Vulnerability, humility, and ego.

Kitchen in disarray.
My messy kitchen after a coffee flood.

Dear Friend,

Last week I shared a post on Facebook and Twitter that began, “Guess what Miss Brilliant just did?” You may have seen it—the picture of my kitchen after I brewed a whole pot of coffee without the carafe in place, causing a small flood that soaked through to the basement.

Two of my favorite comments from friends were “You are wonderful,” and “I love you.” And there were many comments to the effect of “I’m glad I’m not the only one who does stuff like that.”

It struck me how much people relate to each other’s vulnerability. How much, even, they crave it. Brene Brown—you may have heard of her?—said this about vulnerability:

Vulnerability is at the core, the center, of meaningful human experiences.

Vulnerability is inevitable–no one and no life is perfect. But it’s the act of sharing our vulnerability that keeps us humble. If all I ever wrote and talked about was what I did well, my successes, what’s going right in my life, how could I possibly retain a sense of humility? How could I not start to think I was better than others? How could anyone possibly relate to me, and why would they want to?

Brene Brown achieved astronomical success through her research and insight on vulnerability, shame, imperfection, and other frailties of the human condition. But I wonder—how does one retain a sense of humility when fame and fortune of that magnitude come calling?

By making a conscious decision. Because owning our vulnerability and retaining humility are choices.

Humility is a choice.

Early in the coronavirus, my dad sent me this link about the Washington State lieutenant governor who left office to pursue the Priesthood.

The New York Times reported that Cyrus Habib, a political rising star, said “he could feel himself being sucked into a ‘celebrity culture’ in American politics that had nothing to do with public service. He could feel himself being swallowed by pride,” so he walked away before that happened.

A politician choosing humility over ego? How was that not splashed all over the headlines?

I was so impressed with Habib’s story, I planned to write about it, but then the coronavirus took over our lives, and it took our lives, and then racism took George Floyd’s life, and those events seemed so much more important than writing about vulnerability, humility, and ego. (Although I believe ego is at the root of both our pandemic fiasco and systemic racism, but I’ll save that for another post.)

Then an ego-boosting thing happened to me and I realized the universe had given me an excuse to tie the threads together.

Tying the threads together.

Last year, I had a Tiny Love Story–My Son, the Homeowner–published in the Modern Love section of the New York Times. (If you click on the link, scroll down to the 4th story.) It was a thrill, but I kept my ego in check, as it was only 100 words, not a full-blown personal essay. Yes, it was the New York Times, but my words were a blip.

Out of the blue last week, I got this email from an editor at the Times:

I write with exciting news from Modern Love: We have partnered with Artisan Press to publish a book of Tiny Love Stories. Of the hundreds of Tiny Love Stories we have published, we plan to include roughly half of them in the book, including yours. It will be in bookstores late in 2020 and is available for pre-order online.

“Including yours.” Including mine.

Whoa, ego. Fame and fortune haven’t found you yet. It’s still just 100 words. It’s not like it’s a best-selling memoir.

The gist of my memoir—that I’m a people-pleaser, that the compulsion to keep the peace at all costs prevented me from advocating for my son in his hour and months and years of need—keeps a lid on my ego.

It’s not a premise to brag about. It’s not something to be proud of. When someone asks, “What’s your book about?” a part of me cringes.

But I tell my story because I believe my vulnerability will be someone else’s grace. I believe others will see themselves in me, in my timidity, my fear of conflict, my self-doubt, and the recognition will open them to personal growth.

My vulnerability may be your grace.

Will my story achieve astronomical success? Will my memoir become a best-seller? Unlikely. I may never know if I can maintain humility when fame and fortune come calling. But that’s not the point.

Vulnerability…[is] having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome.

~ Brene Brown.

The point for me is to continue on the journey, even without knowing where I’ll end up. On the way, I’ll continue to tell you of coffee floods, and buying the wrong milk, and my people-pleasing backfiring, and other silly and not-so-silly trials of life.

It will connect me to you and you to me and remind us both to keep our egos in check. Brilliant, don’t you think?

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Racism is hidden within ourselves.

Kneeling in prayer for George Floyd.

Dear friend,

Once again, I’m writing about a topic I didn’t plan to write about–racism. Once again, as a writer, I feel obligated to use my skills and my modest platform to say something of value. I’d rather leave the societal commentary to the bigwigs—those with sway, with clout, with fancier and more relevant degrees than me. Those who can make a difference.

But to not speak is to be complicit. And. I. Refuse.

So I’m sharing my thoughts about the murder of George Floyd, the black man in Minneapolis who was “kneeled to death” on camera. He was yet another man killed for the color of his skin.

I didn’t want to watch the horrendous video of the last eight minutes and forty-six seconds of his life, and yet I couldn’t not watch. I made myself pay attention to bear witness to his death. To look away was a privilege he and his family and his community could not exercise.

So what am I gonna do about racism? That’s the question we’re all asking ourselves, isn’t it?

I start by looking within. I consider myself a non-racist, but I acknowledge that in the past, I’ve not always confronted racist words or actions of others. That is racist on my part. I own that. For many of us, if we dig deep enough, I believe we’ll find racist leanings in our conscious and subconscious thoughts, and in our visceral reactions.

How do I fight the racist hidden within me?

First, by acknowledging it. And here I am.

Second, by changing.

Speaking up doesn’t come easily to me. Even the potential for conflict is anxiety-provoking. I’ve been actively working to escape the unhealthy people-pleasing box I built for myself. Now, when a voice in my head says, Karen, speak up, I do. I don’t give myself a choice.

George Floyd took his final breath under the knee of an oppressor. I will use my breath to speak up on his behalf and others who are oppressed. I will call out racism wherever and whenever it hides.

This declaration scares me. I’m not an in-your-face person. Then I think of the terror Mr. Floyd must have experienced, and I resolve to be mightier than my fear.

Third, by increasing my awareness.

Other than Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, I can’t recall if I’ve read works by African-American authors. (Truth be told—I’m very bad at remembering authors and titles, so I may have read other black-authored works. I promise to pay more attention going forward.)

So I’ll buy books to enlighten me. Anti-racism books are selling out across the country, and I may have to wait for Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Anti-Racist, Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race and Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race. You can see these and other recommendations here.

Anti-racism books are selling out across the country.

But, even before I became a memoirist, I knew I gained more insight into issues through personal accounts than from most other forms of writing. Offer me story vs. expository writing, and I’ll choose story every time. Here and here are great lists of memoirs by African Americans.

If you have other book recommendations, memoir or not, please let me know.

After I finish one of these books, I’ll pass it along to someone in my majority-white community, and ask that they pass it on when they’re done. Collectively, in my little part of the world, maybe we can become better allies to our neighbors of color. And maybe, if this type of thing happens all over the country, it will make a difference. And maybe, just maybe, George Floyd will be the last person to fall victim to his skin color.

My efforts feel so… disconnected, so abstract, when others are protesting and putting their safety and lives on the line to make their statement. But sometimes, when so many are screaming, one more loud voice is not heard. Sometimes a whisper gets the attention.

In the words of Mahatma Gandhi,

In a gentle way, you can shake the world.

I will fight racism in my gentle, meaningful way, and continue to look for other ways to change our world for the better. We so need it, don’t you agree?

How about you? How are you fighting racism?

Self-disclosure of my people-pleasing foibles.

Self-disclosure of my people-pleasing foibles often leads people to tell me not to be so hard on myself. It’s true that I feel mad about the times I didn’t stick up for myself and shame in admitting what I see as a weakness.

But sharing my truth means I can’t hide from it. Once it’s out, I’m confronted with its destructiveness and feel I have no choice but to change.

My self-disclosure is working. S-L-O-W-L-Y but S-U-R-E-L-Y. I’ve written some funny stories about my successes on Facebook. *

And now, another story:

You may know some of the background of this one. If not, the short story is that in May, 2016, I had to take medical leave from a job I loved due to my increasingly disabling and difficult-to-diagnose gut problems. My employer encouraged me to take advantage of their short-term disability policy, which turned into long-term disability.

What a blessing. Not my illness, but the disability benefits. That income took the edge off leaving my job, and helped to cover the thousands of dollars I spent (and spend) on out-of-pocket medical expenses.

Then, in September 2019, I received a call from my disability representative. I’ll call her Mary.

“I’m sorry to have to tell you this,” Mary said, her voice wobbling. I could hear the emotion in her voice and I knew it was sincere. We had become fond of each other in a weird kind of way during our three-year phone relationship. She was always professional and business-like, but with heart.

“Our medical directors have determined that you are no longer eligible for benefits.” She gulped. “Your cased is being closed as of today.”

Shit. I felt my shoulders and chest collapse, and my breath, my hopes, my future squeezed out of me like toothpaste.

I had wondered if I might face a reduction of benefits someday. I’m not bed-bound, after all. I’m not immobile. My mornings always suck, but I can usually leave the house in the afternoon or evening if I need to. I can take care of myself and do household chores and tap away on my laptop.

But I never expected a complete benefit mic-drop without warning.

As crushed as I felt, I also felt bad for Mary. My instinct was to comfort her.

“It’s OK,” I told her. “I won’t starve.” And I blathered on about the benefits being a blessing, and how grateful I was, blah, blah, blah.

I heard Mary typing to transcribe our conversation, like always. It’s her job. I knew she did it and I wasn’t worried because I had nothing to hide.

A few weeks later, I decided to appeal the decision, so I requested my full medical file—all 2,400 pages.

I read, or at least skimmed, most of it. When I came to my final conversation with Mary, I wished I had sewn my lips shut. It sounded like I was overjoyed to be losing my income. Blessing this and blessing that and all kinds of gratitude shit.

Nowhere did it say Client expressed anger and disappointment. Client Cried. Client said it must be a mistake because her health has not improved. Nope. Client was as agreeable as always. I saw it for myself in black and white.

I haven’t received the results of my appeal yet, but I suspect my people-pleasing will work against me. It won’t be the first time. There’s a scene in my memoir when a similar thing happened, only that time, it was a doctor I acquiesced to, and the patient was my son.

So you see why I share these stories. I hope you understand my self-disclosure. I must learn the lessons in what happened. And maybe others will learn, too.

In her book, The Disease to Please, the late Harriet B. Braiker said:

Sometimes we see in others what we can’t see clearly in ourselves.

If you see yourself in my stories, stick around. We’ll figure this out together.

*I tried to link to the exact post, but the cyber-gods weren’t cooperating. If you can’t find the post (or you’re not on Facebook), let me know and I’ll email it to you. And if you are on Facebook, how about following me while you’re there? 😉

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