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?
Oh hello friends! I’m a reader. A slow reader. A let-me-digest-this type reader. And also a distracted-by-all-the-cheeses-I-could-be-tasting type reader. So besides my Mastering Cheese textbook, 2021 had seven books for me that I’m going to be raving about to everyone I talk to anyway, so you may as well just see the list now.
I hope you pick up one or two in 2022 and find your mind opened and your heart moved and your energy sparked.
See No Stranger A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love by Valarie Kaur
3 words this made me feel:Human, Love, Connected
1 thing this inspired me to do: Listen and learn about way more people.
A surprising thing I learned: The hatred and violence against Sikh communities in the wake of 9/11, and how radically loving their responses were.
Why I think you should (there are no shoulds, but still) read it: Honestly, this one is just going to make you a better person. A more connected human. I don’t know what else to say.
Reading difficulty 1-10: Not. It’s easy to get lost in, hard to put down.
A favorite excerpt (how do I even choose?!?) to whet your appetite:“You are a part of me I do not yet know. . . . Wonder is where love begins, but the failure to wonder is the beginning of violence. Once people stop wondering about others, once they no longer see others as part of them, they disable their instinct for empathy. And once they lose empathy, they can do anything to them, or allow anything to be done to them.”
To Shake the Sleeping Self A Journey from Oregon to Patagonia, and a Quest for a Life with No Regret by Jedidiah Jenkins
3 words this made me feel:Adventure, Free, Brave
1 thing this inspired me to do: Spontaneously take a winter hiking and meditation trip to the snowy, icy Minnesota north shore. Oh and revive my old pastime of spending hours and hours browsing Google maps.
A surprising thing I learned: Even though North America and South America are connected by land, you have to travel by water or air between Panama and Colombia because there’s a roadless jungle called the Darien gap that is known as a “smuggling corridor” and is considered one of the world’s most dangerous places.
Why I think you should (there are no shoulds, but still) read it: It challenges everything you’ve settled into. It pulls messy honesty out of you. It makes you dream again.
Reading difficulty 1-10: Another nail-biter. Honestly this reads more like an epic movie in IMAX. Difficulty negative ten.
A favorite excerpt (how do I even choose?!?) to whet your appetite:“As thirty approached, and ‘youth’ was passing into ‘adulthood,’ the terrible reality of time hit me like a wet rag. I looked back on my twenties and realized that every time there was a crossroads, I took the first and safest path. I did just what was expected of me, or what I needed to do to escape pain or confusion. I was reactive. I didn’t feel like an autonomous soul. I felt like a pinball.”
Mating in Captivity Unlocking Erotic Intelligence by Esther Perel
3 words this made me feel:Understood, Excited, Inchargeofmyself
1 thing this inspired me to do: Communicate more.
A surprising thing I learned: Just how codependent and enmeshed American love relationships tend to be, and just how unsustainable and unfulfilling romance is when its core is a pursuit of absolute security.
Why I think you should (there are no shoulds, but still) read it: For almost all of us, sex and eroticism is a core part of us and so worth exploring and learning and getting help with. But it’s also not supposed to be talked about, so that getting help and exploring thing doesn’t always happen. This book is a life-changing, sigh-of-relief-giving, absolutely amazing place to start your own conversation about it.
Reading difficulty 1-10: Esther Perel is a story-teller who thinks and speaks and guides in stories. And through each story she somehow introduces you to your truer self. It’s not difficult, it’s completely engrossing.
A favorite excerpt (how do I even choose?!?) to whet your appetite:“Fear–of judgment, of rejection, of loss–is embedded in romantic love. Sexual rejection at the hands of the one we love is particularly hurtful. We are therefore less inclined to be erotically adventurous with the person we depend on for so much and whose opinion is paramount. We’d rather edit ourselves, maintaining a tightly negotiated, acceptable, even boring erotic script, than risk injury. It is no surprise that some of us can freely engage in the perils and adventures of sex only when the emotional stakes are lower–when we love less or, more important, when we are less afraid to lose love.”
Stamped from the Beginning The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi
3 words this made me feel:Disgust, Determination, Love
1 thing this inspired me to do: Make a habit, every time I hear someone (including myself) place responsibility on BIPOC and other minorities to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” of redirecting the responsibility first and foremost onto the ones who are doing the oppressing or enjoying giant advantages from the oppression. In other words, while a Black person may choose to fight for themselves, a white person is fully responsible for making the world a safer and fairer and more equitable place for Black people and other minorities–and that is not done by ignoring away our head start and enthusiastically cheering them on to fix it all themselves.
A surprising thing I learned: While it was a huge and needed step forward, the passing of the Civil Rights Act also made way for a new version of racist argument in America: Since opportunity was now supposedly, officially “equal,” we could now just blame the Black population for ongoing disparities, instead of grappling honestly with the hundreds-of-years head start white Americans and their families had and the reality of ongoing racism.
Why I think you should (there are no shoulds, but still) read it: It is such a powerful eye-opener and motivator. It is incredibly informative and it’s a deep motivator for making the world a better place.
Reading difficulty 1-10: Honestly, this one’s challenging. I’d say it’s a 10 in difficulty, because it’s just got so much gross, depressing, nauseating truth for America to face. Which also means it’s a 10 for needing to be read by you and me.
A favorite excerpt (how do I even choose?!?) to whet your appetite:“Time and again, racist ideas have not been cooked up from the boiling pot of ignorance and hate. Time and again, powerful and brilliant men and women have produced racist ideas in order to justify the racist policies of their era, in order to redirect the blame for their era’s racial disparities away from those policies and onto Black people.”
Play How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by Stuart Brown
3 words this made me feel:Childlike, Happy, Relief
1 thing this inspired me to do: Make opportunities to laugh more. And sometimes swim laps less like a human and more like a dolphin frog. Or a frog dolphin. A frolphin.
A surprising thing I learned: Humans have a real developmental for “secret spaces” where we can be totally and safely alone, free, and uncensored.
Why I think you should (there are no shoulds, but still) read it: Because you’re too busy right now, and it’s making you sad.
Reading difficulty 1-10: 1 if you read it, 10 if you don’t.
A favorite excerpt (how do I even choose?!?) to whet your appetite:“Once she realized that she would need time for her heart play and started acting on that realization, she began to experience true play again. She began to feel an excitement with life that she had forgotten. . . . Setting out to remember those feelings can be dangerous. It can seriously upend your life. If [her] marriage wasn’t as strong as it was, her husband might have felt she was pulling away when she went on long hikes by herself . . .”
The Body Keeps the Score Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk
3 words this made me feel:Hopeful, Understood, Likeiactuallyhaveabody
1 thing this inspired me to do: Yoga, swim. “Think through” less, hug myself more.
A surprising thing I learned: Retelling trauma in talk therapy can actually continually retraumatize. Sometimes saying what happened isn’t what it takes to make your body trust that it’s safe again.
Why I think you should (there are no shoulds, but still) read it: Because if you’re somehow one of the people who won’t find yourself deeply in these pages, you love someone who does, and this will help you get it. And whether for you or your people, there are so. many. practical. options. So good.
Reading difficulty 1-10: There’s science stuff, but it’s worth it.
A favorite excerpt (how do I even choose?!?) to whet your appetite:“Trauma victims cannot recover until they become familiar with and befriend the sensations in their bodies. Being frightened means that you live in a body that is always on guard. Angry people live in angry bodies. The bodies of child-abuse victims are tense and defensive until they find a way to relax and feel safe.”
P.S. Bonus fact, when you get to the part where Bessel van der Kolk remembers the feeling of being a “little boy” with “stern, Calvinistic parents” . . . . . . same, friend, same. . .
Deep Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves by James Nestor
3 words this made me feel:Amazed, Excited, Powerful
1 thing this inspired me to do: Learn free-diving.
A surprising thing I learned: The deeper you go underwater, the more blood flows away from your limbs toward vital organs to keep them functioning longer. Peripheral vasoconstriction. “When a diver descends to three hundred feet–a depth frequently reached by modern freedivers–“ and I’m having to just quote this verbatim because I mostly skipped science, thank you home school, “vessels in the lungs engorge with blood, preventing them from collapse.”
Why I think you should (there are no shoulds, but still) read it: Honestly, this sounds like a niche book for a niche audience, but I 100% swear you’ll enjoy it. Also, do you like sharks?
Reading difficulty 1-10: Less than 1.
A favorite excerpt (how do I even choose?!?) to whet your appetite:“The ocean is usually silent, but the waters here were thundering with an incessant click-click-click, as if a thousand stove lighters were being triggered over and over again. Schnöller figured the noise must be coming from some mechanism on the ship. He swam farther away from the boat, but the clicking only got louder. He’d never heard a sound like this before and had no idea where it was coming from. Then he looked down. A pod of whales, their bodies oriented vertically, like obelisks, surrounded him on all sides and stared up with wide eyes. They swam toward the surface, clicking louder and louder as they approached. They gathered around Schnöller and rubbed against him, face to face. Schnöller could feel the clicks penetrating his flesh and vibrating through his bones, his chest cavity.”
Want to borrow one?
Sneak peek of what’s next . . .
Maybe all this reading results in a few helpful thoughts from my fingertips this year. Want to hear them?
A soft, fuzzy mommy with no food. Or a wire mommy with food. Which would you pick?
In a 1958 experiment by the scientist Harry Harlow, baby monkeys gravitated heavily toward the soft, fuzzy mommy with no food.
Comfort and security mattered the most. Like even more than dinner. And not much matters more than dinner.
We humans seem wired to desperately seek and hold onto comfort. Even when the comfort is unhealthy or doesn’t serve us in the long run. It’s just how we are.
In his two podcasts about The Office and its making, Brian Baumgartner, who played Kevin on the show, repeatedly asks the question: Why do people obsessively binge The Office? And the answer, repeatedly, is it’s familiar. It’s a comfort thing.
The more familiar something becomes, the more we turn to it for comfort. That can be good, bad, or neutral. Like getting hugs from your best friend, or returning to your abuser, or just streaming The Office long past Netflix’s “Are you still watching?” intermission.
Familiarity makes comfort. And on the flipside: unfamiliarity–or change–triggers discomfort.
Like when Netflix’s contract for The Office expires.
So what happens with change? What happens when we suddenly lose the familiar? Suddenly step out of our comfort zones? Suddenly find ourselves in this strange, new, and uncomfortable world?
Very often, what we think will happen turns out to be very different from what actually does.
We humans tend to be far more capable of recovering from emotional crises than we expect. When faced with loss and challenge, people frequently overestimate how long it will take before their minds can return at least partial attention to their typical day-to-day concerns. We frequently end up at least some version of “okay” more quickly than we expect.
And I think that’s very much worth thinking on for a bit. With the big discomforts and the little ones.
What actually happens?
A friend adopted a dog last week. Being a mom to furry friends wasn’t new to her, and everything was ready to go, but still she couldn’t shake this anxious feeling. She felt stressed out and on edge. What could go wrong? Is it going to go okay?
I shared my own story of adopting our pup, Junko, a year-and-a-half shepherd mix rescue. We brought her home a few months ago and, although she was about as well-behaved as they come, and we also were more than ready and not new to this, the next few days were some of the highest anxiety we’ve ever felt–panicky. The unknowns, the “Was this a bad decision?” thoughts, the fear that we wouldn’t be good care-takers for her.
The moral of the story seems to be: All significant changes–even the EPIC ones–are stressful.
Change is uncomfortable.
And we desperately want comfort.
A ray of hope in the height of the Junko-anxiety was: Someday it won’t be this-week anymore. In other words, this maximum-feeling stress isn’t going to be forever.
And while that reminder is common sense, it’s one I think we forget a lot.
So I’d like to explore this change/discomfort thing together.
When we experience a new thing that comes with stress, we tend to worry that we WON’T get comfortable with the new thing. The discomfort feels so uncomfortable that all we want is to go find our fuzzy mommy. We don’t think we’re going to make it out here in this scary new world, because we know we can’t survive this tight feeling in our chests and the woozy feeling in our heads and the tummy-waves forever. It’s too uncomfortable. And we need to get out.
So sometimes we take it back. No change. Stay safe.
Whether they’re big changes or lesser bumps in the road, we expect that we won’t get comfortable: A new community, a new person, a loss, a habit, a decision, a life-path, a job or promotion, learning something you didn’t know about someone, etc. All these changes lead to lots of worry and anxiety, and while the alarm-bells are ringing, we overestimate how permanent the stress will be.
Which, again, can make us take it back. Bail. Give up on our deepest desires and truest selves. No change. Need to get back to comfortable.
But what if comfort in the new reality is just a matter of time?
We found our dream home one September night and made our first offer since we’d started house-hunting. It was perfect. One we knew we’d never leave. So we threw more at it than we’d budgeted. And it scared the hell out of us. We backed out right before we signed the offer. Then we jumped in again an hour before the deadline. We couldn’t sleep, couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t calm down, couldn’t eat. Work that day was awful. I had this sick, end-of-the-world feeling in my gut. Could we really afford this? (Yes. Very much.) Were we signing our lives away? Would we go bankrupt? Barely scrape by, stressing constantly about money? Find ourselves years later trapped in our not-dream-jobs making just enough money to afford this crazy choice? Making the wrong decision that would change our lives? Finally out on a distracting-walk, we got the phone call. It was a no go. Back to the drawing board. Deeply stressed, not ready to keep going with this panicky feeling, maybe a little traumatized. For the next 9 months we made that offer again, reviewed that budget again, slept on it again, and again, and again. Finally we saw a home and had 15 minutes before the deadline to submit an offer. In minutes we hashed out our most aggressive offer yet, signed it, and hopped into a boat to relax with our best friends. The deeply scary, uncomfortable, stressful thing we didn’t think we’d be able to handle had become . . . easy.
We went stand up paddleboarding lately, my wife’s first time. It’s a weird, tiring thing for your legs and feet at first. The goal was a relaxing adventure and it didn’t feel relaxing. After a bit she wasn’t sure it would ever get chill enough. Fast forward 45 minutes and we were cruising and laughing and chatting away. The uncomfortable thing had become . . . chill.
I felt like I was going to pass out when I gave my first impromptu speech in high school. It lasted about 20 seconds and consisted mostly of messing with my feet and chewing on my lip. It was brutal. This was not for me. Public speaking is outrageously uncomfortable to most people. Until you do it again and again and again. And then, for many, it sort of clicks. Sure, still some butterflies, but we’ve got this. Nowadays, I get a thrill when I have a chance to present in front of a group, and there’s no such thing as too unprepared. I’m 100% there for it. The terrifying thing has become . . . exciting.
Speaking of speaking, I joined a Toastmasters club years ago, looking for some like-minded people. And while speaking was exciting for me, the socializing was nerve-wracking. I was super anxious to make good impressions, and everyone there seemed so put together and intimidating. I felt like I could feel my blood pressure rise when I’d get there, after the hours of anticipation. It was a lot. Stressful, even if a sort of exciting kind. And then all the intimidating people became my good friends and I slowly became one of the long-time members welcoming shy new members. The lonely, anxious space had become . . . home.
A common theme I’ve found with all my co-workers is that we all have this idea that “those professionals,” the ones who have been doing it longer, are in those more advanced positions, must have some special knowledge and expertise and capabilities. Those positions seem scary, out of reach, like we couldn’t keep up with them. Until we take that next scary step and jump in the deep end. After each stressful promotion or transition our splashing about slowly turns to a smooth stroke, and suddenly we just are those cool people we didn’t think we could ever be. Again and again and again, the uncomfortable jobs had become . . . mundane.
Have you ever admitted some deep secret to someone? Shared something that you’re afraid will change how they feel about you? Maybe sometimes it does change how they think of you. In fact, probably most of the time it does. But how long does that change last? When I’ve found myself in that position with friends or family, I’m always surprised by how quickly people are able to adjust and accept. I’m still me. You’re still you. Those scary conversations we think will ruin it all, typically end up just growing the relationships deeper. The upsetting or confusing new side of you quickly becomes for them just . . . you.
Even Willoughby. My last few blog posts have been pretty messy about my Willoughby buddy I lost in April. And you don’t lose the sadness, but I don’t spend most hours of most days in deep sadness about it anymore.
Blogging is a good one, too. There have been some big blog or even social media risks I’ve taken. Scary, brave feeling ways I’ve put myself out there. Opening up about trauma or mental health. Speaking up on sensitive topics. Marketing myself and asking for attention. And each one of those uncomfortable steps I’ve taken that have felt like they’ll be too much, forever putting me in a new space of insecurity, has ended up being totally . . . okay.
Or even this pandemic. No, it’s not all okay now. Not at all. But there is a significant difference in how we function day-to-day as compared to the first month. Remember being super nervous and over-aware every time you left the house? How you’d catch yourself touching your face? Washing your hands and wiping stuff down? And how literally uncomfortable the masks were when you first had to wear them? How complicated the zoom meetings were? And now? It’s . . . normal. In a strange way. The fifth COVID-test feels much less monumental than the first one did. Sometimes you forget you’re wearing the mask until you’ve already made it home and inside. You’re a zoom pro now. And you just don’t think about COVID-19 every minute of every day anymore. The world outside doesn’t look or feel quite so eerily post-apocalyptic as it did at the beginning. The uncomfortable “new normals” became just that . . . normal.
What about you? Can you think of something in your life that went from extremely uncomfortable to comfortable? Scary to happy? Difficult to chill? Stressful to normal? Crisis-y to completely and utterly mundane?
Something you thought you’d never be able to handle? Something you thought would be permanently hard? And now it’s . . . not?
We are emotional creatures. And we learn discomforts way faster than we learn comforts. We are on the lookout for danger, and changes stresses us the hell out.
But, can we give ourselves these little reminders that the uncomfortable things will get more comfortable?
And quite possibly pretty quickly?
What could this awareness do for us?
Maybe it would give us the strength to do that big thing we’ve been putting off in fear? Knowing that the fear would subside? We could chase our dreams a little more?
Maybe it would give us the strength to keep going with those practices we know are healthy even when we hit a wall that feels like a crisis? Having the perspective that even though it feels like the world is ending, we can keep being us, because if we’re still going to be here, we still need to be ourselves? Like muscling my way through my yoga practice even though the capitol just got stormed because by summer that crazy new reality will have just settled into the actual reality I live in? And yoga would have helped along the way?
Maybe it would save us some hours of intense worry? The stress-feelings could start to just mean that we’re stretching and growing and on a new adventure?
Maybe it would help us connect and communicate genuinely. Speaking our uncomfortable truths, trusting that the more we speak them, the more they’ll feel like they belong?
Maybe it would mean we could be our truest selves through the stress times, the change times, good, bad, or neutral.
Do you remember going to the gym for the first time? Seeing all those fit runners and badass lifters doing their thing as if it’s no big deal. And you awkwardly put your stuff in the cubby and try to decide whether to keep your water bottle with you and glance around for a place to tie your shoes where you won’t be in anyone’s way? You wonder a lot what they think of you. You try the machine you’ve always seen used and you can feel the sympathetic grins burning through the back of your head. You see the trainers high five the members they already know so well and convince yourself that you’ll never be one of them.
And then, as happens when you immerse yourself in any community and stick around through the discomfort, you eventually find yourself at home. Or at least no longer on the edge of a panic attack.
The places and spaces and big life changes that we think are going to make life impossible and lead to permanent fear and stress and stomach upsets . . . we get used to them. They become okay. It just happens.
And that’s really quite hopeful.
We’re going to be okay.
You can do it.
It seems that almost everything we think will never get comfortable ends up getting comfortable–or at least routine. When we find ourselves thinking that something will permanently bother or upset us, it can help to be a little more down-to-earth and realize we’ll probably feel differently in a few days.
So what adventure or cause have you been desperately wishing you could pour yourself into, but keep finding yourself holding back, afraid it will be too scary?
Or what struggle or change or new reality are you currently going through that is keeping you up at night, leaving you afraid this peak stress is here to stay?
Can you remind yourself that you’ll grow into it?
That the scary will become routine or happy?
The uncomfortable will become comfortable?
The scary new you will soon be the strong new you?
What if you just gave yourself permission to go ahead and chase the thing from the bottom of your heart? Dive straight in, even though the butterflies do their thing in your tummy?
What if you just trusted the process?
What could you do?
What would you have?
Who will you be?
You are safe.
And don’t worry. Your body will discover that’s true. For today, ride the thrills.
Be you through the stress. You’ll stick around longer than it will.
Want a bravery buddy in life? I’ll come with. Throw your email below. :)
Waddling’s the word for the way Willoughby walked. Willoughwaddles.
He was an old man when we adopted him. But as slowly and arthritically as he moved 95% of the time, he was still ready for an occasional mad dash when we played hide and seek, or to stand his ground like the Rock of Gibraltar when he wasn’t done sniffing a tree trunk.
The first time I remember seeing Willoughby run was at a rest stop in Wisconsin. Lyssi was gone for a couple minutes, which was a couple minutes too long. When he saw her coming, he started walking, and as she got closer, and he became more sure, he took off bounding toward her and gave her a giant Willoughby hug.
There was something about that moment. You know how in the movies when two people love each other to death and see each other from a distance, there’s this Valentinesy moment where they pick up speed and run into each other’s arms? And you feel like “Ugh, I want that to happen to me.” Well that’s what dogs give us. That moment never went away.
If you read what I write, you may have gotten your fill of grief lately. Welcome to grief. This is, apparently, how it works. At some point, I’ll also write about other things. But not today. Grief has been on my mind, and I want to share with you some things I’ve learned in the last few months. I know you’re going to lose something or someone, too. Maybe already have. You’ll probably grieve many losses. And it’s just the worst. And there are a couple things that have been surprisingly helpful, so maybe they’ll help you.
For weeks and weeks after Willoughby died, I couldn’t stop playing this scene in my head: Somehow, somewhere, sometime I’d see Willoughby from across a distance. He’d see me, and he’d get that look in his eyes, and he’d start moving, and the waddles would turn into a run, and he’d land in my arms again, tail wagging, sneezes sneezing.
I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
And then a few different friends gave me cards with the story of the Rainbow Bridge. The beloved pets we have lost “all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent. His eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster. You have been spotted . . .”
It’s not real.
But it’s a story worth imagining.
And I’ve imagined it again and again and again. And I keep feeling “If only . . .”
When I think about seeing Willoughby again, hearing his old man bark, seeing him running and playing, it hurts a lot. Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I really cry. Each time feels a little different as grief winds its weird path and I feel the Willoughwaves come and go.
But it never doesn’t hurt to think about. So why keep thinking about it?
Like most of us, I always assumed that it would feel better not to think about the wonderful things we’ve lost. The things we were so attached to that the memory physically hurts. I remember my psychologist friend sharing that a lot of his clients who have lost loved ones say that they can’t let themselves start thinking about it, because if they start crying they’ll never stop. We believe grief will overwhelm and break us. That if we let it in, it will be too much. Permanent.
But it actually doesn’t work that way.
The first surprising grief lesson I’ll share was this weird thing that worked.
Pizza tasted good, but it didn’t really carry us through our feelings. Distractions delayed some tears, which honestly was really helpful, but then the distractions ended. The one activity that seemed to “work” in any healing way was watching videos of Willoughby.
I didn’t think I’d be able to handle pictures of Willoughby, let alone videos, but it turned out they were the exact medicine. Especially the videos. The videos gave me his sound. I got to watch him and listen to him and relive the memories and fully feel how badly I love him.
And then, strangely, it would feel . . . better . . . ?
Which is the opposite, I think, of what we expect. Grief knocks us down, so we think the best defense is to not let it knock us down, and we find ourselves worn out bracing against its power, “not listening, not listening.”
But when we finally do listen, look, feel . . . it sort of moves through us. It does its thing.
Emotions are made to be felt, not fought. Well before Willoughby died, I gave a blog post the title Letting the waves do their thing. I described how surfing is used as an analogy for life–when the waves come, we learn to ride the waves. But not just that. We often forget that surfers don’t just ride the waves, they also wipe out, because from time to time a wave comes that is too big, and it pulls them under into a current that is too strong, and surfers have to learn a life-saving lesson: You can’t fight the water. When it pulls you under, you have to swim with it, or at least not against it. If you try to fight it, you will drown. And I think life is the same way. The waves are surfable, but at some point they’re going to knock you down and pull you under, and those giant emotions are too strong to fight. Too strong to deny. Too strong to say things like “well at least” or “it’s okay because.” Too strong to look the other way and distract ourselves. So when we try to fight them, we lose. They just get bigger and bigger and become more and more deeply entrenched. And one day our dams will break.
The strange thing that my psychologist friend gets to share with his clients who are afraid to let the tears start is that when we actually get open and honest and familiar and accepting with the tears, the emotions move through us. Emotions, when allowed, do their thing and then . . . let up. The current is strong, but if you go with it, it will let you back up for air.
Emotions, when blocked, exhaust us and grow bigger. Emotions, when accepted, fulfill their purpose and then recede.
And sure enough, when I put on that SYML song that brings me back to the drive to say one last goodbye, or when I tell a friend who is brave and thoughtful enough to ask all about him, or when I watch the videos of Willoughby being Willoughby–the tears come. And then they go. And it . . . helps.
So that’s thing one: Watch the videos, let the memories in, feel the feels. Deep. It hurts deep, but it heals deep.
And it keeps working that way, 4 months later. The longer I try to just put those thoughts and memories away when they creep up, the more ominous and yucky it feels. And when I finally just go, “Okay, time to hear the Willoughby playlist again,” it heals. It’s better.
At least for me. So maybe for you?
Why is it better for me to feel it all the way and let the grief grieve? I think maybe because Willoughby’s not actually gone from my heart. So trying to deny his visits to my heart hurts worse than just remembering the love and feeling him again.
Nora McInerny has a lot to say about this, and the day we let Willoughby go I listened again to her Ted Talk on grief, because I needed to remember that it is okay not to move on from Willoughby. I’m attaching her Ted Talk at the bottom of this post, because I hope, hope, hope you’ll watch it. It has been the perfect guide for me.
Thing two that seems to have really helped is this weird, masochistic-sounding experiment I did through the whole process.
Loss can change people. There’s something I’ve heard about the likelihood of couples who lose children breaking up. It’s just hard to survive deep losses. It’s hard to be healthy about them. It’s hard not to just throw shit at the walls and scream. It’s hard not to blame. It’s hard not to clam up. It’s hard. It’s all hard.
In his life-changing book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk explores the origins of trauma. It’s fascinating. I promise this is way over-simplified, but: One of the reasons trauma is so traumatic is that it is too much to show up for, too much to process in our brains. Too terrifying to look closely. Like the shadow in the closet. We hide under our blanket instead of investigating, so we spend the rest of our lives under our blanket instead of seeing that the shadow has come and gone.
In Off Camera with Sam Jones, Matt Damon describes the true-to-life flavor they gave a scene in the movie Contagion. Near the beginning of the movie, a doctor tells Damon’s character that his wife has died. “Right. . . . can I go talk to her?” In researching how this would play, they learned from doctors that they’re trained to use very specific language. They don’t say soft things like “didn’t make it,” they get real brutally direct: “Their heart stopped and they did die.” Apparently the word “did” gives it some extra force. They do this because that truth is so hard for people to hear that we literally won’t hear it. Won’t understand it. Won’t accept it.
It’s easier to not look at the worst stuff. To block it out. To stuff it down. To turn our feelings off. To lie to ourselves and say “I’m fine.” To pretend the trauma’s not really there. To not look at it. To not touch it.
Because some things are too scary. Too awful.
But then, when we deny it, when we stay in the denial stage or the bargaining stage, it roots deeply in our core as trauma. Something we couldn’t bear to show up for, something that’s too big a monster hiding in the closet. So we live the rest of our lives in its shadow. Avoiding triggers. Emotionally shut down. Carefully blocking the experience.
So what would happen with that experience if instead of shutting down during it we opened all the way up to it?
My experiment was to stay outrageously present for Willoughby’s death. No denying. No pretending. No blocking. No looking away. No trying to get away. No shutting out or shutting down. Just all the way present.
What did I feel? What did I hear? What did I smell? What did I see? And what–exactly what–was happening in my heart? And could I sit with it? Sit in it?
My heart was saying “I’m not ready for this! I can’t let you go, Willoughby.” I’ve never cried that hard and may never again. I felt the cold rain sprinkling on my skin. I heard the cars drive by as we stood in the alley behind the vet clinic. I heard Willoughby’s silence. Too tired. I smelled Willoughby as I leaned down to kiss his forehead. Again. And again. I felt Lyssi’s shoulders as we held onto each other. I heard my calming voice telling, promising Willoughby we weren’t going anywhere and telling him he’d been such a good boy. I saw Willoughby’s head peeking out from under the covers. I watched his eyes move. I noticed how completely normal but still tender this moment felt to the nurse who came out when we said we were ready. I listened to her explain what happens. And then I watched Willoughby’s eyes get really big all of a sudden. Like something was happening. And then he got sleepy and peaceful. We said silly things like “Thank you” to the nurse and walked back to the car. We sat in it and held each other and cried. Together. For a long time.
Lyssi and I agreed to be really present with each other for the grief. To accept it, to let each other show all the yucky pain, to be all the way emotionally available and emotionally together about it, no matter how awful.
It would have been easier to be a trooper. To keep my chin up. To “be strong.” It would have been easier to “can’t think about it right now,” or to get back to work, or to take care of things and do stuff. It was definitely harder to be consciously, carefully present. In the moment.
And I don’t think I can describe how much it has helped. It was a moment full of love that I will never ever get back. And if I hadn’t said the things and given him the kisses, I wouldn’t have that memory. If I hadn’t soaked it all in, it would be gone, and I wouldn’t be able to get it back.
And it would be big. A big shadow. That trauma thing.
Have you ever had an anxiety attack? Most of the time, we humans make it through pretty dreadful things. But anxiety is about feeling there’s a too-big thing looming around the corner. One you won’t make it through. And an anxiety attack happens when your body gets too overwhelmed with that undefinable, vague shadow, and begins to panic. So how do you calm an anxiety attack? By returning to the senses. What do you see? What can you touch? What do you hear? What do you smell? What can you taste? Because no matter how awful, usually, when we can return to our senses, we’re able to be there.
I think that happens with grief, too. With loss. It’s pretty gut-wrenchingly awful. And we can run away from the shadow, let the trauma hunt us in a game of hide-and-seek that will never end. Or we can show all the way up for it.
This pain, this loss, has stayed with me in a different way than others have in the past. And I do think it has some to do with how present we stayed for it. No denial. No soldiering on. No turning off feelings.
He was really dying. And we were really there for it. And we will always have that moment. We understood it. No matter how painful, we understood it and got to show up with agency and love in that moment while he crossed that bridge.
I’ve just seen so many people shut down to survive loss, but it always turns out they didn’t survive it. They just hit pause. The loss is still waiting. So maybe they’ll just stay paused. Forever. While the shadow grows bigger, and their heart grows emptier.
Being intentionally present with Willoughby’s death was so hard and so sad. But I think it helped. A lot. I think it saved some trauma. I think it saved some regret. I think it saved some dysfunction. Some struggle. I think it meant I get to look back with tears and love at our goodbye, instead of panicking and running away from the thought for the rest of my life.
I don’t know if either of these will help you.
Deciding to show up in love and presence for the saddest times;
And letting the waves of grief do their thing, healing you as they go.
But they’ve helped me immensely.
So when the waves knock you down and pull you under–and they will–maybe try showing all the way up and feeling the feels.
The Willoughwaves keep coming, for me, but as long as I don’t fight them, they seem to be serving a purpose.
Do you show up for your grief?
P.S. Thanks to Nora McInerny for maybe the most helpful 15 minutes I’ve ever found:
It seems we’re both figuring this whole life thing out as we go. Can I send you updates when I figure more of it out? Wishing you the best!
Sights, sounds, smells, and all those senses enter the brain through something called the thalamus.
The thalamus passes this mix of sensations in two directions: The amygdala and the frontal cortex.
The amygdala keeps you alive by freaking out about stuff. It quickly checks with the hippocampus to see if the new information might remind us of any yucky stuff that’s happened to us in the past. And if it feels any threat, it goes “Okay, it’s time to stay alive!” And it bombards you with stress chemicals and makes you do things like fight or fly or freeze.
The frontal cortex, on the other hand, thinks a bit more critically. Like “Um that’s just a shadow” or “Not all bosses are as evil as your old boss” or “No stress, zombies aren’t real” or “Actually not everybody who calls your name from another room is about to beat you.” And so it helps you not try to hit everybody or run screaming from the room.
And here’s the fun thing.
The information travels from the thalamus to the amygdala more quickly than to the frontal cortex.
In other words: “Not responding emotionally” is literally impossible.
Your brain is wired to save you from lions and to feel suddenly hurt by your partner when they didn’t mean anything. You literally can’t help freaking out sometimes about things you don’t need to freak out about, especially when it looks or feels or sounds a little bit like something that has hurt you before.
This doesn’t mean you can’t practice and get sort of good at slowing your reactivity so that your frontal cortex has a chance to be like “Um you don’t need to punch them in the face.”
But it does mean that you’re not a bad or defective person just because you get emotional or scared or react sometimes in ways you wish you wouldn’t.
Especially when it’s stuff that brings up your deepest scars.
Your amygdala is just trying to save your life.
Deep breaths, count to 3, trust the process, your frontal cortex can help you sort it out.
That being said, for some of us these pathways have been screwed up by especially rough experiences. If you feel like you’re always, always being hijacked by overreacty feelings, don’t blame yourself–maybe you’ve just had to work too hard to keep yourself safe in life. It’s not fair, but don’t give up hope. There are some PTSD therapies that can really help to rewire this.
But in general, I think it can really help to understand about ourselves: None of us are “calm, cool, and collected” the instant something happens. Your amygdala will always show up before your frontal cortex. Which means working on nurturing a baseline of safety and taking deep breaths and counting to 3 are all a much better and fairer use of your energy than calling yourself stupid or sensitive or irrational.
You’re just good at staying alive, and sometimes it makes life weird.
That’s just human.
For a so-much-deeper-life-changingly-eye-opening exploration of this and other humany topics, read The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.
Good luck with your amygdala. <3
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