I got angry with my wife this week for being too happy. It feels strange to write that here where I share so much about loving others and ourselves. But it happened and I thought it would be cool to share in the vein of “we’re all human,” but also like, “what the hell’s wrong with me?” Which, perhaps, are two ways of saying the same thing.
My wife, Dr. Christy, is almost always happy. She doesn’t let a day go by without telling me how much she loves our life, our home, our children, our dogs, the garden, the trees, and even my occasional crabbiness. When we met, I assumed her giddy nature to be the product of the Minnesota sun, of Midwest values, and of the simplicity of the small family farm on which she was raised. That was superficial of me, my geographical bias dictating her experience of life. Her happiness is, in fact, hard won, a resolve to find the light that’s endured divorce and single motherhood, patients who’ve suffered and some who’ve died, and a cruel world that often didn’t understand the woman with a fierce mind and tender heart who spent her days caring for the sick while longing for a safe place to rest her head at night. My wife, an accomplished woman in so many ways, is a child at heart. A dreamer, a romantic, a little girl in a field of sunflowers looking for a playmate to hold her hand and invite her to dance. So she smiles and laughs and tries her best to remind the world, and me in particular, to lighten up and play a bit. Often when I go off and write she’ll appear with a giggle and a shake and say something like, “I just had a love burst and I needed to kiss my husband,” before giving me a smooch and floating away again. Her happiness is a way of drawing me out into her light so she knows that I’m okay and that we’re still connected.
My means are slower. I brood a bit more and let life seep in. I like when things drip deep inside and touch my nerves, raw and with a tinge of pain. Pain, for me, has been a gateway to the unrefined rhythm of life — the primal bass line hidden within synthesizer beats. So I meditate, and contemplate, and slow dance clumsily with the stuff that’s not safe to carry on my sleeve as I waltz down the street. Then I go off alone, behind the door of my bedroom or amongst the tall oaks in our garden, and write it all down. And then I’m happy. But my wife skips all that method acting and just gets right to the happiness.
The other day I forgot that I enjoy the contrast: “Stop being so happy!” I said, and then stomped away to the closest place I could find to stew, which turned out to be my bedroom closet — the place I store my hoodies and linen pants and, on this day at least, the place I went to pout and to be alone. I sat for a while, in self-imposed exile, wondering how she could be so rude with her smiley face and love bursts and kisses interrupting my loneliness. I closed my eyes and touched the pain where my loneliness lives, then I took out my iPhone and wrote down a few lines hoping to describe how it felt inside.
Loneliness is a state I have to practice regularly to maintain. It’s there, for sure, on its own, lurking in the corner, waving me over to commiserate in its solemn companionship. But on the way from where I am to that dark corner I pass a lot of other things hanging around too. Flowers, sunshine, children dancing in the yard, a wife who loves me, pictures of my family on the mantel, my dogs curled up on the floor, all the lovely things that live on the outskirts of the corners where loneliness resides. To be lonely I have to ignore them all, and look the other way. Loneliness, like everything else at which we’re proficient in life, takes intention and focus, requiring that we block everything else from our sight and just gaze at it until it consumes us, until we get really good at it, until it becomes a safe place to hang out in the pain.
The best I can tell, we’re all living in a closet of some kind; the place we hide all the messy stuff of life so the house looks clean when the neighbors come for a visit. We all have secrets, guilty pleasures and things we’re ashamed of. We’ve broken lovers’ hearts and our own. We’ve had sexual triumphs and embarrassments. We’ve tried to parent without really knowing how. We’ve cheated and lied, smoked pot and done lines in the bathroom with the lights turned low. We’ve stolen money from our bosses and had fights with our wives. We pull our hair, drink too much, and binge-eat Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey ice cream when life gets to be too much. And some of us have gone to Vegas with the boys when we said we were going to Boise to visit old friends. Or at least I have … done a little of all of that. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that we’re all the same. We think we have our secrets but that’s not quite true. What we have is our humanity, and that means I’m just like you — feeling lonely because I’ve lived a life I’m sometimes not proud of without realizing that you’re telling yourself the same lies as me.
I know this to be true because I write, which requires that I look inside this closet of mine and take inventory of my mind and then write it all down and have the courage to press send, something I do every few weeks wondering how it’ll be received. Wondering if you’ll still like what you read and if I’ll like what I see when I look in the mirror at the end of the day after baring my soul. Something funny happens in that process though: you write back to me and open your closet too. And that’s how I know we’re all lonely about the same things we’ve been hiding in the closet being afraid others might find out. Not exactly the same things. We have different things crammed in there. I’ve got a rug my dog peed on and you’ve got the cushion you burned smoking cigarettes while your wife was in the bath. But we share the reason we crammed it all in the closet in the first place. We have the same desire to be good, to be loved, to be accepted and understood. And we’re worried that we’re not. Not quite good enough, or worthy, or ever going to feel loved.
In that commonality we can find a call to connect. To practice sharing with one another. To come out of the closet and compare what we’ve got hidden inside. When we do, our loneliness doesn’t get pushed away or replaced with a sappy artificial grin. Instead, loneliness itself becomes the place where we intersect. We bond around our human vulnerability and all the juicy ways we’ve lived our lives.
This week I invite you to look in the closet and poke around. Ask some good questions, perhaps like:
Where does my loneliness live?
What beauty lies between here and there?
How might my stuff be like the stuff of other people I know?
Then share what you find with a friend … or two. See what you have in common. Experience the connection of shared humanity.
Solitude is inevitable. At one point or another we all will have moments when we’re alone. Loneliness, though, can be optional, a result based largely on what we choose to practice in life; when we get to know ourselves; when we look in the closet and get comfortable with what we find; and when we share around our human fragility. Then solitude becomes a place of solace, and our experiences — no longer secrets — become old friends.
Big hugs of love,