It occurs to me that our bodies and minds weren’t  made to hold on to emotion. Nor were they made to reject it.

More and more, I think that the best method of experiencing emotions is the same way our bodies were made to digest food. We take it in, let it trace a path through the body where the pieces we need to utilize for repair and sustenance are extracted, and the rest is eliminated.

Too often, we treat emotions as something that we need to control and manipulate, but I think we’re going about it all wrong. At least, most of us are.

Lola has the right idea. She is a natural at simply ‘digesting’ her emotions. She lets them come, acknowledges them, sits still while they make their way through whatever process they go through, and extracts what she needs from them – whether it’s something she’s learned or a closeness she feels with someone important.

There are others in my life who I see become constipated, holding on to the emotion or the story it conjures in their heads, letting it affect them in ways that are profound and lasting. They either wall off the emotions and prevent themselves from seeing the benefits, or they gain some of the benefit, but then become embittered and embrace a victimhood that allows the unpleasant, dysfunctional parts of the situation to remain without being removed.

And there are still others who are bulimic – rejecting certain emotions or situations violently by purging the emotion or denying the feelings conjured up. In this scenario, the individual is ultimately denying themselves the learning and growth that comes from processing difficult emotions and coming to a deeper understanding of hurt and struggle and their place in it.

Without allowing our bodies and minds to fully process what we are feeling in any given situation, we fail to learn that, in every challenging scenario, there is a beginning, a middle and an end. There is a way to walk through pain and struggle, sadness and grief and suffering, and come out the other end a stronger, wiser person. But not if we become constipated or deny the reality of the situation altogether.

I am absolutely guilty of doing both of these things from time to time, and even if I do my best to process emotions like Lola, I can find it hard to not try to drive the process and make it fit my own timeline. But I’m learning that, like digesting my food, my body and mind have their own way of working with what I’m presented with, mining it for the good and letting go of the rest, and it is in my own best interest to simply let the process happen. I admit I’ve struggled a little with what that might look like, and the best conclusion I’ve come to thus far is to simply be mindful of the feelings and hold space for them, knowing that I can’t possibly predict how long it will take or how impactful it will be.

I am a lover of words, a lover of conversation, someone who is incredibly interested in learning new things. And I often do my learning via story, as many of us do. I am also a story teller, a person who revels in teasing out the details and painting a picture and explaining (over-explaining, “selling past the close,” as my husband says sometimes) in order for others to understand.

And so when my words are misconstrued, I get frustrated.
When my stories are interrupted, because the listener thinks they already know what I’m saying, or they’ve formed some opinion that is counter to mine, I get even more frustrated.

When I watch the interruption be compounded by other voices piling on, interrupting other speakers, or further taking my comments away from where I would have had them go, I often go in to defensive mode and try to swing it all back to where I started.  Unfortunately, that is where I lose the purpose of the dialogue and make things worse.

Listening is a difficult thing to do, especially when we have been taught that we show our intelligence by challenging others’ versions of things, by demonstrating our knowledge and talking, talking, talking. So much of what we do as human beings is try to convince others that our viewpoint is the best, the most accurate, the “right” one. Often, we get so attached to our own perspective that we take it personally when someone doesn’t agree with us, isn’t awestruck by the story we’ve told that illustrates why our reality is so much more valid than the one they presented.

As I get older, I am beginning to think that intelligence doesn’t lie anywhere near the realm of talking. When we rush to interrupt someone else and inject our own version of things, we aren’t showing our cleverness, we are demonstrating our need to be heard rather than a desire to learn.

It is difficult, but I think that the people who are the most intelligent are those who are quiet, who listen with a clear mind and ask thoughtful, clarifying questions. When someone else is talking to us, they are attempting to explain something that we don’t already know, that we may not have experienced. If we are to truly engage in a mutually satisfying exchange, it is imperative that we seek to understand, not race to respond.

This is especially hard to do in group settings. Often, the need to prove ourselves takes over and we first engage in body language that is assertive (eye rolling, head shaking, leaning in and opening our mouths in anticipation of ‘our turn,’) and then label (“that’s racist,” “that’s wrong,”) or use superlatives like always/never, or make it personal (“that’s not my experience; here’s something I did/said/saw that proves your experience is invalid/inaccurate/wrong”). We are bolstered by others in the group whose body language seems to support us and once we make it personal or begin exaggerating with superlatives, the conversation becomes less about learning and more about picking whose side you will be on. It is nearly impossible for anyone to leave a conversation like that without feeling as though they’ve had to choose between two very different ideas. It is also nearly impossible for either of the proponents of those ideas to learn from the other. They’ve effectively set themselves up to react emotionally and defend their position to the death because it is now personal. Their very ego is tied up in the outcome. If my position is “better,” I am a smart person. If my position “loses,” I am a stupid person.

Unfortunately, I don’t often recognize that this is what is happening in the moment. Generally, all I feel is a sense of unease and frustration and then an overwhelming urge to defend myself, prove myself. It is not until later that I can ask myself the question, Why did that bother me so much? Why can’t I let it go? Generally, it is because I feel misunderstood and what I wanted more than anything was to be heard and understood. It wasn’t about being Right or Wrong, it was about an exchange of ideas. The thing is, when I am listened to in that way – when people can pause a moment after I’m done speaking and then ask questions to clarify (vs. questions designed to challenge) – I am more likely to solicit ideas from them because we both want the same thing – to learn something we didn’t already know.

I am amazed at the habitual way we have conversations, even with those we call friends and family, who we trust. I know that showing up in this way is critical to strengthening relationships and that it is hard work and takes a lot of practice. I am sometimes upset that I need to work so hard at it, but I also hope that if others in my life are also striving to get better at really listening, maybe we can all reinforce each others’ efforts.

By Kurt Baty – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

I know that, and yet, there is still something so appealing about believing that the world is black and white, that things are either good or bad, and so are people. It is both efficient in terms of time (I can decide whom or what to invest my energy in and when to walk away) and emotionally satisfying (no agonizing over the minutiae, just make a judgment and move on).

And it’s rarely true. In fact, I’m pretty sure the only things that are black and white are those two crayons in the box. (Don’t get me wrong: there are some things that, in my mind, are Absolutely Wrong and I will continue to acknowledge the nuances within, and still condemn the behavior.)

I am a social-justice-minded person. I have strong values and strong opinions and I love fighting for space for those without it, hearing new voices, expanding my view of the world. And sometimes, I read about something in the news and let the ethical warrior side of me take over. I re-post things and sign petitions and vow to boycott companies and sometimes, that feels like the exact right thing to do in terms of aligning my behavior with my values. But sometimes I get conflicted.

Like when scandals come up involving giant companies like Uber. While I went along with the suggestions to delete the app from my phone and vow to use other rideshare companies when the news came out about the CEO’s reprehensible behavior and choices that don’t support my values, I was still a little worried. Mostly because I thought about the drivers – the vast majority of whom I’ve ridden with that are pleasant and professional and friendly. The drivers who are working in this flexible gig-economy world because they have other jobs and obligations that don’t fit in with an 8-5 job. Maybe they’re going to school or parenting or taking care of their aging parents. Perhaps they don’t speak English well enough yet to get another type of job or this is the thing they’re doing while they train for a better job. Maybe they’re retired and on a fixed income and this is the way they put aside a little money in case of emergency. Doesn’t my boycotting the company they work for impact them more than it impacts the CEO, at least percentage-wise? He’s already a millionaire. Maybe losing some revenue will affect his company’s bottom line a bit and perhaps his ego will take a big blow, but for the driver who depends on every paycheck, I may be creating more hardship for them than their employer does.

Two weeks ago, I saw a message on a Facebook group I’m part of (a FB group that is all about supporting and empowering women), asking if anyone would be interested in joining a day-long women’s empowerment and employment event to provide a breakout session workshop. They were specifically looking for content that centered around wellness and well-being and self care. I was hooked.  After a few emails, I realized that the event was being put on for women who are Uber drivers in Seattle and I admit to having a twinge of discomfort. Digging a little deeper, I discovered that this event centered around helping these women, who are mostly part-time drivers, understand the gig economy a little better and enabling them to find other ways to get into it to support themselves. Uber’s partner for this event is a local organization called Tabor 100, an “association of entrepreneurs and business advocates who are committed to economic power, educational excellence and social equality for African-Americans and the community at large.”

Whoa.

I signed up. Other breakout sessions included one that helped women envision their own paths as entrepreneurs or career growth, one dedicated entirely to self-care, and another that helped women learn to manage and grow their wealth. They provided a beautiful continental breakfast, a full lunch, free headshots by professional photographers, and the opportunity to get your business certified with the Office of Minority and Women’s Business Enterprises. Oh, and childcare. Full. Day. Childcare. For free.

This day was truly about empowering women to be part of the sharing economy in a way that works for them, with a ton of information about the opportunities that are out there as well as tips and tricks to more fully engage in those opportunities. My workshop centered on using mindfulness to ground yourself in your values, create personal boundaries, and find joy everywhere you go.

I vowed to go in with an open mind and I came out with a full heart. This is the kind of company (at least the Seattle version of it) that I can say I’m proud to have been associated with, even for just one day. This was not some gimmick to show the world that Uber is a friendly company and win back shareholders. I don’t even know that it was widely publicized. This was an honest attempt to acknowledge the employees of this company, remind them how important they are, and help lift them up.

So, it’s complicated. I reinstalled my app because I hope to see some of these women on the road soon and get to know them a little better.

The older I get, the more complicated Mother’s Day seems to be. As a kid, it was all excitement and anticipation – making crafty gifts in class with glue and construction paper and flowers and hearts. I couldn’t wait to watch Mom open her one of a kind present and exclaim how wonderful it was.

It was about experimenting in the kitchen to make her breakfast in bed or plucking flowers from the neighbors’ yards on a walk to make a spontaneous bouquet.

In my teenage years, Mother’s Day was more of a reprieve for both of us; a day to set aside the petty frustrations and disagreements and have 16 hours of peace and appreciation. I’m sure, more often than not, by the time Monday came around, I was back to rolling my eyes in derision while the flowers stood tall in the vase on the kitchen counter.

When I became a mother, it was about excitement and anticipation again – waiting to see what my girls had made for me or chosen for me at the store with their dad. But it was also a revelation.

Motherhood is about soft snuggles in bed, the smell of a baby’s head, and it’s about bedtime routines that lasted for hours and often ended with me screaming into a pillow after tiptoeing out of my child’s room.

It is about smiling in pride when my children do something amazing and the stark fear that they are somehow in danger and it’s my job to protect them every moment of every day.

Mother’s Day is about recognizing that my mother is a human being, that she had to try and hold the tension between caring for me and preserving her Self, and that she didn’t always do it the way I wanted her to. It’s about realizing that my daughters feel the same way sometimes. It is about appreciating the evolution of my relationship with my mother – from feeling smothered and policed to feeling appreciated and honored. It is also about the evolution of my relationship with my children – from overwhelming responsibility and endless repetition of tasks to stepping back and watching as they do things I never dreamed they would do and knowing that we will always have this bond in one way or another.

Mother’s Day is about widening that circle to include every woman who ever mothered me, the teachers who took an interest, women who mentored me or listened to me or encouraged me. It is about honoring mothering in all its forms – gentle prodding and sideline cheering and bandaging wounds and holding space for my grief. It is about watching my childhood friends grow up to be mothers and realizing that we all had it in us somehow, somewhere, this ability to believe in something bigger than ourselves and the desire to protect it so that it flourishes.

Mother’s Day is the ultimate exercise in opposites, the feeling that you’re part of a tribe and that you’re in charge of it; the joy of watching your children grow up and the nostalgia of your own childhood; the gratitude of being recognized and the knowledge that you would do all of it even without that recognition. But since mothering is an exercise in opposites, that seems fitting. From the moment our babies are born, they begin moving toward independence, stretching that distance between us and them and we are tasked with helping them accomplish that while simultaneously mourning the loss of that connection.

I’m coming to realize that Mother’s Day is simply the distillation of the biggest lessons in my life. It is a day that reminds me that grief and joy live together in every moment, and that my job as my daughters’ mother is to help them figure out how to hold both of those things simultaneously, honor them both, and keep moving forward. Whether you are mothering children of your own or you are a mother-figure to other children, whether you have a mother or you’ve lost yours, may your day be restful and full of peace. May you find the strength to hold all that is present in your life today, or have others who will help you hold it. May you feel mothered.

One of our house rules* is that we all agree not to do something for someone else that will make us angry. It seems obvious, but it’s amazing how many times I’ve done things as I’m knee-deep in resentment and fury because it feels like there’s no other way or because I simply can’t think straight in the midst of all that strong emotion.

What I know is that when I do things like that, often somewhere in the back of my mind, I’m keeping score. There is a part of me that is saying, “ok, now this person owes me one” or “I get to bring this up the next time they claim I never do anything for them.”

What I also know is that the longer I hold on to that chit, the heavier it gets. And as I’m doing the “selfless” act for someone else, I am enraged, and neither of those things makes me feel good about myself.

It’s tempting to blame the object of my actions for even having the audacity to ask for such a thing, or (as in the incident that occurred this morning) lash out at them for emotionally blackmailing me. And I’m sad to say that I have done both of those things far more often than I wish I had, but ultimately, I made that one of the house rules for a reason: because it is powerfully easy for me to slip in to a space where I do these kinds of things more and more and it becomes easier in the moment to just capitulate than it does to explain myself or assert my reasons for declining. And then I get resentful and feel like a victim and it affects my relationships with the people I love the most.

So here’s to self-awareness and posting house rules in a conspicuous place as a reminder to act in accordance with what I know is good for me and those whom I love.

*These rules are not my creation. I heard about them from a friend a few years ago and adopted them because I think they’re so fabulous.

My girls are getting older and now that Lola is in high school, I’ve really been hit with the knowledge that they are strong, capable young women who are reaching for independence. It’s a delicate balance for me as their mom, to let them stretch themselves and to keep reminding them that I am here if they want me – for adventures or to vent, as a shoulder to cry on or just someone to hang out with on the rare evening they don’t have other plans.

I remember that desperate need to be on my own, to prove that I could do it myself, to peel off from my family and firmly attach myself to my friend-tribe. When I left for college, I came home so rarely, convinced that the new family I had created was so much better, so much more fun and supportive. And in some ways, they were, but there is something powerful about that other tribe – the one that shares my history, that remembers who I was all those years ago (and loves me anyway).

Last weekend, Lola and I traveled to the central coast of California to hang out with that tribe, my mom’s siblings and their spouses and kids. And even though Mom couldn’t be there with us, it felt like coming home. Looking around the table to see faces that are so familiar, hear laughter that I remember deep in my bones from years past, was grounding in a way I can’t really describe. I loved the opportunity to remind Lola that she is part of this group whether she wants to be or not. There is a special mix of nurturing and support, loud hilarity and not-taking-ourselves-too-seriously that has been there ever since I can remember. This group has weathered major storms over the years and come out smiling because they do it together. No matter the brand of tragedy, there is a set-your-jaw-and-roll-up-your-sleeves mentality that doesn’t back down and doesn’t forget that in the midst of all of it, there is joy to be found. This is a group that doesn’t shy away from the full range of emotions available to us (sometimes swinging from one to the other with dizzying speed), all the while holding on tightly to each and every other member of the family. And it’s a group whose definition of family extends beyond bloodlines to include others who are deeply loved and abide by the rule of having each others’ backs.

While I really wish Eve had been able to join us, I came away knowing that we will do this again soon and I’ll bring her along because I think that this is the perfect time for both of my girls to be reminded that there is a strong, smart, compassionate, funny-as-hell group of people who will always be there for them, who are rooting for them as they spread their wings and head out into the world to do whatever it is they decide to do. I know that I have always felt grateful to be able to rely on the absolute bedrock of this family to both hold me up when times were tough and make me laugh until I pee – sometimes simultaneously.

In the past several days, I have seen more requests for people to “unfriend” and “unlike” pages on social media than ever before.

I have spoken with people who acknowledge that their loved ones voted for a different Presidential candidate than they did and roll their eyes, saying that they don’t get it.

I have seen calls for parts of the country to split off from the rest because of the deep philosophical divisions that showed up on Tuesday night, and I have listened and watched as groups form with the intent to “fight.” I heard one person say last night that she doesn’t talk to people who voted differently than her because “we can’t.”

We can’t afford to not talk about this.


It’s hard.
It is often painful.
It sometimes feels as though we are speaking different languages.

And we have to try.

The future of our country depends on it.

The first thing we can do is stop pretending that debate is conversation. In a debate, there are sides. There are factions with deep-seated beliefs and the goal is to show up and talk the other person under the table. The entire setup is predicated on the idea that this is a zero-sum game. That one side is “right” and the other is “wrong.” Debates are about power, they aren’t about common ground, and what the American people need right now is to find our common ground.

Instead of one-upping each other, we need to listen.
Instead of either/or, we need to start thinking in terms of yes/and.

When Lola headed out to take the bus with a couple of friends to the movies yesterday, I nearly had a panic attack. At some point, it occurred to me that I was sending my 14-year old daughter out with another young woman (who happens to be black) on to public transit and out into the world without an adult. Before Tuesday, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. But in the days following the election, my Facebook feed was filled with stories of women and girls being harassed in public, people of color and Muslims attacked for simply being who they are, and I was gripped by fear. I hated the fact that I had to give her instructions as to how to behave on the bus – eyes up at all times, assess the situation constantly, if your gut tells you something isn’t right, scan the area for the nearest trustworthy adult and have an exit strategy that puts you in a safe place. I tried to do it as calmly as I could without scaring her, but still letting her know that she needed to heed my warning.

I am keenly aware of the daily fear that accompanies being a woman in this country. I am also aware of what many of my friends who are people of color go through on a daily basis and I think I understand their fears. I have heard and acknowledge the fears of those who are immigrants, refugees, and people who do not identify as Christian. I also feel as though I understand the concerns of folks who are part of the LGBTQ community.

And…

Yesterday, I had a very interesting exchange on Facebook with someone who supported Donald Trump’s presidential bid. He wrote that he wanted us to all stop fighting and start working to make this country great for “our kids,” and I inquired whether he meant all kids – black and brown kids, immigrant kids, gay and transgendered kids, and Muslim kids. What ensued was more than 30 minutes of back and forth clarification, peeling layers to really understand what he meant by making our country great and if it was inclusive of all of us. What I learned was that he doesn’t care a whit about reversing Roe v. Wade or marriage equality. He isn’t interested in deporting anyone and he believes that the Bill of Rights was written to include every single one of us, regardless of what we look like or where we worship or who we love. His reasons for voting the way he did had nothing to do with racism, xenophobia, homophobia or sexism.

In my quest to understand, I had to refrain from lumping him into the box that is so handy and makes it easy to jump right back in to that zero-sum game of Wrong and Right. Goodness knows, I didn’t agree with Hillary Clinton on everything she said. In fact, I vehemently disagree with her on several issues, and I know that I wouldn’t want to be characterized as someone who is in full support of her positions on military spending or energy policy. Because of that, it is my responsibility to treat others the same way. I can’t make a blanket statement that every single person who voted for Trump is racist, misogynistic or sexist. They may well have voted for him despite that.

And…

The fears of folks Trump has alienated and denigrated are real.
They have every right to have their feelings validated and fight to keep their personal freedoms.

And…

The fears of folks who don’t live in urban areas where the economy is rebounding, where opportunities exist for job training and social programs are just as real. Those folks who have struggled to put food on the table for their kids, whose schools have been taken over by the state because they have failed to meet standards for years, who have been farmers and miners for generations and still want to be, but those jobs are going away or getting harder to do without the support of the government? Their feelings are just as real. Their fears are just as existential.
They have every right to fight for someone they hope can pay attention to their plight, too.

Just because I haven’t lived those fears doesn’t mean they aren’t real. They just don’t show up on my radar. Like the fears of women and immigrants and minorities don’t show up on the radar of folks who haven’t lived that reality.

We can continue to try and convince each other that the things that show up on our personal radars are more important than the things that show up on someone else’s if we want to. We may gather bigger numbers next time and “win” elections. But we won’t have addressed the underlying issues that are driving the divide and we will continue the wild swing of this pendulum that throws our country into chaos every few years. The only way to slow it down is to learn about each other, to set aside what we think we know and listen to what others live with. Unfriending each other or voting to split states off from the Union might make us feel safer, but it only deepens the divide. And it won’t make the other side go away. It certainly won’t make them change their minds. It is the equivalent of a parent kicking their teenage daughter out of the house because she is pregnant. It doesn’t make her any less pregnant, it just leaves her with fewer supports and it means you don’t have to look at her anymore when you come downstairs for breakfast. We have to face this with compassion and a genuine desire to find commonality or we will continue to break apart even more.  I truly believe that the people of this country have more in common with each other than we know. It is in our own best interest to find those goals we all share and begin talking to one another because it appears that there are some folks in power who are more interested in being Right than they are in being part of something real and honest and human.

I sit here full to the brim. My heart is heavy, my stomach quivering, mouth dry and thoughts racing. I remind myself to breathe deeply a few times a minute and struggle to define what is happening. I am both drawn to social media and reminded to pay attention to how it makes me feel. I am grateful for the conversations I have had with Eve and Lola last night and this morning; appreciative of the opportunity to temper anger and fear with reflection and self-awareness. So far, here is what I believe to be true:

 

  • Americans who voted for vastly different outcomes than I did have just as much right to cast their votes as anyone else. Regardless of whether someone’s vote was cast in anger or fear or hatred, the fact remains that we live in a democracy. Everyone’s vote counts.
  • I can’t know what motivated anyone else’s vote unless they tell me, and trusting the media to tell me isn’t a valid option. They’re the ones who were so wrong about how this election would go, remember? That means they have little insight into the way many people’s minds work. The media is just as divided as this country’s electorate is and is mostly populated by a group of college-educated, white folks. That is hardly an accurate representation of the country.
  • There are no more racist, misogynist, elitist, ableist people in America today than there were yesterday. And, more importantly, we can’t know what motivated people’s votes (see bullet point above), so saying that this election was a mandate for racism, sexism, or elitism is altogether incendiary and not useful. We don’t know that, frankly.
  • The people of this country have allowed themselves to be divided by fear, income inequality, geography, and hatred. Fear is a powerful motivator, but unless we really strive to listen to each other with the intent to understand, we will get nowhere. I have watched (and I am guilty of this, too) people purport to have ‘discussions’ about the election that were simply about convincing the other person that they are wrong. When discussions become about right/wrong, winning/losing, they cease to be about understanding. It is human nature to dig in and defend our position. It feels too scary to stop and wonder whether anything is truly black and white and whether we could have something to learn from someone who thinks differently than we do. Until we learn to acknowledge and set aside our fears, we cannot hope to build bridges and come together around common goals. We won’t even be able to identify common goals.
  • We often fail to recognize the ripple effects of our actions. Folks who voted as a reaction to something may soon come to regret that choice if the stock market crashes, they lose their health insurance, or Roe v. Wade is repealed. We are all connected and every single action we take has consequences that we can’t predict. Reacting out of fear or anger or hatred often doesn’t give us the time to think about what those actions might set in motion. Folks who are waking up today and reacting to the news out of anger or hatred – vowing to fight against those who elected our new president or threatening to leave the country – have every right to feel those emotions, but acting on them will only drive us farther apart as a people. We are all connected.
  • The dichotomy that exists in America is amazing. The popular vote was split nearly 50/50. In the face of elections where conservative Republicans will control the White House, Congress, and the Senate, the number of women of color in the Senate quadrupled last night. Gun control measures are expected to pass in four states, and there were at least ten anti-corruption measures that passed across the country last night. My state just elected the first Iranian-American, disabled Lieutenant Governor. We are a complex nation of people who have more in common than we know, and if we can come together and begin to remember that the value of human beings is immense, and more important than money, we can begin to heal.
I don’t mean to sound naive. I live in a position of privilege that means I am not imminently worried about my citizenship, my health insurance, my civil rights, or my ability to remain in my home. That position affords me both power and responsibility. I will continue to remember that it is my duty to be engaged, to listen and try to understand, and to support the things I believe in most vehemently, all the while acknowledging the right of others to believe differently. That is what this country has always purported to be about.

There are days when I find it really hard to just be a person making my way through the world, this world of instant opinions and shouting and clickbait and judgment. But, not coincidentally, I’ve learned that those days are the ones where I’ve narrowed my “world” to digital interaction – be it social media or watching the news.  It is on those days when I forget that what makes me breathe more deeply, lets my shoulders crawl back down my spine from the place they often perch up near my earlobes, helps me relax into my own skin is actual human contact. Face to face encounters. Speaking with other human beings while I look them in the eye.

As a writer and an introvert, I spend a great deal of my time alone, but with the internet at my fingertips, it doesn’t always feel that way, and I sometimes forget that those experiences are not true human relations. I absolutely appreciate the web for purposes of research and connection – especially to those who live far away but about whom I care deeply. But they are no substitute for being in the physical presence of another person.

As I watch how quickly arguments get out of control and how easily it is to throw insults around, I am reminded of what it means to be human.

Last week when a person I love dearly was struggling with something, I felt sad for her. Half of my brain was scrambling to find a solution so that she wouldn’t have to endure this discomfort any longer than absolutely necessary, and the other half was listing the reasons this particular situation wasn’t really all that horrible (no doubt in some effort to both distance my self and to pretend that she wasn’t in as much pain as she was demonstrating).

Fortunately, I was able to let my brain fire off thoughts like buckshot without ever opening my mouth. Instead, I sat with her until my feelings of discomfort with her pain subsided. And when I had sufficiently recognized my visceral response for what it was, I said this:

I don’t get to decide what is hard for you and what isn’t. And, I think mostly, you don’t either. If I love you, my job is to trust you when you say something hurts. My experience or judgment of the situation has no place in the equation. It may be that you’re walking barefoot over a bed of hot coals and, while my first thought might be to tell you to put some shoes on or find another path, that’s not helpful. For whatever reason, you’ve found yourself here right now and if I want to show my love and support for you, I will acknowledge your pain and struggle and hold your hand while you feel it. I don’t get to co-opt your feelings or your story. It is not my place to show you my own personal bed of hot coals in order to distract you from yours or prove that mine is longer or hotter. I will simply believe you when you say you are hurting and offer my strength as you make your way through this difficult time.

So much of the content I see online and on TV on a daily basis consists of people fighting over whose trauma is the worst. We are competing for clicks and likes and bragging rights and forgetting to recognize that without connection to each other, none of us can survive our individual traumas. And while there are some incredibly positive things that happen online, too (I love seeing news of babies being born and people falling in love and hard problems being solved), there is no substitute for a hug or a high five from a warm-blooded person standing next to you sharing that news.  And so the next time I find myself neck-deep in frustration or sadness after checking my Facebook feed and the local news, hopefully I will remember to go find someone to look in the eye. Because being human is so much more satisfying than being “right” or being righteous.

When the girls were little, I signed them up for a program at the local park where they could learn to ride ponies. They sat in a barn and learned about safety, donned bike helmets and boots, and climbed atop plastic step-stools to hoist themselves up into the saddle. Over a period of weeks, they learned to groom, feed, saddle, and ride these gentle creatures while I stood and snapped pictures on the other side of the fence. After each lesson, they were excited to tell me about the ponies’ names and temperaments and the things they had learned about how to interact with them. When brushing the ponies, they knew to pat their way around the hind end so that the animals always knew where they were, and if they were walking near the ponies but in a blindspot, they were taught to do an “elephant circle” so as to be out of reach of a well-placed kick should the pony get spooked.

One thing you should know about me is that I prefer patting my way around to making elephant circles. If there is an elephant in the vicinity, I am the person who will point it out. I will tell you about it, indicate exactly where it is, tug on your sleeve to alert you, and describe it in great detail. Even if you indicate that you are not interested in anything having to do with this great beast in your midst, it is unlikely that I will stop trying to talk about it. In fact, if I am particularly affected by the sight of this elephant and you actively try to turn my attention elsewhere, I am likely to take you by the hand and lead you to it, make you stroke its leathery flesh, lean in for a sniff and ask you to look it in the eye.

It is not a characteristic of mine that all people appreciate.
I understand.

The other thing you should know about me is that this characteristic is necessary for my survival.

Most of my childhood was spent hearing that crying was an unnecessary activity. That sadness and fear were altogether useless. That the preferred emotions were happiness or anger and anything else was “wallowing” or “self-pity.” From time to time there were entire herds of elephants living in my house that went unacknowledged. The adults perfected elephant circles as they went through their days, picking their way carefully through and around and underneath so as not to discuss any subject that might be uncomfortable. Living like this makes a person feel a little crazy. As a kid, I tried in vain to point out the elephants and was either ignored or reprimanded. I began to believe that I was the only one who saw them, that there was something wrong with me. Or that my ability to see them – my “sensitivity” (spoken with a sneer of derision) – was a fatal character flaw. I alternated between jumping up and down and pointing and cowering in my room wondering whether there was something seriously wrong with me. Eventually, I learned to avoid the rooms where they lived altogether and take cues from other people regarding which things were ok to speak of and which ones were not.

My tactics as an adult are quite the opposite. I have come to realize that, for me, ignoring the elephants is an exercise in self-destruction. To deny my feelings about any particular situation is to pretend that they don’t matter. So while I won’t ask you to see the elephant in the room the same way I do, or to experience the same emotions in response to it, don’t be surprised if I lead you to it and describe it in great detail so that you are forced to acknowledge that it exists. So that you might begin to understand why it is something that is important to me. So that at least we can agree on one thing – that I am not crazy. I apologize if this makes you uncomfortable, but I’ve learned that leaning into discomfort is the best way to define its edges and begin to loosen its hold on me.