I know it’s not quite what you imagined. But can you do some good with it anyway?
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 dedicate this post to my fellow survivors (current or future) of “As-long-as-people-know-I’m-doing-my-best” syndrome.
It’s okay if people don’t think you’re a good person.
It really is.
Some people will. For sure.
In fact, the way this world is set up means that the only way to be the person some people like is to be the person some people hate.
It’s . . . weird.
Life shapes its own unique deep-down needs in each of us. For some of us, our big, ultimate goal was–or is–for people to think we’re good enough, like that we’re . . . doing our best. We know we’re not perfect, of course, but we just need people to think that we tried and are trying to be as perfect as we could or can be.
And it freaks us out, the idea that someone might think we’re up to no good, or that we mean badly, even once in a while, even for one moment of weakness.
So when someone suggests that we’re . . . not getting it right, or even gives us a vibe that they may be of the opinion that we’re off course–making the wrong decisions, not pulling our weight, being embarrassing, whatever it might be–we feel an overwhelming pull to realign with their standard for who we should be. Their thoughts, feelings, views, wishes.
So we don’t live our life. We live “theirs.” All of theirs. Whatever they want us to do. It’s too scary to disappoint.
And then it turns out we never lived our own life.
And that sucks.
I can remember times where I felt like, “I don’t so much mind getting in trouble, as long as they know I didn’t mean to” or “as long as they know I tried my best.” Like the fear wasn’t even the bad things that happen when we do bad things. The fear was people thinking I did bad things on purpose. Times where literally I was like “Oh yeah, no, I’m fine with the punishment, as long as you clarify for everyone that I did-my-best/didn’t-deserve-it/didn’t-know . . .” Or times where I realized I didn’t so much care if I achieved this thing I was working to, I just wanted everyone to think I tried my hardest. . . .
If that’s you–if the gripping, deafening, overwhelming, fire-alarm-ringing-daily-in-your-head is that absolute need for people to think you’re well-meaning . . .
. . . what does that actually do for your life?
. . . and is it really your life?
I wonder, if you traced the roots of that need, where you would find it comes from. And maybe that it’s actually not fair or . . . real.
For a lot of us, it comes from a formative human or humans in our lives that withheld something we really did need–like love, acceptance, comfort, soothing, care, and nourishment of every kind–and then told us we didn’t deserve those things right now because we’re being “stubborn” or “selfish” or . . . you know, all those you’re-not-good-enough words. And we ended up feeling certain that the way to get the things we truly need is by earning them. And since “perfect” was never on the table, “always-trying-my-absolute-best-to-be-perfect-and-never-ever-ever-doing-any-less” will have to do.
And if that’s you . . .
. . . and you’re exhausted . . .
. . . maybe embrace your imperfection for a minute.
Maybe intentionally do something not quite perfect. Like at least one time. Maybe be selfish for a second. Be careless for a second. Be angry for a second. Be undisciplined for a second. Be lazy for a second.
And find that . . . the world didn’t end . . . you’re still here . . . and your real friends still love you . . . and you can still love you.
Nothing good is coming from this crippling addiction to the approval of others–from this need to be seen as “the good one.”
Stop being the perfect one.
Just be the You one.
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I don’t remember what game we were playing, or what this little boy was having a tough time with, but I remember like it was yesterday watching his father get more and more frustrated, eventually losing his temper and snapping at his sweet little boy. They were on a team and they were losing and the little boy wasn’t playing well enough–and this, apparently, was a big deal. That’s how it went in public, so you can imagine what the little boy heard every day about his worth at home. And now this little boy isn’t so little anymore, but he still says the word “sorry” constantly: any time there’s the teensiest chance that he’s disappointed anyone, made a mistake, or even just when he’s waiting for someone to be mad at him for no reason. He’s sorry for everything, because he knows–more deeply than he knows almost anything else–that who he is isn’t good enough for the people who “love” him.
I don’t know if you believe in a god, but I’m sure you believe in Love. I grew up believing that there is a god and that this god absolutely hates everything besides absolute perfection. Which is weird, because I also grew up reading a holy book that states, “god is love.”
This is not about whether I believe in that god anymore, or a different god, or no god.
I want to write about the impact my belief system had on my day-to-day notions of “love,” and the ripple effects that has had on each area of life.
I’m guessing I have lots of fellow humans whose unique worldview experiences or social experiences have led them to internalize similar notions about “love.” (I’ll try to sum up these love-notions a little later.) If you find that this speaks to your own experience, I’m writing this for you. And if you find that this sounds like the experience of someone you love, I’m writing this to help you understand and be with them.
What I learned about love, you can learn in lots of different ways:
You can learn it, like I did, from living in a world where everything has a specific spot somewhere between good and bad on a moral scale. We believed we had a very clear understanding of what was the holiest and most excellent way to do or say or believe–everything. It led to deep, guilty soul-searching episodes when someone would ask, “Is this the best use of your time?” Because it probably wasn’t. And if it wasn’t, you were probably disappointing god. “Best.” It’s why you had to sit with your family in church, not with your friends, because symbolically that was the most god-honoring way to do it (and, anyway, sitting with friends might corrupt you). It’s why we talked on our way home from church about how much we disapproved of those families who did let their kids go sit with their friends in church. It’s why we couldn’t play sports. It’s why we mocked people who worshiped with “shallow,” “worldly” contemporary music. It’s why I realized, as do many of the males who grow up in a similar worldview, that I was “called to be a pastor” (minister, if you’re not familiar), because even if we didn’t attach the word “best” to it, we would attach words like “highest calling.” I just know I got more attention and support for wanting to be a pastor someday than I did for wanting to play baseball. This was just the world we lived in. Doing and saying and pursuing and loving only the “best” or the “best way” was the obsession of our everyday lives.
You can also learn the same lessons about love from parents who are really mean to you. If you’re being constantly criticized, constantly yelled at, constantly mocked, constantly put down, constantly shamed–and especially constantly compared. Compared to your other siblings, compared to your parents, compared to your friends, compared to successful people on TV. Albert Einstein is attributed with saying, “Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” I don’t know if he actually said that or something similar, and I know that “genius” has more than one definition, but do you sort of get it? There is a beauty and worth in every unique individual. But some of us grew up in homes or ended up in jobs where people were always mad at us because we couldn’t climb trees, but they didn’t bother to discover how well we could swim. Maybe you weren’t “smart” enough. Maybe you weren’t “athletic” enough. Maybe you weren’t “extroverted” enough. Maybe words like “klutzy” or “daydreamer” were used derogatorily about you a lot. Maybe you were happier just reading a book alone in your bed, so your family or friends called you “boring.” So you learned that you weren’t quite as worthy of love as someone smarter, more athletic, more extroverted, more fun, etc. The most deserving of love–the most lovable–are the ones who are most those-things: extroverted, smart, athletic, fun, funny, talented, “interesting.” (“Interesting” is a dangerous adjective when we use it to compare people.) Maybe you kept your version of you and you think it’s unlovable. Or maybe you fixed yourself by switching to the version of you that is all those better words like “smart” and “athletic” so that people will love you, but you don’t feel like you anymore, and now you’re training the next generation that only the “best” are worthy of love.
You can learn this dangerous version of love from being in a family or social circle that gets most of its pleasure from making fun, bullying, mocking, teasing-but-really-not-just-teasing, and criticizing others. For some, life seems to be about who we can laugh at today, who we can shake our heads about and say things like “how do they live with themselves?” or “I’m glad I’m not like them.” Humor is a complicated subject, because making fun of people who are different or uncoordinated or “dumb” or “stupid” can be so, so pleasurable. And so, so dangerous and hurtful and sad. There are lots and lots of videos on the internet of genuinely hilarious accidents and situations that people have found themselves in–harmless. And there are just as many videos of people who have found themselves in confusing, embarrassing, or frustrating situations and are being taunted by the rest of the world–not at all harmless, but so easy to laugh at. Maybe you and your siblings or friends found your identity in entertaining each other with running commentaries on the stupidity you saw all around you: Ignorant people, confused people, tongue-tied people, nervous people, lazy people, vain people, “fat” people, “ugly” people. The world was about judging others. Happiness was found in making fun of a “stupidity” that thank god you didn’t share. And now what you know about love is that love is for the “best” ones, the “good” ones, the “talented” ones, the ones that won’t be the butt of a joke.
You can pick up these dangerous notions about love from growing up in a home where everything is about being wealthier than the rest of the world, more successful, more academically inclined. You find that you don’t fit into this world, so you are less lovable. Or you find people in the outside world who don’t fit into this world, so you can’t love them as much.
In the end, this idea about love that come with words like “best” and “worthy” and “disappointing” and “different”–these ideas can come from worldviews and experiences that put any different version of “best” on a pedestal: Religion, morality, health, sports, money, intelligence, style, popularity . . .
And this idea is sometimes imposed on us by people who are motivated by feelings of hate. But they’re also imposed on us by people who are motivated by feelings of love. “I want the best for you, so I will protect/teach/push you by . . .”
In a nutshell, this damaging notion about love that so many of us have learned is this: Love needs a reason.
“I will love you if . . .”
“God loves you if . . .”
“I will be disappointed in you if . . .”
“You’re stupid if . . .”
“I will be so proud of you if . . .”
“You’re my favorite because you . . .”
“I love you because you are the best at . . .”
“I will support you if . . .”
“I will disown you if . . .”
And it sometimes goes one step further. “Love needs a reason, and each reason falls somewhere on a scale.”
“You’re the most . . . in the family.”
“You’re so much smarter than . . .”
“You’re so much more beautiful than . . .”
“You’re not as . . . as you used to be.”
“You’re not as . . . as she is.”
“You should be more . . .”
“If only you could . . .”
“I would love you more if you were less . . .”
I honestly think this idea matters a lot. It’s such a deeply rooted part of what love and worth mean to so many of us, and it has real and sometimes very sad effects.
Deeply internalizing the idea that your own or someone else’s worthiness of love is dependent on where they fall on a scale of worst-bad-good-better-best impacts our mental health and our relationship with ourselves. It impacts how we feel about entire people groups and the world as a whole. It impacts how we bond and interact with our social circles. It impacts our relationships–especially our closest ones. And it seriously impacts how we experience all the little (or big) things in life, like art and adventures and cups of coffee.
There are a lot of personality traits that society has largely endorsed as “better” or “normal.” I think that collectively we are slowly getting more accepting about these things, but generally, being “not normal” in certain ways comes automatically with a feeling of “bad.”
Deeply introverted people and people with sensory processing sensitivity can find it difficult or impossible to function in many settings. If I’m such an introvert that I literally can’t even process the fact that you’re loudly saying words directly into my face in a crowded restaurant, I very likely feel a lot of shame for being this way. Like I’m letting you down. If that’s you, maybe your parents told you that you had a bad attitude or only cared about yourself, or your friends told you that you weren’t any fun. Or maybe they all said “oh that’s okay that you’re introverted,” but you could tell for sure they actually meant “we can put up with this, but you’re definitely not our favorite.” Either way, at least until recently, introversion has been treated like it’s a bad thing and introverted people have often been left feeling misunderstood, lonely, ashamed, and “less than.”
Until very recently, if you were attracted to someone of your own sex, you were likely completely rejected by family and friends. Or maybe you were “accepted” but like in the “isn’t this amazing that we still accept you???” way that makes you feel just as rejected. Sexual orientation had such a central spot on the bad-worse-worst scale in the world I grew up in that I remember one time being told not to use the word “homosexual” because “it’s so evil it shouldn’t even be named.” So many people have accepted the message that they are less worthy or unworthy of love because of their sexuality.
Any and every kind of “fitting in” is so important to us that we reject the parts of ourselves that don’t match the “normal” we see around us. We learn to be embarrassed about making unusual life choices. We get self-conscious about being “different.” We try to reshape every unique part of ourselves until we can feel like one of the “normal” people. I love singing, and sometimes I quietly sing in my office. On self-conscious days I don’t let myself sing, and that’s sad. On days I embrace my “weird,” I get to enjoy that part of me. Another not-normal thing about me is that I have a really hard time understanding teasing. Very often I hear things as really serious (or at least seriously passive aggressive) that were meant as affectionate teasing. This is a noticeable enough part of my personality that for a while it became something I felt very embarrassed and ashamed and guilty about. Like I was defective.
We all have unique us-things that aren’t normal-things. And if we learned that love needs a reason and that love needs the best reasons, our unique us-things leave us feeling ashamed, embarrassed, inadequate, and lonely.
So “not normal” equals “bad.” But it’s more than just that. We have legitimate “weaknesses,” or aspects we identify in ourselves as areas where we want to grow or change–even if we know it’s “normal” to have these weaknesses. An internalizing of the “you-have-to-be-worthy-of-love” message means that we equate having these weaknesses with the generic label of “bad.” If something about me frustrates myself or causes stress for my significant other, that makes me “bad,” or at least it is a “bad” thing about me. And that is very sad, and it means you probably can’t love and accept me, and so I feel helpless and vulnerable and threatened and unlovable.
Weaknesses aside, even my strengths and my accomplishments and my good-things have to be the best! One of the most common phrases I remember hearing growing up was, “Is that really the best use of your time?” And that question lodged deep in my psyche. As an adult it has left me dealing with chronic tension and anxiety about doing all the best things, making all the best choices, “redeeming the time” as I learned to call it. It meant that relaxing was bad. It meant that getting lost in a story for the story’s own sake wasn’t worthwhile. It meant that playing video games with friends was a waste. And even as my values and beliefs changed, the old “bests” were simply replaced with the new “bests,” and I began feeling guilty for going a day without learning some big thing or without writing or without going to the gym. Every choice and every day has to be the “best.” My whole life has to be the “best,” so the idea of a career where I’m not making this huge impact on the lives and hearts of so many people was just not acceptable so I never bothered to look into acting even though deep down it was like my favorite.
Perfectionism. Workaholism. Obsessive dieting. Over-commitment. Dissatisfaction. Competitiveness. Fitting in. Stoic toughness. All these ways we are compelled to tirelessly grasp for “best” so that we can be happy with ourselves and so that others will be happy with us. That’s a lot of “best” to keep up with, especially because we never quite think we’ve reached it.
This subtle idea that love requires a reason affects how we see the broader world, too, from humanity as a whole to specific people groups. People who “talk that way” or “dress that way” or “spend that way” or “think that way” or “look that way.” People who struggle, people who “fail,” people who are vulnerable, people who need help, people who are “different.”
We alternately fear and scorn “those people.” Democrats or Republicans. Immigrants. “Blacks” or “Mexicans” or “Middle Easterners.” Men or Women. Boomers or Millennials. “Filthy” rich. Homeless. “Fat” people. Sensitive people. Dreamers. Network marketers. Christians. Atheists. Parents. Politicians. Auditors. Celebrities. Rednecks. Rebellious teenagers.
We find a label that we’ve experienced as somehow “bad” or “less than,” and we assign it to a group of people we don’t know–humans just like us deep down–and then we get to hate them, reject them, make fun of them, mistrust them, attack them, write them off, bully them.
The idea that some groups of people are less lovable because of who they are or what they’re going through is the very antithesis of compassion. We mock and make fun and build walls and forget that all these people are just humans who, like us, at their core are just vulnerable souls in need of love and support.
Love needing to be deserved impacts our own social circles, too. One way I’ve noticed I carry with me this only-love-the-worthy-ones baggage is through my deep down gut reactions to people who hurt me and let me down, even in little ways. I’ve noticed that I learned a tendency to see only one or the other: someone that doesn’t hurt me and I love them, or someone who hurts me and I hate them. There’s no room for people that I love and also am mad at sometimes, because once they’ve hurt me they’re “bad” and it’s simplest to just reject them and move along. Either someone is the “best” or they are unsafe. Only the “best” are safe.
Sometimes it’s not about safety, sometimes it’s just about preference and popularity. We learn socially to accept and appreciate and embrace and follow and enjoy the “best” people, and neglect the “less-thans” out there. It’s why even in many social groups that try to be built around “love,” like some churches, the “odd” people–the socially awkward or the mentally ill or the addicts or the handicapped–are left out of the cliques. We gravitate toward the people whose style and company we consider the “best,” and we happily leave the “odd” ones to fend for themselves.
This perfectionist view of love also tends to really rub other people the wrong way. When I take issue with everything that isn’t quite perfect–when I always, always, always point out the errors or the weaknesses around me and look for reasons to criticize every single thing–well, it’s just not how to win friends and influence people. My accepting and loving only the “best” things doesn’t work for my friends.
Perhaps most sadly and painfully, this idea that love needs a reason can slowly erode your relationships–especially your closest ones.
Back to the idea that “not normal” equals “bad.” Nobody will get to know your significant other better than you will. And you won’t get to know anybody else in the world as well as you know your significant other. Which means that you see the “not normal” highlighted in your significant other so much more closely and loudly than you see the “not normal” in other people you like and look up to. And when some of those “not normal” things about your significant other start to get under your skin–which, for the record, being annoyed can be completely understandable and healthy–it is so easy to forget that your view of your significant other is what it is only because of your vantage point. When you compare your significant other’s insecurities to your other friends’ insecurities, your significant other loses this comparison. When you compare your significant other’s anxiety or mood swings to the anxieties and mood swings you’ve seen in other people, your significant other loses this comparison. Every “imperfection” you see in your significant other, you see so much more closely than you see it in anyone else. And that can eat away at your feelings of love and acceptance and patience and compassion. You can become frustrated and quite understandably discontent. You can feel panicky and stuck. “Other people don’t seem to have this problem. If only I could be with other people.” The reality is other people do have this problem and other problems, you just see your best friend’s “bests” and “worsts” from a front row seat.
In the context of people needing to be worthy of love, realistically recognizing your best friend’s imperfections means you have found a “problem,” and instead of love there is doubt and fear and mistrust.
As compassionate and accepting as you determine to feel toward you significant other, whose insecurities and weaknesses you get to know so deeply–if you have internalized the lesson that you need a reason to love someone, you will find reasons not to love. And you will experience times where you have lost sight of reasons to love. And in those times, if your love for your crazy best friend has to “make sense,” you won’t be able to find it.
Chances are you’ll be right about your best friend being a little heavier on the weaknesses than a few other fantastic humans you’ve met. When you fell in love with your best friend, they were “the best person in the world.” But there’s a good chance that someday you’re going to come across someone that you see as “better.” Maybe a new person has those characteristics that attracted you to your best friend, but even more strongly. Maybe your values have changed as you’ve grown and this new person’s compassion or their healthiness or their ambition is more attractive to you than your best friend’s.
In a world where you’re supposed to save your biggest love for the people who have (in some arbitrary way) earned it the most, best-friend kind of love and safety and togetherness and got-your-back-ness doesn’t work.
Flip the roles for a minute. Your partner fell in love with you “because of your ambition” or “because of your sense of humor.” You know there’s someone with more ambition than you, or someone a little funnier. But you need your partner to still love you anyway. What you really need is to just be loved for you. No matter how you compare to the next person.
There’s nothing wrong, I’m sure, with being attracted to someone’s traits and strengths and accomplishments and style to the point that you “fall in love.” Love has reasons. I just think love can’t totally need reasons. Because there will always be a “more reasonable” person to love, but humans were made to provide love and safety for each other–and not just for the “best” each-others.
Love needing a reason–love needing the best, the most worthy-of-love things to love–is a fragile, hurtful, loveless love.
Beyond our relationships with ourselves and others, being obsessed with comparing lovableness and worthiness and good-better-best-ness just practically drains life of its zest.
The world is full of magic. But we miss most of the magic when we obsess over the “best,” when we only love the things that “deserve” to be loved.
We scroll and scroll and scroll through Netflix looking for the-just-right TV show with it’s just-right humor that will put us in the just-right mood that we felt that one “best” time. (And, of course, we land on The Office and commence our thirty-fourth rewatch, because, despite all I’ve written so far, if there ever was a “best” and “most-worthy-of-love” thing to be exclusively embraced, the Office is it. Or maybe just because “favorite” is okay, too.)
We stress and stress and stress over our choices, desperately needing to make sure we’re making the most right decision that will lead us to the most happiness.
We criticize most things because they’re not the best. We’ve seen better. Besides one, every single cup of coffee becomes “not the best cup of coffee.”
We mostly notice the “dumb” parts about each movie we see, each song we hear, each painting we look at. Because we’ve become wired to “discern,” to have “high standards,” to seek the best of the best of the best. Always. So we criticize almost everything in the world. All things but the best things are unsatisfying.
Once, when I was a teenager still living in a culture defined by a comparing/earning version of love, something struck me. And it’s a little dorky, like debate-kid-argument style dorky, so bear with me. This worldview of “god-accepts-only-the-very-best” and “only-the-most-excellent-is-pleasing” that I had grown up with, applying it so faithfully to each and every activity and choice in everyday life–its logical conclusion can only (and quite absurdly) lead to a world where we sing one and only one “hymn” to worship god–whichever we discover is the “best,” the most “beautiful” and “pleasing” to god. We’d only read one book, the best book. We’d only ever spend time with one friend, the best friend who had the most positive influence on us. Of course, this was absurd. Which meant, of course, that this notion of love and worth that I had grown up with was not an actual thing. It didn’t work. It wasn’t life. Life is bigger and broader, beautifully diverse and colorful, and full of countless uniquely lovable people and songs and places and styles and tastes and stories and choices and relationships and expressions.
The “best” just isn’t important. It’s not really even a thing.
Can I ask you a question? Like a real, honest, uncomfortable, stop-and-think question. If you learned this lesson about love–that love needs to be earned, that the biggest love is reserved for the best people and the best things–how has this impacted your life? What words of rejection have you said to yourself because you aren’t good enough? What harsh judgments have you caught yourself making because those people have problems? Who have you treated as less-than because you genuinely thought that’s how it worked? How has this fragile “I’ll-love-you-IF” and “You’ll-love-me-IF” version of love left you and your closest person in the weak, vulnerable, nitty-gritty-real-life moments? And do you ever wish you could just like things?
Could we give up this broken notion? Relearn love?
What if you just loved people and things . . . . . . ? (Like there isn’t more to that sentence.)
Maybe love doesn’t need a reason.
No, let me try that again without the watering down:
Love doesn’t need a reason.
My best friend and I used to ask each other all the time, “Why do you love me?” And that can be a very fun and encouraging and celebratory question to ask and answer. But often I was unnerved when the answers were less along the lines of “because-you’re-the-best-at . . .” and more along the lines of “I-don’t-know-I-just-do.” I couldn’t retrace the exact path it took for that answer to go from my least favorite to my most favorite. But it’s there now. Sure, I feel loved “for” being kind. But I also feel loved “for” being anxious now, too. And best of all, I feel loved “for” just . . . being me. No reason. Just love.
tl;dr version: Love doesn’t need a reason.
Raise your hand if you often feel like you need permission to do something you’re inspired to do?
I don’t know if it’s just certain types of people. Maybe it’s a part of anxiety. Maybe it’s from growing up in a family where most things weren’t considered a wise use of time. Maybe it goes hand in hand with a codependent need to focus on everyone else’s happiness while neglecting your own.
I’m really not sure where it comes from. And I honestly don’t know how widely shared the experience is. Maybe it’s just a few of us. Or maybe there are lots and lots of us–waiting for permission to do what we’re inspired to do.
Maybe you want to try writing a story. Maybe you want to start running. Maybe you get a craving for chips and salsa. Maybe you want to talk to the stranger sitting next to you. Maybe you want to go for a road trip for no reason. Maybe you want to explore another career. Or maybe the beach is suddenly calling you.
The inspiration hits you. You know you want it. But there’s some voice telling you that of course that’s not for you! At least not today. That there are so many reasons you’re not ready to do that. It’s not like you’d be good at it anyway. And there are better things to do. It’s just not you–that’s for other people. Not you. . . .
Does that resonate with anyone else? Does anyone find that there’s a common theme in their day to day life of automatically assuming that you can’t, shouldn’t, or just won’t do a thing you feel inspired to do?
Big or little, I don’t think it makes a difference. The little ones make me scratch my head more, though. A job change is a big decision with lots of consequences. “I feel like inviting a friend to play catch” is NOT. Why is that hard sometimes?
If you ever feel that way, like you don’t have permission for all the things you’re inspired to do, like you’re never able or allowed to just go for things, like every new decision would be a wrong decision–if that’s you, I encourage you to see what happens if you just do things anyway.
What would happen if when your mind immediately went to every reason you shouldn’t do a thing (not worth it, not valuable, not worthy, not right now), you just told the feelings to go screw off and just did what you were inspired to do anyway?
Baby steps, even. Once a day, or once a weekend. . . . “It’s probably too chilly out.” I don’t care, I’m going for a walk! . . . “You’re not a reader!” I am today!
What would happen? You might find you don’t like it. It might cost you some time. Or you might find it exciting, therapeutic, enjoyable. You might discover a new passion in life. You might find a new hobby. You might make a new friend. You never know until you try. And if you try it, you just might like it. And you just might feel yourself coming alive.
(Side note: You might find something that you like that you’ll never be great at or that won’t “serve you” well. Great! That thing is what life is all about.)
Today’s never the right day if you’re waiting for life to give you permission. Today’s only the right day if you do the thing even though today was the “wrong” day.
Don’t wait for permission when you get inspired.
I think my life is much happier when I can let myself just do stuff.
And it always seems to turn out okay.
What did you do today just because you wanted to?