Some things really stress Junko out. When she’s having more fun than she knows how to express and suddenly hears the words “Gentle–no bite!” When we won’t let her hunt the backyard bunnies. Or when, despite her curious, sweet puppy-dog-eyes, we finish the last of our human-food without sharing. When these things happen, Junko does a BIG yawn or a floppy shake-off, and then she feels better.
At a funeral in America, everyone wears black, and you may hear some quiet sniffles, and a few reliefy chuckles when someone “lightens” the mood with a joke the deceased would have appreciated.
When I walked out of the Addis Ababa airport, I witnessed grief given a voice: A loving crowd following a coffin, many joining their voices in ululation, some openly wailing for their lost loved one.
Back when I was aggressively hit on the bottom most days by my parents, to make me a better person, a few commands always followed: Some weird ones like being told to say “thank you.” And one particularly problematic one: “Cry quietly.”
It’s such a cultural thing you and I have grown up with: Emotions are to be not seen, and not heard. Especially the yucky ones, like anger or grief. We don’t wail.
When an antelope suddenly sees a lion spring out of the tall grass, it gets a sudden rush of hormones and it flies across the savannah. After a minute or two the lion tires out, and the antelope can calm down and return to grazing, the panicky energy having dissipated through its pumping legs.
Stressful experiences give us certain energies: Hormones like adrenaline, or emotions like sadness, fear, or anger. These energies serve purposes and have natural outlets so they don’t get stuck.
Animals are great at giving the energy an outlet to serve its purpose, run its course, and dissipate. Junko violently shakes her body to release the pent up frustration.
Some humans are great at expressing and releasing. Like people who wail, who dance, who punch, who scream into a pillow.
And some of us, instead, just manage the energy.
And slowly implode with unresolved, ever-growing stress.
Nobody is “doing well” these days, right? At least not many. The world is struggling. Our country is struggling. My co-workers and friends are struggling. I’m struggling.
COVID and masks and staying at home and no more hugs and over a million dead just in America. The election with all its still leftover yard signs and whatever the hell happened on January 6. Social media and hate. Family members that are seeing each other’s real values and not sure if they’re meshable. Inflation. Racism, arguments over whether racism even exists, hate crimes, police brutality, protests, national guard convoys, tear gas, and threats to use the US military against our own population. Oh and inflation. Short-staffing. Complete disconnect and hatred of left vs right. Russia and Ukraine and nervous questions about nuclear bombs. Mass shootings becoming tragically normal. Increasing suicide rates accompanying a growing mental health crisis. Texas blizzards knocking out power, paid for by all of us everywhere. End-of-times-looking wildfires in Australia. Hurricane force winds throughout the last month in my Minnesota backyard. Baseball-sized hail. All the biggest, baddest, unprecedentedest weather events in recorded history. Millions of traumatized nurses and doctors and teachers, arguments over whether their trauma even exists. And are the bees still dying? And now robots keep trying to follow me on Instagram and other robots are busy ringing a phone that I can’t get away from. Oh and did I mention inflation? And this is just scratching the surface of our universal sh**show–we haven’t even gotten to our individual heartaches, like losing jobs, losing loved ones, chronic pain and illnesses, and I still cry sometimes about Willoughby dying.
That is a lot of energy.
And it needs to go somewhere. Except you’re not supposed to wail.
All that energy. Where is it supposed to go?
Sometimes the energy gets so big and loud that people do really sad things to other people. But it doesn’t have to be like that. There are healthy ways you can use that energy.
Remember the scene in Footloose where he angry-dances? I want to be like that scene when I grow up. It is an amazing answer to life.
Did you know that scared energy and excited energy aren’t that different physically? When you’re about to speak in front of a group, and you start feeling a little floaty and buzzy and shaky and fluttery, it’s similar to when you see your crush.
The good and the bad in life is constantly giving your body energy to respond. It’s revving you up for something. You could let it out by hurting people. Some do. I think you don’t want that, though. In fact, I think you’re trying so hard to not do bad things with all the anger and fear and sadness and stress that you’re holding it tightly deep in your chest. For years. And each day it’s getting a little harder.
What if you could let that energy out before it makes you sick or explodes at the people you love?
What if you could dance?
Or drive hours into the dark night, letting the tears flow, or write it all down.
Or play a loud, low, angry sounding key on the piano, like sweet old Mr. Rogers in the movie It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.
What if it’s actually really healthy to scream in your car?
What if you could laugh harder than you’ve ever laughed over a game with your friends until your stomach aches and you feel lighter than you’ve felt in 3 years?
What if yoga would help you release the heartbreak?
What if swimming underwater could calm your body? (It does. Google “diving reflex.”)
What if you could just SAY that frustrated truth you haven’t been saying to your partner? And not watered down?
What if something as simple as humming could let out all that overwhelming energy?
I was raised to cry quietly. I bet you were, too. We Americans are conditioned to be tough and pleasant. Until we snap.
But when she’s upset, Junko yawns and does a shake-off. Some cultures wail loudly for their lost loved ones. Both these options look and sound weird, but they work. They’re so healthy.
I think that we all have a lot of hard energy right now. Sad. Angry. Confused. Overwhelmed. Exhausted.
How will you release it?
(No seriously, tell me–we all need ideas right now.)
We need each other these days. If I can be there for you through this blog, put your email below.
“If your legs aren’t already straight, don’t try adding this in. Don’t ever force yourself. Let your muscles and tissues grow and change over months and years.”
This morning’s yoga class felt a little different. It was very slow and mild with an emphasis on finding the edge and then not pushing it. A little was enough.
I trained with an absolutely fantastic trainer way back–it felt like studying with a guru. He really knew his stuff. Honestly I probably couldn’t have found a better source of information and direction. Except my body. My body is also would have been a great source of information for me, but I ignored its signals. After some quick progress, I pushed too far, shrugged off the pains and the not-quite-right feelings, and hit a wall. Usually it took a couple days for my muscles to feel recovered. This time, my body felt overwhelmed by pain and weakness and just . . . tension for days and days and then weeks and weeks and by the time the pain had subsided, an “I-can’t-do-that-again” preemptive pain had taken its place. And I stopped. Completely. I had tried too fast. I hadn’t listened to my body.
Maybe that speaks to you, maybe it doesn’t. Since a concussion turned my world upside down, I’ve been really surprised at just how much one person’s response to being pushed differs from another’s. Once upon a time, I was the type to push myself to the max and then past it. And it felt like I had bottomless energy.
When I was a teenager, I would bring my glove and a baseball out to the rock wall in the back. I’d wind up and throw as hard as I could. A hundred times. And then a hundred more. (For context, you’re not supposed to pitch over a hundred pitches in a row every day. Especially as a 13-year-old. That’s ridiculous.) And then I’d head inside with just as much energy as I’d had before. It worked when I was a kid.
Then I moved up to the Twin Cities and dove into running. I started with a mile or two, then six. Then 13.1 out of the blue. Somewhere around mile 11 my left hamstring didn’t really work, but with a forwarder tilt, gravity pulled me forward the last couple miles. I wasn’t ready for it, but I found ways to compensate, and so it sort of worked. My core and hip flexors were weak, but my legs were strong, so I moved 13.1 miles again and again for the joy of it. And there was so much joy. Then I learned that you can push your pace when you run. Learn to breathe through the stress. So I picked up my pace.
One evening, with Marvel film scores playing in my ears, I set out to push my 13.1 pace. Halfway through, the Winter Soldier beat dropped and my pace picked up. It was electrifying. Until about mile 10. Then my body said “Absolutely not!” and I slowed to a walk that was more like a crawl. I could hardly lift my arms. I took a shortcut home and collapsed on the couch. Dizzy. The nausea and stomach cramps hit like a tsunami. I have never, ever, ever felt that absolutely terrible after a run. In a weird way, it felt worth it, like . . . look at how hard I worked! In another way, it slowed me down. A lot. Nervousness replaced excitement, and it was a while before I tried 13.1 again.
And then I had a concussion. And I stopped moving at all for months. And the strong compensation muscles I had became weak, so nothing was ready for a run anymore. And then my head finally felt okay, so I ran a mile. Then I ran two. And then I ran 8. . . . 8! And that was the day I felt a new kind of leg and back pain that I’m still feeling three years later.
I always try things long before I’m ready.
Because that’s how you be a badass.
And it’s worked at some points in my life. For some things.
And then at other times, it doesn’t. Especially after a concussion. Or especially after getting in touch with my deepest self. Sometimes trying things before I’m ready ends up hurting or scaring or discouraging me. Knocking the wind out of me. And the attempted leap forward turns into five steps back, or fifteen if you watch closely as I subconsciously sneak further and further away from my goal because I just can’t get near that awful feeling again.
Pizzeria Balognett was a little hidden garden of a restaurant in the hills above Italy’s Lake Como, where they plopped down freshly picked eggplant and tomatoes sprinkled with olive oil and salt in front of you, whether you asked for them or not, while the pizzas baked. The pizzas were perfection. So we went back for lunch the next day, and left with at least four more pizzas boxed up to enjoy on the next day of our honeymoon. Our rental host, a British expat, stopped by our little apartment, and when he heard how many pizzas we had brought home, he grinned and said “Such Americans!”
We in America, as a culture, are maximum. Always. We’re never halfway, we’re always the most. And that can be wonderful. Like eight of the best pizzas we’ll ever eat.
I’m afraid that we as a culture push ourselves and each other a little too hard, a little too fast, though.
And it’s complicated by the fact that it seems to really work for some. So we just push. Everyone. All the way. “No pain no gain.”
My therapist recently congratulated me for making a fairly forceful ask in my life. The change I want to see, he explained, happens slowly. Very slowly. The bigger the change, the bigger the pushback. So sometimes a clear, hard push is needed. But not because the change should (or even could) hurry up. Just because the change needs repeated reminders and remotivating.
But then, when that push has been pushed, I need to remember that the change is still going to be a slow process. Yes, we need to push and we need pushing. And then we need to accept that the wheels will turn slowly. Sometimes they need to turn slowly. Sometimes if you force them to turn fast, it hurts a little too much, and they stop turning at all.
Like when you decide you’re an exception to the wisdom about building up to 13.1 slowly. Or like when your trainer enthusiastically shouts that “you’ve got this, keep going!” without first having a two-way discussion about what is good discomfort and what is too much overwhelm or even pain. Or like when you decide the answer to beating social anxiety or loneliness is to fill every corner of your schedule with all the people all the time. Or like when you decide it’s time to cut out every single happy food forever, starting today. Or like when you decide you want to be a reader and then force yourself through three brutally boring hours in a row and find that you can never quite pick up the book again.
Maybe you’re the type that changes fast. Maybe. Although if that’s how you’ve always thought of yourself, but you keep finding yourself giving up or worn down or discouraged, then maybe you also could give yourself some extra time for change, too.
Or maybe you’ve already acknowledged that you need time. That you can’t take big leaps. That baby steps are what work for you.
At risk of sounding cliche, remember the tortoise and the hare? “Slow and steady wins the race.” Because slow and steady doesn’t burn you out, injure you, freak you out, or overwhelm you.
Yoga this morning was a great reminder to let time play its part in your growth. We’re all so damn frenzied about our lives. Goals. Progress. Growth. We need to get this, fix this, stop this, change this, find this, and it needs to happen with same-day delivery!
We know better by now about about muscles and fitness. But do we accept this about our core selves, too? The core selves we so badly want to be, to grow into, to experience, to find.
Is it okay that it’s going to take me three brutally long years to learn how to express negative emotions? Is it okay that it may be summer by the time you’ve actually finished that book? Is it okay that when you join all the flexible, toned 30-year-olds at the yoga class, your downward dog will honestly look more like a malfunctioning twerk for at least a few weeks, and that you’re the only one not wearing designer joggers?
So what’s your thing? The change you need. The growth you’re planning. The relationship or communication skills you want to develop. The goals you’ve set for yourself. How you want to take care of your body. How you want to stretch your mind. How you want to show up for the world.
And is it okay that you may be in this “getting-there” stage for a long, long time? Maybe for the rest of your life?
And if you let the change happen slowly, do you think you may give up less?
You’re trying. That’s enough. That’s a lot, honestly. So be gentle with yourself. Don’t push yourself too hard. You still want to feel safe enough to show up tomorrow. And you won’t if you push yourself past what you can be okay with today.
You’re human. And that’s going to take time.
Take a deep breath, give yourself a little hug, and accept where you are today.
Tomorrow can be just a little different.
P.S. If you struggle with taking it slow and giving yourself room to grow and permission to take baby steps only–I strongly recommend looking for a slow, gentle yoga practice somewhere near you, and making showing up your only goal each time. When you soften into change, it’s amazing the pressure you find your body’s been holding, and how desperately it’s been wanting gentle care.
P.P.S. If all this slow change is too slow, look back a year or ten and see just how much it has been adding up. Keeps adding up. Trust the process.
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
I just finished reading a beautiful little book called Siddhartha. It’s a very colorful story about a man who crossed paths with the Buddha and lived a hundred other little adventures on his way to finding meaning, fulfillment, and peace in life.
The book literally led to a few tears as I read on the airplane. And led to the occasional discreet hiding of a page, so the teenager next to me couldn’t read the parts about Siddhartha’s lover teaching him “the game of love . . . one of the thirty or forty different games [she] knew. . . .” Like the one “which the textbooks call ‘climbing a tree.'” Like I said. Colorful.
But honestly, it was a really eye-opening book. Really deeply human and incredibly inspiring.
I think one of the most human lessons I’ve learned in all of life is this–and the book was a really strong reminder of it:
“Quoth Siddhartha: ‘What should I possibly have to tell you, oh venerable one? Perhaps that you’re searching far too much? That in all that searching, you don’t find the time for finding?'” – Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha
When we try really hard to be happy, happiness is elusive.
But sometimes when you stop trying, you discover that you are happy.
Siddhartha spent years and years and years of his life looking for peace and wisdom everywhere, only to find that it had been there with him all along.
He just had to stop searching.
“Everyone’s always trying so damn hard. Trying to be good enough. Trying to rest. Working hard at relaxing. Everyone’s trying so hard to stop being spiritually exhausted and overwhelmed, because that’s ingrained in us. Trying so hard might just be the exact problem.” – an excerpt from an old message I ran across that I wrote to my sister
What if we stopped trying so damn hard?
What if every now and then we paused in all our searching?
Maybe we have all we need.
Like Andy Bernard from The Office says: “I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve left them.”
Do you remember the busiest month of your life? A time where you over-committed yourself for a few weeks? Maybe it was a project at work, too many classes in school, a bunch of events–or a mixture of everything. A time when you felt like every day you just woke up, immediately hit the gas pedal, and didn’t slow down till you fell into bed at the end of the day. How did that time of intense busyness make you feel? What state did it leave you in? Stressed? Exhausted? Crabby? Anxious? Lonely? Burnt out?
All of my life’s experience has left me with this big piece of advice to give: DON’T commit to an insanely busy schedule. Being overworked and overly exhausted messes with you in a lot of ways. BUT–SOMETIMES we agree to cram our schedule full for a while anyway. Sometimes there’s an opportunity to grow or to contribute or to do something you love, and it’s too good to pass up, so you take the leap and book your schedule absolutely full for a week, or two, or three, or maybe for a month.
What happens when you do that? Well you already know, it will probably bring with it stress, exhaustion, crabbiness, anxiety, loneliness, and burn out. You may gain a few pounds, you may hurt a few feelings, and you may do a little more retail therapy than you wish. It may still have been totally worth it, but the bottom line is that it won’t be a walk in the park. So how do you make it through as healthily and happily as possible? How can you make the best of a tough period of busyness?
I recently got to experience this when I participated in a three week work project with an absolutely brutal schedule and workload. Long hours, working straight through the weekend, and it was the type of work that just didn’t slow down until you get in your car and drive away. Even then, unwinding took almost until bedtime–if you were lucky. I’ve gone through other times before when I was overly busy, and sometimes it’s gone better than others. This last time I didn’t do so well at staying grounded and positive deep down inside. It actually ended up being much tougher by the end than I had expected. So it left me thinking afterward: What could have made it go better? What will I do differently next time?
After reflecting for a while, I came up with 8 suggestions that I’ve learned by trial and error in my experience. 8 strategies for when you’re just way too busy for a while. Try as you may to maintain balance in your life, I’m sure you’ll find yourself facing another of those exhausting months at some point down the road. I hope some of these tips help you make it through happily and healthily.
When you’re facing a period of extreme busyness…
1. Show yourself compassion and support.
Cut yourself some slack. This is going to be a tough time and you’ll have bad days. You’ll be stressed and overwhelmed and you might not feel like your best self. Accept that this is normal when you’re overly busy. It would be weird if it didn’t affect you. It may help to think about how being overwhelmed and overly busy affects you particularly. Remind yourself on the rough days that you knew it would be hard, and be compassionate and accepting toward yourself.
2. Ask for help and patience from others.
Remember that this isn’t just going to affect you. There are other people in your life–spouse, significant other, kids, co-workers–who will also be affected by your busyness. The closer they are to you, the more they may find your stress directed toward them, no matter how hard you try to stay positive. Talk to them–even ahead of time–about what’s going on. It may feel awkward to say “I might be a little mean to you this month.” But if you don’t talk about it, they may not understand what’s going on and may not see a light at the end of the tunnel. Ask sincerely for their patience and help along the way.
3. Pick a couple things you can’t lose touch with.
Pick one or two or three things that will help you stay grounded and happy. Lifelines. Walks with your puppy. A TV show with your spouse. Daily meditation. Half an hour at the gym. Play time with the kids. What is a thing you just can’t lose touch with? A lot of things are important to you, but if you just try to keep up with as many as you can, you may find them to be so much that you end up keeping up with none at all. So pick just a couple and absolutely commit (meaning plan ahead and don’t budge on your plan) to keeping up with them.
4. Choose sleep over keeping up with other activities.
You’re going to really miss all the stuff you can’t do while you’re overly busy–stuff you normally have plenty of time for. It’s very tempting to give up a couple hours of sleep every night so that you can keep up with all your life stuff. DON’T! You need sleep. This is already going to be a physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting month, and being sleep deprived will make it worse. Besides, you’ll find those life things aren’t that fun when you’re sleep deprived anyway. So keep your sleep, keep your health, and keep your energy, so you can actually enjoy the couple routines you do get to keep up with.
5. Use a little transition ritual to stay grounded.
It is so easy to lose touch with all of your Why’s and all of your What’s when you speed from one busy thing to the next without slowing down to think. Try building a couple little grounding practices or rituals that you can use when you move between tasks or between sections of your day. For example, before you start a new task you can close your eyes for ten seconds and ask yourself the question, “Why am I doing what I’m doing today?” Or you can set aside five minutes after each meal to stand outside in the fresh air and breathe deeply or daydream. Just slowing down and re-connecting with yourself can keep you from getting lost in your whirlwind of a schedule.
6. Waste a little time at the end of your day.
Your brain needs rest. Sometimes, and for some personalities more frequently than for others, you need to let it shut down and waste some time. Not be going-going-going, not worry about accomplishing or being productive. This might mean when you finally get to the end of your ridiculously busy day, you turn into a couch potato for a few minutes. Twenty minutes of mind-numbing TV might be just what the doctor ordered. Don’t get stuck in a cycle of not-having-accomplished-enough. Give yourself a break.
7. Celebrate and reward your hard work.
No matter how stressful or frustrating this busy period ends up getting, you’re doing an impressive thing by working through it and taking on so much all at once. Even though it’s not easy, you’re pushing through, because you’re doing this for a reason–to better yourself, to contribute to a cause, whatever it is. So why don’t you celebrate? Reward yourself a little for all this hard work. Bragging to your friends about your hard work, or getting yourself a favorite treat can help make a tough experience a good one. What if you promised yourself a relaxing spa day at the end of the crazy month?
8. Accept and prepare for recovery to take some time.
This is one step you might not have expected, but it will really help to understand ahead of time. When you overwork yourself for two or three weeks, increasing your stress of all kinds–mental, emotional, physical–it’s probably going to leave you in worse shape than you’d like. You might feel anxious, crabby, out of shape, lonely, disconnected from your closest people, and a little burned out by the time life slows back down. Here’s the thing–those things won’t suddenly feel all better when you stop being too busy. It may take you several days or a couple weeks to feel back to normal–back in touch, on top of your game, and in sync with your relationships. Expecting all the burnout to go away on your first day off will only lead to frustration and blame. Accept the shape your busyness left you in and allow yourself plenty of time and space to recover.
What else works for you?
Happy life-ing and good luck!
P.S. For your inspiration…
“Get yourself grounded and you can navigate the stormiest roads in peace.” – Steve Goodier