I have anxiety and that’s okay

I have anxiety.

 

Some days I am in the zone, killing it.

I am a manager and I’m good at it.

I am great at sales and customer service.

I am great at leading projects.

I am the president of a Toastmasters club and I think I’m a good leader.

I am a really good friend to lots of people.

I have gotten straight A’s in basically every bit of education I’ve ever had.

I write a blog that lots of people read and find helpful.

I am a badass public speaker and can give a great presentation.

I make really beautiful piano music.

I have run half marathons.

People come to me for advice.

I survived and escaped a very toxic environment I grew up in and chosen to live life a different way.

I am really, really smart.

I am funny (don’t ask my friends).

I love to help people and at least sometimes I am good at it.

 

Some days I bury my head in the couch pillows and hyperventilate.

Some days I spend the entire day near-panicking about what would be the best way to spend the day.

Some days I randomly start crying.

Some days I feel this non-stop heavy sadness.

Some days I worry myself sick that I might get sick and die soon.

Some days I am pretty sure my whole life might be a lie, that the people who said they love me, who are supposed to love me, really don’t.

Some days I feel like crying when someone lovingly teases me because I honestly don’t get that it’s teasing.

Some days I worry that lots of people are actually unhappy with me and are out to get me. That if I’m not a good enough leader, I’ll suddenly be surprised by getting booted out the door. That if I don’t make friends or family happy, they’ll tell everyone I’m a bad person.

Some days I worry that I’m actually some really hopelessly awful person.

Some days I’m afraid that I’m just “one of those people” who will never quite be good enough, always find a way to fail.

Some days I feel like I’m floating away and I can’t reach out and grab the world I know, it’s too far gone, and I’m just stuck floating out here where nothing feels right, nothing makes sense, I can’t find anything.

Some days I lay in bed terrified and feel the room spin, and feel like the ceiling is fading away, and I stop seeing what’s around me.

Some days I can feel the *thump* *thump* *thump* of my heart beating really hard and fast and all I can feel is that my heart can’t keep up with the intense panicky drowning “Oh no” feeling.

Some days everything feels yucky and sad and scary and I finally sit down on the floor and cry and cry.

Some days I see people who always make me happy, and I realize that they probably don’t really like me, that they probably are just nice about it.

Some days I try to smile and be in a good mood and be super friendly, but I truly can’t, so I just want to get alone.

Some days everyone and everything is unsafe.

 

If I had to describe anxiety, as I’ve personally experienced it, in one sentence, it would go something like this: Watching in terror as everything you need, everything you thought you had, floats just out of your reach, and in its place, all-the-danger surrounds you.

 

Some mental illness is so serious that someone can hardly function. Some mental illness leaves people functioning well some days, struggling on others. And some mental illness injects a little bit of struggle and sadness into a mostly thriving life.

Minds are weird things. And whether someone has a diagnosed mental illness or just happens to deal with the weird stuff that happens in the mind of a human–whether someone feels good 90% of the time or 10% of the time, or maybe 0% of the time–whether someone has a severe anxiety disorder with regular anxiety attacks, or someone “just” gets pretty anxious pretty often–it is okay that you struggle. And it is okay to SAY that you struggle.

 

Some mental illness just happens, because you just happened to be born with a brain that functions a certain way.

Some mental illness happens because of a thing that happens to your body, like a disease, or like a traumatic injury.

Some mental illness happens because of sudden trauma, experiencing something like watching someone die, being assaulted, being molested or raped, or watching while some tragedy unfolds.

Some mental illness happens because of a life full of trauma, like emotional or physical abuse from your parents, or like growing up with a belief system that makes the world a dangerous place, or like getting bullied a bunch as a kid for being different.

Some mental illness gets better. Some gets worse. Some just sits there.

 

I don’t know why I struggle with anxiety as much as I do. I’ve had a professional tell me I have anxiety, but I’m not really sure if it counted as an official diagnosis of a disorder, or if it just was a statement that it’s something I deal with that doesn’t quite warrant a label. Actually, maybe it shouldn’t need to warrant a label. Maybe you don’t have to be this-far-broken to be able to talk about being broken.

I had two concussions in the last few years, and the second one sent my anxiety through the roof and it hasn’t quite come all the way back to where it was–or where I imagined it was–back when life felt more “normal.”

I started seeing a therapist after my second concussion, and very quickly he helped me realize that it was probably a good thing for my mental and emotional health that I had my anxiety and my feelings shaken up a bit so I couldn’t keep stuffing them.

I learned that I’ve naturally always had a very codependent personality in all areas of my life. I felt like my feelings weren’t important, which helped to bury my anxiety. Sort of. Until I realized that no matter how much I tried to make everyone happy, I would never stop being anxious about it.

I wish I could say that I have anxiety because of the 18 or 19 years I lived in a home that I think was full of very damaging abuse.

But I’m not sure, because I always heard from my mom that I was always a super anxious kid. (I wish she had gotten me some help about it.)

I cried pretty constantly through most of my childhood. I worried constantly about getting sick and dying. I lay awake many nights worrying that I’d end up in hell for eternity, picturing what it would feel like. I sucked my thumb long past the rest of my siblings, because it was soothing and safe. I asked my younger brother to hold my hand when he slept in the bunk above me so that I wouldn’t feel alone. And like I said, I cried. A lot.

Knowing what I’ve learned as an adult about the mind, I can identify significant anxiety attacks I had as a kid. And I remember one year I spent over half the year crying and panicking alone in my room most of every single day.

So I don’t know. Was I born with anxiety? Probably. Did an unhealthy childhood make it so much worse? Definitely. Has it actually gotten worse since my concussions? I’m not sure, but it’s definitely gotten clearer and tougher to deal with.

 

I’m a pretty normal person, I think. If you know me well, you probably know me as generally positive and fun. I look like I’ve got my stuff together.

You probably haven’t seen me panic and collapse onto the floor crying.

A lot of mental illness, people can handle well. You can try not to take it out on everyone around you, you can keep it together while you’re in public and not make a scene, you can differentiate between situations where it’s safe and appropriate to open up about your feelings or where you need to be professional, respectful, or just get stuff done.

So you probably won’t see me panic and collapse onto the floor crying.

You probably won’t see almost anybody do that.

Which means when it happens to you, you might think you’re the only one. You might think you’re not normal, you’re not okay, you’re a failure, that nobody would like the real you.

 

Saying all of this is not comfortable or fun at all. I don’t want attention for it. I don’t want to be treated like I’ve got it especially bad, because, all in all, I don’t. I’m not making a statement about me.

I wanted to share all of this just because this shitty life stuff needs to be okay. Okay to experience and okay to talk about.

If you have intense anxiety or mild anxiety, you are not alone and you’re not weird and you’re not stuck hiding. Lots of people will love you and help you, just like you want to love and help them.

If you struggle with other mental illnesses, like depression, you are not alone. You’re not weird. You can be real about it.

I don’t want to minimize the seriousness and impact of some extreme mental illnesses. For example, some people have such severe mental illness that they can’t function well enough or consistently enough to take care of themselves, and they need real help–from family, from society, from community. Some people have such severe depression that they literally can’t find the strength to get out of bed in the morning, such severe OCD that no matter how hard they try, they can’t stop washing their hands even when their skin is falling off. I don’t want to downplay how much caring support and attention we should be giving those who genuinely can’t make it through without physical, financial, tangible help.

But I honestly think that struggling with mental health is a pretty universal thing. Mild or severe.

And sometimes we just need to know that it is okay, and we need the people around us to know that it is okay. Sometimes the mind and feelings just get weird.

I challenge you to treat your mental health just like your physical health. That means when you need to see a mental health doctor, see a mental health doctor. You go for a physical once a year. Why do we save mental health help for when we’re at the end of our rope? Let’s make mental health care normal.

Don’t be afraid to be real about yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask for friendship. Don’t be afraid that your struggles–little or big–with mental health make you less.

A surprisingly huge number of us are right there with you.

We’re all in this together.

#makeitok

 

P.S. It’s okay to say “me, too.” It’s also okay to NOT say “me, too.” You can be as open or as private as you need. Just know you’re not alone, and you can at least talk to someone.

P.P.S. I wrote this a couple months ago and didn’t post it about 10 times before I finally decided to. I want to help others know they’re not alone, help others have a safe space to be exactly who they are deep down–that’s my passion. It doesn’t mean that it’s “better” to be public about your mental health. So again, there’s no pressure and no need to be vocal. You be you. Just know that who you are is okay.

 

“Some people turn sad awfully young. No special reason, it seems, but they seem almost to be born that way. They bruise easier, tire faster, cry quicker, remember longer and, as I say, get sadder younger than anyone else in the world. I know, for I’m one of them.” – Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine

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you’re not alone

Sad People

“Eeyore, the old grey Donkey, stood by the side of the stream, and looked at himself in the water.
‘Pathetic,’ he said. ‘That’s what it is. Pathetic.’
He turned and walked slowly down the stream for twenty yards, splashed across it, and walked slowly back on the other side. Then he looked at himself in the water again.
‘As I thought,’ he said. ‘No better from THIS side. But nobody minds. Nobody cares. Pathetic, that’s what it is.’
There was a crackling noise in the bracken behind him, and out came Pooh.
‘Good morning, Eeyore,’ said Pooh.
‘Good morning, Pooh Bear,’ said Eeyore gloomily. ‘If it IS a good morning,’ he said. ‘Which I doubt,’ said he.
‘Why, what’s the matter?’
‘Nothing, Pooh Bear, nothing. We can’t all, and some of us don’t. That’s all there is to it.’
‘Can’t all WHAT?’ said Pooh, rubbing his nose.
‘Gaiety. Song-and-dance. Here we go round the mulberry bush. …I’m not complaining, but There It Is.'”
~ A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

I don’t know if I’m a “sad” person. I’m figuring that out. I think I have been sad a lot. But I don’t know if I’m a Sad Person.

I have had stretches in my life full of everyday giddiness, high on life, can’t-stop-smiling, can’t-stop-laughing. Like life was one constant summer evening drive with the windows down. In fact, “happy” used to be the word I’d always, always use to describe myself. It was my identity.

I definitely am not always a Happy Person, though. At least not these days.

Do you think you HAVE to be a Happy Person? SHOULDN’T be a Sad Person? Maybe you’re a both. (That sounds pretty human.) What is YOUR relationship with sadness?

There is something to be said, to be acknowledged and understood, about sadness and sad people. They’re there, they’re real. I don’t know why some are mostly sadder and some are mostly happier. And like I said, I don’t know which one I am or if I’m right in the middle. Maybe that will change every year. Maybe one day it will stay one or the other. But I think the world is a better place when we acknowledge and see and accept that some people are Sad People.

I stumbled upon this little moment in a Ray Bradbury story this year, and it spoke to me, a little too directly:

“Some people turn sad awfully young. No special reason, it seems, but they seem almost to be born that way. They bruise easier, tire faster, cry quicker, remember longer and, as I say, get sadder younger than anyone else in the world. I know, for I’m one of them.”
~ Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine

I’d like to share a little bit of my story with sadness, because I want to tell you a few things I know about sad people.

My journey with sadness must have started very young. Maybe, like Ray Bradbury said, “no special reason.” I just remember hearing when I was growing up that I had always been a very anxious little kid. Always afraid, crying lots. Having deep, sad thoughts.

I remember as a 7-year-old having very real fears that my siblings and I must not be real Christians because we were always fighting and being mean. I tried to have a sort of one-kid intervention about it, where I made a big pronouncement of doom and despair with my 7-year-old voice, trying to be heard over all the kids-fighting-because-they’re-kids noise in the back of the station wagon, but it didn’t make me feel any better.

I sucked my thumb and slept with stuffed animals for a lot longer than was normal “for a boy” (which is a dangerous phrase). I always felt afraid and I always felt a desperate need for safety, for assurance, for comfort. I still have my tigers Jack and Dakota and Sebastian, and when I find them once in a while on my closet shelf I feel a “better” type feeling, like when I hugged them close as a kid. I hugged them a lot because I needed love and I needed safety. I had this nightmare when I was only several years old that spoke so strongly of my day-to-day fears that I can still replay the nightmare to this day: Out on a family walk in Chattanooga, I’d fall behind, my family would round a bend, and gypsies would jump out of the woods and steal me away to be their own child. (I don’t know where I learned about gypsies.)

We moved to Florida. A lot of times I couldn’t sleep. My mom found me sitting on the stairs. I explained, when she asked what was wrong, that I was just so worried about getting spinal meningitis or small pox and dying. I shared a room with a brother and two sisters, and we would stay awake planning how we could protect ourselves if a bad person broke into the house while dad and mom were away. I knew where my granddad’s Japanese WWII sword was. Swords were my thing. At first I would draw swords and then eventually I’d make swords out of old broom handles and duct tape and then one day a deacon at church said he had a jigsaw and would love to help me carve the swords so I dreamed them up and drew the outlines on old bed slats and I brought them to him and it was a good day but he also was a little rough around the edges and said some unkind words to me and it scared me and it made me sad but when I got home I had my swords. My favorite sword was a beautiful little one. Duct tape wrapped around two pencils gave the handle a handle-shape and I think I painted a red jewel on the bottom. One time I was “fooling around” with it while the family read out loud for school, so my mom told me to bring it to her, and I asked her to please, please, please not spank me with it, because I was afraid it would break, and it was my favorite sword, but she spanked me with it, and my sword broke. And I was a kind of sad-in-every-way that lasted a long, long time.

As a teenager I got sad about deeper things. Things like my imperfections. I thought it was good to beat myself up over my mistakes and my weaknesses, so I did, a lot. I felt lots of shame and stress and struggle. I worried so much about God. That wasn’t a new thing. When I was about 9 I had asked my dad how we could have gotten to the present if eternity stretched for all eternity into the past. We couldn’t have gotten to now, so it all must have started sometime, but how could God be God if he hadn’t stretched to eternity past? And who got God started? This was a deep, aching, upset-stomach kind of problem to me. But my dad explained that God is outside time, so I felt better and went back to worrying about getting kidnapped instead. In my teen years, the God fears got more complicated. How could I know that I had the right kind of faith? Not the “Lord, didn’t I know you?” only to hear God say “Depart from me, I never knew you!” kind of faith. I would lie awake night after night crying in bed, afraid of going to hell, imagining it, hoping against it, wondering, sick to my stomach. That fear never went all the way away. (“Perfect love drives out fear.” – 1 John 4:18)

If I had been my own parent and had believed in things like therapists and psychology, there was one year in particular that I would have brought kid-me to a professional. I had this awful thought where maybe God wasn’t real–and it all went downhill fast from there. For months and months and months, I could hardly eat, I could hardly sleep, I could hardly get out of bed. I couldn’t look people in the face, especially not the eyes. I truly could not smile and people commented on it. I couldn’t enjoy anything. I couldn’t be happy. I couldn’t think straight. I couldn’t see straight, sometimes. I felt like I was walking in a tunnel. I felt like I was floating away on the outside, looking in at all the peopleish people who knew how to be people, while I was dying in my heart, desperately waiting for the world to make sense again, waiting for a thing to hold onto. I was lost and scared. All of the happy and fun things were not happy and not fun anymore. At all. Every day was awful. Every single day. For the better part of a year. It was so dark. I would shut myself in my bedroom and cry for most of every day. Think, worry, and cry. That was my life for quite a while. I was a Sad Person in a big needs-help kind of way.

In my late teen years, my sadness turned mostly toward love-stuff. Cute-girl love but also family love and friendship love and world peace love and all the feel-good stuff that we celebrate on a day like Christmas, the day I find myself writing this. I felt deeply lonely and sad about not having a lot of friends, about never really learning to have friends or to be around other people who were different from me. I felt stuck in a place where I couldn’t feel much love, and every day it felt heavy and lonely and yucky and sad. As an 18-year-old I would covertly bypass our burglar alarm so that I could sneak out of my window to take walks alone in the dark. It felt like a little bit of freedom, getting to just be me. There were really rough times where I felt like I had lost so much love and support and friendship. Where I felt like I had been rejected by almost everyone, left completely alone, broken, to navigate life by myself. I needed love, but I couldn’t trust.

Eventually I claimed the freedom to go do my life the way I wanted. Unfortunately, that freedom coincided with an unrequited-love time, and juggling that and an 18-year-long scar of sadness got really, really dark.

But then, fairly randomly I think, I learned how to be happy.

I found real, huge, giddy, outrageously GOOD happiness! And honestly, I had experienced lots of happy things or happy corners-of-life in my childhood. Playing baseball in my backyard, feeling like a world traveler as I caught a plane and the MARTA to escape to my loving friends in Atlanta, and playing all the happy songs on the piano, like Linus and Lucy. But lots, I’d play the sad songs, too. Finally, as a young adult, the sad songs started slipping into memory and every day started bursting with happiness. A beautiful girl named Lyssi. Cheese and other yummy foods not as worthy of mention as cheese. Epic movies to see. Sketch pads. A fresh, cool breeze rushing by as I ran for miles and miles. My own car to adventure in. People who were there for me and the chance to be there for people. Kind words. Hugs. Purpose, excitement, confidence, and giddy, giddy, giddy happiness.

And then more weird life things happened that shook me pretty deep and brought me back to the pretty constant hum of worry and stress and fear and doubt and sadness. Several years swung back and forth pretty regularly–actually probably pretty healthily–between being generally stressed and generally happy. I wasn’t a Sad Person, but I wasn’t the Happy Person I had been, either.

Then one summer, over a year ago now, two things happened that shook a lot of Sad loose from deep inside my heart. First, I took a trip and saw some people whom it should have been wonderful to see, and saw a bunch more people who were once my tribe. And it was not good. It was not good at all. It was hard and sad and heavy and frustrating and a little bit gross. After that trip I came back to the happy-home I had found the freedom to make, but I couldn’t shake the hurt. For months after that trip I would wake up almost every night sweating, shaking, panting, having nightmares about the sad stuff I thought I had left safely behind in my childhood. Trust started becoming hard again. I started feeling sensitive and oh-so-protective. Second that summer (and I’ve written lots about this before) I bonked my head way too hard hiking in the Colorado Rockies and I knocked even more feelings loose. If you’ve ever had a concussion or known someone who has, you might know a frequent effect is intense anxiety and emotional lows. Like “I’m crying and I don’t know why” twenty times a day. This time around for me, the emotional lows were there again, but the anxiety was so present and so forceful, I could hardly make it through the day. I became weirdly mistrusting of everything and everyone, and I constantly felt that at the next moment my whole world might come crashing down. The concussion effect on my brain lasted a surprisingly long time, especially the anxiety. But by the time I felt probably-back-to-normal, so much Sad had been shaken loose that I felt like a significantly different person than I’d been before the ordeal.

Since then, I’ve dealt with a weird and tough stretch. Over a year feeling the loss of a lot of things I had, feeling the loss of a lot of things I thought I had, figuring out stuff that many people get to figure out as a kid, like how to be angry or how to be mad or how to love someone and yourself at the same time. Thank god for therapy. When my wife asked me a few days ago who had made the biggest impact on me this year, without a second thought I knew it was the therapist I’ve been seeing. I think it’s all going to be okay. Turns out, people get anxious. Some people get anxious a lot, like to the point where you could say they “have” it. And it turns out I’m some people.

And as someone who understands the anxiety and the sadness stuff a little better now than I used to, I’ve gotten to look back and read a bunch of journals and letters from when I was a teenager and a young adult. And oh my goodness, they are DARK. Just heart-breaking. I was a deeply, deeply sad and anxious person.

And then I was a super happy-go-lucky person.

And now I’ve had a pretty sad year or two.

But I’m still so happy a lot. It’s just I’m also so sad a lot. These days, probably more sad. That’s okay right now.

And honestly, knowing all this history, I still don’t really “get” exactly how my sadness works. It’s still confusing. It’s still weird. It still acts in unexpected ways. It’s still “emotional” and acts like it. And then when I think I’ve made sense of it and suddenly it doesn’t make sense again, I keep coming back to Ray Bradbury’s words: “No special reason. . . .”

As someone who’s been a Happy Person and a Sad Person, I want to share a few things, things that I hope will make you feel some mix of not-alone-in-your-sadness and inspired-to-be-a-good-friend-to-sad-people.

First, I understand why my therapist teased that I’d be thankful for my concussion that shook loose the sadness and anxiety deep in my heart. Life is actually better when I see and accept and work with those feelings.

Second, again my therapist, he told me he doesn’t wish people lives of abundant happiness, just abundance. Abundant everything. Some days that means deep happiness. Some days it means deep love. Some days it means deep excitement. And some days–some days it means deep sadness.

Third, go see a therapist. From the bits and pieces of psychology I’ve learned, I know Ray Bradbury’s not wrong: Some people are just sad without a clear cause that therapy can fix. And it’s good for your mix of emotions to include sadness. But, there is a lot of deep, constant, unnecessary sadness that a therapist might be able to help you with. You never know till you try. For me, it’s been life saving.

Fourth, you probably should not always be happy. (Not like “please stop being happy,” but just a warning from my personal experience that, I think, if you think you’re always happy, you might need to check on yourself a bit more, a bit deeper.) You should be happy and sad and mad and scared sometimes. There are good reasons to feel all of those and all of those are normal feelings. It is a lot of pressure to tell yourself (or to tell others, or to let others tell you) that you should always be happy.

Fifth, sad people aren’t bad people who are causing problems by being sad. Many sad people learn to take care of their feelings without taking them out on other people. Mr. Rogers–Fred Rogers–said in an interview that he learned to express his angry and sad feelings through his fingers on the piano.

Sixth, and closely related, if you’re the sad one, you really can learn how to be sad in a healthy way. I’ve learned that it is okay to be sad. Sometimes the things that made you sad aren’t okay, like when you’ve been abused or bullied. And some outlets you might find for your sad feelings aren’t okay, like abusing or bullying others. But you can have healthy sadness.

Seventh, please don’t judge sad people as somehow worse, defective, rain-clouds, melodramatic, silly, not-good-enough, their-own-fault, all the blamey and rejecty labels. Each person has a story you don’t know. People have such long, complex stories! If we’re being honest, we probably don’t really know our own stories all the way. When you see someone–someone who looks sad, who looks like their life is a hard one–please find some compassion. And if you’re a sad person, same goes–please don’t judge yourself for it.

Eighth, please don’t decide for people who they are. Don’t label them as officially happy or officially sad in your book. People are people and life gets weird. When you decide for someone that they’re a Sad Person, you only make it harder. Harder for them to freely express the happy moments, harder for them to ask for support, harder for them to feel appreciated and loved, and honestly harder for them to move towards more happiness. Just as importantly, please don’t decide for someone that they’re a Happy Person. When someone knows that they are, to you, dependably happy, positive, always encouraging and inspiring and energetic and enthusiastic, it becomes an unrealistic burden. Such a burden that when sad times do come, they can’t talk about it. They can’t share. Because too many people are counting on them to not be sad. So please just don’t treat people like they’re a “Sad Person” or a “Happy Person.” Don’t set those expectations. Don’t put that pressure. Don’t plant that guilt. Just let people be people and meet them where they are, every day. One of my most deeply held beliefs is that people can’t be summed up in a nutshell, pre-determined, dependably defined by a set of 4 letters, because humans can change, suddenly and drastically, and they can grow, and they will surprise you. “Every human being has the freedom to change at any instant. . . . Man is capable of changing the world for the better if possible, and of changing himself for the better if necessary.” ~ Viktor Frankl

Ninth, let people be sad. Let yourself be sad. Sad is okay.

And tenth, love sad people. Instead of trying to fix them (god knows if they can’t, you can’t), love them. Instead of pressuring or guilting them or trying to change their minds, love them. Instead of tiptoeing around them on eggshells, get in the messy feelings world with them and LOVE THEM. If anything, anything, anything will ever help a Sad Person find a little more happy, it will be love. But honestly? Don’t let changing or helping them be your goal. Just love them for them, period. And if you’re sad? Love others and get love. Ask for it. Talk about it. Accept it. Trust it. Feel it. And love yourself. You are sad, but you are beautiful.

P.S. Please remember that there are more Sad People than you think. Many people–maybe most people–have learned not to talk about their sadness. Not to cry. Not to share. Some not even to think about their sadness, when they can help it. Many have learned to smile, to be excited, to have fun, to be energetic, and still, just under the surface, there is an ache. Sometimes the biggest smiles hide the deepest aches. So remember that there are many more than you think there are. And remember that they’ve learned, a lot of them, that they’re not allowed to tell you they’re sad.

P.P.S. Also, let’s all do our part in making honesty and vulnerability okay, even when that means tears. You with me? We’re all in this together.

P.P.P.S. I love putting an inspiring quote on a picture and placing it in my blog posts. And I was thinking, what could be a good, inspiring, positive message about sad people? And then I thought, why should it be positive and inspiring? Sad people are sad people. They’re there. They exist. They’re right next to us. They are us. And sometimes that, itself, just needs to be acknowledged and understood and accepted and made peace with. It should be okay.

Ray Bradbury - some people get sad young

When you’re absolutely sure, remember you’ve been sure before

Marcus Aurelius - I will happily change

I couldn’t stand Professor Bauman. I took a philosophy class from him where he constantly picked holes in his students deepest convictions and forced them to ask really difficult questions. I got his point–he wanted us to think carefully with open minds–but whenever one of us would ask him, “What do YOU believe?” he would refuse to tell. I couldn’t have been more sure that he was a bad person for teaching that way: Nobody should lead people to question themselves and then refuse to help them reaffirm their beliefs in the truth–or at least what I saw as the truth.

Now my mind has changed completely. I think Professor Bauman and another similar professor I also disliked for the same reason were two of the most valuable teachers I ever had. I got out into the real world where I was confronted every day by fiercely differing viewpoints, all with their own strengths and weaknesses. I realized then that the unquestioning certainty and the relative lack of questioning that kids like me grew up with, was the worst possible preparation for dealing with life as an adult. Now I’m embarrassed that I was so vocally opposed to his teaching.

Who knows? Someday I could change my mind about this again.

The other day my brother-in-law sent me something I wrote as an over-confident teenager vehemently arguing for a viewpoint I no longer hold–he texted: “9 years is a long time.” It was equally hilarious and cringeworthy.

 

I’m not the only one who has done a complete 180 on big life things. In fact, a lot of people change their minds again and again and again.

Antony Flew was a champion of atheism who drastically changed his mind at the end of his life and wrote a book arguing for the existence of a god. Dan Barker was a Christian preacher for a long time but is now an atheist activist.

Almost 200 years ago, John Stuart Mill, one of the most influential philosophers and political economist in the 1800s, changed his mind completely about his core economic beliefs. According to his autobiography, his reading of romantic poets caused him to question the commitment to classical economics he had held since childhood, eventually leading him to a much more liberal viewpoint.

 

Here’s the thing. I was ABSOLUTELY SURE. So were Flew and Barker and John Stuart Mill.

What’s something that you used to be absolutely sure of that you no longer believe? I know there’s something.

 

I think it can do wonders for your life and relationships to remind yourself regularly that you used to be absolutely certain of things you no longer believe. That you’ve completely changed your mind about something you never used to question. That you now believe or do something you used to call “crazy” when you saw it in others.

When we forget that we have so drastically changed our minds before, we don’t consider that we might drastically change them again.

And when we are so certain there’s not a chance we’re wrong, we don’t easily learn, we frustrate people we talk to, and we miss out on the wisdom we could find in others whose different experiences have led them to see things we don’t see.

If I always talk to you as if I absolutely know that I am right and you are dead wrong, someday I’m going to have to eat my own words.

The more sure I am that I’m right about something, the more carefully I need to remember that I may someday realize I am wrong.

~

“A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.” – William Shakespeare


P.S. If you’re nerdy like me and like reading, check out this little gem from John Locke, an influential thinker from the 17th century–talking about being respectful in argument, honestly admitting uncertainty and allowing for uncertainty in others:

[After pointing out that we must often act upon probabilities that fall short of certainty, he says that the right use of this consideration] “is mutual charity and forbearance. Since therefore it is unavoidable to the greatest part of men, if not all, to have several opinions without certain and indubitable proofs of their truth, and it carries too great an imputation of ignorance, lightness, or folly, for men to quit and renounce their former tenants presently upon the offer of an argument which they cannot immediately answer and show the insufficiency of. It would, methinks, become all men to maintain peace and the common offices of humanity and friendship in the diversity of opinions, since we cannot reasonably expect that anyone should readily and obsequiously quit their own opinion and embrace ours with a blind resignation to an authority which the understanding of man acknowledges not. For, however it may often mistake, it can own no other guide but reason, nor blindly submit to the will and dictates of another. If he you would bring over to your sentiments be one that examines before he assents, you must give him leave at his leisure to go over the account again and, recalling what is out of his mind, examine the particulars to see on which side the advantage lies. And if he will not think over arguments of weight enough to engage him anew in so much pains, it is but what we do often ourselves in the like case, and we should take it amiss if others should prescribe to us what points we should study. And if he be one who wishes to take his opinions upon trust, how can we imagine that he should renounce those tenants which time and custom have so settled in his mind that he thinks them self-evident and of an unquestionable certainty, or which he takes to be impressions he has received from God himself, or from men sent by him. How can we expect, I say, that opinions thus settled should be given up to the arguments or authority of a stranger or adversary, especially if there be any suspicion of interest or design, as there never fails to be where men find themselves ill-treated? We should do well to commiserate our mutual ignorance and endeavor to remove it in all the gentle and fair ways of information, and not instantly treat others ill as obstinate and perverse, because they will not renounce their own and receive our opinions, or at least those we would force upon them, when it is more than probable that we are no less obstinate in not embracing some of theirs. For where is the man that has incontestable evidence of the truth of all that he holds? Or of the falsehood of all he condemns? Or can say that he has examined to the bottom all his own or other men’s opinions? The necessity of believing without knowledge, nay, often upon very slight grounds in this fleeting stage of action and blindness we are in, should make us more busy and careful to inform ourselves than to restrain others. There is reason to think that if men were better instructed themselves, they would be less imposing on others.” (Quote taken from Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy)

I Think, But I Don’t Know

I grew up very smart, confident, and passionate. I thought very deeply, came to the right conclusions, and cared so much about everyone in my life that I had to help them see my conclusions, too. I never genuinely considered I might be getting stuff wrong until I had a big enough crush on a girl to listen when she told me I didn’t have all the answers.
What’s funny is that years later, the majority of big things I so confidently knew and so passionately tried to help other people understand–I no longer see the same way.
We all have our perspectives and our perceptions. We can’t help that they are very limited. And we can’t help but act according to them.

Seeing my own illusion
I remember one time I flew to another state to visit my recently married sister and brother-in-law. My sister and I had been extremely close friends for a long time and cared deeply for each other, so we were excited. But I was also there, more importantly, to visit the girl I was dating. The schedule was lopsided significantly in favor of girlfriend time. Later, my sister expressed that she was a little hurt by how the visit played out, and I just couldn’t understand. She supported my priorities but felt frustrated that it was very different than she expected. She had the impression that I was there to spend a few days with them, too. But I spent less time than expected with them, and when I was there I wasn’t exactly present. Again–and to my sister’s credit–she didn’t think my priorities were wrong. She just wished I had decided and communicated initially that I wouldn’t be spending much time with them. It would have saved her some disappointment. TO me, her feelings seemed a little selfish and unreasonable.
It wasn’t until years later when I experienced similar scenarios, but with roles reversed–I was the one with expectations too high, missing out on people I loved–that I finally understood that my sister was completely right. I wasn’t wrong, but she wasn’t either. I was so sure she was seeing things inaccurately, but she wasn’t. And I just was not in a place with my focus and priorities at the time where I could truly see her perspective. But years later, when I was in her position, I also felt a little ignored, mislead, and taken for granted. And it didn’t feel good.
I was so sure. Saw things so clearly. And I was thinking very deeply and had the best intentions. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that there was a completely different way to look at it. And this is just one example. There are a hundred more, and I’m sure you have plenty as well. Times you took a dogmatic stand, only to look back some time later in embarrassment.
Do you see the old lady? Or the young lady? Which one is the right one? (If this question doesn’t make sense to you, google “Stephen Covey old lady.”)
The problem is not that I took a stand or believed what I believed. The problem is not that I acted on my perceptions. The problem was what happens when I don’t recognize that there may be other perspectives–just as valid, just as clear.
This idea gives a deeper meaning to the term “Self-Centered.”
Sometimes we do what seem to us to be the greatest, kindest, most caring thing. But because it’s born out of our narrow perspective, because our focus is completely on our own Self’s perception, without attention to another’s interpretation, we can leave a path of hurt and confusion. We can act passionately in one direction, completely missing the collateral damage we’re doing in another direction.

Why do we see many things so clearly, but so differently?
For one very simple reason: We’re different people. I’m not you and you’re not me. I grew up in an extremely black-and-white home, preoccupied with ethics and judging whether we’re getting things right or wrong. Maybe you grew up in a similar home, but experienced so much hurt that you threw out all standards as causing dysfunction and depression.
Or maybe you grew up in a very chill home where good intentions were assumed, self-esteem was encouraged, and time and energy were devoted to free creativity and expression of individuality. Maybe this was a positive thing. Or maybe there was too much obsession with freedom, and you couldn’t hold your siblings responsible for just being honest and treating you with respect.
I’ve had a quarter of a century of experiences, shaping my focus and my understanding–my perspectives and perceptions. I’ve had very unique experiences leaving me with unique needs and unique sensitivities, unique priorities and unique comfort zones.
Consider this example: Two people look at the same religious organization. The organization does a lot of good for people and gives a lot of hope, but there are a number of people involved in leading it for selfish reasons. One person sees it as a breeding ground for judgement, hurt, and disappointment. Another person sees it as a vehicle to bring hope to unfortunate and hurting people in the community. Both people are completely correct, but both people will think, speak, and act completely differently towards the organization.

This CAN’T and SHOULDN’T be avoided.
A simple solution is opening up your mind and starting to see everything through your neighbors’ lenses. Problem is, you’re not going to get their lens quite right, either. And even if you could, there’s another neighbor whose perspective you won’t have the time to consider as well.
Refusing to take a stand for anything just because you don’t know everything just results in a crippled world, a world where nobody can help each other. Maybe my help isn’t quite right.
Imagine a world where nobody stood up to slavery or persecution because there’s a chance the “other side” might see something you can’t see.

So what SHOULD be done?
What if we tried living every single day with a deep awareness, acceptance, and appreciation for the huge variation in yours and my perspectives? What if I always kept in mind that you may have just as clear a perception of something as I do, but you may be seeing it differently?
A few things may result…

  • When it seems like I hurt you, but I know I wasn’t wrong, I’ll try to take the time to figure out why you’re hurting and see if we can fix it together.
  • When you see that I’ve latched onto an idea that is bringing weakness and sadness into my daily life, like a self-defeating attitude about myself, you may be able to help me, because I may actually grant that you see a real thing in me that I’m not seeing.
  • When I could do with a change of mind about a big subject, a respectful, constructive discussion can take place where we both come out better educated and appreciating each other.
  • I don’t have a subconscious need to control everything, to make sure people are doing what I need or want them to do, to get you to live life my way, because I realize your way includes some strong and helpful perspectives I can’t give you.
  • I can let you do you, with the peace of mind that all my solutions for you probably aren’t the right ones anyway.
  • I can freely and happily admit that I am just doing my best and don’t have all the answers, instead of feeling like a fraud, trying to hide all my doubts and insecurities.
  • I can ask for help because not having it all together is only a weakness to those who think they can have it all together.

At your funeral, people are going to remember you–people who have their own lenses.
Will they remember someone arrogant, who was sure they knew best, always focused on getting their own way, and always trying to fix other people?
Or will they remember someone humble, compassionate, and open-minded–someone who instead of judging whether others’ feelings were valid or invalid, just honored their feelings and beliefs as theirs? Someone who instead of trying to control the people they cared about just made sure to be there for them?