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” . . . ?

 

Be the curly chip

Tortilla chips are made in a factory.

Factories make things Just-Right.

On a conveyor belt, the sheet of dough is cut by triangle-shaped molds, each mold identically sized and shaped, so that each chip will come out identical: Just-Right.

Somewhere along the way, the chips fall in a fryer. A few of the chips get “weird”–some folding over on themselves. some attaching inseparably to another chip, and some inexplicably curling into a perfect little curly chip.

Technically, these are defects. The factory and its machines were designed to spit out the Perfect-Product, millions upon millions of identical chips, day after day, each one Just-Right. The way they’re “supposed to be.”

But when the bag of chips finds its way into your kitchen and is torn open, the curly chips don’t get picked out and tossed. In fact, I bet if we took a survey, we’d find that the curly chips become the prized chips. The ones that look so beautifully unique. The ones that for some silly reason just warm your heart by the sheer different-ness of them.

 

Life . . . we sort of grow up in tortilla chip factories. Quality control tells us we need to match the other chips. To follow the same life path, make the “right” choices, and value the “right” things. Even that there’s a “right” or “wrong” color or shape. That to be, say, and do DIFFERENTLY is to be DEFECTIVE. Expectations.

So . . . you could fit the cookie-cutter mold. You could aim for IDENTICAL.

Or . . . you could do your own unique dance in the fryer and find your own perfectly UNIQUE shape.

“I don’t fit in.” “I’m not normal.”

That’s okay. If anything, that’s good. Fitting the mold isn’t a real value.

Be the curly chip!

20200524_135609

Just. Be. You.

 

Sad People

“Eeyore, the old grey Donkey, stood by the side of the stream, and looked at himself in the water.
‘Pathetic,’ he said. ‘That’s what it is. Pathetic.’
He turned and walked slowly down the stream for twenty yards, splashed across it, and walked slowly back on the other side. Then he looked at himself in the water again.
‘As I thought,’ he said. ‘No better from THIS side. But nobody minds. Nobody cares. Pathetic, that’s what it is.’
There was a crackling noise in the bracken behind him, and out came Pooh.
‘Good morning, Eeyore,’ said Pooh.
‘Good morning, Pooh Bear,’ said Eeyore gloomily. ‘If it IS a good morning,’ he said. ‘Which I doubt,’ said he.
‘Why, what’s the matter?’
‘Nothing, Pooh Bear, nothing. We can’t all, and some of us don’t. That’s all there is to it.’
‘Can’t all WHAT?’ said Pooh, rubbing his nose.
‘Gaiety. Song-and-dance. Here we go round the mulberry bush. …I’m not complaining, but There It Is.'”
~ A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

I don’t know if I’m a “sad” person. I’m figuring that out. I think I have been sad a lot. But I don’t know if I’m a Sad Person.

I have had stretches in my life full of everyday giddiness, high on life, can’t-stop-smiling, can’t-stop-laughing. Like life was one constant summer evening drive with the windows down. In fact, “happy” used to be the word I’d always, always use to describe myself. It was my identity.

I definitely am not always a Happy Person, though. At least not these days.

Do you think you HAVE to be a Happy Person? SHOULDN’T be a Sad Person? Maybe you’re a both. (That sounds pretty human.) What is YOUR relationship with sadness?

There is something to be said, to be acknowledged and understood, about sadness and sad people. They’re there, they’re real. I don’t know why some are mostly sadder and some are mostly happier. And like I said, I don’t know which one I am or if I’m right in the middle. Maybe that will change every year. Maybe one day it will stay one or the other. But I think the world is a better place when we acknowledge and see and accept that some people are Sad People.

I stumbled upon this little moment in a Ray Bradbury story this year, and it spoke to me, a little too directly:

“Some people turn sad awfully young. No special reason, it seems, but they seem almost to be born that way. They bruise easier, tire faster, cry quicker, remember longer and, as I say, get sadder younger than anyone else in the world. I know, for I’m one of them.”
~ Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine

I’d like to share a little bit of my story with sadness, because I want to tell you a few things I know about sad people.

My journey with sadness must have started very young. Maybe, like Ray Bradbury said, “no special reason.” I just remember hearing when I was growing up that I had always been a very anxious little kid. Always afraid, crying lots. Having deep, sad thoughts.

I remember as a 7-year-old having very real fears that my siblings and I must not be real Christians because we were always fighting and being mean. I tried to have a sort of one-kid intervention about it, where I made a big pronouncement of doom and despair with my 7-year-old voice, trying to be heard over all the kids-fighting-because-they’re-kids noise in the back of the station wagon, but it didn’t make me feel any better.

I sucked my thumb and slept with stuffed animals for a lot longer than was normal “for a boy” (which is a dangerous phrase). I always felt afraid and I always felt a desperate need for safety, for assurance, for comfort. I still have my tigers Jack and Dakota and Sebastian, and when I find them once in a while on my closet shelf I feel a “better” type feeling, like when I hugged them close as a kid. I hugged them a lot because I needed love and I needed safety. I had this nightmare when I was only several years old that spoke so strongly of my day-to-day fears that I can still replay the nightmare to this day: Out on a family walk in Chattanooga, I’d fall behind, my family would round a bend, and gypsies would jump out of the woods and steal me away to be their own child. (I don’t know where I learned about gypsies.)

We moved to Florida. A lot of times I couldn’t sleep. My mom found me sitting on the stairs. I explained, when she asked what was wrong, that I was just so worried about getting spinal meningitis or small pox and dying. I shared a room with a brother and two sisters, and we would stay awake planning how we could protect ourselves if a bad person broke into the house while dad and mom were away. I knew where my granddad’s Japanese WWII sword was. Swords were my thing. At first I would draw swords and then eventually I’d make swords out of old broom handles and duct tape and then one day a deacon at church said he had a jigsaw and would love to help me carve the swords so I dreamed them up and drew the outlines on old bed slats and I brought them to him and it was a good day but he also was a little rough around the edges and said some unkind words to me and it scared me and it made me sad but when I got home I had my swords. My favorite sword was a beautiful little one. Duct tape wrapped around two pencils gave the handle a handle-shape and I think I painted a red jewel on the bottom. One time I was “fooling around” with it while the family read out loud for school, so my mom told me to bring it to her, and I asked her to please, please, please not spank me with it, because I was afraid it would break, and it was my favorite sword, but she spanked me with it, and my sword broke. And I was a kind of sad-in-every-way that lasted a long, long time.

As a teenager I got sad about deeper things. Things like my imperfections. I thought it was good to beat myself up over my mistakes and my weaknesses, so I did, a lot. I felt lots of shame and stress and struggle. I worried so much about God. That wasn’t a new thing. When I was about 9 I had asked my dad how we could have gotten to the present if eternity stretched for all eternity into the past. We couldn’t have gotten to now, so it all must have started sometime, but how could God be God if he hadn’t stretched to eternity past? And who got God started? This was a deep, aching, upset-stomach kind of problem to me. But my dad explained that God is outside time, so I felt better and went back to worrying about getting kidnapped instead. In my teen years, the God fears got more complicated. How could I know that I had the right kind of faith? Not the “Lord, didn’t I know you?” only to hear God say “Depart from me, I never knew you!” kind of faith. I would lie awake night after night crying in bed, afraid of going to hell, imagining it, hoping against it, wondering, sick to my stomach. That fear never went all the way away. (“Perfect love drives out fear.” – 1 John 4:18)

If I had been my own parent and had believed in things like therapists and psychology, there was one year in particular that I would have brought kid-me to a professional. I had this awful thought where maybe God wasn’t real–and it all went downhill fast from there. For months and months and months, I could hardly eat, I could hardly sleep, I could hardly get out of bed. I couldn’t look people in the face, especially not the eyes. I truly could not smile and people commented on it. I couldn’t enjoy anything. I couldn’t be happy. I couldn’t think straight. I couldn’t see straight, sometimes. I felt like I was walking in a tunnel. I felt like I was floating away on the outside, looking in at all the peopleish people who knew how to be people, while I was dying in my heart, desperately waiting for the world to make sense again, waiting for a thing to hold onto. I was lost and scared. All of the happy and fun things were not happy and not fun anymore. At all. Every day was awful. Every single day. For the better part of a year. It was so dark. I would shut myself in my bedroom and cry for most of every day. Think, worry, and cry. That was my life for quite a while. I was a Sad Person in a big needs-help kind of way.

In my late teen years, my sadness turned mostly toward love-stuff. Cute-girl love but also family love and friendship love and world peace love and all the feel-good stuff that we celebrate on a day like Christmas, the day I find myself writing this. I felt deeply lonely and sad about not having a lot of friends, about never really learning to have friends or to be around other people who were different from me. I felt stuck in a place where I couldn’t feel much love, and every day it felt heavy and lonely and yucky and sad. As an 18-year-old I would covertly bypass our burglar alarm so that I could sneak out of my window to take walks alone in the dark. It felt like a little bit of freedom, getting to just be me. There were really rough times where I felt like I had lost so much love and support and friendship. Where I felt like I had been rejected by almost everyone, left completely alone, broken, to navigate life by myself. I needed love, but I couldn’t trust.

Eventually I claimed the freedom to go do my life the way I wanted. Unfortunately, that freedom coincided with an unrequited-love time, and juggling that and an 18-year-long scar of sadness got really, really dark.

But then, fairly randomly I think, I learned how to be happy.

I found real, huge, giddy, outrageously GOOD happiness! And honestly, I had experienced lots of happy things or happy corners-of-life in my childhood. Playing baseball in my backyard, feeling like a world traveler as I caught a plane and the MARTA to escape to my loving friends in Atlanta, and playing all the happy songs on the piano, like Linus and Lucy. But lots, I’d play the sad songs, too. Finally, as a young adult, the sad songs started slipping into memory and every day started bursting with happiness. A beautiful girl named Lyssi. Cheese and other yummy foods not as worthy of mention as cheese. Epic movies to see. Sketch pads. A fresh, cool breeze rushing by as I ran for miles and miles. My own car to adventure in. People who were there for me and the chance to be there for people. Kind words. Hugs. Purpose, excitement, confidence, and giddy, giddy, giddy happiness.

And then more weird life things happened that shook me pretty deep and brought me back to the pretty constant hum of worry and stress and fear and doubt and sadness. Several years swung back and forth pretty regularly–actually probably pretty healthily–between being generally stressed and generally happy. I wasn’t a Sad Person, but I wasn’t the Happy Person I had been, either.

Then one summer, over a year ago now, two things happened that shook a lot of Sad loose from deep inside my heart. First, I took a trip and saw some people whom it should have been wonderful to see, and saw a bunch more people who were once my tribe. And it was not good. It was not good at all. It was hard and sad and heavy and frustrating and a little bit gross. After that trip I came back to the happy-home I had found the freedom to make, but I couldn’t shake the hurt. For months after that trip I would wake up almost every night sweating, shaking, panting, having nightmares about the sad stuff I thought I had left safely behind in my childhood. Trust started becoming hard again. I started feeling sensitive and oh-so-protective. Second that summer (and I’ve written lots about this before) I bonked my head way too hard hiking in the Colorado Rockies and I knocked even more feelings loose. If you’ve ever had a concussion or known someone who has, you might know a frequent effect is intense anxiety and emotional lows. Like “I’m crying and I don’t know why” twenty times a day. This time around for me, the emotional lows were there again, but the anxiety was so present and so forceful, I could hardly make it through the day. I became weirdly mistrusting of everything and everyone, and I constantly felt that at the next moment my whole world might come crashing down. The concussion effect on my brain lasted a surprisingly long time, especially the anxiety. But by the time I felt probably-back-to-normal, so much Sad had been shaken loose that I felt like a significantly different person than I’d been before the ordeal.

Since then, I’ve dealt with a weird and tough stretch. Over a year feeling the loss of a lot of things I had, feeling the loss of a lot of things I thought I had, figuring out stuff that many people get to figure out as a kid, like how to be angry or how to be mad or how to love someone and yourself at the same time. Thank god for therapy. When my wife asked me a few days ago who had made the biggest impact on me this year, without a second thought I knew it was the therapist I’ve been seeing. I think it’s all going to be okay. Turns out, people get anxious. Some people get anxious a lot, like to the point where you could say they “have” it. And it turns out I’m some people.

And as someone who understands the anxiety and the sadness stuff a little better now than I used to, I’ve gotten to look back and read a bunch of journals and letters from when I was a teenager and a young adult. And oh my goodness, they are DARK. Just heart-breaking. I was a deeply, deeply sad and anxious person.

And then I was a super happy-go-lucky person.

And now I’ve had a pretty sad year or two.

But I’m still so happy a lot. It’s just I’m also so sad a lot. These days, probably more sad. That’s okay right now.

And honestly, knowing all this history, I still don’t really “get” exactly how my sadness works. It’s still confusing. It’s still weird. It still acts in unexpected ways. It’s still “emotional” and acts like it. And then when I think I’ve made sense of it and suddenly it doesn’t make sense again, I keep coming back to Ray Bradbury’s words: “No special reason. . . .”

As someone who’s been a Happy Person and a Sad Person, I want to share a few things, things that I hope will make you feel some mix of not-alone-in-your-sadness and inspired-to-be-a-good-friend-to-sad-people.

First, I understand why my therapist teased that I’d be thankful for my concussion that shook loose the sadness and anxiety deep in my heart. Life is actually better when I see and accept and work with those feelings.

Second, again my therapist, he told me he doesn’t wish people lives of abundant happiness, just abundance. Abundant everything. Some days that means deep happiness. Some days it means deep love. Some days it means deep excitement. And some days–some days it means deep sadness.

Third, go see a therapist. From the bits and pieces of psychology I’ve learned, I know Ray Bradbury’s not wrong: Some people are just sad without a clear cause that therapy can fix. And it’s good for your mix of emotions to include sadness. But, there is a lot of deep, constant, unnecessary sadness that a therapist might be able to help you with. You never know till you try. For me, it’s been life saving.

Fourth, you probably should not always be happy. (Not like “please stop being happy,” but just a warning from my personal experience that, I think, if you think you’re always happy, you might need to check on yourself a bit more, a bit deeper.) You should be happy and sad and mad and scared sometimes. There are good reasons to feel all of those and all of those are normal feelings. It is a lot of pressure to tell yourself (or to tell others, or to let others tell you) that you should always be happy.

Fifth, sad people aren’t bad people who are causing problems by being sad. Many sad people learn to take care of their feelings without taking them out on other people. Mr. Rogers–Fred Rogers–said in an interview that he learned to express his angry and sad feelings through his fingers on the piano.

Sixth, and closely related, if you’re the sad one, you really can learn how to be sad in a healthy way. I’ve learned that it is okay to be sad. Sometimes the things that made you sad aren’t okay, like when you’ve been abused or bullied. And some outlets you might find for your sad feelings aren’t okay, like abusing or bullying others. But you can have healthy sadness.

Seventh, please don’t judge sad people as somehow worse, defective, rain-clouds, melodramatic, silly, not-good-enough, their-own-fault, all the blamey and rejecty labels. Each person has a story you don’t know. People have such long, complex stories! If we’re being honest, we probably don’t really know our own stories all the way. When you see someone–someone who looks sad, who looks like their life is a hard one–please find some compassion. And if you’re a sad person, same goes–please don’t judge yourself for it.

Eighth, please don’t decide for people who they are. Don’t label them as officially happy or officially sad in your book. People are people and life gets weird. When you decide for someone that they’re a Sad Person, you only make it harder. Harder for them to freely express the happy moments, harder for them to ask for support, harder for them to feel appreciated and loved, and honestly harder for them to move towards more happiness. Just as importantly, please don’t decide for someone that they’re a Happy Person. When someone knows that they are, to you, dependably happy, positive, always encouraging and inspiring and energetic and enthusiastic, it becomes an unrealistic burden. Such a burden that when sad times do come, they can’t talk about it. They can’t share. Because too many people are counting on them to not be sad. So please just don’t treat people like they’re a “Sad Person” or a “Happy Person.” Don’t set those expectations. Don’t put that pressure. Don’t plant that guilt. Just let people be people and meet them where they are, every day. One of my most deeply held beliefs is that people can’t be summed up in a nutshell, pre-determined, dependably defined by a set of 4 letters, because humans can change, suddenly and drastically, and they can grow, and they will surprise you. “Every human being has the freedom to change at any instant. . . . Man is capable of changing the world for the better if possible, and of changing himself for the better if necessary.” ~ Viktor Frankl

Ninth, let people be sad. Let yourself be sad. Sad is okay.

And tenth, love sad people. Instead of trying to fix them (god knows if they can’t, you can’t), love them. Instead of pressuring or guilting them or trying to change their minds, love them. Instead of tiptoeing around them on eggshells, get in the messy feelings world with them and LOVE THEM. If anything, anything, anything will ever help a Sad Person find a little more happy, it will be love. But honestly? Don’t let changing or helping them be your goal. Just love them for them, period. And if you’re sad? Love others and get love. Ask for it. Talk about it. Accept it. Trust it. Feel it. And love yourself. You are sad, but you are beautiful.

P.S. Please remember that there are more Sad People than you think. Many people–maybe most people–have learned not to talk about their sadness. Not to cry. Not to share. Some not even to think about their sadness, when they can help it. Many have learned to smile, to be excited, to have fun, to be energetic, and still, just under the surface, there is an ache. Sometimes the biggest smiles hide the deepest aches. So remember that there are many more than you think there are. And remember that they’ve learned, a lot of them, that they’re not allowed to tell you they’re sad.

P.P.S. Also, let’s all do our part in making honesty and vulnerability okay, even when that means tears. You with me? We’re all in this together.

P.P.P.S. I love putting an inspiring quote on a picture and placing it in my blog posts. And I was thinking, what could be a good, inspiring, positive message about sad people? And then I thought, why should it be positive and inspiring? Sad people are sad people. They’re there. They exist. They’re right next to us. They are us. And sometimes that, itself, just needs to be acknowledged and understood and accepted and made peace with. It should be okay.

Ray Bradbury - some people get sad young

Are you really seeing them?

“Look at other people and ask yourself if you are really seeing them or just your thoughts about them.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn

Have you ever found yourself looking back at old memories–photos, messages, etc–and realizing that your opinion now of an old friend is entirely different than it used to be? For example, I used to have very conservative (and vocal) opinions about how people should look and talk. I always judged the “rebellious” kids I knew, felt disappointed and hopeless for them. Looking back now at the those same kids, I see who they were as very normal and healthy and in fact think I should have been a little more like them.

Our minds change from time to time. Enough that we should be able to remember that the way we see someone right now may not be accurate.

 

It can be helpful to spend some time thinking about what determines how we see people. There are a lot of things that silently, sneakily influence our interpretations of others:

  • What we expect to see. As John Lubbock said, “What we see depends mainly on what we look for.” When you start with assumptions about someone, you tend to see what confirms your assumptions. It’s called “confirmation bias.”
  • What we’re already focused on. Always focus on the bad in someone, and that starts to be all you see. Always see the good only, and you can be blind to problems. Have you ever bought a car and then immediately started seeing way more of those models than you used to?
  • What we’re afraid of. How have you been burned in the past? How have people hurt you or let you down? Did you get cheated on? Then you see that in others. Did someone stab you in the back when they should have been supporting you? Than you stay on the lookout for the first signs of that in others.
  • What we are hoping for. Do you ever see people through the lenses of what you’re hoping for? What you need? Looking for friends who will accept you? Looking for a special someone to selflessly love you? You can want something bad enough that you might see it when it’s not really there.
  • What we plan to do about it. One of the biggest and most powerful influences on how we see others is our own intention to react and deal with things. Stephen Covey said it best: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Who might that other person be separated from how we think we should relate to them?

 

Have you ever realized somebody is not who you thought they were? Maybe someone you always thought was mean, or someone you thought was nice. Have you ever been on the opposite side? Feeling like someone is assigning an identity or motives to you that just aren’t you?

Assuming and prejudging leaves both sides hurting and confused.

On the other hand, opening your mind and seeing someone for who they really are and what they really say–not what you expect or judge about them–can open your eyes and heart to another amazing human. And honoring someone for who they really are can make you an empowering part of their life, too.

Jon-Kabat Zinn - Really seeing people

You vs You-with

A scientific study published in 1999 examined how we are affected by listening to others’ opinions about us: First, Asian women were given a math test to do after reminders of the negative stereotype that women are bad at math. Later, Asian women were given a math test to do after reminders of the positive stereotype that Asians are good at math. The subjects performed significantly better when seeing themselves as “Asians, who are good at math” than as “women, who are bad at math.”

There’s you. And then there’s you-with-_____.

You with your boss. You being watched by your in-laws. You surrounded by your employees. You feeling nervous with your date. You with the context of your work situation.

While you-with-anything is still the real you, it can be very helpful to not look at yourself only through the context of whatever is currently going on, whoever you’re with. Try looking at just you by yourself. Apart from the other thing, person, or situation.

Why is this so helpful? We have a huge tendency to define ourselves by the people around us and what they think. We tend to become the average of the people closest to us. We want to fit in, to please people. We also constantly hear their voices, even when they’re not talking out loud. What your boss thinks of you. What your parents think of you. What your buddies think of you.

When I look at a big decision I just made, while examining myself primarily in the context of the two or three employees it affects, maybe the big decision looks like a win. But when I do the mental exercise of separating myself and examining the decision in the context of simply who I have always wanted to be, what I really believe and value–maybe I find the decision wasn’t a win for me after all. Maybe it was just a people-pleasing win for somebody else.

Or vice versa. Maybe what you’re constantly feeling small about, because of how you know it looks to your parents, or what your boss thinks of you now–maybe that thing you’re regretting, feeling down about, kicking yourself over every day… maybe that’s exactly what you truly wanted and you need to give yourself some credit, encourage yourself, celebrate your growth.

If you don’t give yourself the credit of judging yourself for yourself, and instead constantly see yourself through the lens of another or in a context inseparable from others, you will say things you don’t really mean, choose things you don’t really want, and become a person you don’t actually believe in.

Of course there’s a limit to all this–if you completely stop considering what others think, you miss out on a lot of valuable feedback and you can start giving people very wrong impressions. You can stop working well as a team and you can hurt people. Being aware of others and how they feel is very important.

But there’s got to be a balance: “How will my employee take this?” must always be accompanied by, “How do I really see this?” And vice versa.

There’s a reason I encourage you mostly to focus on the independent part, though–seeing yourself distinct from the people and situations currently surrounding you. It’s because what we’ve experienced and learned throughout life has pounded an insecurity into us, leaving us constantly, endlessly agonizing over what others think, how they see us and our choices.

That’s the norm in society: Defining your life, your self assessment, and your worth through the lenses of others.

Try being fair to yourself. Give yourself some credit. What do you really think and want? Forget your boss’s opinion for just a minute. Or your parents’ expectations. What do you really, truly, deep down in your heart, believe and want out of yourself? That is immensely more important to your happiness and peace in life than what you know your co-worker is telling his friends about you.

“I am a woman, so I cannot be good at math.”

“I am an Asian, so I can be great at math.”

Or maybe… “I am me, and I love math.”