The Importance of Being Open

Confession: for years I have pretended to be something I’m not – and it’s changed my life for the better. I am a naturally shy introvert who loves to be alone, yet I often act as if the opposite is true. In a situation in which my social anxiety could be paralyzing, I put on my “game face” and act like I’m someone who loves what is going on around me.

I’ve been practicing this for so long that I have grown out of the original label I imposed upon myself. And that is great because labels are limiting at best, destructive at worst.

After a while, it became immensely satisfying for me to shed my “shy” label. While I still think of myself this way; sometimes the opposite can be true.

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Like my mind

Now, I’m open to the possibility that an event, or people, or a situation might not fit my preconceived expectations and I’m so much happier for it. This may not be news to most people, but somehow it took me almost 40 years to realize.

When I was in high school, I was so closed off. I had this friend – we’ll call her Maria – who was the opposite. She was excited about and open to new opportunities, and often tried to drag me along with her. Even now I see photos of her on social media feeding tigers, lounging on tropical islands, deep sea fishing – basically still being open to new opportunities. She has been good at saying yes to things whereas I often let negative thoughts (what if I don’t like it/it’s not fun/I can’t do it) stop me.

One of the regrets of my life is not going to a U2 concert in 1993 with Maria. I didn’t want to take off work and spend the money on a ticket so I missed a bucket list band. What a bummer, right? Similarly, I didn’t go on a college trip to Malaysia because I needed to use the trip money to buy a car – which ended up being the worst lemon ever (thanks, karma!)

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Actual photo of the car I bought instead of going to Malaysia

In an ironic twist, the top two goals on my list of “things to do to have a better life” are to go to more concerts and to travel places I’ve never been. I wasted so much valuable time saying no.

The real reason I didn’t go to the concert or on the trip was because I was afraid. The money thing was just an excuse to hide behind. Maria always saw through that. Man, I must have been frustrating for her.

Just yesterday, I thought of her again when Pandora led me down a country music rabbit hole that started with Margo Price, who I’d heard on NPR the night before. I spent the afternoon listening to the Pistol Annies, Buffalo Clover, Sturgill Simpson, Kacey Musgraves. And I loved it. I was incredulous that I hadn’t opened my mind to this sooner, as I’d always labeled myself as someone that doesn’t like country music – but why? I don’t know any more. Label thrown away. Maria gave me a Green Day CD in high school and I was all “thanks, but I don’t really listen to this type of music.” She told me to shut up and listen to it anyway, and of course Dookie became a heavily-played favorite for years.

Opening myself up to new things – specifically saying “yes” to things that I would not normally has altered me in the best way. If I have to pretend to be brave to get myself there, that’s fine by me. In recent years I’ve done things I never would have thought – like writing this blog post, getting involved in a flash mob, submitting my writing to contests and agents, and taking a yoga class at the very intimidating Cross Fit gym in which I am the only jellyfish*, and I treasure these experiences.

I am not suggesting that anyone reading this should try to “think” their way out of anxiety or depression, or pretend to be someone they are not. I’m just letting you know what worked for me to expand my horizons. I went from being a shy person with a relatively mild form of social anxiety to being a shy person with a relatively mild form of social anxiety that participates anyway and finds immense happiness in doing so.

If you are feeling depressed or experiencing anxiety symptoms that are getting in the way of your life, please reach out to someone you trust or call a depression hotline for help and resources. I like the National Hopeline Network: 800-784-2433.

 

 

*jellyfish = person with no muscles

 

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Fear. And Sue Klebold’s book.

Today I am heartsick, sad, disgusted, outraged and curious. With the violent events that happened in the past few days all I can feel around me is fear. My own, but also the amplified collective fear. It’s ratcheted up to a deafening level. I think fear is the problem and anger, rage and violence are symptoms. Who am I to say this? No one with a credential; just a feeling. If you are afraid that someone is going to shoot you, you would shoot them first. If you do not understand someone’s motives, it is easy to be afraid of them. How did we get here? It all feels broken.

While the events of the past few days have been happening I’ve simultaneously been reading a book called A Mother’s Reckoning, Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy. This book was written by Sue Klebold, mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the murderers involved in the Columbine school shooting. I haven’t slept since I started this terrifying book, and finished it just a few minutes ago. While written about her specific, very isolating experience, I found so much of it to be applicable to what is happening today. Gun violence, ignorance of mental health issues, hidden agendas, gun violence, media circuses, guns. And violence.

I have vivid memory of driving on I-84 West in West Hartford, CT on April 20, 1999, and hearing that there were kids – kids! –  shooting other kids in a high school in Colorado. I ached. I cried. I was appalled and disbelieving as so many others at the time. Seventeen years from now, I’m sure that I will have no recollection of what was going on at the time I learned of Alton Sterling’s death, or the death of five Dallas Police Officers.  Why? Because now it is commonplace; expected even. Now this is part of the American experience.

While I have not yet fully processed Klebold’s book, there was something I just read that struck me as true, bold, and useful today. Close to the end of the book she writes “When tragedies like Columbine or Virginia Tech or Sandy Hook happen, the first question everyone asks is always ‘Why?’ Perhaps this is the wrong question. I have come to believe the better question is ‘How?’”  I agree. I think you could take out the school names and insert “Dallas” or “black men dying in gun violence at a tragic rate” and the passage still fits.  How did we get to a place where this is our new normal?

This book was truly heartbreaking and has given me fodder for nightmares and worry for at least the next twenty years. What saddens me most at this very moment is that she has laid her story bare, she has shared what she could, she has worked to do positive things in the areas of mental health (or “brain health” as she rightfully calls it), suicide prevention, and more.  And, yet these things persist. Events like those in the past 48 hours make me feel like Klebold and others in the world are pushing a boulder up a hill endlessly. We all need to help.

Klebold states later, “Asking ‘why’ only makes us feel hopeless. Asking ‘how’ points the way forward, and shows us what we must do.” I emailed a Board of Education member in my town today to ask about whether our school system has a curriculum of any sort regarding conflict resolution. She invited me to call her later to chat, and I will.  What do I know about curricula, or even conflict resolution? Nada. But I want to, and I want to know what steps we can take to help our children move away from this climate of fear. This is the tiniest of movements, but it is a movement.

I am making a personal promise to move only forward with love and empathy. I am still figuring out what that means, but that will not stop me. Please if you are reading this, please consider doing something today and every day– anything – to counteract the fear, violence and hate that is so palpable. And I mean anything. Choose to be kinder. Do someone a favor with your child watching. Talk to your kids about violence and racism. It is scary. It is not easy. It has to be done.