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?

To my WordPress followers: Did you know you’re missing out on my quarterly Newsy Letter and exclusive news and updates if you don’t subscribe via email? Find that “subscribe” button and sign up today!

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?

Post-traumatic growth–the end of the pandemic tunnel?

The light of post-traumatic growth may await us at the end of the tunnel.

Dear friend,

I’ve been thinking about that phrase, “The light at the end of the tunnel.” At this stage of the pandemic, I can still see the light, but it feels like this damn tunnel keeps getting longer and longer. Does it feel that way to you?

Or maybe you’ve lost sight of the light altogether.

I hope my words today will help—they are my final thoughts about the Art of Manliness podcast my son, Matt, brought to my attention last month. To catch you up, I first wrote about pandemic grief, and then about the sixth stage of grief, which is making meaning.

But the reason Matt sent me the podcast in the first place was that it referenced something else he and I have in common.

This was our text exchange:

Matt: “Wow! This is that podcast I always talk about. The episode I just listened to is about the pandemic, but from the perspective of emotions.”

Me: “Cool! I’ll listen at lunch.”

Matt: “I WAS NOT expecting it, but they went on to talk about a lot of your book stuff, and just as I was starting to think it, the guy mentions…POST-TRAUMATIC GROWTH!”

Post-traumatic growth—PTG— is what happens when a person grows from trauma, instead of languishing in it, as they might do with post-traumatic stress disorder–PTSD. I had never heard of post-traumatic growth until Matt introduced it to me a few years ago after hearing about it on NPR.

Post-traumatic growth—PTG— is what happens when a person grows from trauma.

When Matt told me, he said, “I have that, Mom. I have PTG.”

After I looked into it, I realized I, too, have post-traumatic growth, twenty + years after Matt’s diagnosis at age eleven with a brain tumor.

Twenty years. It was a long tunnel.

And I didn’t realize until recently, when my therapist suggested it, that I probably had undiagnosed PTSD. Every once in a while, it’s still triggered when Matt hits a snag in life that I am powerless to solve, like when his basement got flooded last fall with five inches of water.

With no idea what to suggest or who to call–and it was late in the evening, so who would answer anyway?–I was lost. Michael was out at a meeting. I had just finished a glass of wine and didn’t feel safe driving over to Matt’s to offer emotional support, although he needed it.

It triggered the feelings of helplessness and hopelessness I had when Matt was young and was deteriorating before my eyes. That crumbling tunnel was three years long, and the light almost flickered out.

Helplessness and hopelessness–sound familiar?

So when Matt called about his basement, my mind flooded, too:

It was a mistake for him to buy that house. It’ll get mold and he’ll get sick. I wish he didn’t live so far away. (Twenty minutes!) I wish I could buy him a perfect house that would keep him perfectly safe and he’d never have an emergency like this and I’d never have to worry like when he was little and I wanted to move us to a desert island where no one would tease him or make him feel bad and I’d love him enough to keep away the hurt and I’d keep him safe and I’m so tired of worrying because I’ve done enough worrying already to last me a few lifetimes.

Yet Matt got his basement pumped out, dried out (mostly), and grew wiser, more confident, and seasoned as a homeowner. I grew too, in reminding myself that my fears are not Matt’s. I grew in understanding that with adversity comes growth, a lesson I hadn’t fully embraced when my children were young.

My difficult motherhood taught me more than I would have learned from the perfect life I had expected. It’s cliche, but I’m a better person because of it—more compassionate, humble, forgiving, wise. That’s part of post-traumatic—appreciating the lessons of your experience.

If your interminable tunnel has been too chaotic or lonely or dark to see any lessons yet, I hope you’ll be open to finding them in retrospect, when they often reveal themselves. And I hope you’ll remember that the light is there, even if you can’t see it.

The light is there, even if you can’t see it.

If this rings true for you, if it feels right, feel free to stop reading.

But…

It may not ring true if you’ve lost loved ones during this difficult time when our normal support systems for grief are absent. The loved one was your light. That light did go out.

I have not walked in your shoes, so feel free to X out this page, and know that my heart goes out to you. But if you’re open, here are my thoughts:

I believe you are now in a different tunnel, one without your loved one. It is longer and darker and grimier and lonelier than you ever could have imagined. You may not see the light at the end of that new tunnel, so you may believe there is none.

But it is there.

And on the days when you feel you can’t get out of bed or pull on a pair of pants or put a fork to your mouth, all you need to accomplish in those difficult moments is to believe in the light.

Believe it is there. Believe you will see it again. And believe you will reach it, because someday you will get there, and that will represent growth.

The path to PTG is paved in meaningful moments.

In the podcast, grief expert David Kessler, who lost his teenage son unexpectedly, says the path to PTG (at around 13:50 in the podcast) is paved in meaningful moments. When friends and family call and text and send food and flowers, those are meaningful moments. Revel in them. Allow them to buoy you. They are reminders that the light exists, even if it’s still hidden.

When you are ready, you’ll create your own meaningful moments—picture collages, memorial gardens or displays, virtual celebrations of life—and you will catch a glimpse of the light. It will flicker on and off for a while. But it will call to you, and you will put one heavy foot in front of the other and slowly, laboriously, painfully move toward it.

Only you can decide if your loss manifests as PTSD, and if your growth feel likes PTG, but those are only labels anyway. What matters is that you climb out of your tunnel, and the you who exits, worn and tired though you may be, has survived.

That is my wish for us all—that we move toward the light, that we survive, that we grow.

There is light at the end of the tunnel. What will it hold for you?

(The podcast doesn’t go into much depth about PTG, so here’s another great resource.)

[If you don’t see the comment box here, click on the title of this post, scroll to the bottom and, Voila! Or, you can click on “Contact” in the menu bar and send me an email. I really do want to hear from you!]

To my WordPress followers: Did you know you’re missing out on my quarterly Newsy Letter and exclusive news and updates if you don’t subscribe via email? Find that “subscribe” button and sign up today!