Hello again friends, happy new year to you! Have you made any resolutions this year? Maybe set some 2022 goals?
And not because I think resolutions are bad. I don’t think they’re bad, I don’t think I’m better than you for not falling for them, and I bet I’ll make some again one day.
But not this year.
I think it’s because I’m in a very specific season of learning–can I share it with you?
I subtly shifted toward the window so my next-seat-neighbor couldn’t see my face on the flight home from Indiana. I didn’t want them to see the tears rolling down my cheeks every few pages as I read the little book Siddhartha. And they looked young, so I also wanted to hide the more adult pages, where Siddhartha’s lover teaches him “the game of love . . . one of the thirty or forty different games [she] knew,” like the one “which the textbooks call ‘climbing a tree.'” So yes, colorful book all around.
Exactly 100 years ago, a German-Swiss poet and painter authored the book Siddhartha. A story about a student of the Buddha. And not just a student of the Buddha, a student of life. Of business, of romance, of philosophy, of pleasure, of high society, of travel and exploration. In fact, Siddhartha’s study with the Buddha didn’t last that long. Can you imagine? Sitting and listening to the Buddha and eventually saying, “sorry, I love what you’re saying, it’s just lacking a little something for me.”
Siddhartha wanted life to make sense. He wanted to understand, to get it, to have meaning, to feel purpose–to be fulfilled as a human.
So he searched.
He tried living with the Buddha. He took what worked for him and moved along to find more. He apprenticed with Kamaswami, a wealthy business owner, and became a massively successful financier. It wasn’t quite right. He traveled, explored, adventured. Still, there must be more. He met a woman named Kamala who opened him up to a world of passion, sex, romance. Even this wasn’t enough.
How many new strategies, practices, schedules, goals, and habits have you tried over the years, so that life can feel . . . right?
And how tired are you?
And again I’m wondering–which new way are you trying this year?
“It’s sort of a blessing–a gift–that life is so short.” My friend introduced this counterintuitive concept to me sitting in a coffee shop–the same coffee shop he keeps returning to for connection as year after year of life journals itself along.
I had just shared with him a roller coaster overview of some personal searching the last few years has held for me. A family wedding where I paid a visit to my old trauma stomping grounds. The cracks started forming, pressure building. Then a hike in the Rockies with a hat on–I never wear hats, so I’m not used to the brim blocking my peripheral of what’s above–lunging upward over a rock into a giant, unforgiving tree branch. A crack, blackness, stars, awake again, on the ground now, “F***!!!”, annoyed glances from parents of small children, looking around in a daze, one shoulder a little lower than the other, whiplash, dizzy, fuzzy, head throbbing. A concussion that just got nastier as the days passed. Powerfully knocking all the anxiety loose. The cracks widening, the dam bursting. Everything I’d internalized that had kept me “safe” in my quarter century on this planet suddenly falling apart. Therapy, more therapy, lots of therapy. Journaling. Denying. Realizing. Seething. Accepting. More therapy. Hoping to figure it all out and end up “all better” someday.
“Because we don’t have time to work on everything.”
My friend explained: “We feel this pressure to measure up, to be good enough, to make it all the way to our ideal version of acceptable or of healthy or of right or of whatever other way we think we’re supposed to be. Some arbitrary bar that we set for ourselves, or that was set for us. We keep trying and working and struggling to measure up. But eventually it becomes clear that life is too short–that there’s way more stuff than we’ll be able to work through–and that maybe we don’t have to figure it all out. Maybe we can’t. Maybe we’re not supposed to.”
What are you determined to figure all the way out this year? To beat this year? Achieve this year? Discover this year? Perfect this year?
And if you don’t reach that bar . . . is that okay? Are you enough? Is your now-life worth it anyway?
Do you watch The Office?
(It’s funny when a TV show becomes so legendary that it’s no longer “have you watched,“ but “do you watch?”)
If you’re an Office person, I know for sure three times you cried about it. Jim and Pam at Niagara, Michael saying goodbye at the airport, and the entire Finale episode.
In the Finale, goofy old Andy Bernard says something just outrageously profound that sums up the point of the whole show–a show full of different characters casting about in countless directions for meaning and growth and purpose and fulfillment. “I wish there was a way to know you were in the good old days before you actually left them.”
When Siddhartha embarked on his journey of self discovery, he was ferried across a river by an old man. After a long life of searching, Siddhartha again comes to the river, and finds the same old man–still radiating the same peace Siddhartha had seen in his eyes years before. Vasudeva, the ferryman, leads a simple life transporting travelers back and forth across the river. Having tried every different way in life, still feeling like he’s missing the point, Siddhartha decides to stay with Vasudeva–learn from him, see if he can find the peace and contentment the old man has found.
Vasudeva doesn’t have grand philosophies, programs, pleasures, practices, or opinions to share. Instead, he encourages Siddhartha to learn from the river.
As the years roll by, Siddhartha watches the river. The river just . . . flows. It keeps going. And going. And going. It is strong and soft. Steady and inevitable. The river doesn’t fight, and it can’t be fought. The water is carried to the ocean and brought back again by rain, birth and death without beginning or end. And without struggle, the river lives on–its various ripples and currents and waves and droplets all as one. One continuing, flowing one.
There is no perfecting the river. No molding its waves into the right shape. No struggle that will stop its currents.
The river flows.
The flow of life.
With all its bad and good, it’s happiness and sadness, it’s living and dying.
Life flows on.
And while one can learn peace and joy and beauty and love during life, one cannot master it, stop it, fix it, win it, or beat it.
One just . . . lives.
Nails on a chalkboard. I did not like what she was saying.
I’m a next level Scheduling guru. I can fit every different goal and passion and habit and session into a 7-day-excel-spreadsheet (color coded, too, because life is an adventure).
And then life’s currents do their thing and I have to rewrite the schedule. Every few days.
Over dinner, I was complaining to Lyssi that I just couldn’t figure out a realistic way to fit everything I want dependably into my day or my week. Running, yoga, meditation, breathwork, exercises, swimming, cooking, massage, reading, podcasts, languages, piano, movies, friends, journaling, reading some more, brushing my teeth. And on top of it all, actually writing for my blog again.
“I have a sort of strange idea,” she said. “What if you just didn’t follow a schedule at all? What if you just did what you wanted to do, when you wanted to do it? Just listening to your body and your heart? Like when you wake up in the morning, maybe it’s a reading day, maybe it’s a movement day, maybe it lasts five minutes or an hour, or maybe you just stay in bed?”
Um. No. That is . . . the worst. It will not work.
“I’m just worried that if I don’t schedule it, the stuff I really need and want that isn’t comfortable is what will slide. Like movement and exercise. I’m afraid I’ll always just go with what’s easy.”
As much as I hated the idea and knew there was no way it would work, I also tasted this little flavor of relief, and had to go back for more. So I threw out the planning, and just lived what life brought me.
It has turned out looking like a lot more movement and exercise–especially yoga and swimming, almost every day. I haven’t read any less, maybe more. I have grown more in touch with my body, its pain and its insecurity and also its freedom and its strength. The only thing I feel like I’ve lost is a sense of failure at not measuring up every day to the Peter I kept planning and re-planning to be.
“In this hour, Siddhartha stopped fighting his fate, stopped suffering. On his face flourished the cheerfulness of a knowledge, which is no longer opposed by any will, which knows perfection, which is in agreement with the flow of events, with the current of life, full of sympathy for the pain of others, full of sympathy for the pleasure of others, devoted to flow, belonging to the oneness.”
So what was your New Year’s resolution? And how are you measuring up? And will it be enough?
I feel like six months from now I’ll probably be writing something about how valuable schedules and habits and consistency are, and I don’t think it will be wrong. Schedules are wonderful. Planning is important. Repeated practice adds up to a lot of strength and joy and beauty and adventure and love.
Which is why I’ll probably set New Year’s goals or intentions again someday. But this year I’m learning to lay down that bar I’ve been desperately seeking to measure up to, year after year, struggle after struggle, interruption after interruption, disappointment after disappointment.
Which season are you in? Are you trying yet another strategy this year? And here’s a more helpful question: Are you tired about it?
Then maybe it’s time to give yourself over to life. To trust it. It will flow. It will bring love and pain and excitement and sadness and hugs and loneliness and movement and boredom and the whole time it will be beautiful and it will be yours and it will be right.
Sure, chase the adventure and meaning you want in life. That’s part of it and it’s worth scheduling and pushing now and then.
And also, you’re already living. It’s life. It’s weird. It’s exciting. It’s confusing. It’s beautiful. It’s allowed. And it’s enough.
As Siddhartha nears the end of his life, he speaks again to his childhood friend and fellow seeker, Govinda: “What should I possibly have to tell you[?] . . . Perhaps that in all that searching, you don’t find the time for finding?”
Can you let go of the Shoulds for a while? Can you just live? You may find that it’s enough. That you’re already enough. That you’re already there.
P.S. What’s funny is that after giving up completely on schedules and goals and Shoulds this new year, I’ve stumbled upon a clearer intention for this season of my life than I think I’ve ever felt. It’s a simple one and it’s helping. Ask me about it over coffee sometime. I’d love to share it.
Maybe I will write another tomorrow. Or maybe I will sleep in. If I write, would you like me to write for you?
You and I have similar bodies. And similar brains. Similar minds and hearts, even. Humans are mostly, well, human.
Which tells me that if you can do something I can do something. At least mostly. Like I can’t Michael Phelps, but I can pay down my credit cards. I can speak my truth and argue calmly. I can eat fairly healthily. I can quit my job or apply for a promotion. I can go on a date or at least introduce myself to someone. I can do human things.
As can you.
Except it’s not that simple.
A long time ago, some psychologists did an enlightening, if cruel, experiment with a bunch of dogs. They paired up each dog from group A with a dog from group B, put them all in little boxes, and started administering electric shocks. Dogs from group A eventually discovered that if they pressed a nearby lever, the shocks would end. They got to rescue themselves. Group B dogs, however, had no lever. And even though their shocks also ended when their group A mate found its lever, since they didn’t experience solving the problem by pressing the lever, they felt completely helpless about the shocks. Nothing they could do. Inevitable. Unstoppable. Helpless.
Later, they took all the dogs–group A and group B–and put them in different little boxes with a small partition in the middle of each. Electric shocks began again on the side the dogs were placed in. To avoid the shocks, they simply had to jump over the little partition to the safe side. Remember the dogs from group A? The ones that got to experience rescuing themselves? They jumped the partition to safety. And the group B dogs that just had to wait out the abuse? The ones who had experienced the shocks helplessly before? They just lay there accepting the shocks. Ingrained belief that there was nothing they could do. “Learned helplessness.”
Group A dogs had learned a story about themselves and shocks: I can change this.
Group B dogs had learned a different story: I can’t help getting shocked.
And, as a reminder, group A dogs and group B dogs are all dogs with the same puppy-legs built to clear those partitions. But their experiences created stories about themselves. And those stories dictated how they handled the next challenge.
Which is why I say it’s not that simple.
Yes, you and I have the same fingers with which to type that text, update that résumé, add that friend, sign up for that class, and bravely reach out to hold that hand. But you and I have very different stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.
My story includes an odd jumble of affection and hiding and anxiety and determination and hope and authenticity and pain and adventure and caution and expectations and wisdom and pessimism and and scars and bravery. And though it’s a jumble, it’s a very specific jumble, specific to me. And it informs every day, every decision, every thought, every moment.
And our stories include the fate-type stuff we’ve learned about ourselves.
Having learned about ourselves that we “can’t,” or we’re “not strong enough,” or we “always do that,” or we “can’t help it,” or we “will always be treated like” . . . we accept our fate as our story plays out the way it’s “supposed” to.
Like: When I work out, I always end up in pain or injured. I’ll never be healthy and strong. So why bother trying?
Or: We always end up in a fight when this subject comes up. And I can’t deal with confrontation. So I’m just going to pretend it doesn’t matter to me anymore.
The themes that we’ve experienced, whether willingly explored or helplessly forced on us, have become our stories about ourselves.
Like those dogs.
“I can” or “I can’t.”
And while it’s not that simple–as simple as being humans that can change–it also is that simple.
Group A and B dogs are both dogs with legs to jump. And when the researchers finally showed the group B dogs they really could change their situation, holding their little legs and teaching them to move, the once helpless dogs did learn to rescue themselves.
You and I are both humans with human bodies and human minds.
And when someone finally showed me that I was allowed to experience and express a full range of emotions, ask for what I want, say what I really feel–I shed a little learned helplessness.
All this to say, you CAN.
Not you can everything. I can’t be on the Yankees team, which is super frustrating.
But you can do that thing–the one you keep wanting to do or trying to do or meaning to do or starting to do or committing to do.
That thing you’ve been remembering each January that you really want to do, and drafting to-do lists and schedules about, and starting, and eventually stopping every time.
Finding that community. Reading those books. Sharing that struggle with a friend. Eating in a way that feels better to your body again. Sticking to those boundaries next time. Sticking with therapy even when it gets too hard. Applying for that new job. Registering for those yoga classes. Cutting back on the Amazon shopping. Reserving more time for your loved ones. Or starting that difficult conversation that makes you a little nauseated.
Do you ever find yourself quick reality-checking a hopeful idea or plan or desire you had? “But you’ve tried that already, and you never stick with it.” Or “You’re just not that person.”
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.
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
Oh hey my American friend. I wake up to the same headlines you do. I grew up on the same stories you did. I’ve learned roughly the same stuff as you about threats and expectations and stereotypes and all that jazz. You and I both have a general idea of what it means to live in America.
And it’s the spoken or unspoken reality of what you and I have learned and heard and seen and come to expect from our experience living in America that informed this experience I recently had:
I got home from work, threw on joggers and a hoodie, and headed outside for a run.
Police vehicles were everywhere. Silently combing the neighborhood.
I kept walking right by them. After a bit, I waved one of them down.
“Hey, is everything okay?”
“Shots were fired. If you see anything, let us know.”
I want to share the 140-decibel-loud thought I had as I walked by the searching police officers: I’m safe, because I don’t look the part. I look like a people-pleasing white guy who smiles just the right amount and who is used to being respected. I wonder what would happen if I were a Black man living next door who just wanted to go out for a run after work that night?
Maybe nothing would have happened. Or maybe I would have been yet another story in a long line of stories that have been written by an America that grew up on the same headlines and stories and expectations and prejudices that you and I did.
Or even if not a story that made the news, at least confronted and traumatized a bit, probably not for the first time.
America’s past hides propaganda and movies and stories and labels and accusations that painted a picture for us of “the dangerous Black man.” It’s what America grew up on: From D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation to the Central Park Five.
I’m not saying you still believe the stereotype. Or that every police officer does.
What I am saying is: That evening was a loud reminder that America’s racism does still consciously or subconsciously inform our expectations and reactions and prejudices and fears.
In that moment walking down the street past all the police SUVs on the hunt for someone suspicious, I knew as a middle-class-looking-white-guy I’d be safe. And I knew it because I’ve been reading the same headlines you have for years. People who look like me don’t tend to get stopped by the police. Or shot.
Nobody assumes or worries I’m a bad guy.
My white American skin made me feel safer.
So if you grew up as conservatively convinced as I did that all this “racism” stuff is a thing of the past, now blown out of proportion–can you honestly say your white skin doesn’t make you feel safer?
And if it does, how the hell did we get here?
And what is your part in making this country safer for people who don’t look like you?
I think Halloween is an underappreciated Holiday. Not in every way. It’s many people’s favorite, because how fun to dress up, etc. But I mean what Halloween is actually about–the stuff of life behind the Holiday that the day puts us in touch with, even if accidentally and only a little bit.
“The farther we’ve gotten from the magic and mystery of our past, the more we’ve come to need Halloween.”
If you’ve seen Coco or The Book of Life, you can picture the colorful festivity of Día de Muertos, Mexico’s Day of the Dead. You may not be as familiar with Samhain (pronounced “Saa-win”), the Gaelic Holiday, or Zhongyuan Jie, the Chinese Ghost Festival.
When I was a kid, we didn’t celebrate ghosts and witches and goblins and ghouls on Halloween. We talked instead about how it was “All Hallows’ Eve,” the prelude to “All Saints’ Day.” Which turned out not to be much different. A day for remembering dead people . . . which means thinking about death . . . which means facing fear . . . and the unknown . . . and danger . . . and the stories of life and of death.
Much like Halloween.
What’s it all about?
“Always the same but different . . . every age, every time. Day was always over. Night was always coming. . . . afraid . . . that the sun will never rise again . . . all the men in history staring round about as the sun rose and set. Apemen trembled. Egyptians cried laments. Greeks and Romans paraded their dead. Summer fell dead. Winter put it in the grave. A billion voices wept . . . Then, with cries of delight, ten thousand times a million men welcomed back bright summer suns which rose to burn each window with fire! . . . People vanished forever. They died, oh Lord, they died! But came back in dreams. Those dreams were called Ghosts, and frightened men in every age. . . . Night and day. Summer and winter . . . Seedtime and harvest. Life and death. That’s what Halloween is, all rolled up in one. Noon and midnight. Being born. Rolling over, playing dead like dogs . . . And getting up again, barking, racing through thousands of years of death each day and each night Halloween . . . every night, every single night dark and fearful until at last you made it and hid in cities and towns and had some rest and could get your breath. And you began to live longer and have more time, and space out the deaths and put away fear, and at last have only special days in each year when you thought of night and dawn and spring and autumn and being born and being dead. And it all adds up. Four thousand years ago, one hundred years ago, this year, one place or another, but the celebrations all the same: The Feast of Samhain, The Time of the Dead Ones, All Souls’, All Saints’, The Day of the Dead, El Dia De Muerte, All Hallows’, Halloween.”
Ray Bradbury, The Halloween Tree
Once upon a time, winter was sort of a season of death, of fear. When Autumn came, you harvested the food and prepared to hibernate. Life and growth would soon be put on hold. Then the nights grew longer, the cold came, and you braced. Hibernated. Hoped. Waiting for life to come back in the spring.
And then, as Bradbury described, we as a species learned to thrive straight through the winter with cities and towns lit by electricity, warm houses, warm offices, warm cars. Freshly grown food shipped in a matter of days from the other side of the globe where the sun was still shining.
So we live longer. And we don’t have to fear death as frequently. We don’t have to fear the dark quite so much, or the seasons, or the cold. Life isn’t put on pause for several shivering months, and we aren’t reminded quite so strongly of our mortality.
But still, once a year, this season comes around . . . and we talk again about spooky things like death and fear and darkness. We keep some of the stories, some of the ghosts, some of the hauntings, some of the magic. And–most of all–we dress up as Iron Man or Pikachu and gorge ourselves on candy. So good, so fun, so absolutely worthwhile.
What of the ghost stories? People now tend not to believe in ghosts quite like people did hundreds or thousands of years ago. Or magic. Or monsters. Or omens. Or bad luck. (Actually, maybe yes–bad luck.) We understand the scary noises in the dark, we understand how dreams work, and hallucinations. We have light switches that can suddenly explain the secrets the shadows held, once upon a time.
So why do we still celebrate? What draws us in? Halloween and all its spookiness and darkness still intrigue us.
I think because we’re still mortal. And we can’t help but pay attention to the reminders of our mortality. And because we desperately need stories of darkness, because we desperately need stories of overcoming the darkness. Not for the same reasons we did a thousand years ago. For different reasons now.
We’re not likely to starve if the winter runs too long, or to get frostbite. But when January comes around, a huge number of us fall into seasonal depression. We just have different kinds of darkness that haunt us now. Less magical, more . . . . . modern.
And it’s not so much about winter, just as winter and death were never truly synonymous. Winter was just the reminder of the fear and danger and death and struggle in the cycle of life. We still have that life cycle. It looks, feels, and sounds more modern now. But we still have it. We still have the bad stuff happen. We still feel the darkness, the fear. We still worry–a lot–maybe more than people have ever worried, now that we’re all confronted every day with every story to worry about all around the globe.
There are still monsters. And we still need stories.
Stories that allow us to feel the darkness. And stories of making our way safely through the darkness to the other side. Stories to help us be brave. Stories that give us hope.
“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
Imaginative stories of ghosts and goblins and exorcisms and aliens and witches and hauntings and spooky cabins in the woods . . . they do that. They let us feel all the dark feelings, and then let us get to the other side–usually with the story’s hero still intact.
We’ve all got the darkness, the fears, the struggles.
As we grow up and out of our imaginations, we try to turn off the feelings, deny the darkness, suppress the struggles. We can’t imagine opening up about what’s inside of us, facing our demons. We’re afraid that if we look inside, we won’t be able to handle the pains and the fears. So–in general–we decide to be grown up instead. No more feelings. No more hopes. No more dreams and magic in life. Just surviving, being responsible, and eventually dying.
And then, one day, we remember just how much meaning and magic and feeling there is in life. And we wonder why we stopped paying attention to the ghosts and fairy tales. Why we had to get so stuffy and dry.
And when that happens–we pick up a book. A fairy tale, a story about magic. Or we find a movie born out of deep imagination. Or we take a walk in the cool fall breeze and watch the red and yellow leaves swirling and remember the rather blustery day that Winnie-the-Pooh had, and remember that we were more in touch with the stuff of life when we were young.
“Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.”
C. S. Lewis
All of which Halloween ramblings, typed away with a Halloween wind blowing the Halloween trees outside my window, bring me to a simple thought: Life is full of magic. Really good magic, and really dark magic. And being deeply in touch with the light and the darkness, death and life, remembering courage, remembering celebrations, and feeling . . . young . . . those matter.
Alive is more alive against the backdrop of all those days of the dead.
And you’re still alive today.
Every Halloween . . . you get to remember all of this, celebrate all this, believe in all this, feel all this. You’re alive. And life has some darkness, but you are brave.