I wasn’t feeling it today. It’s grey out. I don’t do well with grey (except to fend off black and white).
So instead of writing, I committed to catching up on reading and stumbled upon Behind the Scenes by Brandewijn Words.
It wasn’t his generous words that got me (although beyond humbled by and grateful for them), it was his message. I realized it plays into the same theme as the two posts I read immediately before, and the book I’m currently reading, What is in the Way is the Way, and a documentary I just saw, Leaning into the Wind.
Apparently, there’s something I need to pay attention to.
The theme/s, more or less:
In BW’s words:
“…the way that the world grabs me sometimes. How it twists my perspective and I see it from a different angle… why it’s important to get on the ground, sometimes, and look at something from a completely different point of view.”
Andy Goldsworthy’s words: (Leaning into the Wind)
“There are two different ways of looking at the world. You can walk on the path, or you can walk through the hedge…step aside off the normal way of walking or looking.”
The Incurable Dreamer’s:
“Each step I took was with intent and an understanding that pain is what paints the sky with breath-taking beauty and ignites your soul in the grasp of darkness…even when your heart loves so deeply it threatens to destroy you, it is possible to feel blessed.”
Tom Being Tom’s:
“But if we can learn the lessons of our past and focus our attention in the present…we can build the tomorrow that we want, instead of the one that we fear.”
In short, it’s about perspective, about paying attention to what’s happening in the moment, being curious, leaning into the questions, and most importantly, the emotions behind them, especially the uncomfortable ones
It’s the very thing we stop doing as we get older. We know all too well the spaces that hurt. We’ve experienced the pain of loss, heartbreak, disappointment, rejection, and failure. And we’ve become masters of avoiding them, no matter the cost.
Yes, we survived it, but it changed us. It scared us. Why risk feeling that way again? Running, numbing, suppressing, avoiding: these all seem like the safer bet. So we stop taking risks, “stay on the path”, chalk it up to life is hard and spend our days either stuck in the past or praying that things will get better in the future. Or, we lose ourselves in trying to control and fix everything that’s wrong.
Life, its unfolding, loses its color…and turns to grey.
“Fear needs time to exist. It needs stories of past and future in order to get a foothold in your mind.” – Mary O’Malley
I see this happening all around me. I see this happening to (or with) me. I’m missing out on so much of the good that still exists, wasting what could be beautiful moments because I’m so focused on fixing the handful of things that are wrong,
But the pain is there to teach us, and the lessons will keep coming back until we learn them, increasing in intensity until running, numbing, and avoiding are no longer options if we’re going to survive.
The fucked up thing is these lessons stem from stories we made up based on beliefs we adopted when were tiny…based on fears we developed when we were tiny.
We run away from them, imagining the pain, shame, or anger will be too much to handle. But by doing so, we give them their power, letting them gain momentum and snowball into something so enormous, when it finally catches up with us, the blow is crushing.
Crushing, but not final.
“If we can learn the lessons of our past and focus our attention in the present…we can build the tomorrow that we want, instead of the one that we fear.” ~ Tom Cummings
The irony is we spend our entire lives trying to find happiness, experience joy and avoid pain. But it’s pain that amplifies our experience of happiness and joy. And neither joy nor happiness needs to be found. We always have access to them. We just get so focused on avoiding pain, we lose sight of them.
So what happens if we stop pushing pain away and invite it to stay instead? What if we just get curious about it, without berating or judging ourselves? Whether it comes from anger, shame, sadness, or fear, we simply ask where it’s coming from and why…and we listen.
What happens is we hear the same story we’ve heard for decades- the one we made up to try to understand the inexplicable when we were tiny…the one we play on repeat, that confirms our deepest fears.
If we’re not vigilant, if we don’t pay attention to our underlying agenda to play it safe and avoid the pain, the cycle continues: we get sucked back into the past, scared the future will hold more of the same…and we lose the moment.
So what if we try something different, change our perspective? Instead of doing whatever we normally do to escape it, we welcome it and give that tiny one the attention and compassion s/he has been screaming for?
I can’t answer that yet. My lesson, the one I thought I’d outrun, it caught me. And yes, the blow was crushing, the pain, excruciating. But there’s no more escaping it, and I’d rather not repeat. So, I’m leaning in.
You have my full attention.
I can say this, though: it isn’t screaming anymore. It still demands my attention, to be sure, but it has loosened its grip. It has also made it clear that I’m not in control. I don’t get to decide when or how, and there is no one clear path out of this. I just get to ask questions…and listen.
Oh, and the sun finally did come out, as it always does. But to be honest, the colors were more vivid before. I was just too focused on the grey to see them.
* Image by Ionus Caras
“When she turned to face it, she transformed it. Her biggest fear became her greatest strength.” ~ b.breazeale
WARNING: Some of the content below is very graphic…and it’s sad. It just is.
Pain: mine, yours, theirs. Is mine real? Can I truly understand yours? Does hearing mine make yours hurt less?
When I was little, there was a lot of it. But I didn’t understand it. And I certainly didn’t talk about it, mainly, because I was horrified. But also because I knew that it would make people sad to think of me being sad. I didn’t want anyone else to be sad, so I just didn’t talk about it.
This was the impetus for what came to be a lifelong survival tactic. I would seek out others whose pain I thought to be worse than mine, whose pain was real. This would give me a perspective of how trivial mine really was. Maybe I could even help them feel better. Maybe I would feel better. Sometimes I did. And sometimes it all just made me feel worse.
Admittedly, for the most part, I really didn’t believe pain was relative. I tried to empathize with my friend’s sadness over a broken heart or a fight with her boyfriend. I mean, I tried. But I couldn’t shut off the voice inside. “Really, you think that is pain? I could tell you what real pain is, but it will make you sad…and I don’t want you to be sad”.
On the rare occasion that I did share my story, it was done with a tone of indifference so that I didn’t make anyone uncomfortable. I would remain detached while describing the last few minutes before my father’s last breath. I would even leave space for some comic relief if necessary. I would be laughing, and my friends would be crying. But I didn’t want them to cry. So I quit telling my story.
I trained myself to just listen, to offer advice when appropriate, to empathize but not draw too much attention to my pain. I just listened to yours. Yours could not possibly be as bad, right? Besides, I needed to cry, and I could only cry because of your pain, not mine.
“As bad.”: this is what gives pain its power- I compare mine to yours, you compare yours to mine, whether to minimize or justify it.
We all know we are going through different versions of the same thing, that we all have the same pain to varying degrees. We all know sharing our stories and naming our pain will help us heal. But we all still default to either believing ours is all there is, or that it’s nothing at all. We don’t want to be the victim. We don’t want to be the cause of more sadness or pain. We don’t want to be exposed or weak or stigmatized.
We don’t want to be in pain.
So this is how I tried to navigate my story- perpetually trying to find ways to deal with it while not exposing it. I minimized it, numbed it, or found ways to trivialize it.
But this time I can’t. This time, it’s too big. There is no hiding it. And I can’t find anyone else’s that will allow me to trivialize it or help me gain a perspective. This time, I just have to go through it…I have to feel my way through it.
I was flying back to Texas after spending a month in Paris. How bad could my life be, right? I had just spent a month in Paris. But I spent it by myself, completely heartbroken in every way possible.
On the flight to Paris, I truly believed we were going to make it. He was going to do whatever it took to make it work. Maybe he could even come to meet me in Paris at some point. But none of that happened.
I was furious with myself. Not because I was sad. I deserved to be sad. I was furious that I couldn’t stop crying over him, while their parents couldn’t stop crying over them, all three of them…all dead.
But I wasn’t. I lived, I was flying back from Paris, all limbs and organs intact, save one.
I was in the right-hand lane, trailing about 6 feet behind the car in front of me who was in the left lane. I heard them hit the other car, and then they hit me…or I guess I hit them.
I still don’t understand what happened. I’ve replayed it in my head over and over, trying to make sense of it. I was told a car full of three 22-year old boys swerved into our lane coming from the opposite direction…going 80 miles/hour.
They hit the girl in front of me and then catapulted into my lane. The car spun around 180 degrees, and I slammed into the two boys on the driver’s side. I didn’t have time to hit the brakes. They were my brakes. And they all died.
I tried to throw the door open to get out. It was jammed shut. I finally forced my way out and stood, paralyzed, staring at the car in front of me…their car.
Everything was a complete blur of lights and distorted shapes- scraps of metal, severed bumpers, a license plate crumpled up like a piece of trash, orange shards of broken headlights… the smell of smoke, gas, fumes, burnt rubber.
I remember how quiet it was. I could hear the slight buzz of traffic off in the distance, and the sound of fluids spewing out of our cars. The crunch of shattered glass underneath my feet seemed offensive as I stumbled to the side of the road.
I tried to take it all in, not even seeing the crowd of people gathering around me. I frantically began to call the only person I knew in Arlington. He didn’t answer. So I just sat there, methodically pulling blades of grass from the ground, my entire body violently shaking- either from shock or the relentless chill that infiltrated the mutilated cars in front of me, all empty, save one.
The driver, his head, was distorted in a way that reminded me of a painting by Dalí, tilted back as if it was melting down his back. Blood poured out of every part of him. The boy directly behind him, the other one I hit, his head was thrown back too but facing away from me. I could see his left arm dangling out of the shattered window, blood pouring out of every part of him.
And I just sat there, watching, pulling cold, wet blades of grass out of the ground. I watched the policeman approach the car to access the damage. I watched the fire department arrive and cut them out of the car. I watched the ambulance crew descend, put the two boys on stretchers, situate them inside and drive away.
I found out later that night there was a third boy in the car. They didn’t even bother pulling him out.
I continued to sit there, waiting for him to call me back until someone finally realized it was me who was driving the other car.
Two hours later, after enduring question after question, I was asked the final one.
“Do you have anyone who can come pick you up?”
“Can we give you a ride?”
“No. I’m okay, thanks. I can walk.”
The onsite counselor finally insisted on taking me home. She was understandably worried.
“Do you have anyone who can come over?”
“What about friends or family you can call?”
“Um, yeah… I will try to call someone. Don’t worry. I’ll be fine. I mean, I’m still alive, right? I’ll be fine.”
I have this weird thing I do on planes. Sometimes I just can’t commit to watching a movie, so I watch whatever the person next to me is watching. I can’t hear it, so I just kind of make up my own story.
We were about an hour away from the Dallas/Ft.Worth airport, and I was in an absolute state of panic about what I had to deal with after we landed. So I watched his movie instead. I hated it. It was stupid. Just another story- one kid, trying to fight back, experiencing disappointment and heartbreak. Oh, and his girlfriend died. That was legitimately sad. But it happens. Death happens. He might as well learn how to deal with it while he’s young.
It finally ended, and the man took off his headphones. I looked at him and made some asinine comment about how trivial it all is.
“It’s life, man. Pain is real”, he replied.
“I’m sorry, but no it’s not. It’s a movie. You want to hear real? I watched three boys die a month ago; three boys I hit died a month ago. That is pain. That is real.”
He closed his laptop and turned to face me, his pain palpable…
“I am so sorry.” He looked back down, and repeated, almost in a whisper, “I’m sorry. I know what you are feeling. I know because my wife and son were in a car accident. My wife and son…they died in a car accident.”
There were so many things I wanted to say to him. Instead, I laid my head on his shoulder and cried.
The reality was and is, pain isn’t about “less or more or relative,” His pain was mine, and mine, his.
I keep hearing stories like this. About pain- all of us wondering what the fuck we are supposed to do with it.
It seems to always be here, somewhere on the spectrum. But we need to live our lives, so we try to hide it, dismiss it, numb it, or for the bravest among us, heal it.
I’m not quite sure how to do that, exactly- heal it. I do know, however, how I won’t…by hiding, dismissing, or numbing it. I’ve tried those; they only feed it.
What I have finally come to terms with is this: We all bleed the same. The source of our wounds may differ, the extent of the damage may vary, but in the end, the results are the same: we bleed, and it hurts. And we have to find a way to transcend it if we are going to survive.
This is what I want for all of us, to figure out how to transcend it, to transform our wounds into epic scars we can learn to love. But this won’t happen if we don’t give ourselves permission to feel our pain; to acknowledge that what is happening or has happened is terrible; to allow ourselves to feel sad and angry and resentful; and, yes, to feel like a victim.
Because we are all victims of pain, but our pain doesn’t have to make us victims.
It just makes us real. It gives us depth and courage and resilience. It allows us to gain perspective, evolve, practice empathy, and help others do the same.
I think about that man on the plane, his wife and son. And I think about those boys, their families…what they all wouldn’t give to have the opportunity to feel all of this, to live all of this…even this.
But they are gone.
I have no idea why I’m still here, why I survived and they didn’t. But I did. The very least I can do for them is to feel all of this, fully, and live all of this, wholeheartedly…even this.
I owe them that. At the very least, I owe them that.
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” – Nelson Mandela
I was listening to the Tim Ferriss Show (which I cannot recommend highly enough) while he was interviewing Brene Brown, an extraordinary woman who was addressing what she believes courage to be.
It got me thinking about what courage really is, exactly, what its components are, why it seems to be inherent in some and so difficult for others, and why it seems to be inseparable from a life fully lived.
Think of your heroes or those whom you admire, for example. Did they get where they are because their lives were comfortable? Were there no obstacles that they had to overcome? Didn’t these obstacles build the strength, character, and courage needed to rise above them? My heroes definitely had to overcome obstacles. My heroes were fighters and warriors, audacious and unyielding. I admire them precisely because they had the courage to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges in their lives. They took risks. They followed their passion. They fought for it. They fell hard. And they got back up and they kicked ass. Our heroes are our heroes because they were courageous.
Brown realized that she was holding herself back. She was scared- of what people would think, of failing, of exposing herself, of admitting her weaknesses, of making herself vulnerable. For most of her life, she sat safely on the sidelines, looking down into the arena, waiting- waiting for her chance to fight the battle, to conquer what was staring at her from below. She did this until she couldn’t do it anymore. Her comfort was killing her soul. She wanted to immerse herself in her fear so she had no other choice but to conquer it. So she leaped. And she conquered. And she is often uncomfortable.
Most of you have heard this; it is not that the courageous don’t feel fear. They just decide that it is worth risking whatever it takes to overcome that fear. They can no longer endure watching from above, paralyzed by it, or worse, complacent and comfortable in it.
It is that first leap that is the hardest. What if you are defeated? What if you fail? What if people shun you, judge you, reject or hate you.
Chances are, they might. But if they do, does this mean you failed?
To the contrary, you did what only the brave decide to do. Most likely, they will respect you more. You took the risk. You refused to live vicariously through others or to live a life that is not authentic. Yes, they might shun you, judge you, or reject you at first. But those reactions are out of jealousy or their own fears. They don’t yet have the courage to do what you did.
But those who truly love you will celebrate your courage, even if it makes them uncomfortable. Most likely, you will inspire them to get out of their comfort zones, to live their lives instead of watching others live theirs.
So, which is worse? Trying and failing, or trying and actually living?
I think there is another important component to courage. Faith. Not blind faith or believing in something that was fed to you. Your truth. I think to have courage, you have to have absolute faith in yourself – your beliefs, your dreams, and your convictions- even when everything around you seems to contradict all of those. It takes courage to have faith, and it takes faith to have courage. Without faith and without courage, fear and doubt will decide your fate for you.
Andrew Sullivan summed it up in his article, The Madness of King Donald.
“Faith is a result, in the end, of living, of seeing your previous certainties crumble and be able to rebuild, shakily, on new grounds. It’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery, and often inseparable from crippling, perpetual doubt. A life of faith is therefore not real unless it is riddled with despair.”
Basically, we have to let ourselves feel to the point that the pain is so great, the perpetual doubt so pervasive, that we have no other choice but to dig deep into the well, find our truth, and act- boldly, decisively, and courageously, even if we doubt our capacity, even if we are terrified of what will come next.
To bring this down a notch and apply it to our day-to-day, we have to do things that are uncomfortable to get where we want to be. From approaching our boss for a raise to running a marathon to leaving a relationship that no longer serves us. How can we achieve great things, experience great love, live the life that we want if we won’t take a risk and act? We won’t. It’s that simple. It’s scary as hell, but it’s that simple.
Sullivan quotes Polish dissident, Adam Michnik.
“In the life of every honorable man comes a difficult moment … when the simple statement that this is black and that is white requires paying a high price.”
The ones who take this difficult moment by the proverbial horns, rise above it. Because there, in the difficulty and discomfort, is opportunity. There, in that moment, is the chance to transcend this place that no longer serves us.
My suggestion? Jump into the fucking arena. Face you demon, get your ass kicked, fall to your knees. Then get back up, and you will rise above.
Or don’t. It is clearly your choice.
You can certainly stay sitting safely on the sidelines. It is much more comfortable there. That is what I hear, anyway.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt
Picture: Accessories. Artist: Ionut Caras. http://carasdesign.com/
The Madness of King Trump by Andrew Sullivan: Read more at: nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/02/andrew-sullivan-the-madness-of-king-donald.html
Link for podcasts: The Tim Ferriss Show: http://tim.blog/podcast/
Interview with Brene Brown: #207