When it feels like too much

A soft, fuzzy mommy with no food. Or a wire mommy with food. Which would you pick?

In a 1958 experiment by the scientist Harry Harlow, baby monkeys gravitated heavily toward the soft, fuzzy mommy with no food.

Comfort and security mattered the most. Like even more than dinner. And not much matters more than dinner.

We humans seem wired to desperately seek and hold onto comfort. Even when the comfort is unhealthy or doesn’t serve us in the long run. It’s just how we are.

In his two podcasts about The Office and its making, Brian Baumgartner, who played Kevin on the show, repeatedly asks the question: Why do people obsessively binge The Office? And the answer, repeatedly, is it’s familiar. It’s a comfort thing.

The more familiar something becomes, the more we turn to it for comfort. That can be good, bad, or neutral. Like getting hugs from your best friend, or returning to your abuser, or just streaming The Office long past Netflix’s “Are you still watching?” intermission.

Familiarity makes comfort. And on the flipside: unfamiliarity–or change–triggers discomfort.

Like when Netflix’s contract for The Office expires.

So what happens with change? What happens when we suddenly lose the familiar? Suddenly step out of our comfort zones? Suddenly find ourselves in this strange, new, and uncomfortable world?

Very often, what we think will happen turns out to be very different from what actually does.

We humans tend to be far more capable of recovering from emotional crises than we expect. When faced with loss and challenge, people frequently overestimate how long it will take before their minds can return at least partial attention to their typical day-to-day concerns. We frequently end up at least some version of “okay” more quickly than we expect.

And I think that’s very much worth thinking on for a bit. With the big discomforts and the little ones.

What actually happens?

~

A friend adopted a dog last week. Being a mom to furry friends wasn’t new to her, and everything was ready to go, but still she couldn’t shake this anxious feeling. She felt stressed out and on edge. What could go wrong? Is it going to go okay?

I shared my own story of adopting our pup, Junko, a year-and-a-half shepherd mix rescue. We brought her home a few months ago and, although she was about as well-behaved as they come, and we also were more than ready and not new to this, the next few days were some of the highest anxiety we’ve ever felt–panicky. The unknowns, the “Was this a bad decision?” thoughts, the fear that we wouldn’t be good care-takers for her.

The moral of the story seems to be: All significant changes–even the EPIC ones–are stressful.

Change is uncomfortable.

And we desperately want comfort.

A ray of hope in the height of the Junko-anxiety was: Someday it won’t be this-week anymore. In other words, this maximum-feeling stress isn’t going to be forever.

And while that reminder is common sense, it’s one I think we forget a lot.

So I’d like to explore this change/discomfort thing together.

~

When we experience a new thing that comes with stress, we tend to worry that we WON’T get comfortable with the new thing. The discomfort feels so uncomfortable that all we want is to go find our fuzzy mommy. We don’t think we’re going to make it out here in this scary new world, because we know we can’t survive this tight feeling in our chests and the woozy feeling in our heads and the tummy-waves forever. It’s too uncomfortable. And we need to get out.

So sometimes we take it back. No change. Stay safe.

Whether they’re big changes or lesser bumps in the road, we expect that we won’t get comfortable: A new community, a new person, a loss, a habit, a decision, a life-path, a job or promotion, learning something you didn’t know about someone, etc. All these changes lead to lots of worry and anxiety, and while the alarm-bells are ringing, we overestimate how permanent the stress will be.

Which, again, can make us take it back. Bail. Give up on our deepest desires and truest selves. No change. Need to get back to comfortable.

But what if comfort in the new reality is just a matter of time?

~

We found our dream home one September night and made our first offer since we’d started house-hunting. It was perfect. One we knew we’d never leave. So we threw more at it than we’d budgeted. And it scared the hell out of us. We backed out right before we signed the offer. Then we jumped in again an hour before the deadline. We couldn’t sleep, couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t calm down, couldn’t eat. Work that day was awful. I had this sick, end-of-the-world feeling in my gut. Could we really afford this? (Yes. Very much.) Were we signing our lives away? Would we go bankrupt? Barely scrape by, stressing constantly about money? Find ourselves years later trapped in our not-dream-jobs making just enough money to afford this crazy choice? Making the wrong decision that would change our lives? Finally out on a distracting-walk, we got the phone call. It was a no go. Back to the drawing board. Deeply stressed, not ready to keep going with this panicky feeling, maybe a little traumatized. For the next 9 months we made that offer again, reviewed that budget again, slept on it again, and again, and again. Finally we saw a home and had 15 minutes before the deadline to submit an offer. In minutes we hashed out our most aggressive offer yet, signed it, and hopped into a boat to relax with our best friends. The deeply scary, uncomfortable, stressful thing we didn’t think we’d be able to handle had become . . . easy.

We went stand up paddleboarding lately, my wife’s first time. It’s a weird, tiring thing for your legs and feet at first. The goal was a relaxing adventure and it didn’t feel relaxing. After a bit she wasn’t sure it would ever get chill enough. Fast forward 45 minutes and we were cruising and laughing and chatting away. The uncomfortable thing had become . . . chill.

I felt like I was going to pass out when I gave my first impromptu speech in high school. It lasted about 20 seconds and consisted mostly of messing with my feet and chewing on my lip. It was brutal. This was not for me. Public speaking is outrageously uncomfortable to most people. Until you do it again and again and again. And then, for many, it sort of clicks. Sure, still some butterflies, but we’ve got this. Nowadays, I get a thrill when I have a chance to present in front of a group, and there’s no such thing as too unprepared. I’m 100% there for it. The terrifying thing has become . . . exciting.

Speaking of speaking, I joined a Toastmasters club years ago, looking for some like-minded people. And while speaking was exciting for me, the socializing was nerve-wracking. I was super anxious to make good impressions, and everyone there seemed so put together and intimidating. I felt like I could feel my blood pressure rise when I’d get there, after the hours of anticipation. It was a lot. Stressful, even if a sort of exciting kind. And then all the intimidating people became my good friends and I slowly became one of the long-time members welcoming shy new members. The lonely, anxious space had become . . . home.

A common theme I’ve found with all my co-workers is that we all have this idea that “those professionals,” the ones who have been doing it longer, are in those more advanced positions, must have some special knowledge and expertise and capabilities. Those positions seem scary, out of reach, like we couldn’t keep up with them. Until we take that next scary step and jump in the deep end. After each stressful promotion or transition our splashing about slowly turns to a smooth stroke, and suddenly we just are those cool people we didn’t think we could ever be. Again and again and again, the uncomfortable jobs had become . . . mundane.

Have you ever admitted some deep secret to someone? Shared something that you’re afraid will change how they feel about you? Maybe sometimes it does change how they think of you. In fact, probably most of the time it does. But how long does that change last? When I’ve found myself in that position with friends or family, I’m always surprised by how quickly people are able to adjust and accept. I’m still me. You’re still you. Those scary conversations we think will ruin it all, typically end up just growing the relationships deeper. The upsetting or confusing new side of you quickly becomes for them just . . . you.

Even Willoughby. My last few blog posts have been pretty messy about my Willoughby buddy I lost in April. And you don’t lose the sadness, but I don’t spend most hours of most days in deep sadness about it anymore.

Blogging is a good one, too. There have been some big blog or even social media risks I’ve taken. Scary, brave feeling ways I’ve put myself out there. Opening up about trauma or mental health. Speaking up on sensitive topics. Marketing myself and asking for attention. And each one of those uncomfortable steps I’ve taken that have felt like they’ll be too much, forever putting me in a new space of insecurity, has ended up being totally . . . okay.

Or even this pandemic. No, it’s not all okay now. Not at all. But there is a significant difference in how we function day-to-day as compared to the first month. Remember being super nervous and over-aware every time you left the house? How you’d catch yourself touching your face? Washing your hands and wiping stuff down? And how literally uncomfortable the masks were when you first had to wear them? How complicated the zoom meetings were? And now? It’s . . . normal. In a strange way. The fifth COVID-test feels much less monumental than the first one did. Sometimes you forget you’re wearing the mask until you’ve already made it home and inside. You’re a zoom pro now. And you just don’t think about COVID-19 every minute of every day anymore. The world outside doesn’t look or feel quite so eerily post-apocalyptic as it did at the beginning. The uncomfortable “new normals” became just that . . . normal.

~

What about you? Can you think of something in your life that went from extremely uncomfortable to comfortable? Scary to happy? Difficult to chill? Stressful to normal? Crisis-y to completely and utterly mundane?

Something you thought you’d never be able to handle? Something you thought would be permanently hard? And now it’s . . . not?

~

We are emotional creatures. And we learn discomforts way faster than we learn comforts. We are on the lookout for danger, and changes stresses us the hell out.

But, can we give ourselves these little reminders that the uncomfortable things will get more comfortable?

And quite possibly pretty quickly?

What could this awareness do for us?

Maybe it would give us the strength to do that big thing we’ve been putting off in fear? Knowing that the fear would subside? We could chase our dreams a little more?

Maybe it would give us the strength to keep going with those practices we know are healthy even when we hit a wall that feels like a crisis? Having the perspective that even though it feels like the world is ending, we can keep being us, because if we’re still going to be here, we still need to be ourselves? Like muscling my way through my yoga practice even though the capitol just got stormed because by summer that crazy new reality will have just settled into the actual reality I live in? And yoga would have helped along the way?

Maybe it would save us some hours of intense worry? The stress-feelings could start to just mean that we’re stretching and growing and on a new adventure?

Maybe it would help us connect and communicate genuinely. Speaking our uncomfortable truths, trusting that the more we speak them, the more they’ll feel like they belong?

Maybe it would mean we could be our truest selves through the stress times, the change times, good, bad, or neutral.

~

Do you remember going to the gym for the first time? Seeing all those fit runners and badass lifters doing their thing as if it’s no big deal. And you awkwardly put your stuff in the cubby and try to decide whether to keep your water bottle with you and glance around for a place to tie your shoes where you won’t be in anyone’s way? You wonder a lot what they think of you. You try the machine you’ve always seen used and you can feel the sympathetic grins burning through the back of your head. You see the trainers high five the members they already know so well and convince yourself that you’ll never be one of them.

And then, as happens when you immerse yourself in any community and stick around through the discomfort, you eventually find yourself at home. Or at least no longer on the edge of a panic attack.

The places and spaces and big life changes that we think are going to make life impossible and lead to permanent fear and stress and stomach upsets . . . we get used to them. They become okay. It just happens.

And that’s really quite hopeful.

We’re going to be okay.

You can do it.

~

It seems that almost everything we think will never get comfortable ends up getting comfortable–or at least routine. When we find ourselves thinking that something will permanently bother or upset us, it can help to be a little more down-to-earth and realize we’ll probably feel differently in a few days.

So what adventure or cause have you been desperately wishing you could pour yourself into, but keep finding yourself holding back, afraid it will be too scary?

Or what struggle or change or new reality are you currently going through that is keeping you up at night, leaving you afraid this peak stress is here to stay?

Can you remind yourself that you’ll grow into it?

That the scary will become routine or happy?

The uncomfortable will become comfortable?

The scary new you will soon be the strong new you?

What if you just gave yourself permission to go ahead and chase the thing from the bottom of your heart? Dive straight in, even though the butterflies do their thing in your tummy?

What if you just trusted the process?

What could you do?

What would you have?

Who will you be?

You are safe.

And don’t worry. Your body will discover that’s true. For today, ride the thrills.

Be you through the stress. You’ll stick around longer than it will.

Want a bravery buddy in life? I’ll come with. Throw your email below. :)

Your imperfect help

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.

what grief looks like

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.

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

Letting things float away and trusting they’ll float back if they’re yours

When I finally commit to writing something, I end up scrapping or shelving it more than one out of every ten times.

That ratio has actually been climbing.

It reminds me that the braggable stuff in life is only a part of it.

It feels like some wisdom received from experience, that says: You don’t have to always get it right. You don’t have to always show up. You don’t have to always be on.

And perhaps most importantly, a wisdom that says: You’re allowed to walk away.

“Sunk-Cost Bias” says “You’ve made it this far, you’ve worked this hard, you’ve invested this much–don’t let it go!”

I’ve saved everything artistic from my childhood. Every shitty drawing. Every angsty journal. I’m a human, and I’m addicted to holding on.

For Christmas one year, Lyssi got me a “Buddha Board.” It was a way to learn how to practice the opposite. You draw something unique–something literally once-in-a-lifetime–and in a few seconds it fades away and is gone.

What are you desperately holding onto, something you’ve “committed” to, spent time on, felt dependent on, that you may need to let go?

It’s okay to let go.

It’s okay to scrap things.

It’s okay to shelve things.

It’s okay to “fail” at things.

You’re still here.

Some of the biggest, baddest, coolest, powerfulest posts I’ve written are sitting in that drafts folder and probably always will be. They may have been published if they belonged to someone else, but they belonged to me, and I found that even the loud, shiny ones sometimes just . . . were not truly me.

Even the good stuff, the big stuff, the wow stuff . . . is sometimes the stuff, when you listen deep down, that your heart and body tell you is not yours.

And you can hold on, and just be you-ish.

Or you can let go.

And if there’s something you’re afraid of letting go because, you just don’t know, maybe it’s actually where your real self hides–it will find its way back. You don’t have to delete the drafts and swear them off. Just be able to say, “At least not today . . .”

The you-stuff doesn’t have to be held tightly. You can let go of it and find that it just naturally stays with you.

It’s the stuff you’re holding onto because you know if you didn’t hold on so damn tightly it wouldn’t be there anymore . . . that’s the stuff that maybe it’s time to let go of.

When I first started writing, I had a very business-training-y feel to my posts. “Professional.” Later I peppered in a little emotion and it started to feel perhaps more self-help-esque. Vulnerable periods. Vague, fabley periods. Times where I was pretty sure I was just trying to write like Neil Gaiman (whether or not I succeeded, don’t bother letting me know, if it’s an illusion it’s a happy one). It would even be fair to call a few of my posts “emo.”

Point is–I change.

And you change.

And as we change, stuff that used to just float effortlessly by our side starts to drift away. Sometimes we reach out and desperately cling to it in denial, slowly and subconsciously increasing our level of can’t-keep-this-lie-up until we’re completely lost. But sometimes we listen to the wisdom from deep in our heart, or maybe our gut, that says “let it be what it is, stop clinging.”

And on the other hand as we change, stuff that we once courageously let float away . . . floats back. One day I’m going to finish or maybe re-write that draft about the affect of growing up in a conservative evangelical “reformed” church. Turns out it wasn’t meant to be last September, and it’s still not today, but I think I can sense it drifting toward me again. I guess what I mean to say is, if you’re afraid of letting go of a good thing you have, don’t be afraid. You know you. You’ll let it back in if it belongs with you again.

I sort of love the Drafts folder. It’s a really powerful reminder that life isn’t Instagram. That humans, as magical as they are, aren’t really magical. That you literally will not get it right a thousand times, and it doesn’t matter.

And that you are always, always, always allowed to let the fuck go.

~

:)

Emotional on purpose

Non-rational corners of the brain get little respect. We are supposed to be “smart” creatures, do what “makes sense,” “think carefully.” And yes to all that. And also yes to purposefully manufacturing feelings and emotions that access the more primitive corners of the brain and have nothing to do with logic and sensibility.

Here’s what I mean.

“People often say that motivation doesn’t last,” Zig Ziglar points out. “Well, neither does bathing. That’s why we recommend it daily.”

When we plan and think about how to do life day-to-day, we want to grow, stretch, learn, accomplish–and so we tend to put a lot of emphasis on the rationality-stuff, and forget to plan for our emotions.

We are emotional creatures. We do big, brave, beautiful things because we’re having deep feelings.

What gives you those deep feelings? What triggers them? Fuels them? Replenishes them when you’re running on empty?

Reading a good book? Singing along to the Les Misérables score? Discovering a new poet? Getting the biggest, tightest hug? Asking your heart how it’s doing and writing the answer in a journal? Volunteering to help people in need? Laying quietly for an hour by the lake? A phone call to your best friend? Reading a story that deals with death or loss or grief and purpose? Finding a good quote to live by? Gazing at photos of Mount Ida, visualizing yourself, hiking boots, backpack, all geared up, trekking the wilderness? Joining a crowd to dance, sing, cheer, laugh, or some years just seeing a bunch of smiling faces on Zoom? Holding the little hand of your sweet kiddo as they drift to sleep?

We call them “mountain top” experiences, and they change our lives, and then, when the feels wear off, and we’ve been feelingless for a good while, and we got all rational again, and we barely recognize our once-emotional-selves, we remember those episodes and call them “mountain top” experiences again but with a sort of disapproval this time, like we had fallen for something, like how silly to get so high on feelings. Or maybe like we’re just feeling insecure and a little lost deep down now, because we can’t find our way back up the mountain.

So get emotional on purpose.

What gives you those deep feelings?

Do it,

plan it,

schedule it,

repeat it,

commit to it,

obsess over it,

enjoy it,

cry about it,

share it,

keep it sacred,

ritualize it,

commemorate it,

do it again,

do it again,

do it again.

Let’s not undervalue the truly life-changing impact of finding our feelings.

What emotions do you need today? And where could you get them? Go look, find, take them.

There is nothing silly or senseless or worthless about manufacturing vitality-giving emotions on purpose.

We’re creatures with feelings.

Feel on purpose.

The magic of conversation

How many unsaid things do you have simmering inside of you?

Saying things out loud helps in so many ways. It helps us think through things, solidify things, feel things, get over things. Sometimes just letting out a frustration makes it stop hurting, or putting an anxiety into words suddenly reveals its harmlessness. Many of us learn what we believe and care about by talking through our thoughts.

There is power in saying our stuff.

We are all surrounded by people. If you know a hundred people, you know two hundred ears. That should be enough, right?

And yet . . . how many unsaid things do you STILL have simmering inside of you?

~

A really wise friend likened a marriage to walking on a plank over the Grand Canyon. The view couldn’t be more beautiful, but the height couldn’t be scarier. Lay the same plank on the grass in your backyard, and you’d do it with your eyes closed.

The value and depth of our relationship and attachment to someone significantly impacts the fragility, the fear, the pressure, the importance. Saying the wrong thing–or even saying the right thing the wrong way–to your co-worker is, you know, oh well. . . . Saying it wrong to your best friend, to your life partner, to your mom, dad, daughter, son . . . those moments leave bigger scars.

Obviously–bla-bla-bla get “better” at your close relationships, go to therapy, learn to open up, etc. (Legit, actually do those things.) But the truth is still: The more Companionshipy a relationship, the higher the stakes when it comes to what you say, how you say it, when, why . . .

So we clam up. Because the people we talk to are people that need us to say this, to not say that–people who need us to keep showing up the way we’ve shown up for them, people in whose lives we function a bit as an anchor–stable, consistent, strong–dependably us. They’re people who we want to speak extra gently to, people who we want to be extra positive toward. And sometimes they’re people we’re extra worried might have a problem with who we are becoming. The people I’m close to know Peter as Peter. Some of them need Peter to keep being Peter. They stand to lose more if Peter suddenly sounds more like Jason or Jack or Jimothy. (#fortheofficefans)

On the other hand, we’re surrounded by thousands and thousands of people every day who live and sleep and think and talk and listen less than a mile away from us who don’t know that we’re Peter and don’t need us to sound today like Peter has sounded all his life. What if you could talk to one of those people today? Do you think maybe you’d get some stuff off your chest? Try on a new perspective? Find some freedom to learn who you really are, what you really believe and care about? Would it help to practice the tough, weird, scary topics with people who aren’t going to be as worried or sad or stressed or hurt if you don’t get it just-right today?

I feel like I need to say a thousand times: A good goal is that you feel this freedom in your close relationships. AND . . . I bet that’s a goal you’ll never stop working toward, so in the meantime . . . what freedom is waiting for you in conversations with everyone else? Everyone you haven’t talked to yet?

Conversation is different than companionship. It’s not better, just different. They’re not totally separate: You find companions in conversation. And then you get lifelong conversation from those companions. But we frequently limit our conversation to those with whom we can already claim companionship. And I think this limits us a lot. Robs us of a lot of magic.

I propose that you and I should talk a lot more to a lot of people who we know a lot less.

~

Photo by Micki Benson

This year, I’ve been part of a movement that is spreading across the world. A movement that has connected brave voices with listening ears from Minnesota to California to New Mexico to Florida to Manitoba. I’ve seen people try on their voices and discover they can make an impact. I’ve watched people voice their anger about “those kinds of people” and then learn that “those kinds of people” turn out to be you and me and then discover that we actually can connect. I’ve witnessed people express their biggest fears and insecurities only to find a bunch of people waiting to hold them up in loving support. I’ve heard people open up about their mental health, their traumas, their loneliness, their struggles, their demons, and their dreams.

It’s really not a complicated movement. We call it 5K Everyday Conversations, because every single day, some place (or places) at some time (or times), we gather–three of us or eight of us or twenty-two of us–to spend 3.1 miles (ish) having conversation. Some people run 3.1 miles with each other fast and talk about the stuff they’re angry about, or the habits they’re building. Some run it at a calmer pace, listening to each other share about a stressful family relationship or dream out loud about the work they’d like to do. Some, understanding that that the conversation itself is magic, show up for the conversation without worrying about the movement. And some hop online in Canada to be an ear for someone holding conversation through live video from their home in Wisconsin.

Why the running part? Hmmm . . . helping rid the world of the superfluous statement “I’m not a runner.” And because movement is fun. Happy. Because a few run every mile they can, and a few have been looking for motivation to run. Everyone has their own reason. . . . What I’ve found, though, is that running turns out to be the best anesthetic to the pain and fear of saying hello to someone you don’t know. Nothing quite like panting and sweating to make us immediately drop all the posturing and see that you and I are just two humans. Movement breaks ice and warms hearts. It fuels the conversation.

So yes, it really is as simple as conversation. And it’s a powerful thing.

~

Experiencing so much no-strings-attached conversation this year, I’ve noticed a few magical things about it:

Conversation can hold no expectations for it to be more than conversation. Free. Pressureless.

Saying things out loud helps us get over things, release things.

It helps us see things clearly, helps us think through things.

Helps us feel seen, heard, appreciated, cared about, accepted, loved.

There is something really freeing about talking through the yucky stuff, the hard stuff, the delicate stuff–with a total stranger who doesn’t expect or need anything from you.

The braveness and freedom you get to practice with a stranger is easier to bring back home to the people you love deeper and therefore stress about more. No-strings-attached conversation is like a gym for your speaking-your-truth muscles. . . . Sort of like with that plank-over-the-Grand-Canyon analogy. What if you could practice walking on that narrow plank from not quite so great a height. Like–practice saying how you actually feel but with someone who doesn’t need quite as much from you. I wonder if you walked that plank in the grass every single day if next time you had to walk it over the Grand Canyon, you might trust your feet just a little bit more?

Not only do you get to try on bravery, you get to try on new ideas. Maybe I don’t usually speak kindly, or I’m not usually really open-minded, or not very accepting of this or that “type.” And maybe I want to try changing that–try a new way–see how it goes. What better place to try on a new way than in conversation with somebody I may have never spoken to and may never speak to again? It’s a free space. A safe space to try something new. (For example: I think a group run with a bunch of new faces was the first place I ever answered the “What do you do?” question by saying “I write a blog.” It felt good.)

Conversation with random-people can also be a helpful place to talk a little about your demons. I know there can be great risk in sharing, depending on the context. It’s hard to know where and when to open up. But . . . I’ve been really amazed–in a no-strings-attached conversation space–amazed at the stuff I’ve heard people get off their chests or open up about, and at the acceptance I myself have found as an also-complicated human being. Sometimes it’s easier to finally get words out like “I don’t think I can keep up this façade anymore” or “I think I have a problem” or “I need help” when it’s someone who doesn’t already need stuff from you. There is some safety in . . . strangers. Weird? Yeah . . . but it works.

Sometimes, with life being as complicated as it is, it can be easier to be there for people as an encouraging, accepting, listening ear when we don’t know them. Again–end goal would be this level of acceptance and trust in companionship, too . . . but it’s also true that in no-strings-attached conversation, it can be much easier for us to be there for people. Take, for example, the dad who is estranged from all his kids, because he screwed up a lot as a dad. And it haunts him. His family can’t be there for him anymore. But maybe a stranger . . . can? A stranger can see the very true and very important and very safe reality that, no matter the struggles or weaknesses or history–this is a beautiful human being who is worthy of love. A lot of us have had to let go of some people, and now spend sleepless nights worrying over where they’re getting their needed doses of love and acceptance. Conversation and respect with a family member comes with a ton of baggage that can be too heavy. But that same family member can find baggage-free conversation with a total stranger, a stranger who can be there for them. Maybe you’re that person who needs a stranger’s listening ear. Or maybe you’re that stranger who gets to be there for people who don’t have many people left. Or maybe you’re that stranger who can be there for that kid who just got chewed up and spat out by the unloving world they grew up in. You never know . . . lots of people with lots of weird stories who just need an ear sometimes. Sometimes a conversation with a stranger is exactly what is needed. Hope-giving. Life-saving. Perfect.

Conversation detached from ongoing companionship is also a healthy place for those of us who are struggling, going through rough patches, to shine–to be appreciated for exactly who we are, without this pressure to first graduate to a healthier season of life. That’s powerful and really, really good, too.

There’s another reason conversation with people we’re not close to is super powerful. It’s this: I’m probably, probably, probably close to people who are a lot like me. Think like me, enjoy the same stuff, rant about the same things, see the world through the same lenses. And sticking to the conversation of my closest companions means that I’ll never ever hear all the other truths screaming to be heard. The world is a big place with countless cultures and experiences and hurts and passions and values. And so much suffering in our world comes from “my group” not listening to “your group.” The only way we’ll ever take your experience seriously, care to help, notice how we’re affecting you–the only way to improve our world for each other is by listening to each other. Not listening to each me-clone. Listening to each OTHER. Hearing different perspectives.

Those thousands of people who aren’t your companions . . . they’re holding the eye-opening revelations for you. Waiting for you to say, “Hello, who are you, and what is happening to you, and what do you wish I understood about your world?”

Nothing bad ever came from listening more, understanding more, learning more, seeing people more. And nothing good ever came from settling comfortably into our own way of life and thinking, blocking out the inconvenient reality that our world really is very diverse and complicated.

Especially this year. We clearly haven’t been listening to each other in this world. Listening to our own people, yes. But not to those OTHERS.

So . . . say hello. Start the conversation. Watch the magic. Change the world.

Oh and just because this is one fun little bit of the magic: You never ever ever know where you’re going to find your life-long companions.

~

This year I’ve come to believe that you and I and EVERYONE would benefit from regular conversation with no strings attached, no expectations, no pressures, no agendas. Just conversation for conversation’s sake.

Conversation. Freedom. Magic.

Photo by Micki Benson

~

If all this sounds good to you, sounds . . . intriguing? A little hopeful? Magical, powerful, or like maybe there’s some hope there . . . I invite you to try one of two things:

Start a conversation with somebody.

And . . .

Follow 5K Everyday Conversations on Facebook and find a local time and place to join the conversation.

If you don’t find any local members, pick a time and place and invite a friend . . . or a stranger. Bring the magic of conversation to your own community, and feel your community open its arms a little wider every day. The whole world needs conversation.

And when you show up for a daily convo, and find yourself thinking “How does this work?” you can look back to that simple invitation a few paragraphs ago: Start a conversation with somebody. As simple, scary, and magical as that.

“Everyday in 2020 we have held space for people to meet for conversational movement. At the same time, we have been making the term “conversational movement” a thing. For 285 days we have been working to normalize and inclusivize two things: (1) People talking with people that they don’t know regularly. (2) People feeling safe “running” together. . . . This is what we mean when we say conversational movement. We move at the pace that allows conversation to happen between two or more people. We define running as an act not defined by speed but by the way it makes you feel…alive, full of breath, moved forward by things that are filling you up and people who are lightening your steps.”

JC Lippold, who extended the first 5K Everyday Conversations invitation, sparking the magic

The whole world needs conversation. You need it, I need it. You need my ear, I need yours. We both have some unsaid stuff, and we both have some corners of the world to open our eyes to.

It only happens if one of us gets up the courage to say “Hello.”

And from there–watch the magic unfold.

~

P.S. I feel like I just wrote a bunch about the heavy stuff with conversations–the struggles, the overcoming . . . also, maybe even especiallyconversation is just FUN and BEAUTIFUL and totally AWESOME. It WILL brighten your day.

Photo by Micki Benson