In your closest relationships, is the real you even there?

Driving home the other day, something struck me while I was listening to Nora McInerny’s (amazing) podcast (that you should listen to) Terrible, Thanks For Asking. In an episode called Don’t You Want Somebody to Take Care of You?, a woman named Gina recalled growing up with a depressed mother. Each morning her mom would retreat to her bedroom, leaving the kids to fend for themselves. Then, shortly before dad returned from work, mom would appear, all made up and ready for the day. Looking back now, Gina realizes, her mom was “just trying to keep shit together, and not let my dad know how much she was struggling.”

That struck a nerve. It struck a nerve because I think I’ve lived both versions of that. The version where you hide your struggle and the version where you say “You know what? This is me.”

We hide things. It can be depression, as in the case of Gina’s mom. It can be addiction of all kinds. It can be insecurity. It can be anxiety. It can be compulsive spending on Amazon Prime. It can be our unfollowed preferences, desires, even dreams. It can be our anger or heartbreak. We hide things. Especially stuff we’re struggling with. Like loneliness, mental illness, guilt, and shame.

Why do we hide these things from our closest people? Gina’s mom didn’t need to advertise every detail of her depression to the whole world. (Some do find freedom in being an open book to the world–that’s not bad–nor is it wrong to want privacy.) But why did she need to hide from her spouse–the love of her life, her best, best friend? And why do you and I hide the stuff we’re struggling with from our closest friends? And especially our life partners?

We hide because we’re scared. Scared of being alone and scared of losing love. And we imagine scenarios like, “If only he knew, he would leave me,” or “If she found out, she would be so angry,” or “If I was honest about what I really want, we could never make this work.”

So we keep our struggles under wraps, desperately clinging to what love and acceptance and companionship we think we have.

Imagine you’re Gina’s mom. You never feel happy anymore, you never really feel much of anything–but your husband doesn’t see you as “a depressed person”–he doesn’t know. And you’re so afraid that if he finds out, you’ll lose the good you have, the love you have. Strangely, of all the people in the world, your life person is who you most need to hide the truth from. If the person ringing up your groceries finds out you’re depressed, no big deal. As long as my husband/wife/significant other/best friend/family doesn’t know!!!

The person who could be our biggest support is often the one we’re the most careful to hide our struggles from.

Why?

Last night on a Zoom double date, I told my wonderful psychologist friend Glenn that I quote a particular analogy of his all. the. time. It’s true. This concept sticks with me, because I think this analogy explains so much about our closest relationships: A close or intimate relationship (like marriage) is sort of like walking a plank over the Grand Canyon. Lay a narrow board on the ground in your backyard and you can stroll right across without skipping a beat. Place it over a canyon, and suddenly two things become true: Walking across it will be the most breathtaking, exhilarating, beautiful experience; And it will be the scariest, shakiest thing you’ll ever do. And that–in a nutshell–is a close relationship. The best and scariest thing in your life. When the board’s on flat ground, one misstep isn’t a big deal. Like when some person you barely know decides they don’t like you. With one misstep high above a beautiful canyon, however, there is so much to lose. Like when your spouse decides they don’t like you.

So shaking, white-knuckled, we grip the board and desperately try not to move, not to tip, not to misstep–we become paralyzed. There is too much to lose. This, unfortunately, is a fairly normal experience in our most intimate relationships. Protecting the bond we have feels so important that we can’t afford to show up as our real, messy, vulnerable, struggling selves. We have to keep it perfect. Too far to fall.

When I was a kid, I learned to hide everything. I hid everything because so constantly the things seen in me were corrected, condemned, and shamed. Choices, interests, activities, tastes, requests, dreams.

I actually don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that I can probably count on my ten fingers the number of times I got up the courage, as a teenager, to ask permission to go hang out with friends. I knew that the reaction would almost always be about having something better to do with my time, not being around bad influences, or that I should love my family more than my friends. About to head overseas to work with a missionary for the better part of a year, 18-year-old me asked, “Hey, can I go spend an afternoon with Ben? I really want to see him before I leave.” The response was a mixture of anger and despair: “How could you ask that when I’m busy cleaning floors? Your family clearly doesn’t matter to you at all!” It was confusing.

I’d venture to say most of the people you and I come in contact with don’t leave us with scars and dysfunctions. All it really takes is a few important people to teach you those yucky lessons. Like that you are bad, or that you need to be perfect.

When we heard footsteps in the hall, my siblings and I would jump up from whatever innocent, carefree games we were playing and quickly start “cleaning” or “reading a good book” or something to show we were “redeeming the time.” Because most of the “enjoy” type stuff would be met with disapproval. To this day, I don’t think my parents know that I finally got to watch Beauty and the Beast on YouTube as a 17-year-old. The kind of stuff I had to keep to myself.

Those lessons don’t just go away when you “grow up.” The urge to hide all my stuff worked its way deep inside me. I don’t think I really noticed as an adult how much the urge to hide controlled me day to day. The assumption that real-me-stuff would make people hate me or judge me or disapprove of me.

I remember one time I heard my wife’s keys in the door and quickly turned the TV off and picked up a book instead. I didn’t want her to see me nerding out to a Marvel documentary. What if she didn’t like that about me? Better to just hide it. And more than a few times I made sure to hop out of the luxurious eucalyptus bath and dry off before she got home so that she wouldn’t think I was . . . . . taking a bath?

I know this sounds silly. But it was a lesson I learned as a kid: People will disapprove of the stuff you do. People will not like the real you. Hide your stuff.

The funny thing is what happens when we hide. It was a sort of subconscious way to keep my wife from disapproving of me. But slowly it made me feel like . . . she must not approve of me. After all, if I can’t be myself around her. . . . Spoiler alert–my wife doesn’t give a shit if I enjoy a bath or a yummy drink or make a spreadsheet of the MCU timeline. She’s not a bully. She wants me to be happy. But in my fear of rejection, hiding my happy stuff, I kept writing the same old story in my head: She wouldn’t like you.

Instead of keeping me safe, hiding my most basic self made me lonelier and lonelier and more afraid and more afraid.

I bet a few of you grew up learning that it was safer to not be your real self, too. I bet that just about all of you grew up learning that it was at least safer to not be your real struggling self.

Maybe feeling like you have to hide the innocent little personality-stuff doesn’t resonate at all with you. But I bet you do feel the need to hide the yucky stuff. The struggle. The dark, sad, scary, exhausting, hurtful, “bad” stuff. The stuff you’re afraid “could change everything.”

Back to Gina’s mom. She and this guy loved each other so much that they decided they’d be lifelong buddies, best friends: Marriage. And this friendship mattered so much to her that she couldn’t risk admitting, as time went by, that she was struggling. If I tell him how depressed I am, will he be angry, disappointed, unsatisfied? Will he want to leave? Will he think he’s better than me? Will he regret being with me? Will he get tired of me? So she kept it under wraps. Played her part. A façade.

Hiding the struggle keeps you . . . “safe.” Sort of. Safe from the chance that someone will reject you for it. And, as you hide, the struggle slowly pulls you down and holds you under. Ashamed. Alone.

What is your deep struggle that you can’t share with your most important person?

If you’re in a relationship, think about what sparked that interest, that desire–for you and your life person to belong to each other? Why do we attach to someone and share our deepest soul with someone in the first place? It has something to do with needing to be seen and loved. Something to do with being accepted. Something to do with having someone on our team. Someone by our side. Someone who says, “I see you and I love you.”

We need this so badly.

We finally get it.

And then we guard it. At all costs.

So when we struggle, we can’t let our struggle threaten that love we found. So we keep it to ourselves.

And all of a sudden, we’re alone. No longer seen and loved for who we are.

Listening to that story recently, it struck me just how relatable that story was to so, so, so many people: Slowly falling apart, but not being able to tell your life person just how broken you are.

I have something really special with my wife. Something I haven’t always had and may cycle in and out of in the future, but right now it’s pretty special. I’d say that I’m not sharing this to brag, but I guess after admitting to the Marvel spreadsheet thing you know I’m not here to impress. . . . So the special thing: Listening to that podcast, it also struck me just how opposite my experience has been with my own wife during some really, really, really deep struggle times. Resting my chin on the couch pillows, feeling every muscle weakened by this weird sort of gravity, I answered Lyssi’s “I want to know how you’re really doing” question: “Honestly, I’m not okay these days. I’m not happy. I feel hopeless. I don’t even care about the stuff I usually care about. I don’t want to run, I don’t want to write, I don’t even like watching movies or playing the piano. I’m so lonely and I don’t think anyone likes me. I don’t want to do anything anymore. I just want to lay in bed.”

A few powerful things could have happened just then:

She could have rejected me: Sorry, I can’t deal with this.

She could have desperately tried to fix me: You have so much to be happy about! Don’t be hopeless! I need you to feel better, okay? Which really translates to: Sorry, I can’t deal with this.

Or she could have unconditionally accepted me: I hear you. It’s okay that you’re feeling that way. I love you and I’m here for you.

And in that moment, she picked the unconditional love route. And it made depression so, so, so okay. Like, still not all better, but at least I had her. I wasn’t alone. She wasn’t mad at me, she wasn’t threatened by me, she didn’t need me to stop being me, she just . . . was going to be with me. Okay. Maybe I can do this.

Like I said, my own life hasn’t always been–still isn’t always–marked by such open vulnerability met with perfect acceptance. But when it has been, that has been life-giving. Life-saving.

Struggling alone doesn’t work.

When we finally learn to share our struggles, we can discover that . . . our life people get it. And they love us. And . . . our struggles aren’t going to take away our most important relationships.

Sharing our struggles with our people opens up a world of safety, security, dignity, understanding, support–maybe the only conditions in which we can heal, or make it through at all. A space where we discover that struggling-Peter is no less valuable and loved than doing-great-Peter. A place where maybe we can go ahead and love our struggling selves, too.

So an invitation: What do you need to stop hiding? What is your struggle? And who could you tell?

If this sounds terrifying and panicky, that totally makes sense. The whole Grand Canyon thing. What if you share your struggle and it doesn’t go well? What if you lose that friend? That life person? At this terrified-point I’d encourage you to think back, again, to why you needed that relationship in the first place. Why the closeness? Because you needed to be seen, to be accepted, and to be loved. So my question to you is: If you are not letting yourself be seen, accepted, and loved–is that relationship still even there? Like . . . the relationship you needed in the first place? Sure, you may live together or text each other every day, and it may get awkward in a worst-case-scenario where they walk away from you. But . . . if you can’t show up as yourself to be accepted and loved, then maybe the relationship you think you’re protecting is already gone. So do you really stand to lose by giving that relationship a chance to be real?

Not to downplay how crushing it will be if you give the openness a shot and it doesn’t go well. That would be terrible. Heart-breaking. And it may leave you with bigger scars. Of course, the alternative is to just keep your real-self hidden. Alone. Unloved. Both options suck.

The only route with any hope is saying “Yeah, this is the real me” and inviting someone to see and love that real you. And if that is a relationship they can’t handle, maybe it wasn’t there all along. And maybe it’s time to go find a person or two or three who want to know and support real-you.

(Hey, truth moment here. If you’re trying to share your real self with your closest people–spouse, parents, best friends–and it’s going badly, you’re being met with rejection, losing your most important relationships–that’s the start of an incredibly scary and fragile journey, one you probably need to take, and the absolutely number one biggest one hundred percentest thing I can tell you right right now is: Go ask a therapist for help. Don’t think twice, just go. This is not a journey you should take alone.)

When I started therapy I bought a beautiful handmade Italian journal to accompany me on what I knew was going to be a momentous journey. Opening it now to its first page, I find the very first entry quite fitting. A life-changing principle my therapist offered me: “Friday, October 26: Openness brings you closer together, no matter what the feeling you have to be open about. Not being open pushes you apart, no matter what the feeling–positive or negative–that you are keeping to yourself.

You know the stereotype of the dad that can’t express emotions? He loves his kid so so much but can’t really say it. Keeps the sloppy, choked-up love feelings to himself. And the kid grows up never hearing that dad loves them. And they drift apart. When we can’t express something–whether it’s a thing that makes us mad at our person or even our good feelings about our person–we drift apart. On the other hand, when we do share the stuff, then and only then can we grow closer. Even when it’s tough stuff, like “Hey, it really upsets me when you-” or “I’m not doing okay these days.”

Our closest relationships–the epic ones that can be as beautiful as the view walking above the Grand Canyon–they need vulnerability. They need us to show up, our real, messy selves. We can take the shaky steps and experience the beauty, the love, the acceptance. Or we can close our eyes and hold on for dear life, unable to take a step, and completely miss out on the love. In reality, alone.

So here’s your invitation to say your stuff–no matter how messy. Your life person is your life person. You need them to know YOU. So share.

And, just as importantly, another invitation–or maybe a plea: You and I are going to have people who finally take the risk of exposing their struggling insides to us. And in those moments, we can respond in a few different ways. We can reject. We can panic and try to make them change. Or we can say “Oh my goodness, thank you for telling me, I love you so much!” And your reaction in that moment just might change their life forever.

So please be the person someone can be real with. Especially for your best friend, your life person.

It’s not easy. But it’s vital.

Remember that each time our loved ones bare their hearts to us, we can make them feel safer, or we can make them feel like they need to keep it to themselves next time.

A girl I know finally opened up to her mom: She, their star child, their smart, confident girl, was depressed. She was even thinking about suicide. How would you respond if your kid blindsided you with “I’m thinking about killing myself”? The reply this girl got from her mom went something like this: “I had no idea! I’m sorry you’re feeling this way. I want to commend you for how good a job you’ve done not being negative, not burdening others with these awful feelings. I encourage you to keep pressing on with being strong and not making others take care of you.” . . . what?! . . .

In those moments, you and I can prove to someone that they’re not alone, or we can prove to them that they are alone. And when we tell them they’re alone, that is a lesson they learn deep. All it takes is one experience to keep someone from ever sharing their real self again.

In other words: Those moments matter.

We need our loved ones to be a safe place for us to show up with our struggles. And they need the same from us.

So invitations all around: Say your stuff to your person; and unconditionally listen and love when your person tells you their stuff.

I should note that unconditional love doesn’t mean enabling–and expressing your deep down feelings doesn’t always mean acting on them. In other words sometimes unconditional love–sometimes being a safe space–means looking your loved one in the eyes and saying, “I understand this addiction. I get that you are struggling and I love you to death. And I can’t let you or me continue stuck in this. You need to get some help.” Like, it’s messy. And when he cheats on you, you don’t owe him “Oh honey, I get it, I’m not going anywhere.” Right?

But when your person is trying to hold on, barely able to keep their head above water, and finally says “Hey, I’m not okay”–that may be their last hope at finding support, and your reaction can break them or give them hope.

I think we’re all so scared of rejection that these vulnerable interactions don’t come naturally to us. Which means if we want to be good at asking for support and giving support when things are dark and scary, it might help to practice the deep openness right now. To get intentional, to get maybe even a little dorky about it. Like, “Should we schedule times to just tell each other all about how we’re feeling?”

Nurturing a safe space before you’re at rock bottom makes all the difference.

One little thing I’ve learned about nurturing that safe space is to notice each time I feel, for whatever reason, “Oooh, I’d better keep this to myself,”–reminding myself that’s an old story of rejection, of the need to be perfect, creeping up–softening into the thing I’m afraid of, and saying, “Hey, I think I need to share this thing, because I’m feeling scared of you knowing it, and I don’t like that feeling.”

Another thing I’ve learned about nurturing that safe space, I’ve learned just from observing my own best friend. People seem to share their stuff with her. A lot. When someone shares their stuff with me, I tend to automatically start calculating and fixing and offering and rescuing, and for whatever reason it only seems to make things worse. She, on the other hand, just listens. She listens. She just . . . . . is there with the struggling person. Just there to listen. To accept. Just being proof to them that they’re not alone, and that it’s okay that they’re struggling.

When you and I have to hide our deepest selves–especially the struggles–in our closest relationships, we slowly fall apart and we lose the love we thought we had. When you and I show up in these relationships by sharing our deepest, messy selves, and by showing up with love when they share their deepest, messy selves, we create a safe place to make it through this weird adventure called life together. We find hope. We fine healing. We find magic. We find love.

If you’re struggling deeply right now, why add hiding your struggle to the weight you’re already carrying? Why add wondering if you’re alone? What if you told someone? Imagine how good it would feel to get it off your chest. You may be surprised to learn that your people are okay with you being human. In fact, maybe they’ll just love you more.

And remember the life-changing gift you can give someone the next time they open up to you about something they’re scared to share.

We’re all a little weird. Let’s give each other some hugs about it.

Didn’t I tell you I hear what you say?
Never look back as you’re walking away.
Carry the music, the memories, and keep them inside you.
Laugh every day.
Don’t stop those tears from falling down.
This is who I am inside.
This is who I am, I’m not going to hide,
’cause the greatest risk we’ll ever take is by far
to stand in the light and be seen as we are.
With courage and kindness hold onto your faith.
You get what you give and it’s never too late
to reach for the branch and climb up leaving sadness behind you.
Fight hard for love.
We can never give enough.
This is who I am inside
This is who I am, I’m not going to hide,
’cause the greatest risk we’ll ever take is by far
to stand in the light and be seen as we are.
Riding the storms that come raging towards us we dive,
holding our breath as we break through the surface
with arms open wide.
This is who I am inside.
This is who I am, I’m not going to hide,
’cause the greatest risk we’ll ever take is by far
to stand in the light and be seen as we are.

Jordan Smith

P.S . Sometimes the things you’re afraid to let people see because you think they’ll judge you end up being the very things they really love about you.

If my weird-human-stuff complements your weird-human-stuff, throw your email below and we can keep thinking through this weird life together. :)

Loneliness, stillness, and a North Shore adventure

It’s good to just go sometimes.

Adventure is always within reach.

The earth is bigger than your stress.

Nature is cleansing.

You’re allowed to take care of yourself.

“Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.” ~ Viktor Frankl

“With shortness of breath
You explained the infinite
And how rare and beautiful it is to even exist”

~ Saturn, Sleeping at Last

“I’d give anything to hear you say it one more time
That the universe was made just to be seen by my eyes”

~ Saturn, Sleeping at Last

Life is, among other things, what you make it. Inner life, at least.

Sit completely still sometimes. Let time carry you and space wash over you. There is something more to this life.

You are safe.

When you take a real break–leaving your people and places and things–the deep down life-feelings will come in waves. Inspiration. Loneliness. Love. Uncertainty. Wonder. Pain. Acceptance. It’s your heart finally getting a turn to speak. Don’t run away from your heart. Make times to really come back to yourself.

Loneliness, when you sit with it, is a doorway.

Loneliness teaches you what you’ve grown dependent on, what controls your mind.

Loneliness shows you which parts of yourself need a tighter hug.

And on the other side of loneliness lies the powerful truth that we humans need each other.

Next time you have the chance, grab your earbuds, pick the most beautiful songs you know, and just watch the morning do its thing.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms–to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” ~ Viktor Frankl

Stillness can make one’s way clearer.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” ~ Viktor Frankl

Learning to be okay with stillness gives you the time back, the presence back, to actually show up for that space in between stimulus and response, to actually recognize that you don’t have to be pulled along on a carousel of pre-determined conflict and coping–that you can slow down and mindfully choose your responses to the adventures life throws at you.

And you can always, always choose love.

~

Your disappearing place

Where is your disappearing place?

What place makes you remember your freedom, your self, your own breath?

Where can you truly feel “away from it all” for a soul-filling minute?

The magic of conversation

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

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

There is power in saying our stuff.

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

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

Photo by Micki Benson

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

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

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

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

~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conversation. Freedom. Magic.

Photo by Micki Benson

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

Start a conversation with somebody.

And . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And from there–watch the magic unfold.

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

Photo by Micki Benson