The secrets we don’t share: lessons about pain and belonging from a late mentor

My inner circle isn’t huge – a dozen people give or take. They all seem smarter and more put together than I am. They found careers, got married, bought houses, etc. Me? I returned to school in my 30’s, still rent an apartment, and seem to have a restless soul.

There are periods of my life defined by pain, fear, disappointment, confusion, isolation, and feeling lost at sea. When I look at my friends, I sometimes mistake their lives as being devoid of those particular demons. It makes me feel like there’s a chasm between us. Their lives seem perfect. Mine, on a good day, is a work in progress.

Though hard to see, the truth is far from my surface-level perceptions. All of us go through dark and difficult periods. When I think carefully about my inner circle, I am reminded that in the past few months:

  • One lost his mother in a freak accident. A few years prior he lost his Dad.
  • Another friend’s mother was just moved into hospice.
  • Two suffered miscarriages.
  • One built a business only to watch it crumble. Now he’s struggling to support his family.
  • Another told me that he’s in the grips of addiction and may lose his marriage and family.

Personally, I just lost a mentor. Years before I became a speaker he asked me to give a speech. Years before I started meditating he talked to me about spirituality. He constantly saw a better version of me and helped me grow into it. When I found out he was on his deathbed, I sent a letter, but I’ll never know if he read it.

All of this reminds me of one of the most isolating and deceptive aspects of being a human: we notice how nice other people’s lives are while failing to notice their pain. Through omission, misperception, and failed communication, the pain of existence gets hidden away. It makes us feel like there’s something wrong with us, like we’re somehow doomed to struggle while everyone else flourishes. On bad days, it prevents us from showing up when we’re most needed.

All of this points to a simple truth about the human experience: even the best lives will be dealt seemingly inordinate amounts of pain and injustice.

I sometimes find myself asking, “What the fuck do I do with this information? How do I deal with the fact that to be alive guarantees more pain than we think we can handle? How do we make any of this shit worth it?”

While I don’t have a complete answer, I do know where to begin:

  • Hold the people you love just a bit tighter
  • Be kind and gentle to yourself
  • Call just to say hi (it’s been many years since M* took his life and I still wish I called him more)
  • Relish the good times when you can
  • Notice the striving humanity in other’s eyes
  • Reach out when the world breaks you
  • Let others lean on you when the world breaks them
  • Open your heart just a bit more
  • Sleep in every now and then
  • When you meet your edge, soften

Through it all try to remember a simple lesson from my late mentor: we belong to one another. Keeping that in soft focus makes this all a bit better.

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