Attention-seeking

What if half our problem is that we’re not asking for attention?

Junko is a handful, but she’s not complicated. She is a 2-year-old very-puppy who has no qualms about putting her foot down (literally–like on top of us) when she needs . . . . . or even just “wants” attention. (Is there really a difference?)

On the other hand, I’m super cool, but I’m complicated as hell. My deepest wish in life is for people to give me the exact sort of soothing care I want, at the exact moments I need it, without my having to say anything. That would be best, right? If people could just predict what I need?

Or I could do it the Junko way and say “I want a hug right now please and thank you.

When little kids “act out,” we like to call it “attention-seeking.” When 20-, 30-, 40-year old little kids have an outburst or stop showing up for work or start saying sad things all the time, we also sometimes call it “attention-seeking.”

And my goodness, what if we all could seek attention? Not just the ones who are honest about their needs.

What if your little kid doing whatever they know how to do to get your attention is actually asking for exactly what they most need, just in the only way they know how today?

And what if your friend or co-worker is literally just reaching out in the dark to see if someone still cares enough about them to pay attention and care for a minute?

Sure we could all be a little more like Junko and say things directly instead of throwing tantrums, giving the silent treatment, hinting for days, or all the other indirect ways we ask for attention.

But could we maybe appreciate “attention-seeking” for being one of the healthier self-interventions that someone’s able to do in a lonely moment? And provide each other some loving, caring attention instead of labeling each other needy or dramatic or annoying?

What if instead of saying they’re “attention-seeking,” we would say “they have unfulfilled needs”?

Because I bet if we’re all being honest, we need some attention, too.

What if you were allowed to ask for attention? Would it maybe help?

~

Do you need words and encouragement and hope sometimes? I’d love to write for you:

From 1 to 92

and so I’m offering this simple phrase
to kids from one to ninety-two

The Christmas Song

One of my earliest vivid memories, marked by the musty smell of old books in the college library: Two fellow professors stopped my dad and struck up a conversation. They held their briefcases and said big sentences to each other and I knew that the world would be okay. The grown ups were in charge.

I can’t remember, on the other hand, when exactly I began to realize that’s not true. First, they’re not really in charge. Second, they’re not really grown ups anyway. I think I see this more and more every year.

I wonder what would happen if all the people who think they’re in charge remembered every day just how not grown up they are and not grown up everyone else is.

The term “grown up” is misleading, and I a little bit vote we retire it.

~

Have you ever slowed down enough to carry on a conversation with a little kid? It’s funny, they’re shockingly alive.

Jack was my oldest tiger, Sebastian was my biggest tiger, and Dakota was my favorite tiger. It’s not that my world quite revolved around them and all their stuffed siblings, it was more like they were my family, like I retreated to them for love after a day of facing my other family. There was Basil (pronounced like the pesto, because who doesn’t like basil pesto?) the beanie gorilla, and Peter Rabbit the sleepy rabbit, and India, the beanie baby bengal given to me by my best friends’ little sister I had a transient crush on, and more. (Notice the tiger theme, because tigers are awesome.)

At its peak, I think my stuffed family consisted of 50 or so. And while I remember a few of their names, it’s challenging because their names morphed every few weeks (kids clearly don’t automatically think identities must be set in stone). The whole lot of us would gather for a feast, prepare for a battle, or hunker down for a stormy night. I loved my stuffed animals.

“You’re getting older now, Peter. You’re becoming a man. It’s time for you to stop playing with stuffed animals.”

It felt like getting punched in the gut. I hadn’t thought yet of questioning my dad’s alwaysrightness, but I knew this one felt impossible. My face felt a little numb and dizzy and I cried tears of growing-responsibility and I loosened my grasp on wonder a little more.

My dad softened a little and let me keep the tigers only. The rest had to go. Adulthood is inevitable.

~

Each time a need goes unmet, we’re called by society to bury it deeper. This is called growing up.

We’re encouraged to get in line. Follow the guidance the other “adults” made up. Not rock the boat. Do our budget and then die someday.

Rarely are we encouraged to get back on all fours and imagine again that we’re a tiger living under a waterfall in the jungle. Or even just to laugh or cry or dream like a child.

~

I’m not saying don’t budget, don’t work hard, don’t do important grown up things. If nobody did grown up stuff we wouldn’t have doctors and farmers and plumbers.

But the doctors and farmers and plumbers and politicians and pastors and CEO’s aren’t as certain as we think they are. Somewhere under numerous coats of grown-up paint, they’ve still got their sensitive childhood-colored skin.

And while we grown ups have to make grown up decisions and face a grown up world and take grown up responsibility, we could make the world a safer place by remembering and reminding each other that deep down, we’re all just doing our childlike best.

It’s okay to retreat back into your pillow fort once in a while. The world isn’t as grown up as you think it is.

~

The world is not as okay as we believed it was when we were 5. The grown ups aren’t really in charge. And the ones in charge today won’t be tomorrow.

But maybe while we fight an ongoing fight to protect each other from angry or selfish grown ups with their guns and their rules and their money and their hierarchies, we also make the world a little safer by coming back to our childlike selves and each childlike other. Making the same safe space for each other now that we felt decades ago, where we get to retreat for a minute and let everything be “okay” for now.

None of us can carry the grown up world without childlike rest.

~

And I want to just say, those childlike rests are very much more possible for some of us than for others. I’m a white male whose family has lived in America for generations. I have no kids to pay for, and a salary that allows me to disappear to the mountains on occasion. I can afford Disney+ and a TV to watch it on. Whether or not I “should,” I can habitually buy artisan cheeses that cost $24.99 per pound.

And I have neighbors that can’t. And many neighbors can’t because of decades and centuries where our world went along with the “grown ups” who insisted they’d figured out how to make the world better. But better for who?

So as we make ourselves spaces to soothe our inner child, let’s also make safe spaces for our neighbors who don’t have what we have.

I had scores of stuffed animals. Somewhere in my city there is a kid clinging to an old tattered one. And after thousands of years and trillions of dollars, the grown ups haven’t yet figured out how to fix this difference. So maybe sometimes when we retreat to our pillow forts, we can invite a friend who doesn’t have a retreat.

~

tl;dr “grown up” is a lie or at least an unhelpful term, nobody has it all figured out, it’s okay to admit you’re still a child, and remember to share <3

~

Can I join you on your fight against growing all the way up?

Deeper

Do you ever catch yourself looking into someone’s eyes just a little longer and thinking “holy **** there’s an actual person in there!” before quickly breaking eye contact and saying something like “ugh, winter” or “thank god it’s Friday” just to lighten the tension of the tangible spirituality you just experienced between two powerfully human beings?

How much energy do we spend trying to avoid seeing each other as humans and deeply connecting?

And then, once we’ve carefully avoided truly connecting, how much TV do we watch alone on the couch wishing that we had someone there to talk to? But like to really talk to?

And then when we do find someone to talk to, how quickly do we replace the magical mystery of deep connection with a less fragile, less volatile, maybe less explosive normalcy like “how was your day?” again or “what do you want to watch?”

Really seeing someone is uncomfortable. Really being seen is uncomfortable.

When someone says “Hey. . . . how are you really doing?” there’s this strange hit–half ecstasy, half terror.

Deep connection is too good.

And full of too much potential.

So we sign it away in exchange for casual predictability.

No more rocking the boat of our lives or each other’s lives. Safe familiarity. Safe predictability. Safe blandness.

Safe nothingness.

Lonely nothingness.

And then one day we dare to hold someone’s gaze a little longer and speak with a deeply felt emotion for the first time since high school. And the possibilities of being a human and how magical it is come flooding back.

How many words do you speak in a day? And of those, how many do you actually care to speak? How many of your words are just social lubricant so you can avoid honesty and vulnerability and connection? Tailored to avoid the smallest chance that you’ll reach your tender, childlike hands out for connection and be rejected again?

Toughness is manufactured. Toughness is protection against the chance of experiencing the pain that can come along with being deeply human. And so toughness accidentally protects us from the magic of being human at all.

But what would happen if you looked someone in the eye just a little longer and said something like “Hey . . . I appreciate you.” . . . ? Or even the terrifying baggagey words that you’ve learned not to use, or at least to breeze quickly through, diluted with as much casualness as you can muster: “I love you.”

What if you risked connection?

What if you risked touching souls with someone?

What if someone else is waiting for the same thing?

Do you think the weather could wait?

Is it scary? Yeah. Yeah, it is. We’ve all tried before and failed.

As a kid, I laid it all out there with my crush after years of “being mature” about stuffing my feelings, until she’d thoroughly moved on, and I realized I had to go ahead and speak from my heart, and . . . well, it didn’t go as planned.

Then as a young adult, I shared with my mom some deep feeling of sadness over leaving my students, and she just brushed it aside and updated me on her garden or something and it felt so yucky.

I learned it’s safer to stay surface level. “How’s work?” when I’m really more interested in how my friend is doing on their insides. I learned to make sure there’s an “activity” planned instead of just inviting someone to be together to be together.

This is a lot of rambling.

Okay.

I guess what I’m saying is,

it’s not too late,

look at someone in the eye,

see that they are a human,

feel that you are a human,

and say something real.

Live your deep humanity.

Don’t live a script.

Let your insides out a little.

Not every place is a safe place,

but I think we live as if there are no safe places,

and a world with no safe places isn’t the world you’re looking for.

You know at least, like, 20 people. Chances are, one of them you could get real with. And find in that realness–that connection–a strange feeling of care and love and aliveness and togetherness and magic that you haven’t felt since you were listening to Death Cab for Cutie as a teenager.

You’re allowed to go off script and show up as your deeply human self. And it just may free someone else who needs the same thing.

Get weirdly connecty.

Sending you love today. <3

~

Can we stay connected?

Trapped in your story of you

You and I have similar bodies. And similar brains. Similar minds and hearts, even. Humans are mostly, well, human.

Which tells me that if you can do something I can do something. At least mostly. Like I can’t Michael Phelps, but I can pay down my credit cards. I can speak my truth and argue calmly. I can eat fairly healthily. I can quit my job or apply for a promotion. I can go on a date or at least introduce myself to someone. I can do human things.

As can you.

Except it’s not that simple.

~

A long time ago, some psychologists did an enlightening, if cruel, experiment with a bunch of dogs. They paired up each dog from group A with a dog from group B, put them all in little boxes, and started administering electric shocks. Dogs from group A eventually discovered that if they pressed a nearby lever, the shocks would end. They got to rescue themselves. Group B dogs, however, had no lever. And even though their shocks also ended when their group A mate found its lever, since they didn’t experience solving the problem by pressing the lever, they felt completely helpless about the shocks. Nothing they could do. Inevitable. Unstoppable. Helpless.

Later, they took all the dogs–group A and group B–and put them in different little boxes with a small partition in the middle of each. Electric shocks began again on the side the dogs were placed in. To avoid the shocks, they simply had to jump over the little partition to the safe side. Remember the dogs from group A? The ones that got to experience rescuing themselves? They jumped the partition to safety. And the group B dogs that just had to wait out the abuse? The ones who had experienced the shocks helplessly before? They just lay there accepting the shocks. Ingrained belief that there was nothing they could do. “Learned helplessness.”

Group A dogs had learned a story about themselves and shocks: I can change this.

Group B dogs had learned a different story: I can’t help getting shocked.

And, as a reminder, group A dogs and group B dogs are all dogs with the same puppy-legs built to clear those partitions. But their experiences created stories about themselves. And those stories dictated how they handled the next challenge.

~

Which is why I say it’s not that simple.

Yes, you and I have the same fingers with which to type that text, update that résumé, add that friend, sign up for that class, and bravely reach out to hold that hand. But you and I have very different stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.

My story includes an odd jumble of affection and hiding and anxiety and determination and hope and authenticity and pain and adventure and caution and expectations and wisdom and pessimism and and scars and bravery. And though it’s a jumble, it’s a very specific jumble, specific to me. And it informs every day, every decision, every thought, every moment.

And our stories include the fate-type stuff we’ve learned about ourselves.

Having learned about ourselves that we “can’t,” or we’re “not strong enough,” or we “always do that,” or we “can’t help it,” or we “will always be treated like” . . . we accept our fate as our story plays out the way it’s “supposed” to.

Like: When I work out, I always end up in pain or injured. I’ll never be healthy and strong. So why bother trying?

Or: We always end up in a fight when this subject comes up. And I can’t deal with confrontation. So I’m just going to pretend it doesn’t matter to me anymore.

The themes that we’ve experienced, whether willingly explored or helplessly forced on us, have become our stories about ourselves.

Like those dogs.

“I can” or “I can’t.”

~

And while it’s not that simple–as simple as being humans that can change–it also is that simple.

Group A and B dogs are both dogs with legs to jump. And when the researchers finally showed the group B dogs they really could change their situation, holding their little legs and teaching them to move, the once helpless dogs did learn to rescue themselves.

You and I are both humans with human bodies and human minds.

And when someone finally showed me that I was allowed to experience and express a full range of emotions, ask for what I want, say what I really feel–I shed a little learned helplessness.

~

All this to say, you CAN.

Not you can everything. I can’t be on the Yankees team, which is super frustrating.

But you can do that thing–the one you keep wanting to do or trying to do or meaning to do or starting to do or committing to do.

That thing you’ve been remembering each January that you really want to do, and drafting to-do lists and schedules about, and starting, and eventually stopping every time.

Finding that community. Reading those books. Sharing that struggle with a friend. Eating in a way that feels better to your body again. Sticking to those boundaries next time. Sticking with therapy even when it gets too hard. Applying for that new job. Registering for those yoga classes. Cutting back on the Amazon shopping. Reserving more time for your loved ones. Or starting that difficult conversation that makes you a little nauseated.

Do you ever find yourself quick reality-checking a hopeful idea or plan or desire you had? “But you’ve tried that already, and you never stick with it.” Or “You’re just not that person.”

I do.

My story about myself includes decades of patterns that dictate to me who I am now–what I could do next, what I couldn’t do next–what my life officially looks like.

Unhealthiness.

Chronic pain.

People-pleasing.

Staying up too late.

Being only mildly expressive.

When I was 18, I was a loved and respected participant in a number of churches–they were like my families, and I was the confidant of most of my family members. And I had a best friend. I turned 19 and hopped on a plane to Africa, having that large home of friends and church families to come back to. Then I very suddenly, thoroughly, terrifyingly lost all of it. My family, my church families, even my best friend. Gone.

(Yes, I know I’m the common denominator there, and that’s not a great look. It’s a rough story.)

So in my story there’s this big theme about not getting too close to people, especially communities.

Talk about a powerful theme.

And I’ve stuck to that theme through a whole lot of life.

Stories are powerful.

~

What’s your theme?

What happened to you?

What’s your brand of helpless?

What’s your story of you?

And what if you aren’t actually trapped in that story?

~

The assumption that your story has to go a certain way–follow your norm, or any norm–like if you were abused you’ll be anxious, if you struggle with addiction you’ll never stop, if you try to save money you’ll fail–that assumption is a story you’re telling yourself built on powerful experiences you’ve learned from.

But what if you’re the author? And what if, as the author, you can just throw any random new color you want onto the page?

~

And remember, it’s simple and not simple: The trappedness in our stories is like learned helplessness. And while you may have the same mind and body as the next person–while you have the potential–remember that those dogs actually needed someone to move their legs. The aloner you are, the trappeder you are. So as you decide to change your plot this time, ask someone to help move your legs. A therapist. A bodyworker. A mentor. A friend.

~

What is your story about you?

And what if you’re the author?

Would you write something different next?

There is power in stepping back and asking what stories we’re trapped in and whether we’d like to re-write them.

What new plotline are you going to write today?