“Expectations were like fine pottery. The harder you held them, the more likely the were to crack.” – Brandon Sanderson, The Way of Kings.
My wounded friend sat across from me at the Fleetwood Diner one morning. He fidgeted. Every few seconds he grabbed the bill of his baseball cap and shifted it backwards across his head with both hands. Then he scratched his scalp before quickly replacing the cap.
We had been talking about his life. About how things had fallen apart for him. He had been forced out of his job because of his friendship with a guy who was arrested for doing some bad things. I won’t reveal any more because I want to protect his identity. It doesn’t matter anyway.
The point is that my dear friend, in his 40’s, divorced and in a less-than-fulfilling relationship with a woman for the past six years, was looking at rock bottom. Normally his sense of humor is as big as the Oscar Meyer hot dog van, but he didn’t laugh. He barely smiled. He was scared for his future.
“I just hate people thinking so badly about me,” he said.
His sorrow over how things had gone was as bitter as highway coffee.
He toiled for years in his field creating systems and award-winning programs to help others that now would likely be abandoned because none of his former colleagues would care as he did. He did a lot of good work that will be forgotten in all the recrimination for a massive lapse in judgement over how to pick friends. He is an involved, caring dad and has a strong community of friends.
His sorrow over how things had gone was as bitter as highway coffee. I steered the conversation toward the future.
“What is next?,” I said. “What are you going to do?”
Everyone has bad days. Sometimes we have bottomlessly bad days. Stretches of time where we feel completely lost. Where getting up and getting dressed and stepping into our busy lives is as hopeless as a crowded elevator that stops on every floor with mind-numbing muzak to boot. Where we can’t decide the next step for fear we will always make mistakes. And where we feel completely powerless to do a damn thing about it.
This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, we think. Life isn’t supposed to be so hard.
I listened to a podcast recently of an interview with Casey Neistat. Neistat is a YouTube dynamo. He puts out a v-log, or video blog, doing at least one video a day. He has a coveted studio in Manhattan. And his videos cover everything from quick hacks to make existing products better to an epic adventure skiing through Manhattan during “Snow-geddon.” If anything Casey Neistat is as self-made as they come. He didn’t go to college. Today he speaks to executives at Google and Microsoft and others about creativity.
It’s when life is hard that you grow.
What struck me during the conversation was that Neistat wasn’t boastful despite the accolades his interviewer piled on. Instead he said what made him appreciate his life were the hard times. You remember the down times in life so much more vividly than the good, easy ones. It’s when life is hard that you grow. It’s the place character is built.
This is what the conversation with my friend at Fleetwood reminded me of.
Where do we get the notion that life is not ever supposed to feel shitty? Why do we hold onto expectations and enchantments so much even when they are falling apart? Why do we judge ourselves and others so viciously when we struggle? “I’m glad I’m not that guy,” we say.
I can look at my own difficulties in life and see it is true that when I was the most distraught was when something propelled me to change.
Being estranged from my oldest daughter…taught me some things about being a parent.
Being estranged from my oldest daughter for three years taught me some things about being a parent. It took me a while to understand, but I learned about being a better dad not just to her but to each of my kids and step-kids. Being fired or laid off three times in six years taught me something about being employed and how I want to work. I still think one of the guys who fired me is an asshole and I’m not alone in that but what matters is not that this organization didn’t want me to be a part of it any longer. What matters is what I did next and what direction I chose from there.
It was in my miserable divorce and aftermath that I learned about boundaries and personal responsibility and who I wanted to be in a relationship. Cancer and a pulmonary embolism taught me how precious and fragile life is and how to advocate for myself in a medical situation. A sawed off finger taught me about attention and focus and a little about what metal does to flesh.
My friend said I inspired him. He called me resilient. I sloughed off the compliment because I don’t see any other way to live. Things happen. Life happens. We are the ones who choose if something is bad or good. We get caught doing something unacceptable at work and our job gets taken away. It’s just a job. Get another or do something different. Do something about a relationship that doesn’t even come close to feeling good and never will.
My struggles have helped me grow, in effect become a better, more authentic person. Yes, they have helped define me. My life experience is richer because of the difficult times in my life. I am more sensitive, compassionate and dare I say wiser because I have had to let go of enchantments that life had to be a certain way. But it’s not the bad things as much as what I did next. More things will happen to me. I will likely label some “bad” and some “good.”
You are what you do. There is no other way. I love my friend and have enormous sympathy for his predicament. I’m also excited as hell to see what he’ll do with the lemons he’s been handed.
“I’m thankful for my struggle becaue without it I wouldn’t have stumbled across my strength.” — Alex Elle, author.