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:
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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!
It’s like seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time. You look over the edge, and it goes . . . down . . . and down . . . and it just keeps going. You try to follow it across to the other side, and there is just too much. It’s . . . indescribably BIG.
I always thought I was a good writer. I even put “written communication” on my resume. Lately I’ve looked back at hastily typed work emails and notice a missing “s” here and a confusing sentence there. Maybe the concussion got to me. Or maybe my writing has just never been impeccable. Maybe I’m human, which is obnoxious.
Actually, I’ve noticed it in some good books lately, too. It seems like in each one–talking bestsellers–there are at least one or two sentences where I go “ooooh they missed that one!”
So what’s abundantly clear is that being “good writers” or “good communicators” has little to do with ridding ourselves of flaws.
After all, if I picked apart your grammar, you’d probably stop listening to me. I know I would.
So what makes good writing? Or effective communicating?
Do you know how long 4500 words is? Google tells me a typical nonfiction book runs 50,000-75,000. On February 28 last year I sat down at my laptop and started typing. The words flowed–after all, abuse is a topic that can flow like Niagara Falls. In about 3 hours I wrote 4500 words. Which means that, in theory, if I wrote a book (at least one that I felt as passionate about), I could knock it out in 40 hours. (Doubt it.)
I’m not saying I’m a great writer. I’m saying I’ve had great writing days.
In April, Willoughby died.
I could sense it coming, so in the weeks leading up, the writing slowed down. The flow dried up. Then it happened, and like a mother-******* trooper, I lied to myself and wrote another blog post . . . this one was about how brains work, and it wasn’t a bad post (!!!), but it was not real for me that weekend. I didn’t mean it. It didn’t matter.
Then I stopped. My 5-posts-a-month goal kept going “hey, I’m still here,” but I had nothing to offer for it. Nothing honest.
I finally did write one more, about Willoughby. This one I did mean. All the way. And then I stopped again.
I guess what I’m saying is that being good at something or passionate about something or committed to something is actually a fairly complicated concept. Not concept, journey. Maybe because you and I are complicated.
Last Saturday someone asked me if I am an all-or-nothing type person. Like, do I have to either do something all-the-way to-the-max or not at all?
Yes. Yes, definitely yes. Yes. Yes. Yes, that is me. Yes.
Which I think makes me a bad writer, in a sense, because sometimes it makes me not-a-writer.
And the question was a good reminder that we’re allowed to be imperfect at stuff.
Neil Gaiman, I think in a Tim Ferriss podcast episode, made the fascinating point for writers that the only thing that can’t be fixed is a blank page.
Life has a way, sometimes, of just throwing you to the ground and beating the shit out of you.
Strangely, those experiences tend to be what make us “good” communicators. Or shut us up completely.
In the last few months, I keep sitting down to write. I keep finding myself at Starbucks, clicking around on WordPress and pretending to customize my site for a while and then finally clicking “Add new post” a bunch of times, and then clicking more “Backspace” than anything else, and then going home with nothing to show.
And it’s not because there’s nothing to say.
It’s because there’s too much.
Like the Grand Canyon.
When I was maybe 16 I walked up to its edge the first time and to this day I still can’t find the words. Indescribable immensity. Too much. Too big. Unfathomable. Uncontainable.
And that’s a bit how I feel these days. It’s not that there’s not much to say in life, it’s that “5-ways-to” lists and little motivation-shots just aren’t cutting it because there’s too. damn. much.
But. (Deep breath.) There’s always going to be too much and I’d be in a world of trouble if you and all the other people got so overwhelmed that you, also, shut your mouths and stopped showing up.
What to say about 2020. Which, can we keep calling 2021 2020? May as well. How about this: What. The. Hell. There’s too much. There’s too much. Turns out there’s always been too much. And where to start!?
There’s this amazing moment in Peacock’s new sitcom Rutherford Falls. The guy who’s always been in charge, on top, big-headed, gets sort of thrown to the ground by life in general, and he calls his friend: “There’s something I have to tell you. . . . I don’t get it.” “You don’t get what?” “It. You know . . . all of it. Any of it. Anything. I don’t get it. I thought I got it, for so long in my life, I thought I was one of the people who get it and . . . I don’t get it.”
And that has become my life’s motto.
I’d love to say I know what we “should” do with all the absolute garbage of the last year and a half or, apparently, several millennia. (Also, don’t get me wrong, they’ve been astoundingly good, too. Just, also so much bad.) I’d love to say I know the solutions for humanity, that people should listen to and trust me to be one of the “adults” (haha) in the room, but turns out . . . . . . I don’t get it.
In fact, the more I learn, the more I realize how little I really comprehend.
And all those The-5-secret-ways-to-absolutely-for-sure-get-what-you-want don’t feel true anymore. “I used to get it. But now I don’t.” Now I’m just trying to not do too much damage and trying to shine a little light in a corner and maybe get some on a few other people.
The big question for me now is turning out to be: Am I allowed to keep writing even though I don’t get it? Even though I’m an all-or-nothing person who just gave the f*** up and laid on the couch after my best buddy died? Even though every time I sit down to write, the only words that flow are vague, cynical rantings?
Last February I felt thiiiis passionate about something, and the 4500 words just effortlessly happened, like they were trying to break free. Now, I feel THIIIIIIIIIIIIIS passionate about EVERYTHING (and almost as confused), and I find that it’s all TOO much. Too big. I can’t do it justice. Starbucks will close in a few hours and by then you will have lost interest in my bitter ramblings. So. . . . what to do. . . .
I’d like to stop writing. I’d like to stop sharing. I’d like to stop pretending like I’m someone people should listen to, someone people could learn from, someone with something to offer. I’d like to admit that life won and I lost and that’s because I’m a loser. I’d like to not let anyone see me anymore. To disappear from social media, for sure, because it is basically lies. To never pipe up when people are talking about big life stuff, because “for so long in my life, I thought I was one of the people who get it and . . . I don’t get it,” and that feels embarrassing and so frustrating and pretty imposter-y.
Viktor Frankl wrote a book titled Man’s Search for Meaning. Which is a pretty intimidating title to write for. But he did it, and it has sold over 16 million copies. And do you know what happened to Viktor Frankl before he wrote it? He was imprisoned and abused in Nazi death camps where he barely survived and watched friend after friend die. Yeah. Not that losing Willoughby isn’t sad, but it’s sort of in a different category.
Siddhartha Gautama was a little luckier–at least to begin with. He was a rich kid, but apparently one with a tender heart. From his easy lifestyle, he looked out at a world full of people struggling and suffering and he decided to jump in the deep end, join the struggle, and learn what he could to help people. Instead of letting the world of suffering shut him down, turning away from the yuck, he opened his heart wide around it and met people in the real, icky, confusing world. And now they call him The Buddha. He showed up.
A psychologist friend, one of the most influential people in my life, has helped hundreds of people–couples, especially–with absolutely life-changing communication and relational concepts. He’s given me so much. He has a PhD in counseling psychology which probably means he’s one of the people who gets it. Right? But if you attend one of his seminars and listen to him tell his story, you’ll find that it’s a story of being completely lost and alone and confused as a child in a world that loudly told him he didn’t fit. The easy way for him would have been to disappear. To say “life beat me” and move on. Stop showing up. Certainly not help hundreds of people with their own struggles. But he didn’t. He helps people, even though vulnerably showing up for the world can be so tough. He said something that sticks with me: “People connect at the level of their struggles.”
I’m not going to have a world religion based around me. I’ll be plenty pumped if I just get to publish one book eventually–that would be cool. So not looking to be as influential as the Buddha, but I see three options in my future.
First I’m going to say what is not an option: Going back to the simple, “I’ve-got-this-all-figured-out” worldview. The one with easy answers and lots of judgments. I can’t go back because . . . I’ve seen too much of life. Maybe you have, too. We’re living through a worldwide pandemic after all. Among other things. When the evils of slavery were exposed for Great Britain to see, William Wilberforce said, “You may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know.” In his depressing (but fair) (and also not totally depressing) book Escape from Freedom, the psychologist Erich Fromm describes the process by which our minds, indoctrinated into a simple worldview handed to us in our youths, eventually find freedom. We see too much. We see the world for what it is. Not simple. Not black-and-white. Not all sunshine and rainbows. And this freedom from our simplistic rose-colored outlook on life is so terrifying that we then try to escape. Frequently, we even try to go back. Back to our cult, back to our abusers, back to our lifestyles, back to our old friends. But we can never truly go back. We know too much now.
What do you know “too much” about after this last year?
My friend–a nurse–has watched first-hand as precious human after precious human dies, while all he can do is be there with them as a virus does its nasty business. A virus that we’re doing lots of fighting over and writing parody songs about and trying to ignore. He’s seen too much. He can never go back to who he was before this year.
A lot of us (like me) grew up in conservative homes that proudly claimed racism was a thing of the past and did a whole lot of sweeping ugly stories and statistics under the rug. Many of us have learned in the last year just how awful and just how recent and just how ongoing racism and its brutal impacts are in America. And oh man how nice it would be to go back to being blissfully ignorant. “Not my problem” if it’s not really there. But the thing is, we’ve learned just how much yes, it is a problem and it’s our problem and we can’t just wipe it off and go back about life.
On the phone the other day, a dear friend asked me how I’ve been, and my answer went something like this: “Have you ever felt like you’re actually really grateful for all the abuse and hurt and struggle you went through when you were young, because it gave you so much perspective and compassion and now you can help people? Like you wouldn’t take any of it back, because it’s made you who you are?” “Yes!” “Okay, well that’s how I’ve always felt. But not anymore. There’s nothing romantic about it anymore. There’s nothing silver-liningy about it. Life after trauma just absolutely 100% sucks. If I could take it all back and grow up in a healthy family and a functional environment, I absolutely would, because then maybe I could go a day without struggling with the most basic life stuff because of trauma’s effects, and I’m so damn tired of it.”
What’s your wish-you-could-take-it-back thing? What have you tried hard not to face, not to come to terms with? Or to be too silver-liningy about? What life stuff have you tried to Denial away?
Maybe one day I’ll write down my whole story–or maybe I’ll get you to say yours? But for today I’ll just say: My childhood sucked. It was awful. It was just brutal. Awful awful awful. I’ve got the literal scars to prove it. And then I escaped. I moved up to Minnesota to spend life in a safe place with my best friend. She refused (but nicely) to marry me until I got therapy. So I got happy. I tricked her into thinking I was all better and we got married. I delivered a speech a number of times called “Life is beautiful,” and I still think it was a good speech, but it was also a 22-year-old-Peter speech, and 22-year-old-Peter had decided that life was about finding happiness and that anybody could and you just had to choose where to look. He recognized, for sure, that life is scary. In fact, he talked about feeling such darkness that sometimes suicide felt like the right option. So what “saved” him? Discovering that, no matter how bad it all got, how scary, how hurtful–that if you glance to the side you’ll find something beautiful. “It’s the little things.” It’s all the experiences, all the adventure. And that beauty is worth holding onto. . . . which seems like a privileged take on life when I imagine Viktor Frankl watching his friends die in Nazi death camps. But it worked at the time–I happy’d myself out of the darkness and found the meaning of life: Just be happy. (“Just” makes it sound easy, right?) So that became my motto. My identity, really. If someone asked me about me the first word that came out was “happy” and it came out in a 72-point Comic Sans font with exclamation points.
I decided that life couldn’t be about all the struggle, because I couldn’t handle that.
And then the next 8 years soundly showed me that you can’t happy away the struggle. Life is still life, no matter the blinders you try to put up, and once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it.
So after this year and a half of crisis (which, by the way–our bodies are only meant to handle crises like getting chased for a minute by something with a loud roar but shitty stamina. 18 months is too damn long), you and I are probably tempted to do a lot of denial, to put blinders back up, to “go back to normal,” to pretend like we’re okay, to “choose happiness.” And then we may be discovering that we sort of can’t unsee. Life’s just doesn’t look the same after local curfews and ubiquitous military humvees have lost their novelty, and after watching in horror as the “patriotic ones” literally stormed the Capitol. And we can’t even really have a mask-burning party because turns out we’re still going to need them for a while and there’s enough smoke in the air already from the wildfires, which is also losing its novelty, as if we needed more stuff.
So that’s what I can’t do. I can’t just play Legos. I can’t just read novels. I can’t just make jokes. Those are all still good, and I may or may not have a 2379-picture album in my Galaxy gallery to prove that jokes still mean a lot to me. But I can’t just. I also can’t just write simple self-help about 5-ways-to-be-successful-at-a-job-that-you-very-well-may-not-have-if-you-had-been-born-a-different-socioeconomic-status-or-skin-color. And I can’t just post on Instagram about how happy I always am, because “always” is a lie. I can’t do the positivity thing. (Which is not the same as saying I can’t shine some real light or sometimes be positive.) I can’t write cookie-cutter blog posts with cute hooks and cute analogies and cute calls to action. And I can’t do small-talk (but I never really could).
Everything I ever write or say will be in the context of the 18 years of abuse I experienced in an unhealthy home and then the awful saga of two concussions that changed my life and then learning all about anxiety and then living through a worldwide pandemic and then staying up till 3am watching live-feeds of the Twin Cities burning and brave troops trying to protect while brave protestors also tried to protect and then finally experiencing what everyone kept talking about where you lose someone close to you and then also just generally learning to be a human after trauma. (If all this feels familiar to you, hi.)
Everything I write from now on will be in that context, though I know I’ll still write some about cheese, so that context doesn’t mean that life has lost all hope.
So what are my three options then, if I can’t lose the context? If I can’t pretend like life isn’t as too-big as the Grand Canyon?
I could be defeated and stop writing at all, stop speaking up, stop showing up, stop trying to help anybody. Ugh that one is tempting. Home feels real damn safe today, and no judgment to you if that’s where you’ve permanently washed ashore.
Or I could try so hard to write about absolutely aalllll the overflowing stuff that the page stays blank, no matter how many Starbucks Venti Salted Caramel Cream Cold Brews I blow through.
Or I could remember that all-or-nothing isn’t the only option. And I could do the unromantic work of saying “Okay, as a writer, what can I share that would help someone?” and letting myself just give my weird best to it, even when it doesn’t feel like enough.
I think I’m going to have to go with the third option.
I’d love to stop showing up. I’d love to admit that I’m deeply flawed (evne my writing) and say “the world doesn’t need my voice anymore.” But then I think after a while I wouldn’t love it anymore. Humans need humans. Isolation didn’t feel good, remember? I could probably fairly comfortably just socially-retire to a life of paychecks and wine-and-cheese and not talk to anybody anymore about mental health or poverty or abuse or kindness. (Remember, that’s the lifestyle the Buddha was born into?) But then I think about how much I’ve benefited from the brave souls who didn’t choose to retire from community–Viktor Frankl, the Buddha, my psychologist friend–and that list would never end. How much I’ve needed people to show up.
I’d love to write every damn thing, but as 125-words-per-minute as I can possibly type, I can’t write everything, and the Grand Canyon of life stuff is too endlessly massive. And I know that if I keep opening WordPress with the goal of finally writing “the right thing,” “the worthwhile thing,” “the big thing,” I’ll keep clicking “Save draft” and going back home. And then I think of all the people who have also been so overwhelmed by life, but still chose to show up incrementally with their imperfect, flawed, humble, half-baked words that have guided the rest of us through life.
A note about our imperfect, as-good-as-we-can-for now offerings: I just finished reading Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. (By the way, you should read it. It is pretty . . . eye-opening. And pretty distasteful. And incredibly worth your time and attention.) One common pattern that stood out to me among anti-racist thinkers through history was how much their own perspectives shifted through their lives–from Martin Luther King, Jr. to W.E.B. Du Bois. In other words, they could look back and say “I think I got XYZ a little wrong” (frequently it was about discovering the longer they lived that the gentle, don’t-hurt-people’s-feelings methods of fighting racism tended to be less effective than they’d hoped). But their intellectual evolutions didn’t cancel the powerful good they had done before their views morphed. Similarly (on a much tinier scale), I can look back at my “Life is beautiful” speech and realize that it clearly helped at least as many people as I saw crying by the end of it, even though if I rewrote it now it would be pretty different. Imperfect today doesn’t mean useless.
Which brings me back to that third option: I can’t stop showing up to help you, because I know I wouldn’t survive without you showing up to help me. And I can’t wait to help you until I “get it” enough to write all the perfect solutions, confident that I’m never misguidedly misguiding anybody. Which means I’m going to have to do that middle one: Show up as best I can today, which is to say, perfectly imperfect like a human. Like you. Like every other human voice that has helped humans through human history.
So I’ll keep writing, even though all my words will never end child abuse across the world, and will never totally destigmatize mental health struggles, and will never give you the perfect recipe for vulnerably showing up in healthy relationships. I’ll just have to give you the little pieces I’ve got for now–my best educated guesses for today. And I promise to keep offering these, because I’ve been saved and carried and inspired by the best guesses offered by a bunch of other overwhelmed humans.
We’re a strange, stressed out species that keeps getting the answers wrong. But where would you be without that imperfect podcast that made you feel less alone, that imperfect text that made you feel understood, that imperfect news report that gave you a little hope, or that imperfect hug that was actually perfect?
We survive and thrive on each other’s imperfect help.
Grief has been loudly insisting to me in the last few months (actually, the last 29 years minus a couple denial-level happy-go-lucky ones in the middle there) that I’m too broken and imperfect and misguided for my voice to help you.
I bet you’ve had some similar feels this last year or so. That there’s nothing you can do. That it’s all too much. That you’re too burnt out now, too bitter, too over it all. That you should just turn your light off now.
I love pink. It feels happy. When I walked into Starbucks today in my pink shirt, the human behind the counter (with a big history I don’t know and probably lots of sad reasons not to be kind) beamed at me and said “I like your shirt,” and it made me smile from deep down inside my heart. It made me feel good. It made me feel confident. It was like a little shot of life-and-meaning-and-love fuel.
Last year, feeling overwhelmed by and guilty for all the suffering all around the world, I asked an imperfect friend to talk to me about it. He gave some imperfect insights that he had gleaned from an imperfect life. And his imperfect best guesses gave me a hope that keeps me going to this day.
Speaking of 4500 words, we’re only 500 away, and you’re still reading. Why have you read all this? Well first of all, I’ve somehow tricked you into paying attention to my pent up ramblings, so thanks for that. But really–why are we doing this?
If you’re anything like me, life has gotten pretty big in the last year or so. Too big. Personal life, local life, worldwide life. There’s a lot. It’s a lot to show up for.
I’m betting that you’re feeling pretty disenchanted.
That the world is feeling hard to show up for.
That smiles are a little harder to offer.
That you don’t think anyone will listen to you anyway.
That you’ve had so much eye-opening happen that you’re a little embarrassed and unsure of yourself.
That you don’t think the world needs your voice anymore. Your help.
But that person who took my order today offered me this little spark of joy that gave me a real boost.
And that friend I went to last year who had been taking his own blows gave me his best words to ponder and it changed my life.
You know something–even if you only know it vaguely or have a bit of it wrong–you know something, you have something that holds some hope for another struggling human next door to you.
You have some lessons, some messages, some dreams, some hugs, some art, some activism, some advice, some words inside of you that, no matter how small you’re feeling, will make the world a little bit of a better place.
That friend explained to me that I can’t help the whole world and if I try I will burn out and help absolutely no one. He said that I’ll be lucky if I can really deeply help 7 or 8 people in my lifetime–like make a huge difference for them. But those 7 or 8 people can help 7 or 8 others. Who can help 7 or 8 others. And pretty soon the help is multiplying.
But not if you and I give up.
If we let the overwhelm make us too angry to speak or too hopeless to speak, then we’ll be alone and everyone else will be alone.
So if I keep writing bits and pieces that may help a few people–will you keep shining your light?
It’s not perfect. It’s not the answer. And I know you don’t totally “get it.” But that little text, that little Facebook post, that little hug, that little encouragement, that little story, that little perspective–somebody needs it, just like you need it from somebody.
If I keep showing up, will you?
And will you really show up?
I love you, but I’m honestly not super interested in your 5-ways-to-look-happy-on-social-media. I want the real you. I need the real you. We need the real you.
Will you show up for your people tomorrow? The real you, the vulnerable you, the you that understands people, the you with an ear to listen, the you with a kind word, the you with a life-story that will make another human feel less alone and give a little hope, and maybe even a helpful idea or two?
There are a million reasons not to use your voice for good in this world, not to use your voice for love and light.
But there are about 7.9 billion reasons to come out of isolation and offer to help us other humans in whatever imperfect ways you can.
We need your message.
We need your encouragement.
We need your kindness.
We need your story.
We need you.
4648. Maybe I’m still a writer after all.
Some imperfect help for each other? I’ll write for you. <3