Death

To my friend Peter F.
You’re one of the tenderest souls the world has known.
Be at peace.
~

Death is yucky.

It’s been on my mind this year. A lot.

One of my first, best work-buddies died suddenly the other day. His name was Peter, too, and we used to set up a cup across the room and take turns trying to throw pens into it. We got into trouble together–a lot. We drank Monsters together and always, always made each other laugh. He did this hilarious thing where anytime you’d tell him anything–anything–he’d whip his head around and, in an exaggeratedly defensive voice snap back, “I know!!!?” So much laughter. Peter was the best, and he was a deep, deep, loving human. . . . One of the hardest things about death, to me, is that you can’t talk with the person about it afterward.

This weird year . . . I’ve watched videos on the news of Black Humans dying who didn’t need to die. I’ve looked at graphs representing hundreds of thousands of people dying in a pandemic. I’ve been there with people barely hold on–wishing I could fix it, knowing I can’t. We’ve adopted a 13-year-old dog who we absolutely adore, but who we know doesn’t have too many more years or months to snuggle with us and eat yummy treats. We’ve talked through preparing for and dealing with “if you or I die,” since that’s a thing adults do, especially this year. And I’ve wrestled with some of my own fears and associations and assumptions and feelings about death.

A close friend recently asked the question: Why aren’t we using this year to reflect on death more? It seems like a healthy activity. But sort of like cod liver oil is healthy. It’s healthy but it is no fun. Cheese tastes better.

Another close friend recently suggested being honest more about the stuff we don’t have all put together. The stuff we aren’t confident about, or don’t know what to say about. The stuff we do struggle with. None of us have all the answers. So it’s good to get real with each other.

So, real from me to you: I don’t like death. Death gets to me. Like all the way.

Since I know you think about death sometimes, too–here are my thoughts–very random and disorganized, as this topic is for me. Once you’ve read this, maybe you can share your thoughts with me? Maybe they’re words I need to hear. Or words you need to say. Maybe you can share those words with others? Maybe we can face these yucky things together more.

First and maybe most of all: When someone dies, there’s this urge to say the right thing to make it feel a little better, to relieve a little pain. Don’t. It doesn’t work. At all. It’s almost hurtful–it is hurtful–to think your words can somehow fix the sting. Death is the worst. Let the pain happen. It needs to happen. Death is awful. Don’t downplay it. Don’t deny it. Don’t “at least” it. Maybe there’s nothing to say, and it’s just time for hugs and for just sitting next to each other.

That being said . . . here are some thoughts to (maybe) help prepare for it? . . . to give the awful experience of death some context. . . .

In some communities, death is very normal. For example, free climber Alex Honnold talks about how routine it is in his community to hear “[this-friend] just died.” Their sport is so full of passion and aliveness. But it’s an incredibly dangerous sport, so they become more used to death. From what I understand it still hurts, but it’s . . . different. It’s more . . . normal. The death? Not surprising. The full-tilt life? Worth the risk, and worth celebrating. “They died doing what they loved.” . . . Sometimes you hear doctors talk about how dying is just a part of the life cycle. In some poor parts of the world, early or painful death is much more “normal,” too. Maybe the experience of death is somewhat subjective.

A Buddhist view on death stresses how natural it is as a part of life. The flip side of the same coin. That it is such a struggle because we try so hard to deny that flip side, clinging to the things we love as if they are permanent, and seeing our individual selves as extra special instead of as one little part of a big, unified, flowing world of life.

“We can reflect on and contemplate the inevitability of death, and learn to accept it as a part of the gift of life. If we learn to celebrate life for its ephemeral beauty, its coming and going, appearance and disappearance, we can come to terms with and make peace with it. We will then appreciate its message of being in a constant process of renewal and regeneration without holding back, like everything and with everything, including the mountains, stars, and even the universe itself undergoing continual change and renewal. This points to the possibility of being at ease with and accepting the fact of constant change, while at the same time making the most sensible and selfless use of the present moment.”

~ Geshe Dadul Namgyal, Feb 26 2020 interview in the New York Times . . . maybe you should read that whole interview!

So what about after death? Do you know exactly what happens? Are you sure? Pretty sure? Not a shadow of a doubt? . . . Or do you not know? Are you comfortable with being unsure? At least able to accept it? Is there some “trust” somewhere in there? Do you think you could find a way to know for sure what happens? And do you think it would change things? . . . Do you need to know? . . .

What will you leave behind? . . . You loved and treasured your moment of life. Will you leave behind a better chance for others to treasure their own lives? Will you leave the world a little better, a little happier, a little more hopeful? Your friends and family? Or the strangers you do or don’t smile at?

Death is uncontrollable. But there is a lot we can do to probably influence the quality and length of our life. Taking care of our bodies, of our health. Taking precautions. Not being a free-climber. Never ever eating happy yummy treats. Steering clear of poor inner cities where violent crime is more common. Not volunteering in war zones. See? It’s not that straight-forward. There are some “good” things we can do to probably lengthen our lifespan . . . and there are things we can do (or not do) that give us more days on the calendar, but days with less meaning.

“You may be 38 years old, as I happen to be. And one day, some great opportunity stands before you and calls you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause. And you refuse to do it because you are afraid. . . . You refuse to do it because you want to live longer. . . . You’re afraid that you will lose your job, or you are afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity, or you’re afraid that somebody will stab you, or shoot at you or bomb your house; so you refuse to take the stand. Well, you may go on and live until you are 90, but you’re just as dead at 38 as you would be at 90. And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit.”

~ Martin Luther King Jr

What evil or hurt do we do to each other and to the world in our desperate attempts to cling to our fleeting lives? . . . And what unhealthiness do we inject into our own lives to try to escape death, or to deny its pain and fear? . . . Stop and think . . . . . . .

But the good things we can do–taking true care of ourselves, and not to an extreme . . . pause and ponder how deeply you treasure your life. Imagine knowing your last breath. That deep, unsettling feeling of loss . . . it’s real. Life is worth holding onto, for yourself and for others, in every healthy and balanced way you can. So maybe do eat your veggies?

Just, also eat pizza sometimes. Balance. . . . And consider doing some big, brave (if scary) good in the world.

In other words, while you’re clinging to life, don’t forget to taste life and to help others find their lives, even if it may cost you a couple years.

At the end of the day, you can’t control death. I keep catching myself wondering, day-dreaming, hoping–maybe I can find a way to help our furry friend Willoughby bypass death, postpone it, live an extra whole lifetime. But eventually, reality steps back in to say: You can’t control death. I can’t control my furry friend’s. I can’t control my wife’s. I can’t control mine. And you can’t control yours. It could be an accident tomorrow. It could be disease a few years from now. Or it could just be time to go when you’re old and grey and full of memories. And I think it may help to accept that–the fact that you can’t control death. It may make your grip a little looser, your fears a little calmer, and life a little sweeter.

One sort of sick but sort of true silver lining–which doesn’t take away the sting but might offer just a little peace: Think what will be over at death. What will be no more. What will be done. Life does include plenty of suffering. And our bodies seem to see more and more pain as we slowly grow older. Some live to see such pain and helplessness that they choose no longer to cling at all costs to their life, knowing it is time to stop fighting a brutal fight. And when there is that much pain, the fact that death will someday relieve it is not an entirely unwelcome thought, though it never makes life less precious. Pain can’t last forever. And so we hear people at funerals give the over-simplified, maybe unwelcome encouragement, “At least they’re not in pain anymore,” and no, it doesn’t fix it, but . . . it’s sort of true. . . . There is a natural end to suffering, just as there is a natural end to life.

Yes, it still stings.

What experiences, feelings, emotions, treasures–are only a part of our lives because we know that one day we will die? There is a sweetness. There is a deep love. There is attentive, expressive, desperate love that comes along with mortality. Because every minute counts.

“If we were vampires and death was a joke,
We’d go out on the sidewalk and smoke,
And laugh at all the lovers and their plans,
I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand.
Maybe time running out is a gift,
I’ll work hard ’til the end of my shift,
And give you every second I can find,
And hope it isn’t me who’s left behind.
It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever,
Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone.
Maybe we’ll get forty years together,
But one day I’ll be gone,
Or one day you’ll be gone.”

~ If We Were Vampires, a song by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Time is a strange and arbitrary measurement of our lives. We crave and cling to our youth, our “prime.” And we don’t want to grow old because we believe growing old means we will lose those things–the things we’re passionate about, the things we do, and love to do. Does this interpretation of time do us a disservice? Does it rob us of what we have? Of the parts of us we never really lose–that just show up in a different “time” of our lives?

“You will always, always, always have the miles you’ve run. You’ll always have the countries you’ve visited. You’ll always have the people you’ve loved. You’ll always have the dances you’ve danced, the songs you’ve sung, the books you’ve read, the letters you’ve written, the rock walls you’ve climbed, the parties you’ve thrown, the puppies you’ve snuggled, and the accomplishments you’ve accomplished. . . . Why do they count less ten years later? . . . The love for the thing is still there. The memories are still there. The reality is still there. The identity is still there.”

~ You still are and you still can, a blog post I wrote a little while ago

Here is the most comforting thought I’ve ever found about growing old–about the irreversible passing of time–though to be fair, I’ve shared it with some who don’t find it comforting–so, in case it does happen to help you, too:

“I should say having been is the surest kind of being. . . . The pessimist resembles a man who observes with fear and sadness that his wall calendar, from which he daily tears a sheet, grows thinner with each passing day. On the other hand, the person who attacks the problems of life actively is like a man who removes each successive leaf from his calendar and files it neatly and carefully away with its predecessors, after first having jotted down a few diary notes on the back. He can reflect with pride and joy on all the richness set down in these notes, on all the life he has already lived to the fullest. What will it matter to him if he notices that he is growing old? Has he any reason to envy the young people whom he sees, or wax nostalgic over his own lost youth? What reasons has he to envy a younger person? For the possibilities that a young person has, the future which is in store for him? ‘No, thank you,’ he will think. ‘Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past . . .”

~ Viktor Frankl, a psychologist who survived Nazi death camps, in his beautiful little book, Man’s Search for Meaning

So . . . time. It passes. We grow old. Death comes. But I am still me. You are still you. The reality, the identity, the beauty–it always IS. It will always be real. One day we’ll be done looking back, but all the love and passion and beauty will still be there, will still be real. . . . any comfort in that for you? For me, there is.

But death still hurts. It’s the worst of the worst of the worst. So . . . how do we face it? I honestly don’t know. I’ve heard that people really need someone there to hold their hand. So maybe we focus on how we can help each other face it. We do need each other.

Spoiler alert, if you haven’t seen Frozen II and you don’t want to know any bits of what happens, skip down to the next paragraph. Remember or imagine with me: Olaf the larger-than-life little snowman is suddenly dying. Anna comes over and holds him as he slowly fades. “I’ve got you.” Wrapped in her embrace, Olaf says, “Hey Anna, I just thought of one thing that’s permanent.” “What’s that?” “Love,” says Olaf. “Warm hugs?” offers Anna. “I like warm hugs,” says Olaf, at home in the love of Anna’s arms. And then he goes. . . . And there it is. . . . “Warm hugs.” If we have to go–and we do–can we go with warm hugs? Can we give someone the warm hugs they need? This year, so many people are dying alone in hospital beds, too far from the loving arms that would give anything to be there to offer warm hugs. So–maybe warm hugs aren’t just physical, in-person, immediate. Maybe we can provide each other a love, a sweetness, a tenderness that proves those warm hugs, even just felt deeply in the heart. Maybe it would help to talk about death more with each other . . . to express, to promise the warm hugs, so that when the time comes, we can feel them, no matter how it happens.

Maybe you get the chance to be right there with someone to hold their hand . . . to hold them. That is a gift you can know is good.

So I don’t know what to do about death.

I don’t.

It is indescribably bad.

But the sadness and hurt of death gives you and me a meaningful purpose in each other’s lives:

Treasure people now. Give happiness now, while people are still here to feel it. Life has plenty of hurts, and death is scary. So when we see each other, maybe we can remember the hurt and the fear we’ll each face, and we can take the opportunities we have, while we still have them, to ease each other’s pain in any way we can . . . to bring love and light and laughter and warm hugs into each other’s impermanent, beautiful lives.

Willoughby 1 (2)

Watching the clock

Almost done with work. Almost the weekend. Almost time to eat. Almost time to go. Almost bed time. Almost done with this workout. Almost done with classes.

Then, it will be better.

Someday. When all the stars have aligned, our lives will begin.

In that perfect moment, we’ll be alive. We’ll be happy. We’ll want to be present.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who falls into a cycle of waiting–watching the clock–wishing the time away. Almost done with work. Almost the weekend. Waiting, waiting, waiting. Waiting for later.

“But then,” says Eckhart Tolle, “you miss your whole life, which is never not now.”

What would happen if next time you find yourself watching the clock, you stop and ask yourself big questions like: Where am I? Who am I? What is happening right now? Why am I doing this? What is good and beautiful right here, right now? What is meaningful right here, right now?

Wishing time away becomes a habit. Our entire lives can slip away while we’re waiting for them to begin.

How can you break that habit? (Right this moment?)

Mahatma Gandhi - more to life than increasing speed

You still are and you still can

I am a world traveler. An explorer. An adventurer.

Salty wind on a gloomy Scottish coast, with an order of fish and chips. Diesel smell from the red double-decker buses.

Giant red Maple leaves painted on the airplanes, a little memory to remind me that I had technically been to Canada, even if it was more through. Little me still wants it to count.

The palpable rush of confidence and swagger as sheltered teen me navigated the Heartfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and caught the MARTA, all by myself, to see my adopted family. Atlanta and its suburbs that, after a few trips, was my emotional stomping grounds, my “real home.”

Restaurants on piers in San Diego, with the loud sound of crashing waves. “Red and white,” a cryptic inside joke that out-of-place teen me and all my fellow travelers in San Deigo laughed and laughed at, though I never actually got it.

Homemade black-bean breakfast burritos at dawn on the road in Arizona with my big sister, and the jaw-dropping, don’t-know-what-to-do-with-it massiveness of the Grand Canyon when I first walked up to its edge.

The carefully-choreographed nonchalance with which I’d swing my backpack over one shoulder (only once accidentally smacking a fellow traveler in the face with the cool maneuver). The “oh yeah, this is my every-day, I’ve got this” demeanor I adopted whenever I had traveling companions, just to prove that yes, I’m a seasoned world traveler at seventeen.

Traveling by greyhound bus. Telling people I traveled by greyhound bus. Cred.

A long, long, long flight to . . . Amsterdam? And then to Frankfurt, where I logged onto an internet kiosk to send a quick love-note and discovered that German keyboards switch the Y and the Z. Struggling to keep my eyelids open so as not to miss my connection to Africa.

And then there was Ethiopia. Addis Ababa. I could write and write and write. The collapsed, seat-belt-less back seat of the taxi with the door that would swing wide open around curves. Ululating funeral processions. Wedding feasts. The way Amharic speakers gasp and raise their eyebrows to denote that they’re still listening. The beautiful Ge’ez script that doubled as code for my secret love letters. Morning prayers over loud-speaker. Blue and white taxis with boys hanging out the door yelling their destinations, and chaotic traffic like you’ve never seen (though YouTubing “Meskel Square” may give you a sense). Outrunning a bull down an alleyway. Beautiful old cathedrals. Getting lost at dusk in a corner of the city I’d never seen. Key Wat. And the streets of Addis Ababa coming alive with runners at 5am.

And Uganda. Kawunga ne ebijanjalo for lunch every day. The dancing, the rhythm. The elephants and giraffes as I rode a massive bus from one corner of Uganda to another. The beautiful landscape. The “oh-yeah-this-is-normal” feel of wildfires in the hot Savannah. The warm, generous welcomes in remote villages from the poorest of people. The python I suddenly notice slithering through the grass two feet away. Jack Fruit fresh off the tree. Roaring waterfalls, rivers with hippos and crocodiles. The several-story shopping malls and glamorous houses that told me that I’d learned only a tiny little version of the truth about Africa.

A dreamlike week in Mezzegra on Lake Como in northern Italy. All the pizza, all the wine, and fresh food from the little shop on the corner, where the deli attendant didn’t wash hands after using them bare to wrap our raw chicken, but like in a this-is-normal way. All the little restaurants serving food fresh from their home gardens. Showing up at the local super market fifteen minutes before the hour, only to see the doors shut and someone explain that they weren’t busy so they went ahead and closed early. Beautiful mountains and towers and villages and trails. An intimate elopement at the Villa del Balbianello with just my adventure buddy, our photographer couple, and the reckless driver of our wooden boat. And gelato, of course. Il dolce far niente.

And most recently, a few years of flying or driving or taking a train or doing whatever it takes to get to any and every gorgeous piece of America (or Canada) we can–from Big Bend to Glacier to the Rockies to the Smokies to Zion. And a weekend wandering Santa Barbara, driving its mountain roads, splashing in its waves, eating authentic tacos, and wishing Shawn Spencer and Burton Guster really lived there.

World-traveler.

That’s me.

That was me.

People still say I travel a lot. I guess I do, when we’re not hunkered down waiting out the coronavirus. But like . . . sort of traveling. I don’t fly on airplanes very much anymore, mostly shockingly long drives (think sixteen hours in one day), and pretty much just in the United States. But I didn’t mean to be a United-States-traveler, I meant to be a World-traveler.

When I left my home country for Africa, I discovered that a big portion of my heart belongs to exploring countries and cultures all around the world.

That just is me.

“But,” I haven’t left the country in five years. When I was twenty, I envisioned this World-traveler me flying off to a new land to explore at least once or twice a year. I knew how to, I learned all about it . . . this was what my life was going to be about, in a big way.

In the ten years since, I’ve flown across the ocean only once. Been to Italy and Canada. In ten years. Not what I envisioned. So . . . am I a World-traveler?

 

What is something like that for you? Something that is a huge part of daydream-you? Maybe a thing you used to experience, do a lot of, love, dream about, envision as one of the main threads in your life?

Maybe something you haven’t gotten to keep doing quite like you envisioned it?

Traveling? . . . Running? . . . Writing? . . . Drawing? . . . Volunteering? . . . Journaling? . . . Singing? . . . Playing sports? . . . Being romantic? . . . Adopting fur-children? . . .

Have you felt like you’ve had to give it up? Like you shouldn’t claim that title for yourself anymore, because it’s not accurate?

Maybe you used to be a runner, but not really anymore now that you’ve had kids. 13.1 used to be your jam, but now a slow 1 or 2 miles is a major accomplishment, when you even get the time for it.

And you still love “running.” You want it. You remember it. You know it. You miss it. You have your old medals, photos, miles logged on your running app, memories of worn down pair after pair of shoes. You occasionally look at your old race bibs and get very opposite feelings at the same time–happy and sad. . . .

Are you even a runner anymore?

 

Whatever your big thing is–and maybe you have a few of them–I wonder . . .

. . . why does time matter so much in your identity?

. . . and why can’t you still have it, even if in a more these-days version?

 

Why do we get so wrapped up in the passing of time when it comes to our identity?

You will always, always, always have the miles you’ve run. You’ll always have the countries you’ve visited. You’ll always have the people you’ve loved. You’ll always have the dances you’ve danced, the songs you’ve sung, the books you’ve read, the letters you’ve written, the rock walls you’ve climbed, the parties you’ve thrown, the puppies you’ve snuggled, and the accomplishments you’ve accomplished.

Why do they count less ten years later?

One day, it will be one hundred years later. And then, which will count as you? The one-hundred-years-ago you or the ninety-years-ago-you? At your funeral, who will be remembered? Only the you of the final couple years? Or the you that has lived a long and vibrant life of twists and turns and adventures and accomplishments and passions and stories and favorites?

Your memories and photographs of 10-year-old dancing you, 20-year-old dating you, 30-year-old running you, and 40-year-old parent you . . . they’re no less real or important or wonderful or YOU than they were 10, 20, 30, and 40 years ago.

Why do we judge ourselves by arbitrary measurements of time when we tell ourselves and others of our identity–of what makes us us? Why don’t we just access our deep down selves, even if our deep down selves haven’t had the chance for many years to show up the way they love to? The love for the thing is still there. The memories are still there. The reality is still there. The identity is still there.

You don’t have to throw back-then-you away. Now-you will also one day be a back-then-you. They all count. Let go of time a little when you know and share yourself. Let you still be you.

 

And why can’t you still do that thing you once loved and still love? Is it not normal for this stage of life? No problem, be abnormal. Are you not as physically capable of it as you used to be? No problem, do it slower/lighter/easier. Is it too expensive to do as much as you used to? No problem, find (or make up) a cheaper version of it, no matter how unique.

What would happen if we still just did that thing we loved–still love? What would it take?

Among other things, it would take just letting go of the need to be “the best at” or even “good at.” Can we let go of that? If we can, there’s a lot of epic life to be lived.

It would also take accepting the fact that the experience will just be different now. When I was sixteen, I could eat a lot more pizza in one sitting than I can now. And I don’t feel as great the next day as I used to. Okay. . . . That’s okay. And before my concussion, I could run a lot harder than I’ve been able to since. Okay. . . . That’s okay. And exploring and traveling for me looks a little different now than it did when I was nineteen. Now, instead of living on the other side of the globe for the better part of a year, I sneak in a couple quick hiking days into a long weekend bookended by long drives. A little less glamorous. Okay. . . . That’s okay.

 

So that big thing of yours . . . that thing that holds so much of your identity, but that you feel you’ve lost . . . are you sure you’ve lost it? Won’t it always be a part of you? And could you still find a way to live it and celebrate it some more?

 

I’m still a World-traveler.

I hope to do lots more actually physically visiting other countries in my lifetime. I’d love someday to do it very regularly. But for now, I take hiking road trips in North America, study languages from places I want to adventure, learn about other cultures through documentaries, and explore those places on Google Maps for hours at a time.

I always will be a Word-traveler. Even when I’m stuck at home for a season.

It’s who I have been. It’s who I will be. And both of those make it who I am.

 

Who are YOU, “even though” . . . ?

 

Can you love humans AND cut people off?

How do you feel about these two “truths?”

  • Deep down, everyone is just human, with their insecurities and feelings, needing love and, as a human, no matter how broken, worthy of love.
  • Some people are toxic, narcissistic, cruel, and unloving, and permanently ending your relationship with them is the healthiest choice.

I bet most of us would agree at least in some sense with each of these statements taken separately.

But. When we put them side by side–these two ideas feel like they don’t fit together: If So-and-so is so toxic and hurts me so much, how come other people can love them? And if I admit that, deep down, they’re still lovable–how can I cut them off?

So which truth will you hang on to, and which one will you let go of?

 

Think about what happens when you hold onto just one of these truths, and let go of the other.

 

Rejecting the first truth–that everyone is lovable:

We learn to set boundaries. Some of us have to learn to set pretty big boundaries–tough ones. My own long story very short, I no longer have a relationship with my parents. It took years of therapy and soul-searching and trying and crying. And it wasn’t a clean break–for years and years, I walked away to varying degrees, a number of times, from the family and friends I grew up around. Honestly, it was the way I could be healthy. I was surviving. In the end, walking away brought freedom. But it also taught me a dangerous lesson. See, if the trauma is bad enough to permanently end a family relationship, it probably hurt you more than words can describe. That probably results in extreme emotional reactions when you think about those people who hurt you so badly. It probably means you have a hard time thinking clearly or calmly or kindly about them. Out of self-protection, I learned to label those people in my life “monsters,” totally “bad.” “Toxic.” Never to be trusted, absolutely the worst. And, depending on what you mean by those labels, I wasn’t wrong. So I left that relationship. And it has been incredibly freeing. It feels healthy. My life has become livable and full of hope. But in the end, through this deeply emotional and significant, drawn-out experience, I learned a really loud lesson: People who hurt you badly ARE NOT SAFE and must be cut off. They’re Bad.

So what do you think that did to me? I began to see the world as totally black and white. In his novel, The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho wrote, “Most people see the world as a threatening place, and, because they do, the world turns out, indeed, to be a threatening place.” And that’s what happened to me. When I felt the sort of deep hurt, rejection, or betrayal that I had learned to walk away from once or twice, I began having to walk away from it every time. I began to assume that anyone who hurt me deeply must not be a safe person. And as I discovered that deep hurt is a pretty common and inescapable part of relationships–intimate, personal, professional, all kinds–I found myself walking away from relationships every time the hurt showed up, or even threatened to show up. If people that deeply hurt me are unlovable “monsters,” then I need to watch out for those people. I need to protect myself. When I see “toxic,” I need to turn and run. It hurts me too badly. Since I rejected the truth that even the hurtful people are lovable, I learned to walk away quickly from any hint of “toxic.” Problem is, of course, just about everyone in my life will feel a little “toxic” from time to time. I developed a protective habit of immediately giving up on anyone that hurt me. I couldn’t see that everyone is on a spectrum of kindness and unkindness. And that unless I accepted that people who have “bad” in them also have “good” and “humanity” somewhere inside them, I was going to live a pretty lonely life. (Oh, and–I hurt people, too–so . . . what do I do with that?)

So rejecting the truth that deep down, everyone is human and lovable, left me very much alone. But where does it leave others when we reject their humanity? Well, imagine that you’re the abuser-character. You’re the one that’s been labeled “toxic.” And maybe you really did do a number on someone. Maybe you were an absolutely terrible parent. Maybe you are really arrogant or really disagreeable. Maybe you rub a lot of people the wrong way. But when you wake up in the morning, you don’t think, “Muahahaha, let’s be an asshole today!” You think, “Oh man . . . I hope this day goes better.” Somewhere inside, you’re trying. You want good. You wish you weren’t mean, that you could control your words. You need another chance. Maybe it took you fifty years to see your immaturity for what it is. Maybe it took losing a bunch of relationships. So what will it take to change? To recover? To grow? Well, among other things, you need support. You need friendship. You need someone to give you a chance to do humanness the right way. You need hope. You need good examples. You need people to practice with. You need a shoulder to cry on when you have to face the damage you’ve done in the past. But–we’ve already decided you are “toxic.” So if everyone else rejects that first truth–that everyone is human and lovable–and clings to the idea that every hurtful or bad person must be written off, shunned, shamed, and “cancelled” into oblivion . . . you will never have a chance. Let’s be honest–we all know what regret feels like. We all know the feeling of hoping for another chance, because we screwed up with someone–maybe with a lot of people. We’ve had ours lows. So when you feel tempted to sentence every “toxic,” mean, negative, obnoxious, or immature person to a permanent identity as a hopeless “Bad” person–remember your lows. Remember when you needed people to give you another chance and show you a “love” that they could have said you didn’t deserve. It is wonderful to show up for broken people.

So keep this truth. Live by it: Deep down, everyone is just human, with their insecurities and feelings, needing love and, as a human, no matter how broken, worthy of love.

 

Rejecting the second truth–that you need to completely walk away from some relationships:

We also learn not to set boundaries. We learn to accept bullying or abuse or mistreatment or disrespect. Some of us learn to accept it from many people, always afraid to stick up for ourselves. Some of us learn to accept it from just a few special people. Case in point, “but they’re still your family” is one of the most dangerous phrases that we’ve all heard a thousand times. Cultural expectations pressure us to patiently, silently accept behavior from family members that we’d never accept from non-family. A parent’s passive aggressive commentary on every single one of our life choices or preferences. A sibling repeatedly guilting us into “lending” money we’ll never get back. A spouse’s constant berating. Sticking up for yourself in the face of abusive treatment from family is not a life skill we talk about. When we do finally stick up for ourselves, we discover whether or not they’re going to listen and accept our boundaries. If they won’t, maybe the relationship is too unhealthy. Maybe it’s too damaging. Maybe it was never really a relationship at all. So can you take care of yourself by walking away? The general cultural expectation is: No. “They’re still your family.” “You only have one set of parents.” Etc. Families aren’t the only area where we can learn not to set boundaries. We can feel too guilty to stick up for ourselves when a friend starts taking advantage of us or hurting us–we don’t want to hurt them. We learn to grin and bear it when co-workers make mean jokes or take their mood out on us–need to be a “team player.” I think deep down we each know that some relationships need to end, but we can’t do it. We’re afraid. We don’t know what others will think. We care about the person we need to walk away from. We worry for them. We want to “be the bigger person,” and give them another chance, and another, and another. So we tell ourselves and each other that Love says that you shouldn’t cut someone off, that you should be there for them, no matter how yucky it gets–after all, maybe one day they’ll hit rock bottom, and if you’re not there for them, who knows what might happen. So “cutting off” a family member, a friend, even a co-worker–establishing such a final boundary–is not cool.

So where does this leave you? It leaves you being abused, mistreated, disrespected, bullied, hurt, taken advantage of, pushed around, made fun of. It leaves you exhausted, crying, fragile, insecure, powerless, hopeless, lifeless, stuck. It leaves you, year after year after year, holding your breath when you show up for a family reunion, and then flying back home in tears, disappointed and crushed and re-traumatized again and again and again. It leaves you stripped bare of energy. Maybe stripped bare financially. It makes your life a living hell. This is not the life you want. This is not a life of love or of purpose or of hope or of beauty or of peace. This is miserable. . . . Please, please, please, please, please hear this: You are worth more than that. . . . You do NOT matter LESS than the people who are systematically hurting you. . . . You are a precious human being. Pretend like you’re your friend–looking at mistreated-You from the outside. You know that the You you’re looking at through a friend’s eyes MATTERS. You matter. You matter. You matter. Your heart matters. Your life matters. Your happiness matters. Your peace matters. Your human dignity matters. Your dreams matter. You absolutely, 100% do not have to put up with abuse. So if someone refuses to have a healthy, functional relationship with you–you absolutely can walk away. Yes, even from your parents. As someone who’s lived this, I can tell you, despite what 99% of the voices around you are saying, it IS better when you end the relationships that are too far broken and damaging to you. Whether it’s because the person you love refuses to stop mistreating you, or because even if they would try there has already been too much trauma–or both or either or–who knows, honestly? If any relationship is suffocating your heart and is not able or willing to be fixed–you can let it go. Rejecting boundaries–really big, final boundaries–can keep you a prisoner of abuse and bullying for your entire life.

Rejecting the idea that some relationships need to be ended doesn’t just hurt you. It’s also not good for anyone around you. There’s a reason on the plane they say you have to put your own oxygen mask on before you put the mask on your kid. A stuck, abused, lifeless, hopeless you isn’t going to be any help to anyone else. A drained, bullied, broken you won’t have much left over to offer your friends, your job, your hobbies, your life, your loved ones. And it actually, really, truly, honestly, for real won’t be any help to the abusers you love too much to walk away from. My therapist put it this way when I was wrestling with whether to travel down to my family’s Thanksgiving–to be there for my siblings in their own stressed and disappointed and anxious journey with what it means to be in our family–to be there for my parents, to spare them some sadness and feelings of rejection–my therapist put it this way, and it’s stuck with me: When you see someone thrashing around, drowning in a raging river, jumping in next to them won’t help. You’ll just get pulled down with them, in their thrashing panic, and besides, you can’t beat the river’s current either. Instead, you throw them the life saver tied onto the dock, and tell them that if they’ll grab on you can help pull them out of the river. The tough part is, your unwillingness to jump back into a toxic river you once lived in and drown right next to them will absolutely feel like a betrayal to them. But jumping back into a place where you’re going to get knocked in the head by the flailing limbs and pulled away in the dangerous current is NOT going to help them. It will only cause you to drown. The only chance at helping those people that have hurt you so deeply and traumatically, or insist on living in that world, might be by standing on the shore, ready to help when they finally decide to hop out of the raging river into a healthy, functional world of freedom. Being, if nothing else, an example–proof for them–that if they want to find love and freedom, it’s out there. A drowning you helps nobody. Let’s be real about this urge to stick around and rescue our abusers: Has our sticking around, trying to please, them, ever made them happy and fulfilled? Nope. And it won’t, as long as we’re in their toxic world. The only chance you have at being there for the world is putting your own mask on first. No matter how “selfish” it feels. It’s just the way it works.

So keep this truth. Live by it: Some people are toxic, narcissistic, cruel, and unloving, and permanently ending your relationship with them is the healthiest choice.

 

So how do you hold these truths together?

Well, first, don’t go crazy with either one of them. Don’t take either one to a mindless extreme. Don’t be in a rush to throw a salvageable relationship of love away. But also don’t cling to a relationship that’s not there and drown yourself in the process.

Second, notice that we probably have a tendency to reject each one of these truths in different contexts. In what parts of your world do you champion love and acceptance, but forget to set boundaries? Maybe with family? Work? Politics? And in what parts of your world do you champion boundary-setting and forget that people are all still lovable humans deep down? Social settings? Friends? Social media? See, I think we know each of these truths, and forget each of these truths, and it may all just be an arbitrary tangle. Can we hold them, balance them, mindfully?

Third–and I think this is sort of the kicker: Who you LOVINGLY ACCEPT vs who you HEALTHILY WALK AWAY FROM has EVERYTHING to do with that specific relationship, its dynamic, what it is for, what needs it is fulfilling, and what it is intended to be. I can very healthily and compassionately put up with a kind of immature negativity and judgmentalism from a co-worker that would be devastating coming from a parent. I can put up with some hardcore manipulation from a friend who has very little control over me, whereas if this person were my significant other, I’d have to walk away. What is your relationship with this person who’s showing their “toxic” edges? As my friend Luke suggests asking, “Is your putting up with the mistreatment actually truly helping the other person or the situation, and therefore maybe worth it?” You can also ask, is the level of their immaturity one that you can deal with healthily? Or are they harming your well-being? Can I handle it when a high school friend expects me to solve all their emotional distress for them? Maybe. Can I handle it when my mom expects me to solve all her emotional distress for her? No. One size does not fit all. Re-framing the hurtful behavior around the dynamics and purpose of the specific relationship really helps. What is a parent? What is a child? What is a sibling? What is a friend? What is a co-worker? What is a random stranger? Each relationship has different needs when it comes to support, fulfillment, love, and boundaries.

Fourth, it helps to just acknowledge what is going to be, I think, the hardest part of all this, emotionally: Trusting that there will be other people there to give the “love” your parent or spouse or sibling or friend or co-worker needs to experience–the person you had to call it quits with. In holding that first truth–that every human is lovable–it is so hard to let go of people that are hurting us, because we may truly love them and wish them the best and hope hope hope that they will find and feel some love. It is so hard to trust this, but we have to trust, to remind ourselves, that there are 7.8 billion people in the world who they have not abused and traumatized, and among those 7.8 billion people they will absolutely find the love they need when they are ready. They will have other people there to help them change, other people there to give them hugs and a shoulder to cry on if and when they change and regret their abusive behavior. You do NOT have to stick around to help your abusers recover and grow. So let them be lovable humans that others will show up for. You can’t help them anymore. Let them go, and then trust that there is still a world there to love them when they need it.

And fifth, focus on the flip side. There are far, far, far more people who are still safe for you to show up in love for, to be there for, to make a difference for. Who do you get to show up for? Let your energy live THERE.

 

A few words to meditate on:

~

“Man is not fully conditioned and determined but rather determines himself whether he gives in to conditions or stands up to them. In other words, man is ultimately self-determining. Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment. By the same token, every human being has the freedom to change at any instant. . . . one of the main features of human existence is the capacity to rise above such conditions, to grow beyond them. Man is capable of changing the world for the better if possible, and of changing himself for the better if necessary.” ~ Viktor Frankl

Truth: Deep down, everyone is just human, with their insecurities and feelings, needing love and, as a human, no matter how broken, worthy of love.

~

“You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” ~ attributed to Buddha

Truth: Some people are toxic, narcissistic, cruel, and unloving, and permanently ending your relationship with them is the healthiest choice.

~

Good luck, my friends. I know that trying to live a life of love for others and love for self, holding these two truths together, can be hard and can include lots of tears shed. Hang in there. You’ve got this. Sending you love and energy.

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Tiny tiny tiny

world map

Picture a map of the world.

Do you see that tiny tiny tiny dot where you live?

You and I are tiny tiny tiny creatures in a great big world.

In August 2011, the Juno spacecraft, on its way to Jupiter, took pictures of the earth from one million miles away. Have you seen one of those pictures of our tiny tiny tiny earth?

There is something both humbling and relieving about how much bigger than me it all is. Do you ever stop to think about how much bigger it all is than just you or me?

One of the things it tells me is that all the struggle for Status that pushes other people, even entire people groups, down into suffering . . . the Status that we find at the expense of others is tiny tiny tiny.

May as well just be tiny humans together in our tiny corner of our tiny planet and just Love instead of trying to “win.”

When you zoom way out, we really ARE all in this together. Can we live like it?

#love #peace #kindness #world #life #earth #planet #people