Some things really stress Junko out. When she’s having more fun than she knows how to express and suddenly hears the words “Gentle–no bite!” When we won’t let her hunt the backyard bunnies. Or when, despite her curious, sweet puppy-dog-eyes, we finish the last of our human-food without sharing. When these things happen, Junko does a BIG yawn or a floppy shake-off, and then she feels better.
At a funeral in America, everyone wears black, and you may hear some quiet sniffles, and a few reliefy chuckles when someone “lightens” the mood with a joke the deceased would have appreciated.
When I walked out of the Addis Ababa airport, I witnessed grief given a voice: A loving crowd following a coffin, many joining their voices in ululation, some openly wailing for their lost loved one.
Back when I was aggressively hit on the bottom most days by my parents, to make me a better person, a few commands always followed: Some weird ones like being told to say “thank you.” And one particularly problematic one: “Cry quietly.”
It’s such a cultural thing you and I have grown up with: Emotions are to be not seen, and not heard. Especially the yucky ones, like anger or grief. We don’t wail.
When an antelope suddenly sees a lion spring out of the tall grass, it gets a sudden rush of hormones and it flies across the savannah. After a minute or two the lion tires out, and the antelope can calm down and return to grazing, the panicky energy having dissipated through its pumping legs.
Stressful experiences give us certain energies: Hormones like adrenaline, or emotions like sadness, fear, or anger. These energies serve purposes and have natural outlets so they don’t get stuck.
Animals are great at giving the energy an outlet to serve its purpose, run its course, and dissipate. Junko violently shakes her body to release the pent up frustration.
Some humans are great at expressing and releasing. Like people who wail, who dance, who punch, who scream into a pillow.
And some of us, instead, just manage the energy.
And slowly implode with unresolved, ever-growing stress.
Nobody is “doing well” these days, right? At least not many. The world is struggling. Our country is struggling. My co-workers and friends are struggling. I’m struggling.
COVID and masks and staying at home and no more hugs and over a million dead just in America. The election with all its still leftover yard signs and whatever the hell happened on January 6. Social media and hate. Family members that are seeing each other’s real values and not sure if they’re meshable. Inflation. Racism, arguments over whether racism even exists, hate crimes, police brutality, protests, national guard convoys, tear gas, and threats to use the US military against our own population. Oh and inflation. Short-staffing. Complete disconnect and hatred of left vs right. Russia and Ukraine and nervous questions about nuclear bombs. Mass shootings becoming tragically normal. Increasing suicide rates accompanying a growing mental health crisis. Texas blizzards knocking out power, paid for by all of us everywhere. End-of-times-looking wildfires in Australia. Hurricane force winds throughout the last month in my Minnesota backyard. Baseball-sized hail. All the biggest, baddest, unprecedentedest weather events in recorded history. Millions of traumatized nurses and doctors and teachers, arguments over whether their trauma even exists. And are the bees still dying? And now robots keep trying to follow me on Instagram and other robots are busy ringing a phone that I can’t get away from. Oh and did I mention inflation? And this is just scratching the surface of our universal sh**show–we haven’t even gotten to our individual heartaches, like losing jobs, losing loved ones, chronic pain and illnesses, and I still cry sometimes about Willoughby dying.
That is a lot of energy.
And it needs to go somewhere. Except you’re not supposed to wail.
All that energy. Where is it supposed to go?
Sometimes the energy gets so big and loud that people do really sad things to other people. But it doesn’t have to be like that. There are healthy ways you can use that energy.
Remember the scene in Footloose where he angry-dances? I want to be like that scene when I grow up. It is an amazing answer to life.
Did you know that scared energy and excited energy aren’t that different physically? When you’re about to speak in front of a group, and you start feeling a little floaty and buzzy and shaky and fluttery, it’s similar to when you see your crush.
The good and the bad in life is constantly giving your body energy to respond. It’s revving you up for something. You could let it out by hurting people. Some do. I think you don’t want that, though. In fact, I think you’re trying so hard to not do bad things with all the anger and fear and sadness and stress that you’re holding it tightly deep in your chest. For years. And each day it’s getting a little harder.
What if you could let that energy out before it makes you sick or explodes at the people you love?
What if you could dance?
Or drive hours into the dark night, letting the tears flow, or write it all down.
Or play a loud, low, angry sounding key on the piano, like sweet old Mr. Rogers in the movie It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.
What if it’s actually really healthy to scream in your car?
What if you could laugh harder than you’ve ever laughed over a game with your friends until your stomach aches and you feel lighter than you’ve felt in 3 years?
What if yoga would help you release the heartbreak?
What if swimming underwater could calm your body? (It does. Google “diving reflex.”)
What if you could just SAY that frustrated truth you haven’t been saying to your partner? And not watered down?
What if something as simple as humming could let out all that overwhelming energy?
I was raised to cry quietly. I bet you were, too. We Americans are conditioned to be tough and pleasant. Until we snap.
But when she’s upset, Junko yawns and does a shake-off. Some cultures wail loudly for their lost loved ones. Both these options look and sound weird, but they work. They’re so healthy.
I think that we all have a lot of hard energy right now. Sad. Angry. Confused. Overwhelmed. Exhausted.
How will you release it?
(No seriously, tell me–we all need ideas right now.)
We need each other these days. If I can be there for you through this blog, put your email below.
Hello again friends, happy new year to you! Have you made any resolutions this year? Maybe set some 2022 goals?
And not because I think resolutions are bad. I don’t think they’re bad, I don’t think I’m better than you for not falling for them, and I bet I’ll make some again one day.
But not this year.
I think it’s because I’m in a very specific season of learning–can I share it with you?
I subtly shifted toward the window so my next-seat-neighbor couldn’t see my face on the flight home from Indiana. I didn’t want them to see the tears rolling down my cheeks every few pages as I read the little book Siddhartha. And they looked young, so I also wanted to hide the more adult pages, where Siddhartha’s lover teaches him “the game of love . . . one of the thirty or forty different games [she] knew,” like the one “which the textbooks call ‘climbing a tree.'” So yes, colorful book all around.
Exactly 100 years ago, a German-Swiss poet and painter authored the book Siddhartha. A story about a student of the Buddha. And not just a student of the Buddha, a student of life. Of business, of romance, of philosophy, of pleasure, of high society, of travel and exploration. In fact, Siddhartha’s study with the Buddha didn’t last that long. Can you imagine? Sitting and listening to the Buddha and eventually saying, “sorry, I love what you’re saying, it’s just lacking a little something for me.”
Siddhartha wanted life to make sense. He wanted to understand, to get it, to have meaning, to feel purpose–to be fulfilled as a human.
So he searched.
He tried living with the Buddha. He took what worked for him and moved along to find more. He apprenticed with Kamaswami, a wealthy business owner, and became a massively successful financier. It wasn’t quite right. He traveled, explored, adventured. Still, there must be more. He met a woman named Kamala who opened him up to a world of passion, sex, romance. Even this wasn’t enough.
How many new strategies, practices, schedules, goals, and habits have you tried over the years, so that life can feel . . . right?
And how tired are you?
And again I’m wondering–which new way are you trying this year?
“It’s sort of a blessing–a gift–that life is so short.” My friend introduced this counterintuitive concept to me sitting in a coffee shop–the same coffee shop he keeps returning to for connection as year after year of life journals itself along.
I had just shared with him a roller coaster overview of some personal searching the last few years has held for me. A family wedding where I paid a visit to my old trauma stomping grounds. The cracks started forming, pressure building. Then a hike in the Rockies with a hat on–I never wear hats, so I’m not used to the brim blocking my peripheral of what’s above–lunging upward over a rock into a giant, unforgiving tree branch. A crack, blackness, stars, awake again, on the ground now, “F***!!!”, annoyed glances from parents of small children, looking around in a daze, one shoulder a little lower than the other, whiplash, dizzy, fuzzy, head throbbing. A concussion that just got nastier as the days passed. Powerfully knocking all the anxiety loose. The cracks widening, the dam bursting. Everything I’d internalized that had kept me “safe” in my quarter century on this planet suddenly falling apart. Therapy, more therapy, lots of therapy. Journaling. Denying. Realizing. Seething. Accepting. More therapy. Hoping to figure it all out and end up “all better” someday.
“Because we don’t have time to work on everything.”
My friend explained: “We feel this pressure to measure up, to be good enough, to make it all the way to our ideal version of acceptable or of healthy or of right or of whatever other way we think we’re supposed to be. Some arbitrary bar that we set for ourselves, or that was set for us. We keep trying and working and struggling to measure up. But eventually it becomes clear that life is too short–that there’s way more stuff than we’ll be able to work through–and that maybe we don’t have to figure it all out. Maybe we can’t. Maybe we’re not supposed to.”
What are you determined to figure all the way out this year? To beat this year? Achieve this year? Discover this year? Perfect this year?
And if you don’t reach that bar . . . is that okay? Are you enough? Is your now-life worth it anyway?
Do you watch The Office?
(It’s funny when a TV show becomes so legendary that it’s no longer “have you watched,“ but “do you watch?”)
If you’re an Office person, I know for sure three times you cried about it. Jim and Pam at Niagara, Michael saying goodbye at the airport, and the entire Finale episode.
In the Finale, goofy old Andy Bernard says something just outrageously profound that sums up the point of the whole show–a show full of different characters casting about in countless directions for meaning and growth and purpose and fulfillment. “I wish there was a way to know you were in the good old days before you actually left them.”
When Siddhartha embarked on his journey of self discovery, he was ferried across a river by an old man. After a long life of searching, Siddhartha again comes to the river, and finds the same old man–still radiating the same peace Siddhartha had seen in his eyes years before. Vasudeva, the ferryman, leads a simple life transporting travelers back and forth across the river. Having tried every different way in life, still feeling like he’s missing the point, Siddhartha decides to stay with Vasudeva–learn from him, see if he can find the peace and contentment the old man has found.
Vasudeva doesn’t have grand philosophies, programs, pleasures, practices, or opinions to share. Instead, he encourages Siddhartha to learn from the river.
As the years roll by, Siddhartha watches the river. The river just . . . flows. It keeps going. And going. And going. It is strong and soft. Steady and inevitable. The river doesn’t fight, and it can’t be fought. The water is carried to the ocean and brought back again by rain, birth and death without beginning or end. And without struggle, the river lives on–its various ripples and currents and waves and droplets all as one. One continuing, flowing one.
There is no perfecting the river. No molding its waves into the right shape. No struggle that will stop its currents.
The river flows.
The flow of life.
With all its bad and good, it’s happiness and sadness, it’s living and dying.
Life flows on.
And while one can learn peace and joy and beauty and love during life, one cannot master it, stop it, fix it, win it, or beat it.
One just . . . lives.
Nails on a chalkboard. I did not like what she was saying.
I’m a next level Scheduling guru. I can fit every different goal and passion and habit and session into a 7-day-excel-spreadsheet (color coded, too, because life is an adventure).
And then life’s currents do their thing and I have to rewrite the schedule. Every few days.
Over dinner, I was complaining to Lyssi that I just couldn’t figure out a realistic way to fit everything I want dependably into my day or my week. Running, yoga, meditation, breathwork, exercises, swimming, cooking, massage, reading, podcasts, languages, piano, movies, friends, journaling, reading some more, brushing my teeth. And on top of it all, actually writing for my blog again.
“I have a sort of strange idea,” she said. “What if you just didn’t follow a schedule at all? What if you just did what you wanted to do, when you wanted to do it? Just listening to your body and your heart? Like when you wake up in the morning, maybe it’s a reading day, maybe it’s a movement day, maybe it lasts five minutes or an hour, or maybe you just stay in bed?”
Um. No. That is . . . the worst. It will not work.
“I’m just worried that if I don’t schedule it, the stuff I really need and want that isn’t comfortable is what will slide. Like movement and exercise. I’m afraid I’ll always just go with what’s easy.”
As much as I hated the idea and knew there was no way it would work, I also tasted this little flavor of relief, and had to go back for more. So I threw out the planning, and just lived what life brought me.
It has turned out looking like a lot more movement and exercise–especially yoga and swimming, almost every day. I haven’t read any less, maybe more. I have grown more in touch with my body, its pain and its insecurity and also its freedom and its strength. The only thing I feel like I’ve lost is a sense of failure at not measuring up every day to the Peter I kept planning and re-planning to be.
“In this hour, Siddhartha stopped fighting his fate, stopped suffering. On his face flourished the cheerfulness of a knowledge, which is no longer opposed by any will, which knows perfection, which is in agreement with the flow of events, with the current of life, full of sympathy for the pain of others, full of sympathy for the pleasure of others, devoted to flow, belonging to the oneness.”
So what was your New Year’s resolution? And how are you measuring up? And will it be enough?
I feel like six months from now I’ll probably be writing something about how valuable schedules and habits and consistency are, and I don’t think it will be wrong. Schedules are wonderful. Planning is important. Repeated practice adds up to a lot of strength and joy and beauty and adventure and love.
Which is why I’ll probably set New Year’s goals or intentions again someday. But this year I’m learning to lay down that bar I’ve been desperately seeking to measure up to, year after year, struggle after struggle, interruption after interruption, disappointment after disappointment.
Which season are you in? Are you trying yet another strategy this year? And here’s a more helpful question: Are you tired about it?
Then maybe it’s time to give yourself over to life. To trust it. It will flow. It will bring love and pain and excitement and sadness and hugs and loneliness and movement and boredom and the whole time it will be beautiful and it will be yours and it will be right.
Sure, chase the adventure and meaning you want in life. That’s part of it and it’s worth scheduling and pushing now and then.
And also, you’re already living. It’s life. It’s weird. It’s exciting. It’s confusing. It’s beautiful. It’s allowed. And it’s enough.
As Siddhartha nears the end of his life, he speaks again to his childhood friend and fellow seeker, Govinda: “What should I possibly have to tell you[?] . . . Perhaps that in all that searching, you don’t find the time for finding?”
Can you let go of the Shoulds for a while? Can you just live? You may find that it’s enough. That you’re already enough. That you’re already there.
P.S. What’s funny is that after giving up completely on schedules and goals and Shoulds this new year, I’ve stumbled upon a clearer intention for this season of my life than I think I’ve ever felt. It’s a simple one and it’s helping. Ask me about it over coffee sometime. I’d love to share it.
Maybe I will write another tomorrow. Or maybe I will sleep in. If I write, would you like me to write for you?
It’s like seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time. You look over the edge, and it goes . . . down . . . and down . . . and it just keeps going. You try to follow it across to the other side, and there is just too much. It’s . . . indescribably BIG.
I always thought I was a good writer. I even put “written communication” on my resume. Lately I’ve looked back at hastily typed work emails and notice a missing “s” here and a confusing sentence there. Maybe the concussion got to me. Or maybe my writing has just never been impeccable. Maybe I’m human, which is obnoxious.
Actually, I’ve noticed it in some good books lately, too. It seems like in each one–talking bestsellers–there are at least one or two sentences where I go “ooooh they missed that one!”
So what’s abundantly clear is that being “good writers” or “good communicators” has little to do with ridding ourselves of flaws.
After all, if I picked apart your grammar, you’d probably stop listening to me. I know I would.
So what makes good writing? Or effective communicating?
Do you know how long 4500 words is? Google tells me a typical nonfiction book runs 50,000-75,000. On February 28 last year I sat down at my laptop and started typing. The words flowed–after all, abuse is a topic that can flow like Niagara Falls. In about 3 hours I wrote 4500 words. Which means that, in theory, if I wrote a book (at least one that I felt as passionate about), I could knock it out in 40 hours. (Doubt it.)
I’m not saying I’m a great writer. I’m saying I’ve had great writing days.
In April, Willoughby died.
I could sense it coming, so in the weeks leading up, the writing slowed down. The flow dried up. Then it happened, and like a mother-******* trooper, I lied to myself and wrote another blog post . . . this one was about how brains work, and it wasn’t a bad post (!!!), but it was not real for me that weekend. I didn’t mean it. It didn’t matter.
Then I stopped. My 5-posts-a-month goal kept going “hey, I’m still here,” but I had nothing to offer for it. Nothing honest.
I finally did write one more, about Willoughby. This one I did mean. All the way. And then I stopped again.
I guess what I’m saying is that being good at something or passionate about something or committed to something is actually a fairly complicated concept. Not concept, journey. Maybe because you and I are complicated.
Last Saturday someone asked me if I am an all-or-nothing type person. Like, do I have to either do something all-the-way to-the-max or not at all?
Yes. Yes, definitely yes. Yes. Yes. Yes, that is me. Yes.
Which I think makes me a bad writer, in a sense, because sometimes it makes me not-a-writer.
And the question was a good reminder that we’re allowed to be imperfect at stuff.
Neil Gaiman, I think in a Tim Ferriss podcast episode, made the fascinating point for writers that the only thing that can’t be fixed is a blank page.
Life has a way, sometimes, of just throwing you to the ground and beating the shit out of you.
Strangely, those experiences tend to be what make us “good” communicators. Or shut us up completely.
In the last few months, I keep sitting down to write. I keep finding myself at Starbucks, clicking around on WordPress and pretending to customize my site for a while and then finally clicking “Add new post” a bunch of times, and then clicking more “Backspace” than anything else, and then going home with nothing to show.
And it’s not because there’s nothing to say.
It’s because there’s too much.
Like the Grand Canyon.
When I was maybe 16 I walked up to its edge the first time and to this day I still can’t find the words. Indescribable immensity. Too much. Too big. Unfathomable. Uncontainable.
And that’s a bit how I feel these days. It’s not that there’s not much to say in life, it’s that “5-ways-to” lists and little motivation-shots just aren’t cutting it because there’s too. damn. much.
But. (Deep breath.) There’s always going to be too much and I’d be in a world of trouble if you and all the other people got so overwhelmed that you, also, shut your mouths and stopped showing up.
What to say about 2020. Which, can we keep calling 2021 2020? May as well. How about this: What. The. Hell. There’s too much. There’s too much. Turns out there’s always been too much. And where to start!?
There’s this amazing moment in Peacock’s new sitcom Rutherford Falls. The guy who’s always been in charge, on top, big-headed, gets sort of thrown to the ground by life in general, and he calls his friend: “There’s something I have to tell you. . . . I don’t get it.” “You don’t get what?” “It. You know . . . all of it. Any of it. Anything. I don’t get it. I thought I got it, for so long in my life, I thought I was one of the people who get it and . . . I don’t get it.”
And that has become my life’s motto.
I’d love to say I know what we “should” do with all the absolute garbage of the last year and a half or, apparently, several millennia. (Also, don’t get me wrong, they’ve been astoundingly good, too. Just, also so much bad.) I’d love to say I know the solutions for humanity, that people should listen to and trust me to be one of the “adults” (haha) in the room, but turns out . . . . . . I don’t get it.
In fact, the more I learn, the more I realize how little I really comprehend.
And all those The-5-secret-ways-to-absolutely-for-sure-get-what-you-want don’t feel true anymore. “I used to get it. But now I don’t.” Now I’m just trying to not do too much damage and trying to shine a little light in a corner and maybe get some on a few other people.
The big question for me now is turning out to be: Am I allowed to keep writing even though I don’t get it? Even though I’m an all-or-nothing person who just gave the f*** up and laid on the couch after my best buddy died? Even though every time I sit down to write, the only words that flow are vague, cynical rantings?
Last February I felt thiiiis passionate about something, and the 4500 words just effortlessly happened, like they were trying to break free. Now, I feel THIIIIIIIIIIIIIS passionate about EVERYTHING (and almost as confused), and I find that it’s all TOO much. Too big. I can’t do it justice. Starbucks will close in a few hours and by then you will have lost interest in my bitter ramblings. So. . . . what to do. . . .
I’d like to stop writing. I’d like to stop sharing. I’d like to stop pretending like I’m someone people should listen to, someone people could learn from, someone with something to offer. I’d like to admit that life won and I lost and that’s because I’m a loser. I’d like to not let anyone see me anymore. To disappear from social media, for sure, because it is basically lies. To never pipe up when people are talking about big life stuff, because “for so long in my life, I thought I was one of the people who get it and . . . I don’t get it,” and that feels embarrassing and so frustrating and pretty imposter-y.
Viktor Frankl wrote a book titled Man’s Search for Meaning. Which is a pretty intimidating title to write for. But he did it, and it has sold over 16 million copies. And do you know what happened to Viktor Frankl before he wrote it? He was imprisoned and abused in Nazi death camps where he barely survived and watched friend after friend die. Yeah. Not that losing Willoughby isn’t sad, but it’s sort of in a different category.
Siddhartha Gautama was a little luckier–at least to begin with. He was a rich kid, but apparently one with a tender heart. From his easy lifestyle, he looked out at a world full of people struggling and suffering and he decided to jump in the deep end, join the struggle, and learn what he could to help people. Instead of letting the world of suffering shut him down, turning away from the yuck, he opened his heart wide around it and met people in the real, icky, confusing world. And now they call him The Buddha. He showed up.
A psychologist friend, one of the most influential people in my life, has helped hundreds of people–couples, especially–with absolutely life-changing communication and relational concepts. He’s given me so much. He has a PhD in counseling psychology which probably means he’s one of the people who gets it. Right? But if you attend one of his seminars and listen to him tell his story, you’ll find that it’s a story of being completely lost and alone and confused as a child in a world that loudly told him he didn’t fit. The easy way for him would have been to disappear. To say “life beat me” and move on. Stop showing up. Certainly not help hundreds of people with their own struggles. But he didn’t. He helps people, even though vulnerably showing up for the world can be so tough. He said something that sticks with me: “People connect at the level of their struggles.”
I’m not going to have a world religion based around me. I’ll be plenty pumped if I just get to publish one book eventually–that would be cool. So not looking to be as influential as the Buddha, but I see three options in my future.
First I’m going to say what is not an option: Going back to the simple, “I’ve-got-this-all-figured-out” worldview. The one with easy answers and lots of judgments. I can’t go back because . . . I’ve seen too much of life. Maybe you have, too. We’re living through a worldwide pandemic after all. Among other things. When the evils of slavery were exposed for Great Britain to see, William Wilberforce said, “You may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know.” In his depressing (but fair) (and also not totally depressing) book Escape from Freedom, the psychologist Erich Fromm describes the process by which our minds, indoctrinated into a simple worldview handed to us in our youths, eventually find freedom. We see too much. We see the world for what it is. Not simple. Not black-and-white. Not all sunshine and rainbows. And this freedom from our simplistic rose-colored outlook on life is so terrifying that we then try to escape. Frequently, we even try to go back. Back to our cult, back to our abusers, back to our lifestyles, back to our old friends. But we can never truly go back. We know too much now.
What do you know “too much” about after this last year?
My friend–a nurse–has watched first-hand as precious human after precious human dies, while all he can do is be there with them as a virus does its nasty business. A virus that we’re doing lots of fighting over and writing parody songs about and trying to ignore. He’s seen too much. He can never go back to who he was before this year.
A lot of us (like me) grew up in conservative homes that proudly claimed racism was a thing of the past and did a whole lot of sweeping ugly stories and statistics under the rug. Many of us have learned in the last year just how awful and just how recent and just how ongoing racism and its brutal impacts are in America. And oh man how nice it would be to go back to being blissfully ignorant. “Not my problem” if it’s not really there. But the thing is, we’ve learned just how much yes, it is a problem and it’s our problem and we can’t just wipe it off and go back about life.
On the phone the other day, a dear friend asked me how I’ve been, and my answer went something like this: “Have you ever felt like you’re actually really grateful for all the abuse and hurt and struggle you went through when you were young, because it gave you so much perspective and compassion and now you can help people? Like you wouldn’t take any of it back, because it’s made you who you are?” “Yes!” “Okay, well that’s how I’ve always felt. But not anymore. There’s nothing romantic about it anymore. There’s nothing silver-liningy about it. Life after trauma just absolutely 100% sucks. If I could take it all back and grow up in a healthy family and a functional environment, I absolutely would, because then maybe I could go a day without struggling with the most basic life stuff because of trauma’s effects, and I’m so damn tired of it.”
What’s your wish-you-could-take-it-back thing? What have you tried hard not to face, not to come to terms with? Or to be too silver-liningy about? What life stuff have you tried to Denial away?
Maybe one day I’ll write down my whole story–or maybe I’ll get you to say yours? But for today I’ll just say: My childhood sucked. It was awful. It was just brutal. Awful awful awful. I’ve got the literal scars to prove it. And then I escaped. I moved up to Minnesota to spend life in a safe place with my best friend. She refused (but nicely) to marry me until I got therapy. So I got happy. I tricked her into thinking I was all better and we got married. I delivered a speech a number of times called “Life is beautiful,” and I still think it was a good speech, but it was also a 22-year-old-Peter speech, and 22-year-old-Peter had decided that life was about finding happiness and that anybody could and you just had to choose where to look. He recognized, for sure, that life is scary. In fact, he talked about feeling such darkness that sometimes suicide felt like the right option. So what “saved” him? Discovering that, no matter how bad it all got, how scary, how hurtful–that if you glance to the side you’ll find something beautiful. “It’s the little things.” It’s all the experiences, all the adventure. And that beauty is worth holding onto. . . . which seems like a privileged take on life when I imagine Viktor Frankl watching his friends die in Nazi death camps. But it worked at the time–I happy’d myself out of the darkness and found the meaning of life: Just be happy. (“Just” makes it sound easy, right?) So that became my motto. My identity, really. If someone asked me about me the first word that came out was “happy” and it came out in a 72-point Comic Sans font with exclamation points.
I decided that life couldn’t be about all the struggle, because I couldn’t handle that.
And then the next 8 years soundly showed me that you can’t happy away the struggle. Life is still life, no matter the blinders you try to put up, and once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it.
So after this year and a half of crisis (which, by the way–our bodies are only meant to handle crises like getting chased for a minute by something with a loud roar but shitty stamina. 18 months is too damn long), you and I are probably tempted to do a lot of denial, to put blinders back up, to “go back to normal,” to pretend like we’re okay, to “choose happiness.” And then we may be discovering that we sort of can’t unsee. Life’s just doesn’t look the same after local curfews and ubiquitous military humvees have lost their novelty, and after watching in horror as the “patriotic ones” literally stormed the Capitol. And we can’t even really have a mask-burning party because turns out we’re still going to need them for a while and there’s enough smoke in the air already from the wildfires, which is also losing its novelty, as if we needed more stuff.
So that’s what I can’t do. I can’t just play Legos. I can’t just read novels. I can’t just make jokes. Those are all still good, and I may or may not have a 2379-picture album in my Galaxy gallery to prove that jokes still mean a lot to me. But I can’t just. I also can’t just write simple self-help about 5-ways-to-be-successful-at-a-job-that-you-very-well-may-not-have-if-you-had-been-born-a-different-socioeconomic-status-or-skin-color. And I can’t just post on Instagram about how happy I always am, because “always” is a lie. I can’t do the positivity thing. (Which is not the same as saying I can’t shine some real light or sometimes be positive.) I can’t write cookie-cutter blog posts with cute hooks and cute analogies and cute calls to action. And I can’t do small-talk (but I never really could).
Everything I ever write or say will be in the context of the 18 years of abuse I experienced in an unhealthy home and then the awful saga of two concussions that changed my life and then learning all about anxiety and then living through a worldwide pandemic and then staying up till 3am watching live-feeds of the Twin Cities burning and brave troops trying to protect while brave protestors also tried to protect and then finally experiencing what everyone kept talking about where you lose someone close to you and then also just generally learning to be a human after trauma. (If all this feels familiar to you, hi.)
Everything I write from now on will be in that context, though I know I’ll still write some about cheese, so that context doesn’t mean that life has lost all hope.
So what are my three options then, if I can’t lose the context? If I can’t pretend like life isn’t as too-big as the Grand Canyon?
I could be defeated and stop writing at all, stop speaking up, stop showing up, stop trying to help anybody. Ugh that one is tempting. Home feels real damn safe today, and no judgment to you if that’s where you’ve permanently washed ashore.
Or I could try so hard to write about absolutely aalllll the overflowing stuff that the page stays blank, no matter how many Starbucks Venti Salted Caramel Cream Cold Brews I blow through.
Or I could remember that all-or-nothing isn’t the only option. And I could do the unromantic work of saying “Okay, as a writer, what can I share that would help someone?” and letting myself just give my weird best to it, even when it doesn’t feel like enough.
I think I’m going to have to go with the third option.
I’d love to stop showing up. I’d love to admit that I’m deeply flawed (evne my writing) and say “the world doesn’t need my voice anymore.” But then I think after a while I wouldn’t love it anymore. Humans need humans. Isolation didn’t feel good, remember? I could probably fairly comfortably just socially-retire to a life of paychecks and wine-and-cheese and not talk to anybody anymore about mental health or poverty or abuse or kindness. (Remember, that’s the lifestyle the Buddha was born into?) But then I think about how much I’ve benefited from the brave souls who didn’t choose to retire from community–Viktor Frankl, the Buddha, my psychologist friend–and that list would never end. How much I’ve needed people to show up.
I’d love to write every damn thing, but as 125-words-per-minute as I can possibly type, I can’t write everything, and the Grand Canyon of life stuff is too endlessly massive. And I know that if I keep opening WordPress with the goal of finally writing “the right thing,” “the worthwhile thing,” “the big thing,” I’ll keep clicking “Save draft” and going back home. And then I think of all the people who have also been so overwhelmed by life, but still chose to show up incrementally with their imperfect, flawed, humble, half-baked words that have guided the rest of us through life.
A note about our imperfect, as-good-as-we-can-for now offerings: I just finished reading Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. (By the way, you should read it. It is pretty . . . eye-opening. And pretty distasteful. And incredibly worth your time and attention.) One common pattern that stood out to me among anti-racist thinkers through history was how much their own perspectives shifted through their lives–from Martin Luther King, Jr. to W.E.B. Du Bois. In other words, they could look back and say “I think I got XYZ a little wrong” (frequently it was about discovering the longer they lived that the gentle, don’t-hurt-people’s-feelings methods of fighting racism tended to be less effective than they’d hoped). But their intellectual evolutions didn’t cancel the powerful good they had done before their views morphed. Similarly (on a much tinier scale), I can look back at my “Life is beautiful” speech and realize that it clearly helped at least as many people as I saw crying by the end of it, even though if I rewrote it now it would be pretty different. Imperfect today doesn’t mean useless.
Which brings me back to that third option: I can’t stop showing up to help you, because I know I wouldn’t survive without you showing up to help me. And I can’t wait to help you until I “get it” enough to write all the perfect solutions, confident that I’m never misguidedly misguiding anybody. Which means I’m going to have to do that middle one: Show up as best I can today, which is to say, perfectly imperfect like a human. Like you. Like every other human voice that has helped humans through human history.
So I’ll keep writing, even though all my words will never end child abuse across the world, and will never totally destigmatize mental health struggles, and will never give you the perfect recipe for vulnerably showing up in healthy relationships. I’ll just have to give you the little pieces I’ve got for now–my best educated guesses for today. And I promise to keep offering these, because I’ve been saved and carried and inspired by the best guesses offered by a bunch of other overwhelmed humans.
We’re a strange, stressed out species that keeps getting the answers wrong. But where would you be without that imperfect podcast that made you feel less alone, that imperfect text that made you feel understood, that imperfect news report that gave you a little hope, or that imperfect hug that was actually perfect?
We survive and thrive on each other’s imperfect help.
Grief has been loudly insisting to me in the last few months (actually, the last 29 years minus a couple denial-level happy-go-lucky ones in the middle there) that I’m too broken and imperfect and misguided for my voice to help you.
I bet you’ve had some similar feels this last year or so. That there’s nothing you can do. That it’s all too much. That you’re too burnt out now, too bitter, too over it all. That you should just turn your light off now.
I love pink. It feels happy. When I walked into Starbucks today in my pink shirt, the human behind the counter (with a big history I don’t know and probably lots of sad reasons not to be kind) beamed at me and said “I like your shirt,” and it made me smile from deep down inside my heart. It made me feel good. It made me feel confident. It was like a little shot of life-and-meaning-and-love fuel.
Last year, feeling overwhelmed by and guilty for all the suffering all around the world, I asked an imperfect friend to talk to me about it. He gave some imperfect insights that he had gleaned from an imperfect life. And his imperfect best guesses gave me a hope that keeps me going to this day.
Speaking of 4500 words, we’re only 500 away, and you’re still reading. Why have you read all this? Well first of all, I’ve somehow tricked you into paying attention to my pent up ramblings, so thanks for that. But really–why are we doing this?
If you’re anything like me, life has gotten pretty big in the last year or so. Too big. Personal life, local life, worldwide life. There’s a lot. It’s a lot to show up for.
I’m betting that you’re feeling pretty disenchanted.
That the world is feeling hard to show up for.
That smiles are a little harder to offer.
That you don’t think anyone will listen to you anyway.
That you’ve had so much eye-opening happen that you’re a little embarrassed and unsure of yourself.
That you don’t think the world needs your voice anymore. Your help.
But that person who took my order today offered me this little spark of joy that gave me a real boost.
And that friend I went to last year who had been taking his own blows gave me his best words to ponder and it changed my life.
You know something–even if you only know it vaguely or have a bit of it wrong–you know something, you have something that holds some hope for another struggling human next door to you.
You have some lessons, some messages, some dreams, some hugs, some art, some activism, some advice, some words inside of you that, no matter how small you’re feeling, will make the world a little bit of a better place.
That friend explained to me that I can’t help the whole world and if I try I will burn out and help absolutely no one. He said that I’ll be lucky if I can really deeply help 7 or 8 people in my lifetime–like make a huge difference for them. But those 7 or 8 people can help 7 or 8 others. Who can help 7 or 8 others. And pretty soon the help is multiplying.
But not if you and I give up.
If we let the overwhelm make us too angry to speak or too hopeless to speak, then we’ll be alone and everyone else will be alone.
So if I keep writing bits and pieces that may help a few people–will you keep shining your light?
It’s not perfect. It’s not the answer. And I know you don’t totally “get it.” But that little text, that little Facebook post, that little hug, that little encouragement, that little story, that little perspective–somebody needs it, just like you need it from somebody.
If I keep showing up, will you?
And will you really show up?
I love you, but I’m honestly not super interested in your 5-ways-to-look-happy-on-social-media. I want the real you. I need the real you. We need the real you.
Will you show up for your people tomorrow? The real you, the vulnerable you, the you that understands people, the you with an ear to listen, the you with a kind word, the you with a life-story that will make another human feel less alone and give a little hope, and maybe even a helpful idea or two?
There are a million reasons not to use your voice for good in this world, not to use your voice for love and light.
But there are about 7.9 billion reasons to come out of isolation and offer to help us other humans in whatever imperfect ways you can.
We need your message.
We need your encouragement.
We need your kindness.
We need your story.
We need you.
4648. Maybe I’m still a writer after all.
Some imperfect help for each other? I’ll write for you. <3
Life goes on, when someone you love dies, and that’s so frustrating. I want the world to stop for a minute. Or at least I want to take a step away from it all for a minute, but unfortunately I still have to get groceries and go to work and say hello back to people. And all those people expect me to be normal or at least decent, but all I want is to not talk to anyone, to not look at anyone, to not care about things like money or drama or events.
Everyone is so sympathetic at first, so many big feelings sent. And then, like the rest of life, those people also go on, because they’re those people, not me, and because they should go on, they have to go on, they just obviously would go on, because why would they stop life to just watch me grieve for days and weeks and months? It only makes sense. Just because my world comes to a screeching halt, doesn’t mean the world comes to a screeching halt. Which is a little whiplashy. So after the first few days, most people have forgotten it, and after the first couple weeks, most who remembered it won’t dare to bring it up.
Why do people think it will hurt too much if they keep bringing up someone you’ve lost? Letting them disappear hurts so much worse. I daydream of moments when a friend would say “How are you doing with all this?” or “Are you okay?” or “I’m so sorry you lost him” or “Do you want to talk about it?” or “What was he like?”
Because I don’t want to be done with him. Ever.
What was he like? He was perfect. And by perfect I mean in a particular way.
He cost a lot of money to take care of in his old age. And when we left for too long in the evenings he would tear up a toilet paper roll or dump the contents of a backpack at the front door, which seemed to be his way of saying “I need to be with you.” His snoring and licking and midnight hijinks made it hard to sleep until I finally bought ear plugs. To record anything for my blog anymore, I had to close myself behind two doors and hope that no footsteps in the hall would make him bark and then deal with his looks of betrayal for a while when I finally opened the doors. And some nights I really didn’t want to take him back outside before bed.
So then what does perfect mean?
Perfect means that I never had to wonder, for even a second. Willoughby loved me. And he just wanted to be with me. And he would always, always be there, wagging his tail, ready to give all the licks and hugs. I napped more when Willoughby was around, because when you’re in the presence of so much love, resting makes sense. It was just love.Acceptance. Friendship. Perfect.
Oh, and he was absolutely hilarious.
I scheduled myself a Monday off work just so that I could bring Willoughby out into the world for one more good adventure day. His tumor was growing and I knew he didn’t have much time. The week before, I had taken him on a walk in the strong wind. He had run and run with the blowing wind accentuating the massive grin plastered on his face. Couldn’t get enough. When we had gotten to the front door, it was abundantly clear he wasn’t ready to leave the great outdoors. So we stood in the wind until the wind became snow and his old man legs started shaking and then finally he sat straight down on the sidewalk and I realized that this was the most important stuff of life so I sat down next to him and we just watched the world and felt the beating snow. And it was our best day. So I scheduled the next Monday to take him to go see all of the world that he could possibly want to see. But he didn’t make it to Monday.
I still feel this need to explain, somehow justify, why Willoughby’s death left me as torn up as it did. I think I’ve said “I know we only had him for about a year” twenty times, and I hate every single time that I have said that. When Willoughby died he was my best friend and he was my wife’s best friend. It doesn’t take long to fall in love with unconditional love. To become attached to it. Wrapped up in it. The last few years haven’t been easy. Honestly, life hasn’t. I had a lucky few light-hearted years in my early 20’s, but I didn’t realize then how much childhood trauma was simmering under the surface. Add a couple concussions that brought so much to the surface and then a pandemic and loss of community and chronic pain and too many more little things that added up so much. For a lot of it, Willoughby kept me going. Life drained me, but then I’d get home and Willoughby’s entire rear half would be violently wagging at the door because he was so damn excited that WE WERE TOGETHER AGAIN! So life was okay. And then he wasn’t there. And life wasn’t okay anymore.
I never really understood the anger part of grief so much. Like, sure anger about mean or abusive people that hurt you or the ones you love. But anger over the loss of such a good, pure, perfect thing? Why would you be angry?
Maybe because it was my lifeline. It was the good thing. It was the only uncontaminated thing. Everything else was up in the air. Now I understand the anger.
We gave Willoughby a home to retire in, but I honestly think in a more real way he gave us a home. He gave me a home. He gave my heart a safe place. And he gave me the gift of love. A kind of love that, even when he’s gone, is still just as strong. The kind of love that doesn’t depend on stuff and doesn’t go back and forth. Just complete, unconditional, untiring love.
“There’s nothing you could have done, ” said a soft voice, “Calm down, you will survive.” ~ SYML, DIM
Thursday morning I took Willoughby for a walk. All he wanted was to eat grass. He wasn’t interested in anything else. Sometimes dogs do that when they’re not feeling good in their tummies. I think it was the tumor taking over. That morning, Lyssi and I finally listened to SYML’s new EP, DIM. That night, Willoughby couldn’t stand up. The next morning, after a lonely drive crying in a way I didn’t know I could cry, we said goodbye.
“I want some more time, I can’t give you up. One lifetime is never enough, so stay with me. More than a body, you’re more than my heart, you’re my blood, stay with me, stay with me!” ~ SYML, STAY CLOSE
Whenever I park my car and hop out, I instinctively glance up at the window and watch Willoughby let out an over-excited howl because we get to be together again. Now I keep looking up at the window before remembering that he won’t be there. It’s rough. And I keep imagining some way that we could actually see him again.
“Lay down with me tonight, breathing slow . . . rest now, kiss me goodbye in the morning. I’m with you always.” ~ SYML, DIM
Nora McInerny was right. In her Ted Talk on grief, which is everything I have to say about grief at this point, she shares the very curious fact that when people lose someone who matters so deeply to them, they keep using the present tense to talk about them. Because they’re not really gone. I used to not get that. But after Willoughby died, I kept catching myself talking about him like he was still here. “He’s the best.” “He’s so full of love.” “He’s a senior dog.” “He’s such a good boy!” “He’s our best friend.” “I love Willoughby so much!” “He’s so sweet!” Because he is all of those things. Willoughby’s Willoughby-ness will always be real, and always be beautiful, and always be happy, and always be perfect.
“Though you had to go, I won’t forget your light. . . . I will protect your light.” ~ SYML, DIM
And I don’t ever want to be done talking about him. Or even talking to him. I still do that. Because he’s the best.
I miss you Willoughby. Maybe one day I’ll be able to write down just how much you mean to me, to us. And maybe I’ll be able to speak about some of the deep truths I learned about life and loss and love and grief and beauty and strength and friendship and hope from you. And just how rough it is to not see you anymore. For now, I don’t have many words.
Have you seen Big Hero 6? If not, spoiler alert: So . . . Disney knows how to give us feelings. Oh man. To kick off the movie, the big brother runs into the burning building because he thinks someone is trapped inside it. And in a sudden explosion, he dies. Because that’s what happens in Disney movies: The characters love so much they’ll give up everything. It’s . . . powerful. Incredibly powerful.
People do that. Isn’t that amazing? We love each other so much, that we will die to save somebody else.
But sometimes in life, the thing that seems and sounds self-sacrificial doesn’t work. It’s why you’re told not to fumble around with everyone else’s oxygen masks before you’ve secured your own. Besides a few dramatic, life-and-death storybook moments, you can’t save other people by letting yourself die. Or even just by letting yourself fall apart, working yourself to the bone, or bleeding yourself dry.
Love is a beautiful thing, but it’s also such a strong and blinding emotion that it gets us into messy spots. We think we’re “being there for” someone, “helping” them, “saving” them, “rescuing” them . . . when in reality, we’re just drowning with them.
Feeling torn between the healthy boundaries I was setting with my family and the urge to give up all those boundaries so I could still show up to love and support, “no matter what”–my therapist gave me a thing to think about:
“When you’ve escaped rough waters, and your loved one is drowning, you want to jump in to save them, and they want you to jump in to save them, but if you jump in, you cannot save them. You’ll be drowning, too, and to top it off you’ll probably get bonked on the head as they thrash about trying to hold onto you. No, once you’ve escaped the waters, you can’t go back in. You barely made it out alive to begin with, and you certainly won’t have the capacity to do it again dragging someone else out with you. The loving thing to do is to say no to jumping back in. Instead, you can throw a rope. You can say, ‘hey–it’s safe up here on the dock. I’m here for you if you’ll grab the rope and get out of the water.’ And of course, you’ll feel guilty for not jumping back in, and of course, they will feel you don’t love them. If you loved them, they think, you’d jump back in. As long as you refuse to join them in the dangerous waters, they’ll feel betrayed, unloved. But, there’s another thing: They can see you. They see that someone made it to safety. They see that it’s possible. They see there’s a way to get out. They see that life outside the water is an option. They see you living. They see hope. They may feel bitter, but they see hope. And one day, maybe, just maybe . . . they’ll join you in the safety. And maybe, just maybe, it was your refusal to jump back into the rough waters that made you the proof they needed–proof that they, also, were allowed and able to come on shore.”
You’re a little bit like a lighthouse, showing the way. A lighthouse can’t help a battered boat if the lighthouse jumps in and gets tossed about, too. A lighthouse shows . . . hope.
Let’s talk about family. The most dangerous F-word. Dangerous because family is wonderful. It’s maybe literally the absolute top most best. In theory. And because it’s the best, because it “comes first,” its waters get pretty muddy.
If you found your way out of a toxic family environment, and still have family members you love who are trying to fit into that toxic environment, I bet I can tell a couple things about you: You sometimes feel guilty.You want SO badly to help.And love makes you so, so, so tempted to put yourself back in harm’s way. In fact, I bet, like everyone who has escaped toxicity, you’ve cycled in and out, diving back into the waves to try to save your sister, diving back into the waves to “be there for” your brother, diving back into the waves to “help” your mother, diving back into the waves so your father doesn’t have to be alone. . . . . . . Has it ever worked?
I know the deeply unhealthy family dynamic doesn’t resonate with everyone. If this isn’t you, bear with me, because it’s more than just family. But for now imagine with those of us who don’t have to use our imaginations because we remember it: How did you make it out of the abuse? Out of the web? The manipulation? The narcissistic control? How did you make it out of the deeply unhealthy environment?
Maybe you fought and fought and fought and fought and argued and argued and begged and begged and tried every which way to beat the toxicity. Spent years trying to heal the disease. And each day, it wore you out, held you down, as your life slipped away, a life very much not-yours-at-all.
Until one day, as a psychologist mentor of mine puts it, you “started on the other side of the wall.” (He actually uses this concept in a little different sense, but the effect is the same.) In other words: Instead of trying desperately, one brick at a time, to unbuild a wall of dysfunction and abuse and hurt and struggle and betrayal and fear and stuckness, you just . . . start on the other side. Leave the wall alone. You don’t have to unbuild it. You don’t have to “beat” the toxicity. You don’t have to heal the diseased environment. You just choose to start on the other side of the wall. To step out of it. After years and years, one day you stopped trying to calm the waves, held onto the rope being offered by the world outside the toxic environment, and climbed on shore.
I bet you didn’t find your freedom by having other people jump in and live with you in an unhealthy family dynamic. I bet you believed that you could escape the abuse, that you could find freedom, peace, happiness, healthiness. And I bet you believed that because you saw proof. Someone, somewhere, was a picture to you of love. An example of what functional relationships look like. A demonstration to you of healthy life on the other side of the wall . . . up on the shore, above the waves . . . you saw a lighthouse.
So if what saved your life, brought you into freedom and health, wasn’t winning the fight against a toxic environment, but stepping out of it–why do we suppose, again and again and again, that another loved one’s way out will involve staying in the unhealthy environment and trying to beat it? If someone (perhaps completely unknowingly) once held our rope, so we could climb out–why would we think our loved one is going to swim to safety without a rope if we jump back into the raging waters with them?
If what gave us the hope to step out was seeing that there was life to taste on the outside, why wouldn’t we stay on the outside, living a free and beautiful and healthy and functional and fulfilling life, so that the ones we wish we could save could see that there’s another way? Hope?
If all this family toxicity talk doesn’t resonate, because no matter how imperfect every family is, some are beautiful, safe places with healthy roots of love and kindness and support–and that’s the family you’ve known–there are still other storms you’ve escaped.
I remember my first job was at a place I eventually learned was absolutely notorious (at least at the time) for chewing up and spitting out its staff. Especially managers. The abuse we all went through was shocking. Fair pay, sufficient staffing, professional treatment–those things aren’t necessary when you can “vision” and “care” and “team-spirit” your people into working themselves to the bone or (surprisingly frequently) working hours and hours off the clock. I heard it described frequently as a “cult.”
There was so. Much. Manipulation. Everyone was drowning. One brave and visionary young manager after another tried to fix it. Things never, ever got better, but we kept thinking “if only I try harder,” because the one thing this place was good at was whipping up the strong emotion of loyalty. We stayed, because we cared.
I watched a lot of beautiful people fall apart under the weight, tirelessly swimming against the current to try to make it better. Nobody wanted to leave, because everybody desperately needed each other. We all needed each drowning other to save each drowning other. Actually–everybody wanted to leave and said so almost every day, but nobody could.
Because . . . we can’t leave the people we care about in alone in a bad place.
Love. We stayed in an impossibly unhealthy situation because we loved each other.
It was beautifully depressing.
Every once in a while, somebody would finally up and walk out. It was like they had woken up.
And then a couple months later, they’d come stop by. We’d share laughs and hugs and memories and they would tell us about how much relief they felt, how much happier they were, how much less stressed, now that they had gotten out.
Weirdly (actually not so weirdly if we understand how strong love is), they would sometimes come back. It was always their people, the fun and love and camaraderie they missed, that brought them back. And, again, they would slowly fall apart until they, again, walked away. Eventually, they learned the lesson that jumping back in would never, ever, ever work.
One lucky day, I became one of those managers who escaped. I had been completely losing myself and finally “woke up” and hopped out. And it was amazing. Afterward I frequently stopped by and said hello to my old team–my friends. I’d listen to the hopeless, exhausted stories of how much worse it had gotten (I hadn’t thought it could get any worse). And they’d ask how I was doing, and I’d get to say, “Oh man, I’m doing so much better now.” And they’d get this longing, dreamlike expression and go, “Man . . . I really need to get out of this place . . .”
The lighthouse, proving dry, safe, hopeful land.
Maybe the workplace thing doesn’t speak to you, but you’ve got this one friend who is an absolutely beautiful, precious, wonderful person and you love them to death, but they’re deep, deep, deep in a sad place, and they really, really, really need you to join them there.
And you can’t. You can’t spend all day every day letting them hang onto you for dear life, telling you every hurt and every problem and every fear and every dark thought, because . . . well because you’re a person, too, and you have your dreams and your family and your books and your other friends and your sleep that you need.
Maybe you found a really healthy way to be there for them by having some boundaries: Saying “hello” and “I love you” every day, but only having a long chat once a week; Telling them you can’t stay up with them all night every night, but you’ll check in first thing tomorrow morning.
Or maybe, because you are a loving human and they are a human so-worth-loving, you give up your boundaries and you jump in with them. You set aside all your good things, happy things, other friendships, hobbies, tasks, sleep, rest, plans, dreams . . . and you jump in with them, feel every hurt they feel, carry every heaviness they carry.
And soon, you can’t help them anymore.
In fact, soon, you’re right where they are. You’re both falling apart. And you can’t help each other. And you’ve lost all your own hope.
Or maybe that’s not how the story ends, because you did stick to healthy boundaries. You did secure your own oxygen mask first, and that meant that you didn’t leave that friend alone, but you also kept time for yourself and for your other loved ones. You stayed healthy. You had happy times, you did exciting things, you enjoyed your hobbies, and you kept up on sleep.
This one’s tough, because the depression it sounds like this imaginary friend is struggling with doesn’t have an easy fix. It’s not quite the same as “starting on the other side of the wall.” Just being a shining example to them that “people can sometimes be happy” might not save them. In fact, there’s a very, very good chance it won’t. But still, there is that chance that your freedom and health does give them hope. Even while they feel let down that you need your own boundaries–feeling let down, because through no fault of their own, they are absolutely drowning and can only see danger and rejection in your boundaries. . . . Even while they feel that betrayal, maybe, maybe you are a sort of a lighthouse. An example of someone doing whatever yucky things it takes to take care of their own mental health.
All these scenarios are tough, actually, because being a stable, happy, healthy lighthouse doesn’t guarantee safety for anyone–not your abused family member, not your burnt out co-worker, not your struggling friend . . .
There’s the rub: You actually can’t save people.
It’s not up to you.
And you certainly can’t save them by jumping back into the thing that almost killed you. By having two people thrashing against the current instead of one.
But you can stand on the dock and hold the rope and when they’re someday able and ready to climb out, you’ll be there for them.
Maybe the very best chance they’ve got is seeing proof that there is freedom.
Actually, if you can’t help but jump back in and drown alongside your loved ones, you’re proving to them a very sad lesson: “There is no way out. You tried to escape, but you’re back here drowning with me again. I guess this is what we’re stuck with. Drowning.”
I recently had a tough but hopeful talk with that psychologist mentor of mine I mentioned. What do I do with all the world’s heaviness that is dragging me under? So, so, so many suffer. Needlessly. Unjustly. So much hate, so much prejudice, so much looking the other way, so much carelessness. This massively wealthy world is full of cold, hungry, sick, and homeless. All over the globe. Not just in that remote village or third world city. Like . . . right here. On every corner in Minneapolis. New York. Portland. San Francisco. Atlanta. Everywhere. That’s hard to sleep with. It makes me sad and angry when I think about it. And it makes me sad and angry all the time when I think about it all the time.
How can I carry all this weight?
His answer? “You can’t.”
You can carry some of it. You can carry a lot of it some of the time. But you can’t carry all of it. And you can’t carry any of it all of the time. You can’t help the cold, hungry, sick, and homeless by falling apart under the weight of the entire world.
Absolutely you can help. And you should. And blissful ignorance–turning a blind eye–is gross.
But you can’t carry it all, and you can’t carry it all the time.
It makes your “help” worthless.
You drowning helps no one.
Back to where we started–Love is an incredibly powerful emotion. It is wonderful. But it can be so overpowering that we can’t think clearly.
“Love” ignores the flight attendant and tries heroically to strap everyone else’s oxygen mask on first. Heroically and fruitlessly.
“Love” screams deafeningly that you can never, ever, ever leave family behind.
“Love” leaves us feeling guilty and unsettled when we have to tell our struggling friend once again that we have to go now.
“Love” begs us to stay. Always stay. Stay with the ones who are drowning.
“Love” tells us to throw our health and our hopes and our dreams and our needs and our life away because we don’t want our drowning loved ones to drown alone.
I’m not saying that the right way is walking away, shutting out, ignoring, giving up on, or always choosing our own happiness.
What I do know, though, is that when “Love” is telling you to go to a place where you’re going to drown with the ones you want to help . . . and your drowning is not going to save them . . . there’s a better way you can love them.
Abusive families, cults, toxic workplaces, depression (for the record, 100%, depression is NOT in the same category as those others. Don’t misunderstand that. It’s just your inability to help if you drown, too, holds true in the face of every type of darkness) . . . one thing all kinds of dark places have in common is that the darkness cannot itself be changed to light. It is . . . darkness. There is not hope in the darkness. The hope is in the light, and the light is in a different place.
If you can hold the hand of someone walking out of darkness–wonderful, beautiful, worth every damn minute.
But if all you have to offer them is losing your own way in the dark, too . . . there’s no real hope for them in that.
If you’ve escaped a dark place, but you’ve left beautiful loved ones there, you have to remember how you escaped:
What did you see on the outside of the darkness that gave you that little glimmer of hope that there was light to be found?
Who was a stable, happy, healthy lighthouse for you?
And can you make the impossible-feeling choice to stand in the light and hold out your hand–your life a proof that freedom is out there? No matter how badly “Love” tells you to jump back in and drown with them?