Whether it’s because the person you love refuses to stop mistreating you, or because even if they would try there has already been too much trauma–or both or either or–who knows, honestly? If any relationship is suffocating your heart and is not able or willing to be fixed–you can let it go. Rejecting boundaries–really big, final boundaries–can keep you a prisoner of abuse and bullying for your entire life.

Rejecting the idea that some relationships need to be ended doesn’t just hurt you. It’s also not good for anyone around you. There’s a reason on the plane they say you have to put your own oxygen mask on before you put the mask on your kid. A stuck, abused, lifeless, hopeless you isn’t going to be any help to anyone else. A drained, bullied, broken you won’t have much left over to offer your friends, your job, your hobbies, your life, your loved ones. And it actually, really, truly, honestly, for real won’t be any help to the abusers you love too much to walk away from. My therapist put it this way when I was wrestling with whether to travel down to my family’s Thanksgiving–to be there for my siblings in their own stressed and disappointed and anxious journey with what it means to be in our family–to be there for my parents, to spare them some sadness and feelings of rejection–my therapist put it this way, and it’s stuck with me: When you see someone thrashing around, drowning in a raging river, jumping in next to them won’t help. You’ll just get pulled down with them, in their thrashing panic, and besides, you can’t beat the river’s current either. Instead, you throw them the life saver tied onto the dock, and tell them that if they’ll grab on you can help pull them out of the river. The tough part is, your unwillingness to jump back into a toxic river you once lived in and drown right next to them will absolutely feel like a betrayal to them. But jumping back into a place where you’re going to get knocked in the head by the flailing limbs and pulled away in the dangerous current is NOT going to help them. It will only cause you to drown. The only chance at helping those people that have hurt you so deeply and traumatically, or insist on living in that world, might be by standing on the shore, ready to help when they finally decide to hop out of the raging river into a healthy, functional world of freedom. Being, if nothing else, an example–proof for them–that if they want to find love and freedom, it’s out there. A drowning you helps nobody. Let’s be real about this urge to stick around and rescue our abusers: Has our sticking around, trying to please, them, ever made them happy and fulfilled? Nope. And it won’t, as long as we’re in their toxic world. The only chance you have at being there for the world is putting your own mask on first. No matter how “selfish” it feels. It’s just the way it works.

So keep this truth. Live by it: Some people are toxic, narcissistic, cruel, and unloving, and permanently ending your relationship with them is the healthiest choice.

So how do you hold these truths together?

Well, first, don’t go crazy with either one of them. Don’t take either one to a mindless extreme. Don’t be in a rush to throw a salvageable relationship of love away. But also don’t cling to a relationship that’s not there and drown yourself in the process.

Second, notice that we probably have a tendency to reject each one of these truths in different contexts. In what parts of your world do you champion love and acceptance, but forget to set boundaries? Maybe with family? Work? Politics? And in what parts of your world do you champion boundary-setting and forget that people are all still lovable humans deep down? Social settings? Friends? Social media? See, I think we know each of these truths, and forget each of these truths, and it may all just be an arbitrary tangle. Can we hold them, balance them, mindfully?

Third–and I think this is sort of the kicker: Who you LOVINGLY ACCEPT vs who you HEALTHILY WALK AWAY FROM has EVERYTHING to do with that specific relationship, its dynamic, what it is for, what needs it is fulfilling, and what it is intended to be. I can very healthily and compassionately put up with a kind of immature negativity and judgmentalism from a co-worker that would be devastating coming from a parent. I can put up with some hardcore manipulation from a friend who has very little control over me, whereas if this person were my significant other, I’d have to walk away. What is your relationship with this person who’s showing their “toxic” edges? As my friend Luke suggests asking, “Is your putting up with the mistreatment actually truly helping the other person or the situation, and therefore maybe worth it?” You can also ask, is the level of their immaturity one that you can deal with healthily? Or are they harming your well-being? Can I handle it when a high school friend expects me to solve all their emotional distress for them? Maybe. Can I handle it when my mom expects me to solve all her emotional distress for her? No. One size does not fit all. Re-framing the hurtful behavior around the dynamics and purpose of the specific relationship really helps. What is a parent? What is a child? What is a sibling? What is a friend? What is a co-worker? What is a random stranger? Each relationship has different needs when it comes to support, fulfillment, love, and boundaries.

Fourth, it helps to just acknowledge what is going to be, I think, the hardest part of all this, emotionally: Trusting that there will be other people there to give the “love” your parent or spouse or sibling or friend or co-worker needs to experience–the person you had to call it quits with. In holding that first truth–that every human is lovable–it is so hard to let go of people that are hurting us, because we may truly love them and wish them the best and hope hope hope that they will find and feel some love. It is so hard to trust this, but we have to trust, to remind ourselves, that there are 7.8 billion people in the world who they have not abused and traumatized, and among those 7.8 billion people they will absolutely find the love they need when they are ready. They will have other people there to help them change, other people there to give them hugs and a shoulder to cry on if and when they change and regret their abusive behavior. You do NOT have to stick around to help your abusers recover and grow. So let them be lovable humans that others will show up for. You can’t help them anymore. Let them go, and then trust that there is still a world there to love them when they need it.

And fifth, focus on the flip side. There are far, far, far more people who are still safe for you to show up in love for, to be there for, to make a difference for. Who do you get to show up for? Let your energy live THERE.

A few words to meditate on:

~

“Man is not fully conditioned and determined but rather determines himself whether he gives in to conditions or stands up to them. In other words, man is ultimately self-determining. Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment. By the same token, every human being has the freedom to change at any instant. . . . one of the main features of human existence is the capacity to rise above such conditions, to grow beyond them. Man is capable of changing the world for the better if possible, and of changing himself for the better if necessary.” ~ Viktor Frankl

Truth: Deep down, everyone is just human, with their insecurities and feelings, needing love and, as a human, no matter how broken, worthy of love.

~

“You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” ~ attributed to Buddha

Truth: Some people are toxic, narcissistic, cruel, and unloving, and permanently ending your relationship with them is the healthiest choice.

~

Good luck, my friends. I know that trying to live a life of love for others and love for self, holding these two truths together, can be hard and can include lots of tears shed. Hang in there. You’ve got this. Sending you love and energy.

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