So much of every day we do what we do and we don’t what we don’t because of a “supposed to” feeling. Many of these arbitrary standards, none of us even like anymore, but we don’t dare color outside the lines about them.
Most of us don’t dance when we want to dance. Most people don’t even want to dance when our bodies are happy or emotional. Because you don’t. You just don’t. You’re supposed to save dancing for where it belongs and then be one of those enviable people who can switch it on.
Most of us answer “pretty good, thanks” when we for sure aren’t pretty good, thanks, because this is just what you do. Because letting your lip quiver and eyes go misty is strange and uncomfortable and friendship is not what friends are for.
Most of us wear the clothes we’re supposed to wear, order the drink we’re supposed to like, keep the job we’re supposed to have, say the things we’re supposed to say, stay alone like we’re supposed to stay alone.
If rewards and punishments and hierarchies and shame and norms and rules and expectations all disappeared, would you sing more? Would you hug more? Would you enjoy your food more? Would you jump in a lake with your clothes on more or at least lay on a beach more? Would you share more and ask more? Would you slow down more and put your phone away and actually rub your dog’s belly for more hours? Would you ask for what you truly want more? Would you laugh more? Would you maybe even do that 6-year-old thing again where you say “Hey, can we be friends?” and suddenly find that the human life isn’t quite so lonely without all the shame?
What if doing what you’re supposed to do and don’ting what you’re supposed to don’t is suffocating you? What if humans aren’t supposed to robot?
When do we get to meet shameless you?
Photo by Lyssi
Want some more reminders for your awkwardly shamelessly human journey?
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!