No more looking the other way

A poetic quote has been making the rounds (not sure where it originated), relating to the pandemic: “We’re all in the same storm, but we’re not all in the same boat.”

I think that’s as big as the rest of life, too, in every corner of the world.

 

These words are not going to be enough. But I hope they help a little:

 

I want to tell you something about the world I grew up in.

We tried desperately to look the other way when bad things were happening that we didn’t want to be bothered with.

Racist, sexist, and homophobic statements and acts were all somehow justified, excused, or explained away. For some reason it was the victim’s fault. The victim “should have known better” or “was asking for it” or “should have made different choices” or “shouldn’t dress that way.”

Jokes and mockery at the expense of vulnerable, disadvantaged, and oppressed people were normal. Tacking on the phrase “We’ve got to lighten up a little” absolved us. We threw around hurtful words like “retarded,” called avoidable suffering “God’s judgment,” used the hell out of the phrase “Well maybe he should get a job.” And goodness knows my old world is on the front lines of making and sharing “Kung Flu” videos. “Okay, folks, lighten up!”

The only way we could stomach these selfish behaviors was by carefully turning a blind eye to the sad and violent realities behind the things we were making light of. “Kung flu” only stays “funny” if you ignore the real and sudden and very sad rise in harassment and assault of Asians who are being generically and vaguely blamed for the coronavirus.

If we admitted that in life and in its storms, some found themselves in tougher, scarier, less fair boats . . . then we might have to do something about it. And we couldn’t be bothered.

For example, I learned that racism was largely a thing of the past. That remaining inequities or disproportionate suffering in and harassment toward America’s Black population, by this point was sort of their own fault–holding onto the past, up to no good, “their culture.” We certainly never looked closely enough to see that Black (and Hispanic for that matter) Americans are stopped by the police at a much higher rate. If we had looked–had acknowledged that so, so many people in our society are still genuinely discriminated against just because of the color of their skin–from unequal pay and work opportunities to heavier prison sentences for the same crimes–if we had opened our eyes, we would have had to stand up for them. We would have had to acknowledge that maybe, yes, we should be helping. That accountability is an absolute necessity in the face of racism. That devoting economic resources to undoing the cycle of oppression is only fair. But then we would have had to stop making the jokes and loosened our grip on our disproportionate access to wealth, comfort, and ease.

Another example is how we judged victims of sexual assault, abuse, harassment, manipulation–pick anything. In almost every case where a female was used sexually, the responsibility and blame was placed on her. Or, if the blame couldn’t be placed on her, she at least had to share a good chunk of it. She probably wouldn’t have been assaulted if she had “dressed modestly.” She wouldn’t have been coerced and abused by her husband if she had “fulfilled her wifely duty” with enough frequency. It was on females to know that males were uncontrollably attracted to them, and to shield themselves. If we hadn’t so consciously looked the other way, we would have seen that 1 in 6 females in America are sexually assaulted. That 1 in 7 females are sexually abused before they even turn 18. And that 20% of sexual assaults on minors happen by age 8. Meaning that we live in a world where real, inexcusable, hateful sexual abuse happens, and it’s NOT because girls ask for it. We would have had to stand up and say, “Males, STOP. Stop assaulting, harassing, and abusing females. This is on the abuser, not the abused.” But then males would lose some of their excuses to use and manipulate females, lose their control, and their free passes. Be opened up to scrutiny. No . . . easier to just shake our heads and say “She asked for it.” (I know that this is not an issue that exactly follows these gender-lines, but in the world I grew up in, excusing male’s abuse of females was what was focused on.)

One last example was how we viewed and talked about and confronted poverty. Poverty was the responsibility of the poor. Their fault. Not our problem. We always began with the assumption that some character flaw led them into the poverty they were experiencing. I remember a hundred conversations about all the ways we couldn’t or shouldn’t help the poor. How giving money or food to “beggars” (as if that were the word that summed up their identity) would just enable and make worse their “laziness.” How we couldn’t make them diligent. How “sinful” attitudes and behavior, like a poor work ethic, led them into poverty. How state-run social programs were theft and would make poverty worse. A hundred conversations about how we can’t help and how it’s not our fault. I don’t remember conversations about how we could help. We didn’t have those . . . we couldn’t have those, or we’d have to do something. There was one way, I guess. Support for the poor was exclusively the responsibility of “the church,” and “the church” solved everything by teaching people to find their hope in an after-life where it wouldn’t matter that they lived a life of suffering and poverty (at least the churches I grew up in; I know there are other churches that do genuine work on behalf of economic support for those living in poverty). Every conversation about poverty was about how it’s “not our fault,” and “we can’t help,” and “they’ll have to fix it themselves.” We didn’t talk about systemic, cyclical patterns in society that unnecessarily push people into poverty and hold them there. If we explored those ideas, we’d have to do something uncomfortable. We’d have to acknowledge we had it easy and look for the inconvenient, messy ways to help. Easier to just live in blissful, intentional ignorance.

In sum–the world we grew up in was one of desperately trying to look the other way when bad things were happening that we couldn’t be bothered with. So we always, always, always started by looking for the reasons why the “problem” wasn’t real, the “oppression” wasn’t real.

I’m not the only one who grew up in a world like this. I would venture to say that we are all plenty familiar with a big chunk of America that sees “not-my-problem,” status-quo-justifying Non-Action as a value–a goal to aim for–an ideal to live by. There are social and political philosophies built on this. “They” are not our responsibility, not our problem. It’s on them to take responsibility and fix their own problems.

 

If this is the philosophical world you grew up in, I invite you to try 2 new things:

 

First, when you see hurt and suffering–don’t look away. Look really, really closely. Watch the sickeningly awful stuff.

As someone who grew up in a world that tries desperately to look away from bad things happening (as long as they don’t hurt us), I DO think there’s a solution–a way to effectively transition ourselves and each other out of this habit.

If you’re trying to bring awareness to somebody who grew up with the philosophy I did, honestly I don’t think arguments, statistics, or ridicule are the way to go. When looking-away was my go to, I still, in general, was a very loving and compassionate person. I had just had it trained into me to assume the “problem” wasn’t valid and that it wasn’t my place to help. So calling names won’t help. Every argument and statistic can and will be countered by someone who needs to believe there’s not a real problem to deal with.

I think that arguments and statistics and history and et cetera are all helpful, but only after someone is actually ready to listen. And emotion is generally what gets people ready to listen–as it should be. Because suffering, oppression, murder–those are emotional things. They are deeply sad and painful and angering things. We have emotions for a reason.

So if you’re raising awareness among people who have learned to look away, start by asking them to just look closely at the yuckiest stuff. To just look. To just watch. To see the videos and the pictures, to hear the really awful stories, to go look at the horror face-to-face wherever they can.

When I don’t ever have to see a homeless person–don’t ever have to talk to them, don’t ever listen to their stories, it’s much easier to live in a different world, as if the homelessness-problem doesn’t exist.

When I don’t ever have to see racial discrimination and oppression actually happening . . . when I get to quickly walk away from the headline instead of watching the sickening video of the 8 minutes and 46 seconds of George Floyd crying for help until he dies under the knee of a police officer who onlookers couldn’t stop . . . when I get to treat Ahmaud Arbery like a statistic instead of watching the stomach-turning reality of his murder that was then covered up for months . . . when I get to look away, never see or feel the emotional torment in suffering, I get to keep saying “not-my-problem.”

Seeing the shocking, brutal reality of hurt and suffering–confronting the emotions they bring–that is where minds start changing and people start looking and listening.

If you are the person who starts with this not-my-problem philosophy, I encourage you to LOOK–to LOOK CLOSELY when bad things happen. Go watch the videos and look at the pictures and read the stories. Let yourself get emotional about them. Imagine yourself or someone you love in those stories. Remember that you’re seeing real humans. If that homework seems to you like a bad idea, seems “unnecessary”–ask yourself why that is. Why do you so badly need to look away? What will change when you look?

 

Second, imagine being part of willing, compassionate solutions to suffering.

Try shifting your perspective for a minute from protecting your right to look away to asking what love and compassion could do to help.

You might find that there are lots and lots of real ways to help. You might find those ways through reaching out individually to suffering people, through volunteering and non-profit work, or through bringing awareness on a larger scale to the needs of suffering people. You might even find that there is a group of people who, motivated by compassion, not compulsion, have elected leaders who can help focus society-wide efforts on helping those in need and making this a safe world for every human. There are lots of people who don’t cling to their “right” to not be forced into solving suffering, and who start instead with “Okay, how CAN we help?”

You might find that we really can help make the world a better place, but only once we can give up our focus, for a moment, on protecting our own need to cling to every dollar, convenience, comfort, ease–“right”–that we have.

What would your role as a benefiting and contributing member of society look like if you switched your focus (at least sometimes) to how you can help, instead of focusing on the threat of being “forced” to help with something that “isn’t your responsibility”?

 

No more consciously or subconsciously denying that we’re not in the same boat. No more automatically denying the possibility of inequities, hate, bigotry. No more scrambling to justify, excuse, or explain away every racist, sexist, homophobic, violent, or greedy act. No more ignoring things that don’t fit our agenda. No more looking away from realities that make us uncomfortable.

I know that part of the discomfort is, “But if I DO acknowledge the massive problem, I have no idea how to help, and maybe I’ll get it wrong, and where do you even start???”

That is okay. Awkwardly, messily speaking up for your suffering fellow humans leads to change. It doesn’t matter if you get it a little wrong. The worst possible thing you can do is look away and let the suffering, abuse, and oppression continue.

We’re not going to get this perfect. But when we have the chance to do some good, to help the vulnerable, to fight injustice and protect our fellow humans . . .

We need to stop looking the other way.

We need to step in and help.

We need to take a stand for love and justice and the right of each human to not be degraded and used and oppressed.

No matter how messy.

William Wilberforce - looking the other way

See?!? I shouldn’t have . . .

00 Instagram 2

Hindsight is not always 20/20.

It’s hard not to judge our decisions and actions on a situation’s ultimate outcome.

We pick A instead of B, the situation goes terribly wrong, and we think “See? I shouldn’t have picked A. I should have picked B instead.” This hindsight feels simple. But it’s not. It’s fuzzy and confusing.

The world is a massive place teeming with a billion billion little forces. When your best laid plans go wrong (as they will), give yourself the space to remember: “The world is a massive place teeming with a billion billion little forces. Maybe this wasn’t all my fault.”

We have a tendency to judge our own decisions and the decisions of others (think significant other, friend, doctor, boss, teen-aged child, world leader–so many others)–to judge those decisions, after the fact, by what happened in the end. And then we draw powerful lessons. Lessons about what is “stupid” or “silly” or “unnecessary” or “not-worth-it” or “my fault.” Worse, we let others draw those lessons for us and, embarrassed, we quietly accept the lessons deep into our hearts.

A few examples might help . . .

You decide that you should speak up with your co-worker about something you don’t feel good about. Maybe something he’s doing that upsets you. Something that’s making your job harder. Maybe something you feel is unethical or unsafe. It’s such a tough decision for you to make–to speak up–because you hate confrontation, you don’t want to be mean, you’re worried about a putting a target on your back, you might be wrong, you don’t get the workplace politics game well enough. But you make up your mind. You speak up. And it goes terribly. Zero acceptance, zero awareness, zero accountability. By the end of it all, the one co-worker is out to get you and all your other co-workers have heard you’re a tool. . . . So did you make the wrong call?

Or maybe you’ve always been very socially anxious and don’t have a lot of friends. You grew up with too many relationships that went poorly. You never learned to trust that there was good in people. Despite all this, you finally get up the courage to make a friend. You try opening up a little bit. You put yourself out there. And it goes terribly wrong. Turns out he has zero interest in you, only in what he can get from you. He breaks your confidence and ends up shaming you for your personality and you’re left feeling more lonely and anxious than before you ever tried. . . . So would it have been better not to open up?

Or maybe you’ve been struggling for years over what you should do with a toxic family member. You need your own healthy boundaries and she always brings forward so much hurt and confusion for you. But “she’s family” and you do love her. Finally after some therapy and sleepless nights, you make the choice that you can’t have a healthy relationship with her and that you’ll both be happier if you let her go. Her birthday comes around later that year and, knowing how lonely she is, you feel deeply guilty and sad. You miss the idea of having a relationship with her and you feel deep sympathy for her sad experience of life. So much guilt. . . . So does that make the choice you made the wrong choice?

It’s easy to say yes to all these. To see something go “wrong” and immediately feel that your choice was clearly wrong. That it’s your fault. To say, “See? I shouldn’t have done that!” Shouldn’t have signed up for that race. Shouldn’t have reached out to that family member. Shouldn’t have stood up to the bullying. Shouldn’t have applied for that job. Shouldn’t have taken that medication. Shouldn’t have listened to that friend. Shouldn’t have auditioned for that choir. Shouldn’t have opened up to that person about being depressed.

But hindsight is not that simple. Choice-A being followed by Bad does not mean Choice-A caused Bad. And Choice-A leading to Bad does not mean Choice-B would have led to any better. A billion billion little forces. A hundred little choices. We do our best. Our instincts and our experience are helpful. We listen, we try, we leap. And sometimes, life also hurts.

When something “goes wrong,” please don’t jump to the conclusion that it means you never should have tried it. That you’ve made the wrong choices in life. That it obviously would have been better if you’d made the different choices.

And when someone says to you, “See, you shouldn’t have . . .”–please be careful about the shame and guilt you accept from them, and how you let their judgment change you.

Almost every time I’ve ever heard myself tell myself–or someone else tell me–“See, you shouldn’t have . . .” it’s been a very quick take, a very knee-jerk reaction, a very simplistic perspective. It’s been for the sake of putting out a spark, shifting the blame, self-preservation. Yes, sometimes we have to wrestle with whether we’ve made some bad choices or need to make some changes. But in my experience, most of the times we hear–from ourselves or others–that “See?!?” reaction . . . it’s not fair, it’s not realistic, and it’s not helpful.

Stick up for yourself a little. Keep that spark alive, the one you followed, even when you didn’t know how it would end up. Remember the billion billion forces, and make your little choices anyway, as best you can. And then, when life still hurts, let it be life.

Because very, very, very likely, yes you SHOULD have. And you should again tomorrow!

No shame, no embarrassment, no blame, no guilt. Live your life, no matter what they (or you) say when embarrassment sends them (or you) scrambling to explain life’s curveballs. You’re doing great. :)

P. S. After all, what if you just never bothered trying things you weren’t already certain about? . . .

What we got wrong about love

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 alternatively 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.

Anatole France - love without reason

Sad People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ray Bradbury - some people get sad young

5 Game-Changing Steps for Effective Conflict Resolution

Thomas Crum - how we handle conflicts

Conflict. Here’s a topic for everybody!

“I hate confrontation.” If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard this sentence. Or better yet, a dime for every conflict I’ve watched NOT happen because it’s too difficult.

Conflict in itself isn’t bad. It can actually lead to all kinds of creative ideas, breakthroughs, growth, and trust. Bad conflict is bad. And we’re all so nervous about conflicts going south that we avoid them like the plague.

We’ve learned to avoid them. When we’ve been in conflicts, a lot of hurtful things have been said. We’ve come away from past conflicts feeling misunderstood, controlled, disrespected, and hopeless.

Here’s the thing, though: Conflict needs to happen. Even–and maybe especially–on a team. We’re all in this together, but we bring different focuses, different experiences, different strengths, and different priorities to the table. And fitting those together can be a confusing task. Unfortunately, we tend to get emotional and do a really bad job at meshing all our great ideas.

So we’ve learned to hate conflict.

 

“Conflict can destroy a team which hasn’t spent time learning to deal with it.” – Thomas Isgar

I’d bet all those nickels and dimes that all these conflicts that we just can’t seem to get away from would go a lot better if we’d do some preparation ahead of time (like right now)–learn how to navigate them effectively, so that we have a program to follow in the heat of the moment.

Like any manager (or team member), I’ve experienced a lot of conflicts at work and have gotten to pick up some great tips. I’ve learned some really bad ways to deal with conflict, and I’ve learned a few really helpful strategies, too. I’ve also discovered that the lessons about conflict I’ve learned from work cross-apply to every other area of life.

I’ve got 5 ideas about conflict I’d like to share with you. These are 5 steps I now ask my team to take whenever I’m playing the role of mediator. And 5 steps I TRY to remember to take when I find myself in conflict, too.

They REALLY help me. I hope they help you, too!

 

(Before we get started, one little note about formality. Like awkwardly following this really structured formula when discussing bad feelings or difficult things–a note about that kind of formality: It’s really good.)

 

Step 1: Take turns saying what you want each other to know about your conflict styles.

“When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but creatures of emotion.” – Dale Carnegie

Person A gets really nervous in conflict and has a really hard time coming up with words to say or specific examples to give. If I don’t know this, I’ll think Person A clearly doesn’t have a good point or thoughtful argument to make.

Person B has a really hard time controlling their emotions and their tone in an argument, because a lot of unfair conflicts have let them feeling really unsafe. They get that some of what they say is overkill, disrespectful, or too combative, and they’re sorry about that. If I don’t know this, I’ll just be offended when Person B gets heated and I’ll just write them off as being kind of a jerk.

Person C feels really uncomfortable when discussing feelings. If I don’t know that, when I tell Person C how crappy they’ve made me feel, and their face looks like a stone wall, I’ll assume they really don’t care.

What about your conflict style gets you into trouble? What if you started by explaining and owning that. If we can accept each other’s very human weaknesses, we may listen and understand much better, and the conflict may feel much less combative. It’s important to know that we’re all just human people trying our best.

“I don’t like that man, I must get to know him better.” – Abraham Lincoln

 

Step 2: Take turns saying exactly what you want out of this situation.

Strangely enough, we tend to get so emotional when in conflict that we often forget what we REALLY want! (Oh hey! I just wrote about that!) And just as often we just choose not to tell each other simply, clearly, and honestly what it is we want. We get so caught up in our feelings and hurt and annoyance and pride that all we want is to throw (or dodge) that next punch.

But remember that behind every conflict is a need or desire that someone believes is legitimate and important.

“Every conflict we face in life is rich with positive and negative potential. It can be a source of inspiration, enlightenment, learning, transformation, and growth–or rage, fear, shame, entrapment, and resistance. The choice is not up to our opponents, but to us, and our willingness to face and work through them.” – Kenneth Cloke and Joan Goldsmith

If we can uncover and share what it is we really want, we can move the conflict away from generally hating on each other, away from slinging random and unrelated criticisms, and away from pushing all kinds of grand agendas and changes that may actually be of no concern to us.

For example, maybe my problem is a really simple one: I feel like you think I’m stupid because you include everyone but me in your planning process. I also think it’s embarrassing that I have feelings about your opinion of me. I think you’ll just see that as being sensitive. So instead of telling you what I really want–for you to demonstrate that you value my contribution and to stop excluding me–I attack from other angles: “You’re a poor planner! You forgot to consider A, B, and C last time! You have an inappropriate cliquey relationship with others on the team! You always act like you know best!” But NONE of those were my problem, so asking you to address any of those won’t fix a thing.

I need to get really honest with myself about exactly what it is that I want out of this conflict. And then I need to be really honest, direct, and clear with you about it, too. If we can both start with saying exactly where we’re going with all this conflict stuff, exactly what we’re asking for, the rest of the conflict will be much more clear and simple–much less tangled and confusing and rabbit-traily.

 

Step 3: Take uninterrupted turns sharing what this situation has made you FEEL.

“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” – Winston Churchill

Time to share our FEELINGS. But first, why would you say exactly what you want (step 2) BEFORE sharing your feelings (step 3)? Doesn’t that seem backwards? Here’s why: Feelings are really awkward and subjective and can be hard to listen to. Feelings can have a million reasons behind them. And if you start with your feelings, there’s a good chance I’m not really listening: I’m trying to figure out what you’re trying to get out of me. Instead, let’s make really clear what we want first, come to terms with exactly what is being asked of each other, and then we can just listen in the context of the real issues at hand, instead of guessing and worrying and interpreting the feelings we hear.

Notice, too, that we’re NOT sharing what we think the other person MEANT by their actions in the situation! We’re sharing how it is making us FEEL: “This feels to me a lot like you don’t think I have valuable ideas.” That’s a crappy feeling that you can probably identify with. On the other hand: “You’re trying to keep me from having a say.” Sure, that may be how I “FEEL” about your actions, but that is just my interpretation and you are probably incredibly uninterested in my judgment of you. So we’re not sharing our assessments of the other and their motives and behavior. We’re sharing a feeling we don’t want to live with that we’re getting from this situation. That’s a much more likely place for us to understand and appreciate each other’s point of view.

Finally, we need to do each other the respect in this part (every part really, but it’s especially important and hard during this step) of NOT INTERRUPTING. Feelings are the yuckiest part of it all, and they’re incredibly easy to misread, they can take a while to explain, and they’re coming from a very vulnerable place inside of us–if we’re being honest. So cutting you off so I can explain away your feeling before you’ve even finished it or felt heard–that’s about the surest way I can prove to you that I’m not interested in your point of view. It’s disrespectful and hurtful. So we’ve got to listen–truly listen–to what each of us is feeling in this situation.

“When people respond too quickly, they often respond to the wrong issue. Listening helps us focus on the heart of the conflict. When we listen, understand, and respect each other’s ideas, we can then find a solution in which both of us are winners.” – Dr. Gary Chapman

These feelings we’re sharing are the fleshed out explanation behind why we need what we’re asking for in this situation. In step 2 I say what I want. In step 3 I tell you why this is so important to me. You need to hear both.

And we may be surprised at just how much we appreciate each other’s point of view and how crappy this situation is for each other if we truly listen in this step.

“An enemy is one whose story we have not heard.” – Gene Knudsen Hoffman

 

Step 4: Take turns genuinely acknowledging that each other’s experience is REAL.

“Listen first. Give your opponents a chance to talk. Let them finish. Do not resist, defend or debate. This only raises barriers. Try to build bridges of understanding.” – Dale Carnegie

If you followed the part about truly listening in step 3, this next step shouldn’t be too hard. But it’ll still be hard. In fact, I think the hardest part of conflict may be listening, and the hardest part of listening may be respectfully acknowledging that what you’ve just listened to is a real and valid experience or concern in the other’s mind.

“When we aren’t curious in conversations we judge, tell, blame and even shame, often without even knowing it, which leads to conflict.” – Kirsten Siggins

As long as we insist that the other is unreasonable, dramatic, crazy, stubborn, over-sensitive, stupid, or just completely wrong–we’re not going to reach a place of agreement with them. You may not be interpreting the situation the same way they are, but until you can accept and appreciate that their experience of the situation is a genuine and important one, there will be no bridge for each other to cross, no path to come to agreement.

On the flip side, sometimes being heard and understood is honestly all we really need or want in a situation. Maybe at the end of the day, I really don’t need you to include me in your planning process next time, but I just desperately needed you to understand that this is how it feels to me and that it hurts, and I just want some assurance that you respect me.

And honestly, appreciating each other’s point of view is not that complicated, and no, you don’t get to just say they’re crazy. If we got to just say they’re crazy and wrong about their experience, that’s what we’d say every time. If a situation leaves you feeling something, that is a real feeling to you, and that is important. It’s how you see things. That matters. I don’t have to agree with your assessment. I don’t have to see it your way. I don’t even have to agree to what you’re asking. But at very least, I need to acknowledge that your position is a real position and that I care about your experience. Because until I do, we are not on the same team.

It is key to remember here that what matters is the extending of a caring hand. This step is not about whether you agree with the change they want to see. This step is simply about choosing to be on a team together. We’re all in this together, and until we treat each other like we are, whatever resolution we try to come up with won’t be good enough.

“Respect is essentially a yes to others, not to their demands, but rather to their basic humanity.” – William Ury

 

Step 5: Take turns saying what you need and asking for agreement and commitment.

So here’s the bad news: When you get to step 5, you might still not come to an agreement. And if you can’t come to a resolution at this point, other options may need to be explored–ending your working relationship, asking for management intervention, etc.

But–if you don’t do all that stuff in steps 1 through 4, you will almost definitely NOT agree when you get to step 5!

In other words, no matter how you handle the conflict, there’s no guarantee that it will end in agreement. There’s no magic elixir for conflict. But laying the groundwork of learning how to communicate with each other, being clear about your needs and intentions, being honest about how you feel, listening to and appreciating each other’s points of view, acknowledging each other’s value and each other’s needs–laying this groundwork just makes agreement much more likely and palatable.

So now that we’ve hashed it all out and agreed to be on a team: Given each other’s experiences and needs, what exactly would we each like to ask of the other one? And can each of us agree to these requests? Or come up with another satisfactory version? By now we should both be helping each other look for ways to make this work well for both of us, and if we put our heads together as teammates, we can definitely come up with a solution or two.

And then what it all ultimately comes down to: Are we willing to agree to each other’s requests? And can we commit to follow through with these new solutions? We’re on a team, so we’re going to have to–if we want to be on a team.

Compromising, helping, acknowledging, making room, being respectful, going the extra mile, including each other, accepting needs, finding solutions acceptable to everyone–that’s the tough stuff that makes or breaks a team.

So take turns: Say what you need. Get specific. Ask for agreement. Commit. We’re in this together now.

And if you can’t agree–and maybe you really can’t–you’d better be really careful that it’s not just you being unable to be on a team with other humans. Because if you refuse to resolve a conflict, there’s a good chance (sure, not a guarantee, but a really good chance) that the problem is you.

“I have come to the conclusion that the greatest obstacle to getting what we really want in life is not the other party, as difficult as he or she can be. The biggest obstacle is actually ourselves.” – William Ury

 

What do you think? Would these steps help you next time you’re in a conflict? Could you walk your team members through this formula?

I’d love to know what else works for you when it comes to mediating or resolving conflicts, too, if you’ll comment below. I know these 5 steps aren’t the only good strategies out there!

Here’s to being on a team with the people in your life!