I’m Sad Today and That’s Fine

joshua-earle-557-unsplashI’m sad. I wasn’t this morning. I won’t be soon enough. I’m sad right now.

I can’t tell you how much being able to recognize that and acknowledge it has changed my life.

When I was younger I would process a change of mood perhaps as often as once a day. Back then I might not even notice the presence of my feelings for a few hours after waking. That was true whether happy or sad or angry or whatever. I say whatever because I’m sure there are more than 3 moods. In general though it was one of these. For a long time there were just two since ‘sad’ would morph immediately into angry. I don’t know why. I guess it had something to do with a limited emotional palate and an abundance of youthful testosterone.

I once heard a person who had been abused talk about their decision to forgive the abuser that took so much from them. Initially I didn’t understand how they could ever truly forgive them. I thought perhaps they were still reeling from the abuse and reacting out of fear. But in their explanation I learned about what they were really doing when they chose to forgive. How it was actually an act of self preservation. 

‘Forgiving my abuser was very hard. I didn’t do it for a long time. Instead I held on to that anger and felt like it was my armor. I somehow thought that carrying and caring for my anger, keeping it alive, was what kept me safe. But it didn’t. He didn’t abuse me again. He didn’t have to. Carrying around that much anger and bile did all the damage he couldn’t do. In time I had to forgive him to let go. Think of it like this, anger is a poison pill. For me, holding on to my anger was like swallowing poison in hopes that it would make someone else die. But of course it doesn’t work that way. The poison was in me. It was killing me.’

The second I heard that my whole perspective shifted. 

I have not had to confront abuse, thankfully, but I could see myself holding on to anger. Compiling resentments and scorn and holding them close in order to keep them fed. In the years I’ve spent thinking about this piece of wisdom I’ve come to relish the opportunities I have to recognize and identify my feelings. My anger was my poison pill. Still is. 

It may sound silly, but to me feelings were an outside force somehow. That was how I perceived them and I’d guess I’m not the only man who has felt this way. My feelings felt like a threat to my stability, best denied or ignored. At least the negative ones. But that’s not how it works. I can’t deny my feelings away and the more I may try to do so the more I am at their service, providing them only enough oxygen to live but never enough to recover and heal. In that kind of cycle joy feels more like a liability and I treated it that way.

So today for some reason I started to feel sad. I recognized it, I acknowledged it, I’m feeling it and soon I’ll be moving on.

Sometimes emotional maturity is as simple as that. As simple as recognizing that which is evident and allowing space and time to do their work so I am not controlled by that which I struggle against and try to wrestle into submission.

Instead I just say I am sad today and I am thankful that I recognized it. Being sad now does not mean I’ll be sad tomorrow and it doesn’t mean I won’t be. It just means I’m sad. It’s a feeling and feelings change. Sometimes I’ll discover there was a reason I felt that way and other times I’ll discover there was no reason other than being human. 

Fragile and Brave

I have a picture of you from daycare. You are sitting quietly, legs stretched out in front of you. You are holding a board book, eyes down inspecting it. Your cheeks are so beautiful I can feel them just by looking, smooth, soft and pink with warmth. Your narrow shoulders are somewhere under the hood of your sweatshirt, a book open but ignored between your legs as you investigate this other book that has captured your curiosity. You’re wearing jeans and there are books scattered around you. You’re probably an old 2 year old in this picture, or maybe a young 3 year old. You are fully engaged, busy doing and uninterested in the person standing in front of you, probably unaware of their presence, who took the shot. I love this picture and it can make me cry.

You are the youngest and I can’t stop seeing the vulnerable in you. Sitting here with the picture and without you I can’t for the life of me imagine you look any different than that picture. Cherubic and intrigued. Tiny and determined. But you have grown. A lot. I still see the baby in you and always will. 

You still tell me about ‘tomachakes’ (stomach aches) and love ‘Sharlie’ (Charlie) and I don’t really want you to learn you are mispronouncing these things. I don’t want you to grow up. 

There are selfish reasons that mostly live in my subconscious. For one, if you’re getting older than I’m getting older. You don’t need to really know this for a good long time now, but I’m not going to be here forever and when I see you lost in discovering I want to freeze the world and stay in it forever. I didn’t have heaven until I met you and Charlie. Mommy made me come to life in a way I hadn’t, but the concept of heaven was one I rejected for lack of imagination. To be fair, who could conceive of something so wonderful and extraordinary as you. My heaven is here and now. 

Another reason I prefer you stay in this moment forever is so that I can always be what I am to you right now and you can always be what you are to me. We have challenging moments for sure, but they are fleeting. They revolve around simple challenges. This simplicity is balanced by an extraordinary frequency. You can have 5-8 crises before breakfast and without fail, whether we do so well or poorly, we get through every one.

Thirdly, I fall asleep next to you. You don’t like to fall asleep. You love to sleep, but the falling part, you are a resister. You get this from me. Each night, when I see you are tired, when we’ve been lying in bed for a long time I’ll inevitably say, ‘just close your eyes, buddy.’ Without fail, at least to this point in time it’s always met with your response of, ‘But it hurts to close my eyes.’ I could stop asking, but I just love the answer so much. You’ll start to drift and most nights you’ll pop your head up and say one last, half conscious crazy non-sequitir just before rolling over and falling asleep. Something like ‘I can’t sleep in parking lot frogs’ or ‘I look just like Fawzy.’ In case you’re wondering years from now what those things mean, well, I have no idea on the frog thing, but the ‘Fawzy’ thing is how you pronounce ‘Quazi’. He’s a character from Octonauts and your mispronunciation is adorable. I prompt it like five times a day. 

What I really don’t want to change is the you in this picture. You are a perfectly fine with the contradictory nature of life that becomes something so scary as an adult. You are exquisitely fragile and profoundly brave at the same time all the time. It’s amazing to see. Your brother was the same way, but you learn, you will learn any day now, to be self-conscious. You will wonder how other people will react before pursuing an interest. You will stop crying when mad and sometimes even try not to laugh when something is funny. You’ll toughen up and as a result you’ll be more cautious. That’s the confounding conundrum you’re going to wrestle with in the years ahead. It’s okay, you’re supposed to. But what is going on right here and now is beautiful and not be dismissed hastily. 

Being simultaneously fragile and brave has served you extremely well to now. It’s made you explore nature intuitively and voraciously. Left to your own free will you’d spend hours a day trying to find and transport every imagineable living creature from the dirt back to the house to show us. You explore whatever sparks your curiosity and you do it with abandon. You are excited when you see things you love, so excited you barely keep in your skin and you show it with squeals. They are pure joy and they are infectious to all who hear them. When you are upset, regardless of any reason or the presence of any others you let that be known too. Your emotions come out when they are felt and it’s incredibly healthy. In a sense you taught me these things. Charlie did too, but he’s teaching us other things. He’s at the tip of the spear, bringing us to new experiences all the time. He’s a boundary breaker and we can’t really enjoy as much of that process as we can with you. He’s desensitized us and you are showing us how to live an experience, not just survive it. 

I can honestly say that you’ve impacted my life more than I ever could yours. You’ve shown me the value of being unafraid. You’ve pushed me to challenge my fears to explore my world like you do yours. Thank you. 

I feel extraordinarily fragile these days. I also feel brave and curious. All these things were pushed so far down before I knew you that I often felt nothing, which was perfect for keeping invisible, but terrible for feeling alive. Living is pursuing your curiosity and finding your emotions and wrestling with all of it all the time. Living is not fearing feelings, but feeling them, saying it and processing them fully and with the help of those you love so you can put them down and not be ruled by them. Living is something you can only do if you are fragile and brave, just like you.  

A Note to my Sons On How Men Get it Wrong

To my sons.

There’s a lot I can help you with. Even more, I suspect that I’ll try to help you with. Perhaps even long past when you cease needing it. At those times I suspect you’ll be frustrated. You’ll wish to be left to do things on your own. You’ll wish it too early and I’ll let go too late. That’s what a good dad does. While I can’t give you everything you’ll ever need I will do my best to give you a good dad. In that attempt it occurs to me that there are some things I should share with you when they occur to me. This is one of those times.

img_3575You are little boys right now and I can’t tell you how delightful that is. For us and for you. Your problems are plentiful but mostly easily solved. Life has only just started and without a baseline for context the fact that your brother wants to play with your Halloween costume is enough to  bring you to tears. We hug you and kiss you and assure you that those tears are not necessary. We might be wrong. We’re wrong a lot. Anyway, I went a long time without crying. I cried so much when I was little, just about the ages you guys are now, that I was removed from Kindergarten. I wasn’t ready and as a result I cried everyday until all the grown ups agreed with what I knew. I wasn’t ready.

I believe that men have often so confused the concepts of weak and strong that it’s a reasonable conclusion to come to when you are young that true weakness is strength and true strength is weak. It’s a real mindf*ck for young men. We are taught that crying is weak. We are told that needing others is a sign of weakness. We are told to ignore pain. To quiet our emotions. To not emote, to be stoic. Truth is I don’t know if I was ever told these things but I knew them. The message got through that manhood, that true masculinity was immune to pain, stoic and self-reliant.

This is total bullshit. It took me way too long to understand that.

To the contrary. In many cases those very same attributes, at least for me, were indicative of my own fear. I think I went a good decade without crying. I trained myself to be stoic, literally berating myself and commanding myself to be disciplined and to shut up when I would drive to parties or family gatherings. Seriously. I’d say it out loud. ‘Just shut the fuck up. Why do you have to make a comment about everything. Shut. Up.’ And when I’d do it, when I’d stay aloof and removed and not needing of so much attention, I’d be proud of myself. And I wasted yet another chance I had to tell people how much they meant to me, how much I needed them, to show them how much they meant to me because I was trying to be something I thought I was supposed to be. Strong. Stoic. Self reliant. I wasn’t any of those things. I was weak. I was afraid to be myself. I was a million miles from being able to ask for what I needed. I was a man.

img_3520Well, it turns out that strength is exactly where I thought it wasn’t. I’m 42 years old now and I’m as prone to tears as I was at just about your age. I’m as needing of the love and support of my family as you are now, just in a different way. And I’m oodles happier for being comfortable with the truth which is that it is so much better to be able to ask for help than it is to be staunchly resistant to it.

I asked for a little help, in an office, from a professional. I figured out, with her help, that I needed to poke some holes in the bubbles I’d surrounded myself with and I did that, after years and years of avoiding it, by having a long overdue reality testing (revealing) conversation with your amazing Nana, my mom. I confirmed that it was okay to need someone by falling fully in love and revealing my full self to your mother when we met, almost immediately upon meeting, actually. Finally, I was a changed man who understood what it meant to be strong when I held you the first time and shed tears I didn’t know I had.

Don’t be afraid of feelings. They are to be embraced and explored. The reality is you can ignore them forever but if you do you’ll miss out on all that life had to offer.

Unburdened

I’ve always been hypersensitive. Which isn’t something I’ve always been comfortable acknowledging.

When I was growing up it was a real issue for me. It’s still a thing that can be hard for me. But as I get older, especially after having kids, it’s practically unavoidable. When I was young everything I felt was turned into the only emotions testosterone could amplify. Rage, Joy, Jealousy, Sadness or Frustration.

Having feelings, being filled with emotion was terrible. The loss of control was awful. It felt vulnerable. It felt dangerous and I chose instead to express my feelings, at least the joy, jealousy and sadness ones through stoic denial of them. Which conveniently turned them all to rage and frustration. The two emotions I felt comfortable showing the world. Somehow those two feelings felt invulnerable.

But sadness was there at times. Sadness is still hard. It tends to come out as rage, but I can at least recognize it now. Jealousy is mostly gone. Sometimes I might feel a touch of envy but it’s mostly for made up stuff like money. Sometimes I read something brilliant and wish I’d thought of it, but I don’t know if that’s jealousy.

The world instills in boys the misconception that painful  feelings are the opposite of strength. They aren’t. The fact that I couldn’t kill them completely, those vulnerable, painful feelings is because they were important. They were protecting a part of me that couldn’t be fully removed. No matter how hard I might have tried. The part of me that is ultimately my greatest strength.

The only feelings that can own me are those I hide. The ones I keep to myself. The ones that I’m afraid of people seeing. 

I would never have believed that I’d ever have been comfortable sharing so much of my concerns and so many of my worries with the world. So many of my shortcomings, failings and feelings. I was invested in them staying hidden. I’d made them shameful by keeping them hidden. I’d made such simple and beautiful things as feelings and need and frailties and worries my undoing by being so afraid of them that I loaded them into my bones and my body and my bags and anything I could carry and then dragged them with me wherever I went. When they inevitably became too heavy and I’d become weary I’d crumble, drop it all in private, curse my weakness and then add that weakness to the pile that I’d once again pick up, pack on and carry around. It was untenable.

I don’t imagine that I would have carried this burden forever. I imagine that some event would eventually have shown me the light and taught me that I needed to unburden myself. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been an event. Perhaps it would have been the slow learning of a lifetime of pain that would have taught me my lessons and prodded me and encouraged me to finally let it go by putting it down, laying it out and sharing my load with anyone who’d care to see and take stock of it with me. I imagine I’d have gotten there some way or other had I not gotten there as I did. But thankfully I didn’t have to wait for either of these things.

What let me know it was okay to be my entire person in front of the entire world was becoming a father. I have two sons who will grow up in a world that is prone to teaching it’s young men that ‘manhood’ means being more powerful than feelings of frailty and weakness. It’s an unfortunate tradition and residual instinct of a time less enlightened than one I hope we get to some day soon. But until we do I need to be the proof that having feelings and being sensitive to them, all of them, rage and compassion and needing and passion and frustration and sadness and guilt and all of them, is a strength. It’s in fact how you grow strong. Having feelings, expressing them, then putting them down is the only way to move on. It’s my duty and my pleasure to show them this, to be the proof of this valuable nugget of earned wisdom.

More so than that even, it’s my pleasure to show them gratitude for teaching me this lesson. For making my life so much more harmonious with the life that has been coursing through me that I could never fully come to grips with and feel comfortable in before meeting them and learning how to be brave and strong because of the love I have for them.

Thank you guys. You opened life to me. You made me strong enough to live it fully and honestly. You’ve made all of it, the joy and pain, pure bliss.