I always armed the alarm system at night. If someone beat me to it, I’d find some need to go grab something from the garage or step outside so that I could re-arm it when I came back in. Arming it took a minute, because we had to bypass a few upstairs bedroom windows so we could let in the fresh night air. When I re-armed it, I’d add my first-story bedroom window. Besides my little brother/partner-in-crime, I don’t think anyone ever knew. Night after night, I’d slip out the window to go walk. In the dark. In my trench coat. (Yes. An odd window into my sheltered juvenility casting about in search of an identity named Me.)
It’s hard to pinpoint my first clear realization that I didn’t belong in my family. That I needed to be elsewhere.
When I was 11, I yelled and threw things a lot and thought my little sister was the devil (spoiler, I was wrong, she was just a drowned out human looking hard for a friend). In other words, I wasn’t happy. But I didn’t feel like I was supposed to get away. When I was 17, I was so certain that the environment was toxic to me that I day-dreamed of life in a faraway place, and at nights I walked the neighborhoods in my trench coat.
Somewhere in between, I realized I needed to leave.
Sitting around our ancient, creaky, memory-filled dining table for yet another family meal, the whole family was deep in discussion. There were laughs and there were criticisms as we sat in pious heavenly judgment of “the world.” Except I just sat there in silence, wanting to be anywhere else. “What Peter,” mom suddenly turned to me, “do you think you’re better than the rest of us? Like we’re all just mean and judgmental, and you’re above conversations like this?”
Yes. And no. Wait. Not better, no. I mean screw it, yes. Not, “I’m better,” but yes, it’s “better” to not find one’s entire identity in sitting around laughing and poking fun at everyone that doesn’t look and sound just like you. So . . . yes, sitting in silence did feel like the “better” option.
I knew I had to get out.
So I got out.
And it was maybe the best decision I’ve ever made in my whole entire life.
And . . . with that decision came what was maybe the most unhealthy talent in my entire life: Solving problems by changing location.
And I guess I start with this story to draw a clear distinction around what I’m about to say. Because there are toxic places, or places at least that are toxic to you. There are times you need to pick up and leave. There are people you can do nothing but drown with. There are environments that are too traumatic for you. There are times when the best, best, best decision is: I’ve got to get out of here.
I have a favorite quote this year. It’s speaking deep to me as I take the 2021 twists and turns in my growth. It’s such a simple quote, I figured it must just be one of those old sayings attributed to a hundred different people. And I guess it probably is, but I forgot where I’d found it, and was delighted a minute ago to discover I read this favorite new quote in my favorite old book by my deeply favorite author:
The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman. “It’s like the people who believe they’ll be happy if they go and live somewhere else, but who learn it doesn’t work that way. Wherever you go, you take yourself with you. If you see what I mean.”
“Wherever you go, you take yourself with you.”
Over coffee, a friend I work with asked me, “Peter are you burnt out?” It was sort of out of the blue, and I was so grateful for the question, and before I knew it I answered that question in a way I’ve never answered it in a work setting: Yes.
I explained that the years of trying daily to care about and focus on the things that I worry my position and industry suggests I should caught up to me. That saying the things I’m expected to say, agreeing to the things I’m expected to agree to, setting the goals I’m expected to set–that it has all meant I’m carefully keeping myself under wraps–at least at work. And not totally, but a lot. Worried that the compassionate me, the me that can never just small talk, the mental health advocate me, the don’t-sweat-the-small-stuff me, the anxious me, the me that speaks up when something feels unfair, the me that keeps daydreaming about jumping ship and taking out student loans to go be a therapist, the soft me, the me that gravitates away from cliquey criticism fests, the me that needs desperately to help the ones life isn’t as easy for, and the me that quit wearing ties when he quit living for approval from authorities because honestly we’re all just humans making this stuff up–worried all those me’s wouldn’t fit.
Like, in business, is a “man” supposed to be in touch with his “feminine” side?
And what if they found out I don’t know football?
And that I care less at the end of the day about being “profitable” than about really taking care of people?
But that ship has been slowly turning this year, sign-posted by a few honest chats over coffee or lunch with a few co-workers who have been on this same journey.
And the less each day is run by my anxiety, the more I’ve been able to say: “A little bit, f*** it, this is me.”
And it seems to be turning out well. And in hindsight I’m seeing that a lot of the anxiety that was keeping me from showing my true self was actually coming from not showing my true self.
And I didn’t show my true self because I felt, “My true self won’t fit here.”
So I realized, for the hundredth time, that I’d have to leave.
Find the place where it’s safe to be exactly me.
Does this pattern feel at all familiar to you? You feel in a rut, like “this isn’t the me I wanted to be,” so you make a change–a new job, a cross-country move, a breakup, a new schedule, a new community. And then the same old fears and insecurities that put you in the rut in the last place show up in the new place? So we jump from here to there and then over there and then back here and then all the way over there. And no matter how many different scenes we try, we find the same damn struggles.
Well, “wherever you go, you take yourself with you.”
In my own journey, I’ve slowly uncovered a pattern: I find myself a new place to safely build a home. I glance around expecting to find people who don’t approve of my home’s aesthetic. And of course, as Paulo Coelho put it, “Most people see the world as a threatening place, and, because they do, the world turns out, indeed, to be a threatening place.” And in the face of those threats, I be the me, choose the choices, say the sayings that I think will keep me safe. Be who you’re expected to be. And I wait, day-dreaming of this future where I’m happily living as the real me in a good place. But the dream fades as the façade heavies, and I find myself burnt out putting off who I want to be. So burnt out that this new home has become toxic, and it’s time to make a move. So I find myself a new place to safely build a home. I glance around expecting to find people, again, who don’t approve of my home’s aesthetic. And the cycle begins again.
And it’s not because the new place is the same as the old place. It’s not.
It’s not because where you are doesn’t matter. It does.
It’s because where you are doesn’t make a difference unless you get in touch with and nurture the you that you’re bringing with you. Learn how to bravely, authentically be the you you keep meaning to be, no matter who’s watching.
If you struggle with communicating your frustrations in a relationship, a new partner probably won’t change that.
If you struggle with giving your honest opinions at work, a new workplace probably won’t change that.
If you struggle with taking care of your body in Minnesota, Colorado won’t change that.
Of course there may be reasons to make those changes (like there’s no Mount Ida to hike in Minnesota). But when you leave to find a new place where you can be you, are you leaving because the place you’re in won’t let you be you, or because you won’t let you be you?
My friend who has spent his career as a psychologist helping people understand their relationships has a really helpful way of putting it. Nine times out of ten, “if you leave your partner, a year from now you’ll be married to their twin.”
What is inside of you that is making your today-world what it is?
Because sure, the external world does come with its real threats. But is it stopping you from being you? Or are you stopping you from being you, “just in case” it doesn’t work?
And what would happen if you just . . . were you in the face of those (real or imagined) threats?
My dog Junko and I are very different. Largely because she’s a dog and I’m a human. Junko seems to have only one thing on her mind: The present. Right now. Where she is. Right now. This piece of cardboard to rip apart, right now. This squirrel to tree, right now. This belly rub to get, right now. I, on the other hand, obsess constantly over the future, and I mostly try to reject the present. The present is not good enough. I need a new place. That house to have, next year. That career to have, in five years. That painless spine to run with, someday. Then I can be happy.
Happiness, fulfillment, acceptance . . . they’re all waiting for things to be just right.
I’m sure you’ve watched Pixar’s Up. If you haven’t, pause right here, go find it–even if you have to pay for it–and watch it, right now. Once you’ve stopped crying, come on back and we’ll go on.
So–Up. Carl and Ellie get married with big plans to travel the world. It’s what will make them happy. Then, as we’re all familiar with, life happens. And they keep waiting for the day when they can take their big adventure. But life keeps happening. And with guilt and regret, Carl watches his best friend Ellie pass out of this world, never having taken the big adventure. It’s too late. In his grief, Carl opens an album of memories. Pictures of him and Ellie sharing a birthday cake, out on a drive, feeding the pigeons, picnicking under a tree.
Our lives of “not good enough,” or “not where I wanted to be,” or “not what I’m supposed to be doing,” are still our lives. And chances are, we’ve got a lot to love to tend to right here, right now. Like Junko. In the present.
I bet that if we treated each present moment as just as important as our dreamlike future, we’d show up differently. And just possibly in a way that would help us break the cycle of chasing new safe places that turn sour.
But that means accepting the non-dreamy parts of the present. Like going to couple’s therapy, or actually having those difficult conversations with a co-worker. Instead of giving up and moving on each time. It means digging into the you that’s too scared to show all the way up today. Asking the scary questions of your heart, like “why do I have a hard time trusting?” or “why can’t I say what I actually think?” or “why can’t I let myself have fun?” or “why won’t I take care of myself?”
Because those things are usually at least partly inside you.
And, “wherever you go, you take yourself with you.”
What if instead of defaulting to changing our outer worlds, we dropped in on our inner worlds to ask some deep personal questions, like “What is stopping you from being all the way here, all the way you, right now?” What if we did self-nurturing just as often as we did future-dreaming? What if we got real bravely authentic, even though “this isn’t the place I dreamt of?”
Do you catch yourself holding out for a later time or a later place or a later job or a later person, at which time you’ll suddenly be able to shine your light and dance your dance?
Why aren’t you right now?
Because whatever parts of you are keeping yourself hidden today are coming with you when you run away tomorrow.
And yes, make the move when the place itself is a true problem.
But is the place really usually the problem?
Or is it that wherever you go, you keep bringing your anxious self with you?
What if you just decided to figure yourself out instead? To learn the stuff that’s keeping you stuck. Like trust, like vulnerability, like bravery, like communication, like acceptance, like kindness, like rest. The list goes on. Those things you think would be different about you if you moved to Colorado, but deep down have to admit are really just your fragile self.
Can you let yourself grow through the weeds into your beautiful, healthy self, right here, right now?
Or do you have to keep waiting till everything else is just right?
Maybe we can meet each other with brave authenticity and find life and love together?
It won’t all be easy and you’ll get a few bruises, but I wonder if it would feel better than waiting and hiding as the years tick by.
Here’s to your brave authenticity. <3
Want an authenticity cheerleader? Throw your email below.
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
Sights, sounds, smells, and all those senses enter the brain through something called the thalamus.
The thalamus passes this mix of sensations in two directions: The amygdala and the frontal cortex.
The amygdala keeps you alive by freaking out about stuff. It quickly checks with the hippocampus to see if the new information might remind us of any yucky stuff that’s happened to us in the past. And if it feels any threat, it goes “Okay, it’s time to stay alive!” And it bombards you with stress chemicals and makes you do things like fight or fly or freeze.
The frontal cortex, on the other hand, thinks a bit more critically. Like “Um that’s just a shadow” or “Not all bosses are as evil as your old boss” or “No stress, zombies aren’t real” or “Actually not everybody who calls your name from another room is about to beat you.” And so it helps you not try to hit everybody or run screaming from the room.
And here’s the fun thing.
The information travels from the thalamus to the amygdala more quickly than to the frontal cortex.
In other words: “Not responding emotionally” is literally impossible.
Your brain is wired to save you from lions and to feel suddenly hurt by your partner when they didn’t mean anything. You literally can’t help freaking out sometimes about things you don’t need to freak out about, especially when it looks or feels or sounds a little bit like something that has hurt you before.
This doesn’t mean you can’t practice and get sort of good at slowing your reactivity so that your frontal cortex has a chance to be like “Um you don’t need to punch them in the face.”
But it does mean that you’re not a bad or defective person just because you get emotional or scared or react sometimes in ways you wish you wouldn’t.
Especially when it’s stuff that brings up your deepest scars.
Your amygdala is just trying to save your life.
Deep breaths, count to 3, trust the process, your frontal cortex can help you sort it out.
That being said, for some of us these pathways have been screwed up by especially rough experiences. If you feel like you’re always, always being hijacked by overreacty feelings, don’t blame yourself–maybe you’ve just had to work too hard to keep yourself safe in life. It’s not fair, but don’t give up hope. There are some PTSD therapies that can really help to rewire this.
But in general, I think it can really help to understand about ourselves: None of us are “calm, cool, and collected” the instant something happens. Your amygdala will always show up before your frontal cortex. Which means working on nurturing a baseline of safety and taking deep breaths and counting to 3 are all a much better and fairer use of your energy than calling yourself stupid or sensitive or irrational.
You’re just good at staying alive, and sometimes it makes life weird.
That’s just human.
For a so-much-deeper-life-changingly-eye-opening exploration of this and other humany topics, read The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.
Good luck with your amygdala. <3
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I dedicate this post to my fellow survivors (current or future) of “As-long-as-people-know-I’m-doing-my-best” syndrome.
It’s okay if people don’t think you’re a good person.
It really is.
Some people will. For sure.
In fact, the way this world is set up means that the only way to be the person some people like is to be the person some people hate.
It’s . . . weird.
Life shapes its own unique deep-down needs in each of us. For some of us, our big, ultimate goal was–or is–for people to think we’re good enough, like that we’re . . . doing our best. We know we’re not perfect, of course, but we just need people to think that we tried and are trying to be as perfect as we could or can be.
And it freaks us out, the idea that someone might think we’re up to no good, or that we mean badly, even once in a while, even for one moment of weakness.
So when someone suggests that we’re . . . not getting it right, or even gives us a vibe that they may be of the opinion that we’re off course–making the wrong decisions, not pulling our weight, being embarrassing, whatever it might be–we feel an overwhelming pull to realign with their standard for who we should be. Their thoughts, feelings, views, wishes.
So we don’t live our life. We live “theirs.” All of theirs. Whatever they want us to do. It’s too scary to disappoint.
And then it turns out we never lived our own life.
And that sucks.
I can remember times where I felt like, “I don’t so much mind getting in trouble, as long as they know I didn’t mean to” or “as long as they know I tried my best.” Like the fear wasn’t even the bad things that happen when we do bad things. The fear was people thinking I did bad things on purpose. Times where literally I was like “Oh yeah, no, I’m fine with the punishment, as long as you clarify for everyone that I did-my-best/didn’t-deserve-it/didn’t-know . . .” Or times where I realized I didn’t so much care if I achieved this thing I was working to, I just wanted everyone to think I tried my hardest. . . .
If that’s you–if the gripping, deafening, overwhelming, fire-alarm-ringing-daily-in-your-head is that absolute need for people to think you’re well-meaning . . .
. . . what does that actually do for your life?
. . . and is it really your life?
I wonder, if you traced the roots of that need, where you would find it comes from. And maybe that it’s actually not fair or . . . real.
For a lot of us, it comes from a formative human or humans in our lives that withheld something we really did need–like love, acceptance, comfort, soothing, care, and nourishment of every kind–and then told us we didn’t deserve those things right now because we’re being “stubborn” or “selfish” or . . . you know, all those you’re-not-good-enough words. And we ended up feeling certain that the way to get the things we truly need is by earning them. And since “perfect” was never on the table, “always-trying-my-absolute-best-to-be-perfect-and-never-ever-ever-doing-any-less” will have to do.
And if that’s you . . .
. . . and you’re exhausted . . .
. . . maybe embrace your imperfection for a minute.
Maybe intentionally do something not quite perfect. Like at least one time. Maybe be selfish for a second. Be careless for a second. Be angry for a second. Be undisciplined for a second. Be lazy for a second.
And find that . . . the world didn’t end . . . you’re still here . . . and your real friends still love you . . . and you can still love you.
Nothing good is coming from this crippling addiction to the approval of others–from this need to be seen as “the good one.”
Stop being the perfect one.
Just be the You one.
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Have you seen Big Hero 6? If not, spoiler alert: So . . . Disney knows how to give us feelings. Oh man. To kick off the movie, the big brother runs into the burning building because he thinks someone is trapped inside it. And in a sudden explosion, he dies. Because that’s what happens in Disney movies: The characters love so much they’ll give up everything. It’s . . . powerful. Incredibly powerful.
People do that. Isn’t that amazing? We love each other so much, that we will die to save somebody else.
But sometimes in life, the thing that seems and sounds self-sacrificial doesn’t work. It’s why you’re told not to fumble around with everyone else’s oxygen masks before you’ve secured your own. Besides a few dramatic, life-and-death storybook moments, you can’t save other people by letting yourself die. Or even just by letting yourself fall apart, working yourself to the bone, or bleeding yourself dry.
Love is a beautiful thing, but it’s also such a strong and blinding emotion that it gets us into messy spots. We think we’re “being there for” someone, “helping” them, “saving” them, “rescuing” them . . . when in reality, we’re just drowning with them.
Feeling torn between the healthy boundaries I was setting with my family and the urge to give up all those boundaries so I could still show up to love and support, “no matter what”–my therapist gave me a thing to think about:
“When you’ve escaped rough waters, and your loved one is drowning, you want to jump in to save them, and they want you to jump in to save them, but if you jump in, you cannot save them. You’ll be drowning, too, and to top it off you’ll probably get bonked on the head as they thrash about trying to hold onto you. No, once you’ve escaped the waters, you can’t go back in. You barely made it out alive to begin with, and you certainly won’t have the capacity to do it again dragging someone else out with you. The loving thing to do is to say no to jumping back in. Instead, you can throw a rope. You can say, ‘hey–it’s safe up here on the dock. I’m here for you if you’ll grab the rope and get out of the water.’ And of course, you’ll feel guilty for not jumping back in, and of course, they will feel you don’t love them. If you loved them, they think, you’d jump back in. As long as you refuse to join them in the dangerous waters, they’ll feel betrayed, unloved. But, there’s another thing: They can see you. They see that someone made it to safety. They see that it’s possible. They see there’s a way to get out. They see that life outside the water is an option. They see you living. They see hope. They may feel bitter, but they see hope. And one day, maybe, just maybe . . . they’ll join you in the safety. And maybe, just maybe, it was your refusal to jump back into the rough waters that made you the proof they needed–proof that they, also, were allowed and able to come on shore.”
You’re a little bit like a lighthouse, showing the way. A lighthouse can’t help a battered boat if the lighthouse jumps in and gets tossed about, too. A lighthouse shows . . . hope.
Let’s talk about family. The most dangerous F-word. Dangerous because family is wonderful. It’s maybe literally the absolute top most best. In theory. And because it’s the best, because it “comes first,” its waters get pretty muddy.
If you found your way out of a toxic family environment, and still have family members you love who are trying to fit into that toxic environment, I bet I can tell a couple things about you: You sometimes feel guilty.You want SO badly to help.And love makes you so, so, so tempted to put yourself back in harm’s way. In fact, I bet, like everyone who has escaped toxicity, you’ve cycled in and out, diving back into the waves to try to save your sister, diving back into the waves to “be there for” your brother, diving back into the waves to “help” your mother, diving back into the waves so your father doesn’t have to be alone. . . . . . . Has it ever worked?
I know the deeply unhealthy family dynamic doesn’t resonate with everyone. If this isn’t you, bear with me, because it’s more than just family. But for now imagine with those of us who don’t have to use our imaginations because we remember it: How did you make it out of the abuse? Out of the web? The manipulation? The narcissistic control? How did you make it out of the deeply unhealthy environment?
Maybe you fought and fought and fought and fought and argued and argued and begged and begged and tried every which way to beat the toxicity. Spent years trying to heal the disease. And each day, it wore you out, held you down, as your life slipped away, a life very much not-yours-at-all.
Until one day, as a psychologist mentor of mine puts it, you “started on the other side of the wall.” (He actually uses this concept in a little different sense, but the effect is the same.) In other words: Instead of trying desperately, one brick at a time, to unbuild a wall of dysfunction and abuse and hurt and struggle and betrayal and fear and stuckness, you just . . . start on the other side. Leave the wall alone. You don’t have to unbuild it. You don’t have to “beat” the toxicity. You don’t have to heal the diseased environment. You just choose to start on the other side of the wall. To step out of it. After years and years, one day you stopped trying to calm the waves, held onto the rope being offered by the world outside the toxic environment, and climbed on shore.
I bet you didn’t find your freedom by having other people jump in and live with you in an unhealthy family dynamic. I bet you believed that you could escape the abuse, that you could find freedom, peace, happiness, healthiness. And I bet you believed that because you saw proof. Someone, somewhere, was a picture to you of love. An example of what functional relationships look like. A demonstration to you of healthy life on the other side of the wall . . . up on the shore, above the waves . . . you saw a lighthouse.
So if what saved your life, brought you into freedom and health, wasn’t winning the fight against a toxic environment, but stepping out of it–why do we suppose, again and again and again, that another loved one’s way out will involve staying in the unhealthy environment and trying to beat it? If someone (perhaps completely unknowingly) once held our rope, so we could climb out–why would we think our loved one is going to swim to safety without a rope if we jump back into the raging waters with them?
If what gave us the hope to step out was seeing that there was life to taste on the outside, why wouldn’t we stay on the outside, living a free and beautiful and healthy and functional and fulfilling life, so that the ones we wish we could save could see that there’s another way? Hope?
If all this family toxicity talk doesn’t resonate, because no matter how imperfect every family is, some are beautiful, safe places with healthy roots of love and kindness and support–and that’s the family you’ve known–there are still other storms you’ve escaped.
I remember my first job was at a place I eventually learned was absolutely notorious (at least at the time) for chewing up and spitting out its staff. Especially managers. The abuse we all went through was shocking. Fair pay, sufficient staffing, professional treatment–those things aren’t necessary when you can “vision” and “care” and “team-spirit” your people into working themselves to the bone or (surprisingly frequently) working hours and hours off the clock. I heard it described frequently as a “cult.”
There was so. Much. Manipulation. Everyone was drowning. One brave and visionary young manager after another tried to fix it. Things never, ever got better, but we kept thinking “if only I try harder,” because the one thing this place was good at was whipping up the strong emotion of loyalty. We stayed, because we cared.
I watched a lot of beautiful people fall apart under the weight, tirelessly swimming against the current to try to make it better. Nobody wanted to leave, because everybody desperately needed each other. We all needed each drowning other to save each drowning other. Actually–everybody wanted to leave and said so almost every day, but nobody could.
Because . . . we can’t leave the people we care about in alone in a bad place.
Love. We stayed in an impossibly unhealthy situation because we loved each other.
It was beautifully depressing.
Every once in a while, somebody would finally up and walk out. It was like they had woken up.
And then a couple months later, they’d come stop by. We’d share laughs and hugs and memories and they would tell us about how much relief they felt, how much happier they were, how much less stressed, now that they had gotten out.
Weirdly (actually not so weirdly if we understand how strong love is), they would sometimes come back. It was always their people, the fun and love and camaraderie they missed, that brought them back. And, again, they would slowly fall apart until they, again, walked away. Eventually, they learned the lesson that jumping back in would never, ever, ever work.
One lucky day, I became one of those managers who escaped. I had been completely losing myself and finally “woke up” and hopped out. And it was amazing. Afterward I frequently stopped by and said hello to my old team–my friends. I’d listen to the hopeless, exhausted stories of how much worse it had gotten (I hadn’t thought it could get any worse). And they’d ask how I was doing, and I’d get to say, “Oh man, I’m doing so much better now.” And they’d get this longing, dreamlike expression and go, “Man . . . I really need to get out of this place . . .”
The lighthouse, proving dry, safe, hopeful land.
Maybe the workplace thing doesn’t speak to you, but you’ve got this one friend who is an absolutely beautiful, precious, wonderful person and you love them to death, but they’re deep, deep, deep in a sad place, and they really, really, really need you to join them there.
And you can’t. You can’t spend all day every day letting them hang onto you for dear life, telling you every hurt and every problem and every fear and every dark thought, because . . . well because you’re a person, too, and you have your dreams and your family and your books and your other friends and your sleep that you need.
Maybe you found a really healthy way to be there for them by having some boundaries: Saying “hello” and “I love you” every day, but only having a long chat once a week; Telling them you can’t stay up with them all night every night, but you’ll check in first thing tomorrow morning.
Or maybe, because you are a loving human and they are a human so-worth-loving, you give up your boundaries and you jump in with them. You set aside all your good things, happy things, other friendships, hobbies, tasks, sleep, rest, plans, dreams . . . and you jump in with them, feel every hurt they feel, carry every heaviness they carry.
And soon, you can’t help them anymore.
In fact, soon, you’re right where they are. You’re both falling apart. And you can’t help each other. And you’ve lost all your own hope.
Or maybe that’s not how the story ends, because you did stick to healthy boundaries. You did secure your own oxygen mask first, and that meant that you didn’t leave that friend alone, but you also kept time for yourself and for your other loved ones. You stayed healthy. You had happy times, you did exciting things, you enjoyed your hobbies, and you kept up on sleep.
This one’s tough, because the depression it sounds like this imaginary friend is struggling with doesn’t have an easy fix. It’s not quite the same as “starting on the other side of the wall.” Just being a shining example to them that “people can sometimes be happy” might not save them. In fact, there’s a very, very good chance it won’t. But still, there is that chance that your freedom and health does give them hope. Even while they feel let down that you need your own boundaries–feeling let down, because through no fault of their own, they are absolutely drowning and can only see danger and rejection in your boundaries. . . . Even while they feel that betrayal, maybe, maybe you are a sort of a lighthouse. An example of someone doing whatever yucky things it takes to take care of their own mental health.
All these scenarios are tough, actually, because being a stable, happy, healthy lighthouse doesn’t guarantee safety for anyone–not your abused family member, not your burnt out co-worker, not your struggling friend . . .
There’s the rub: You actually can’t save people.
It’s not up to you.
And you certainly can’t save them by jumping back into the thing that almost killed you. By having two people thrashing against the current instead of one.
But you can stand on the dock and hold the rope and when they’re someday able and ready to climb out, you’ll be there for them.
Maybe the very best chance they’ve got is seeing proof that there is freedom.
Actually, if you can’t help but jump back in and drown alongside your loved ones, you’re proving to them a very sad lesson: “There is no way out. You tried to escape, but you’re back here drowning with me again. I guess this is what we’re stuck with. Drowning.”
I recently had a tough but hopeful talk with that psychologist mentor of mine I mentioned. What do I do with all the world’s heaviness that is dragging me under? So, so, so many suffer. Needlessly. Unjustly. So much hate, so much prejudice, so much looking the other way, so much carelessness. This massively wealthy world is full of cold, hungry, sick, and homeless. All over the globe. Not just in that remote village or third world city. Like . . . right here. On every corner in Minneapolis. New York. Portland. San Francisco. Atlanta. Everywhere. That’s hard to sleep with. It makes me sad and angry when I think about it. And it makes me sad and angry all the time when I think about it all the time.
How can I carry all this weight?
His answer? “You can’t.”
You can carry some of it. You can carry a lot of it some of the time. But you can’t carry all of it. And you can’t carry any of it all of the time. You can’t help the cold, hungry, sick, and homeless by falling apart under the weight of the entire world.
Absolutely you can help. And you should. And blissful ignorance–turning a blind eye–is gross.
But you can’t carry it all, and you can’t carry it all the time.
It makes your “help” worthless.
You drowning helps no one.
Back to where we started–Love is an incredibly powerful emotion. It is wonderful. But it can be so overpowering that we can’t think clearly.
“Love” ignores the flight attendant and tries heroically to strap everyone else’s oxygen mask on first. Heroically and fruitlessly.
“Love” screams deafeningly that you can never, ever, ever leave family behind.
“Love” leaves us feeling guilty and unsettled when we have to tell our struggling friend once again that we have to go now.
“Love” begs us to stay. Always stay. Stay with the ones who are drowning.
“Love” tells us to throw our health and our hopes and our dreams and our needs and our life away because we don’t want our drowning loved ones to drown alone.
I’m not saying that the right way is walking away, shutting out, ignoring, giving up on, or always choosing our own happiness.
What I do know, though, is that when “Love” is telling you to go to a place where you’re going to drown with the ones you want to help . . . and your drowning is not going to save them . . . there’s a better way you can love them.
Abusive families, cults, toxic workplaces, depression (for the record, 100%, depression is NOT in the same category as those others. Don’t misunderstand that. It’s just your inability to help if you drown, too, holds true in the face of every type of darkness) . . . one thing all kinds of dark places have in common is that the darkness cannot itself be changed to light. It is . . . darkness. There is not hope in the darkness. The hope is in the light, and the light is in a different place.
If you can hold the hand of someone walking out of darkness–wonderful, beautiful, worth every damn minute.
But if all you have to offer them is losing your own way in the dark, too . . . there’s no real hope for them in that.
If you’ve escaped a dark place, but you’ve left beautiful loved ones there, you have to remember how you escaped:
What did you see on the outside of the darkness that gave you that little glimmer of hope that there was light to be found?
Who was a stable, happy, healthy lighthouse for you?
And can you make the impossible-feeling choice to stand in the light and hold out your hand–your life a proof that freedom is out there? No matter how badly “Love” tells you to jump back in and drown with them?