Death

To my friend Peter F.
You’re one of the tenderest souls the world has known.
Be at peace.
~

Death is yucky.

It’s been on my mind this year. A lot.

One of my first, best work-buddies died suddenly the other day. His name was Peter, too, and we used to set up a cup across the room and take turns trying to throw pens into it. We got into trouble together–a lot. We drank Monsters together and always, always made each other laugh. He did this hilarious thing where anytime you’d tell him anything–anything–he’d whip his head around and, in an exaggeratedly defensive voice snap back, “I know!!!?” So much laughter. Peter was the best, and he was a deep, deep, loving human. . . . One of the hardest things about death, to me, is that you can’t talk with the person about it afterward.

This weird year . . . I’ve watched videos on the news of Black Humans dying who didn’t need to die. I’ve looked at graphs representing hundreds of thousands of people dying in a pandemic. I’ve been there with people barely hold on–wishing I could fix it, knowing I can’t. We’ve adopted a 13-year-old dog who we absolutely adore, but who we know doesn’t have too many more years or months to snuggle with us and eat yummy treats. We’ve talked through preparing for and dealing with “if you or I die,” since that’s a thing adults do, especially this year. And I’ve wrestled with some of my own fears and associations and assumptions and feelings about death.

A close friend recently asked the question: Why aren’t we using this year to reflect on death more? It seems like a healthy activity. But sort of like cod liver oil is healthy. It’s healthy but it is no fun. Cheese tastes better.

Another close friend recently suggested being honest more about the stuff we don’t have all put together. The stuff we aren’t confident about, or don’t know what to say about. The stuff we do struggle with. None of us have all the answers. So it’s good to get real with each other.

So, real from me to you: I don’t like death. Death gets to me. Like all the way.

Since I know you think about death sometimes, too–here are my thoughts–very random and disorganized, as this topic is for me. Once you’ve read this, maybe you can share your thoughts with me? Maybe they’re words I need to hear. Or words you need to say. Maybe you can share those words with others? Maybe we can face these yucky things together more.

First and maybe most of all: When someone dies, there’s this urge to say the right thing to make it feel a little better, to relieve a little pain. Don’t. It doesn’t work. At all. It’s almost hurtful–it is hurtful–to think your words can somehow fix the sting. Death is the worst. Let the pain happen. It needs to happen. Death is awful. Don’t downplay it. Don’t deny it. Don’t “at least” it. Maybe there’s nothing to say, and it’s just time for hugs and for just sitting next to each other.

That being said . . . here are some thoughts to (maybe) help prepare for it? . . . to give the awful experience of death some context. . . .

In some communities, death is very normal. For example, free climber Alex Honnold talks about how routine it is in his community to hear “[this-friend] just died.” Their sport is so full of passion and aliveness. But it’s an incredibly dangerous sport, so they become more used to death. From what I understand it still hurts, but it’s . . . different. It’s more . . . normal. The death? Not surprising. The full-tilt life? Worth the risk, and worth celebrating. “They died doing what they loved.” . . . Sometimes you hear doctors talk about how dying is just a part of the life cycle. In some poor parts of the world, early or painful death is much more “normal,” too. Maybe the experience of death is somewhat subjective.

A Buddhist view on death stresses how natural it is as a part of life. The flip side of the same coin. That it is such a struggle because we try so hard to deny that flip side, clinging to the things we love as if they are permanent, and seeing our individual selves as extra special instead of as one little part of a big, unified, flowing world of life.

“We can reflect on and contemplate the inevitability of death, and learn to accept it as a part of the gift of life. If we learn to celebrate life for its ephemeral beauty, its coming and going, appearance and disappearance, we can come to terms with and make peace with it. We will then appreciate its message of being in a constant process of renewal and regeneration without holding back, like everything and with everything, including the mountains, stars, and even the universe itself undergoing continual change and renewal. This points to the possibility of being at ease with and accepting the fact of constant change, while at the same time making the most sensible and selfless use of the present moment.”

~ Geshe Dadul Namgyal, Feb 26 2020 interview in the New York Times . . . maybe you should read that whole interview!

So what about after death? Do you know exactly what happens? Are you sure? Pretty sure? Not a shadow of a doubt? . . . Or do you not know? Are you comfortable with being unsure? At least able to accept it? Is there some “trust” somewhere in there? Do you think you could find a way to know for sure what happens? And do you think it would change things? . . . Do you need to know? . . .

What will you leave behind? . . . You loved and treasured your moment of life. Will you leave behind a better chance for others to treasure their own lives? Will you leave the world a little better, a little happier, a little more hopeful? Your friends and family? Or the strangers you do or don’t smile at?

Death is uncontrollable. But there is a lot we can do to probably influence the quality and length of our life. Taking care of our bodies, of our health. Taking precautions. Not being a free-climber. Never ever eating happy yummy treats. Steering clear of poor inner cities where violent crime is more common. Not volunteering in war zones. See? It’s not that straight-forward. There are some “good” things we can do to probably lengthen our lifespan . . . and there are things we can do (or not do) that give us more days on the calendar, but days with less meaning.

“You may be 38 years old, as I happen to be. And one day, some great opportunity stands before you and calls you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause. And you refuse to do it because you are afraid. . . . You refuse to do it because you want to live longer. . . . You’re afraid that you will lose your job, or you are afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity, or you’re afraid that somebody will stab you, or shoot at you or bomb your house; so you refuse to take the stand. Well, you may go on and live until you are 90, but you’re just as dead at 38 as you would be at 90. And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit.”

~ Martin Luther King Jr

What evil or hurt do we do to each other and to the world in our desperate attempts to cling to our fleeting lives? . . . And what unhealthiness do we inject into our own lives to try to escape death, or to deny its pain and fear? . . . Stop and think . . . . . . .

But the good things we can do–taking true care of ourselves, and not to an extreme . . . pause and ponder how deeply you treasure your life. Imagine knowing your last breath. That deep, unsettling feeling of loss . . . it’s real. Life is worth holding onto, for yourself and for others, in every healthy and balanced way you can. So maybe do eat your veggies?

Just, also eat pizza sometimes. Balance. . . . And consider doing some big, brave (if scary) good in the world.

In other words, while you’re clinging to life, don’t forget to taste life and to help others find their lives, even if it may cost you a couple years.

At the end of the day, you can’t control death. I keep catching myself wondering, day-dreaming, hoping–maybe I can find a way to help our furry friend Willoughby bypass death, postpone it, live an extra whole lifetime. But eventually, reality steps back in to say: You can’t control death. I can’t control my furry friend’s. I can’t control my wife’s. I can’t control mine. And you can’t control yours. It could be an accident tomorrow. It could be disease a few years from now. Or it could just be time to go when you’re old and grey and full of memories. And I think it may help to accept that–the fact that you can’t control death. It may make your grip a little looser, your fears a little calmer, and life a little sweeter.

One sort of sick but sort of true silver lining–which doesn’t take away the sting but might offer just a little peace: Think what will be over at death. What will be no more. What will be done. Life does include plenty of suffering. And our bodies seem to see more and more pain as we slowly grow older. Some live to see such pain and helplessness that they choose no longer to cling at all costs to their life, knowing it is time to stop fighting a brutal fight. And when there is that much pain, the fact that death will someday relieve it is not an entirely unwelcome thought, though it never makes life less precious. Pain can’t last forever. And so we hear people at funerals give the over-simplified, maybe unwelcome encouragement, “At least they’re not in pain anymore,” and no, it doesn’t fix it, but . . . it’s sort of true. . . . There is a natural end to suffering, just as there is a natural end to life.

Yes, it still stings.

What experiences, feelings, emotions, treasures–are only a part of our lives because we know that one day we will die? There is a sweetness. There is a deep love. There is attentive, expressive, desperate love that comes along with mortality. Because every minute counts.

“If we were vampires and death was a joke,
We’d go out on the sidewalk and smoke,
And laugh at all the lovers and their plans,
I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand.
Maybe time running out is a gift,
I’ll work hard ’til the end of my shift,
And give you every second I can find,
And hope it isn’t me who’s left behind.
It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever,
Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone.
Maybe we’ll get forty years together,
But one day I’ll be gone,
Or one day you’ll be gone.”

~ If We Were Vampires, a song by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Time is a strange and arbitrary measurement of our lives. We crave and cling to our youth, our “prime.” And we don’t want to grow old because we believe growing old means we will lose those things–the things we’re passionate about, the things we do, and love to do. Does this interpretation of time do us a disservice? Does it rob us of what we have? Of the parts of us we never really lose–that just show up in a different “time” of our lives?

“You will always, always, always have the miles you’ve run. You’ll always have the countries you’ve visited. You’ll always have the people you’ve loved. You’ll always have the dances you’ve danced, the songs you’ve sung, the books you’ve read, the letters you’ve written, the rock walls you’ve climbed, the parties you’ve thrown, the puppies you’ve snuggled, and the accomplishments you’ve accomplished. . . . Why do they count less ten years later? . . . The love for the thing is still there. The memories are still there. The reality is still there. The identity is still there.”

~ You still are and you still can, a blog post I wrote a little while ago

Here is the most comforting thought I’ve ever found about growing old–about the irreversible passing of time–though to be fair, I’ve shared it with some who don’t find it comforting–so, in case it does happen to help you, too:

“I should say having been is the surest kind of being. . . . The pessimist resembles a man who observes with fear and sadness that his wall calendar, from which he daily tears a sheet, grows thinner with each passing day. On the other hand, the person who attacks the problems of life actively is like a man who removes each successive leaf from his calendar and files it neatly and carefully away with its predecessors, after first having jotted down a few diary notes on the back. He can reflect with pride and joy on all the richness set down in these notes, on all the life he has already lived to the fullest. What will it matter to him if he notices that he is growing old? Has he any reason to envy the young people whom he sees, or wax nostalgic over his own lost youth? What reasons has he to envy a younger person? For the possibilities that a young person has, the future which is in store for him? ‘No, thank you,’ he will think. ‘Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past . . .”

~ Viktor Frankl, a psychologist who survived Nazi death camps, in his beautiful little book, Man’s Search for Meaning

So . . . time. It passes. We grow old. Death comes. But I am still me. You are still you. The reality, the identity, the beauty–it always IS. It will always be real. One day we’ll be done looking back, but all the love and passion and beauty will still be there, will still be real. . . . any comfort in that for you? For me, there is.

But death still hurts. It’s the worst of the worst of the worst. So . . . how do we face it? I honestly don’t know. I’ve heard that people really need someone there to hold their hand. So maybe we focus on how we can help each other face it. We do need each other.

Spoiler alert, if you haven’t seen Frozen II and you don’t want to know any bits of what happens, skip down to the next paragraph. Remember or imagine with me: Olaf the larger-than-life little snowman is suddenly dying. Anna comes over and holds him as he slowly fades. “I’ve got you.” Wrapped in her embrace, Olaf says, “Hey Anna, I just thought of one thing that’s permanent.” “What’s that?” “Love,” says Olaf. “Warm hugs?” offers Anna. “I like warm hugs,” says Olaf, at home in the love of Anna’s arms. And then he goes. . . . And there it is. . . . “Warm hugs.” If we have to go–and we do–can we go with warm hugs? Can we give someone the warm hugs they need? This year, so many people are dying alone in hospital beds, too far from the loving arms that would give anything to be there to offer warm hugs. So–maybe warm hugs aren’t just physical, in-person, immediate. Maybe we can provide each other a love, a sweetness, a tenderness that proves those warm hugs, even just felt deeply in the heart. Maybe it would help to talk about death more with each other . . . to express, to promise the warm hugs, so that when the time comes, we can feel them, no matter how it happens.

Maybe you get the chance to be right there with someone to hold their hand . . . to hold them. That is a gift you can know is good.

So I don’t know what to do about death.

I don’t.

It is indescribably bad.

But the sadness and hurt of death gives you and me a meaningful purpose in each other’s lives:

Treasure people now. Give happiness now, while people are still here to feel it. Life has plenty of hurts, and death is scary. So when we see each other, maybe we can remember the hurt and the fear we’ll each face, and we can take the opportunities we have, while we still have them, to ease each other’s pain in any way we can . . . to bring love and light and laughter and warm hugs into each other’s impermanent, beautiful lives.

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Sit with the bad, then chase the good

Okay, I’m not going to pretend like this pandemic is a fun time, or “good.” It is awful.

I have learned something about fear and sadness–not a new thing, psychologists have said it for years and years and years: Sit with it. Accept that shitty stuff is real. Acknowledge how hard it is. Feel the feelings.

That’s not something we’re the best at, most of us. Distraction and escape are easier when bad stuff happens. But what will happen if you just . . . let it be bad?

And then ALSO . . .

Chase the good! Find the positives. Embrace the opportunity.

While the world largely closes down for a while, everyone hunkered down at home, what small gift is wrapped up in this weirdness for you? Is there actually a very BIG gift?

You’ve recently said something like “I feel stuck” or “I don’t have time” or “I wish I could” or “I’m too busy”–haven’t you?

For most of us, our stuck/busy lives just got turned upside down. There is a lot of fear and loss to sit with. But ALSO . . . you got your opportunity: . . .

. . . Your opportunity to reset. To reflect. To reevaluate. To slow down. To speak up. To calm down. To reconnect with your life person. To check in on your friends. To meet new people. To HELP in big ways. To break habits you don’t want anymore. To meditate. To journal. To exercise. To write. To read. To plan. To dream. To grow. To heal. . . .

. . . to change!

Sit with the bad, then chase the good.

What GOOD thing could this crisis hold for you?

P. S. I’ll start. For me, this has been an opportunity to slow down from what was quickly becoming a mentally breakneck pace in my daily life. And as I’ve slowed down, I’ve found energy and peace. And as I’ve watched a bunch of real people suddenly get very vulnerable while dealing with a scary and chaotic time, I’ve found a little more courage to live and love a little more openly . . . as big as finally sharing some piano and song with the world–a dream of mine–because people can use a little happy and I could do with a little showing off . . . or as simple as checking in a little more with friends. Slowing down, loving more.

What about you? What’s your “good?”

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This WEIRD Weekend

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There is still that soft breeze you can feel touching your skin and blowing gently through your hair when you go outside.

There is still that song that moves you deep inside every time you hear it.

There is still that cup of coffee you make in the morning, the exact way you like to make it.

There is still that friend you used to phone with before life got so busy.

There is still the taste of pizza–to taste again, or even just to think about for a while.

There is still that pair of running shoes, and you were so excited when you bought them, and maybe you’ve forgotten how exciting they are to you, and maybe if you scrub them off and shine them up a little, you can feel the same excitement.

There is still that one scene of Michael Scott’s, after Oscar accepts his little homemade scarecrow goodbye gift, that has made you laugh from deep in your belly time and time and time again.

There is still the sound of geese, honking you awake in the morning, on their way back to their summer home somewhere up north, honoring this strange and strong force called life.

There is still a dusty comic book sitting somewhere in a box, waiting to be rediscovered.

There is still a stranger’s real smile as you walk by each other keeping an awkward little distance because you’re pretty sure you’re supposed to right now, but my word, that smile felt close and comforting.

There is still your little kiddo’s uncontrollable laughter when the whole box of cereal spills on the floor.

There is still your hand that can feel and touch and hold your other hand, clasping, intertwining your fingers, squeezing, massaging your palms, proving for your own sake that you are still here, grounding you in the reality of life in its most beautifully basic form.

There is still your favorite game to play.

There is still your blanket you’ve been missing.

There is still a quiet trail in the woods.

There is still that YouTube video of yoga for beginners that you saved to your watchlist a while ago when you were in too much of a hurry to give the new thing a try.

There is still kombucha.

There is still that journal you’ve been meaning to start writing.

There is still the old album on your computer full of happy photos of adventures that, though “past,” are still just as real a part of your life as this present moment.

There is still the nap that you’ve wished, on every other day, that you had the time to take.

There is still the magical painting on your wall that you could just stare at.

There is still the tail-wagging, hyperventilating, zoomies-inducing excitement of your doggo that OMG YOU ARE HERE WITH ME TODAY!

There is still your comfy couch.

There is still your piano with eighty-eight wonderful keys that have always, always, always been there for you to come back to when you need to find your heart again.

There is still your best friend.

There is still a bubbly creek you could sit down and listen to.

There is still that book you’ve been looking for time to read.

There is still a warm bath to take, and I bet that eucalyptus scented Epsom salts aren’t out of stock today (I could be wrong).

There is still pen and paper, and you’ve meant to start drafting your big dream project for years now.

There is still a floor, and there are still hands and knees you can crawl on, as silly as that seems, and if you try you may find again this weird feeling, now foreign, that you used to call “play” when you were so little, so silly, and maybe actually so wise and so in touch with life.

There is still a closet you’ve been meaning to clean.

There is still that book you want to write.

There is still Winnie-the-Pooh.

There is still the old jigsaw puzzle you never opened, and maybe you don’t know just how fun those can be.

There is still your favorite shirt.

There is still intimacy–loving, comforting, caring, silly, needed, amazing intimacy.

There is still a massive, loud, rushing waterfall for you to sit and watch.

There is still that movie you’ve been meaning to watch ever since it won an Oscar four years ago.

There is still the new hairdo you’ve been wanting to try.

There is still conversation.

There is still that other career you’ve been waiting for time to research and explore.

There is still the documentary you saved to your list for some free afternoon.

There is still a letter you can write to someone who means more to you than maybe they realize.

There is still the blog you’ve been nervously waiting to start.

There is still your phone’s internet browser with, I bet, a bunch of tabs you opened to read on some hopeful but imaginary future date when you’d “have time” again.

There is still the recipe you’ve been waiting to try.

There is still a colorful and imaginative storybook or twenty-two that your little girl or little boy would love to hear you read, if you’ll let them turn the pages.

There is still a field or a pot full of flowers that have been waiting for you to see them.

There is still the friend you’ve wanted to reconnect with.

There is still a walk you can take.

There is still a meditation practice waiting to be tried.

There is still the friend who told you they’d always be there for you if you needed to talk.

There is still a mountain (big or little, it really doesn’t matter) that you’ve been waiting to climb.

There is still the language you’ve been wanting to learn.

There is still that weirdly and powerfully magical little moment where you glance outside and, look, the sun is coming out!

There is still your body, ready to wrap itself in a safe and comforting hug.

There is still life.

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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

My Little Broken Buddha

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My best friend gave me a little figurine of a meditating Buddha. Its head was still on.

I meditate and I really like Buddhism. In a nutshell to me, it’s about letting go of our need for things to be just-so.

Our first big excursion to the mountains since my last concussion, a long road trip to the Canadian Rockies. . . . I was really nervous as we prepared to leave, because travel is my thing and mountains are my best friend’s happy place . . . but my concussion on our last adventure had done a number on me, and each month since then had felt hard, sad, gloomy–anything-but-adventurous.

So I brought my little Buddha along. To remind me not to hold on too tightly to my expectations for the trip. To help me know that it would be okay if everything didn’t end up being just-so. Its head was still on.

Things did NOT go just-so.

Morning, middle-of-nowhere, Saskatchewan, my adventure buddy’s wrist started hurting where a few days earlier she burned it on the stove. It started getting red and it became a small bump. By the end of the day it was a not-at-all-small bump, the entire arm too painful to use much. We checked into our Canmore hotel and after several frustrating calls to insurance we drove to the local emergency room where after a quick glance the doctor hooked her up to an IV for antibiotics.

Four visits to the emergency room in three days. Fevers, dizziness, red lines starting to spread, needles, blood draws, tubes installed in my best friend’s arm, a panicky midnight outing to find a thermometer interrupted by my phone ringing and my best friend telling me that she was now shaking so violently she could hardly hold onto anything.

Honestly, it was scary as hell. I think scarier for me than for her. It got a lot worse before it got better, and I knew that an infection going bad isn’t a thing you want to experience.

Just out of the woods, day two or three–the days became a blur of emergency room and hotel room–I hopped in the car to go pick up some groceries–completely drained of every kind of energy. I grabbed my little Buddha and held it in my palm as I drove, more for its vague feeling of comfort and familiarity than for anything else.

I hopped out of the car at the grocery store and tossed my little Buddha into the center console, and heard two things bouncing around. I picked it up. Its head was gone.

*feeling when your heart sinks but even sinkier*

I broke my little Buddha. :(

And then I sort of grinned. No sh**, may as well, everything else is broken. I guess it’s exactly appropriate that my little token of not-holding-on-too-tightly broke.

At first I thought about replacing it, but more and more it seemed perfect to me that it stay broken. Because now–every time I see it on my desk–I remember just how much holding on too tightly doesn’t work. That “broken” is only “broken” in the context of my need for things to be just-so.

 

In the 5th century BCE, a man named Siddhartha Gautama lived in what is now Nepal. His family was wealthy, but he was struck by the pain and suffering he saw in the world, so he tried being intentionally-poor instead. It didn’t “work” for him, so he embraced “the middle way”–a life of moderation: not desperately seeking ease and pleasure, but also not seeking pain and self-abasement. In all this practice, he learned a lot about life and then he taught the people around him a lot about life and then he became known as “The Buddha.”

“Dharma,” the teachings of The Buddha, have at their heart the “four noble truths.” Dukkha, Samudaya, Nirodha, and Magga. And the first three are why I love my little broken Buddha.

Dukkha: Suffering is a thing. It’s a part of life.

Samudaya: Why is suffering a thing? Because we think things are supposed to be just-so. We crave pleasure, we desperately try to control, and we hold on too tightly to what we think we want or need or love. Attachment.

“According to Buddhist psychology, most of our troubles stem from attachment to things that we mistakenly see as permanent.” ~ Dalai Lama

Nirodha: There is an antidote to suffering: Letting go of attachments, obsessive cravings, and desperate control, and living–not in a bitter past or an anxious future–but fully in the present, one day at a time. Acceptance.

 

What are you holding onto too tightly?

 

I still bring my little broken Buddha with me whenever I go out of town or when I have a big scary thing that I think needs to go just-so.

It’s a perfect reminder not to hold on too tightly.

Things break. Things hurt. Things fade.

Life is weird, and needing it to not be weird will only lead to frustration.

But life is also beautiful. And a strange and strong beauty and peace can be felt when you let go of your need for things to be just-so. . . . when you remember not to hold on too tightly.

~

“The root of suffering is attachment.” ~ The Buddha

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