A Failure to Communicate
When the culture is making us sick
Today I got up intending to write an essay about clear, honest, meaningful communication and how important it is. Whether you’re a scientist or a screenwriter, head of the PTA, a stay-at-home-mom or a CEO, a bus driver or barista or novelist or someone’s best friend, lover, or great aunt - or some combination of all of those things - if you can’t communicate clearly, you’re in trouble. But then before I sat down to write, I drank my coffee and saw an article in the Washington Post about the horrors of the AR-15 with never-before-seen videos and photos from many of the most horrific mass shootings we’ve had in the United States, including Sandy Hook, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Uvalde, the Harvest Festival in Las Vegas, the movie theater in Aurora and more, because there are always more, and I felt sick to my stomach and hopeless for humanity. These photos and videos haven’t been shared before because they are traumatizing and most newspapers have erred on the side of withholding them to protect their readership, but protect them from what? From the truth of the situation and the carnage we are allowing to continue year after year after year? The idea of writing an essay about communication felt as meaningless as everything else, because everywhere you look the world is on fire and the human species seems determined to wipe itself out. But then I remembered that the human species is made up of individual human beings, and the source of outward violence is inward pain. If we can agree that’s true, then an essay about the ability to understand ourselves and communicate openly about how we feel might be meaningful after all.
I grew up with my head in books. I think I understood it was a way to immerse myself in other worlds, and to replace the swirling thoughts in my own head with someone else’s for a little while. In a best-case scenario, reading a book is a way to see the world from another perspective and to consider how many other points of view there are. I read voraciously and continuously, and still do. I feel certain reading great writers is the best way to learn how to write, to appreciate language and the power of words, and to understand the connection and transformation that can happen when someone shares something deep and true about their own experience being a human being on a spinning planet in a solar system in a vast universe. It’s so easy to feel alone here, and so reassuring when someone expresses a feeling you know from inside your own bones, or shares an idea that makes you think about things in a whole new way.
Writers are people who are trying to understand themselves and other people and the world around them, to make sense of what has happened, what is happening, or what might happen, to raise a little flag and say, here are some things I’m thinking about and maybe they’re interesting or enlightening or healing or helpful to you, too, or maybe you’ll just share in a laugh with me, or you’ll share in my grief or confusion, or feel inspired because I went through a heartbreak and it didn’t kill me, so maybe yours won’t kill you. Not everyone is a writer, but even if you aren’t, I’ll bet you spend a lot of time writing. Maybe you write emails or legal briefs or grocery lists or social media posts or texts. I’m going to guess you also speak to people on a regular basis whether you’re ordering a coffee, or walking your dog and passing a neighbor, or dropping your kid off at school and running into another parent, or waiting on hold to speak to a human being about a bank matter or an insurance matter or your doctor. I bet you call people you love who don’t live near you. Maybe you know your mail carrier’s name and have conversations on your porch, or you talk to your Lyft driver on the way to the airport. Whatever you do and wherever you go, you’re communicating in some way. You’d think with all that daily practice more people would be good at communicating clearly, but you’d be wrong and you probably don’t need me to tell you that.
The part that seems to get sticky for many people is the part that has to do with feelings. The most important place we learn about expressing ourselves initially, as we’re growing and learning and becoming … is home. Our culture is unwell, so even in a loving home, your understandable and very human feelings may have been met with the suggestion that you should simply stop feeling them, as in, “Don’t be sad”, “don’t be scared”, “don’t be angry.” As if by simply pushing the feelings away, you’d be okay. Or at least, you’d allow the grownups in your life to feel like you were okay. I’ve written about this before, but once when I was six I was walking down Broadway with my dad, having just left my mom’s house after my parents had fought in the kitchen. We were heading to my dad’s apartment where I would spend the next four nights, not knowing if my mom was still upset or okay, not feeling like it was okay for me to ask to call her, knowing if I said I missed her my dad would act injured and pout, and my not-yet-stepmom would act like it was an insult - and as hard as I tried to hold all those feelings in, I just couldn’t do it. I burst out crying in front of the candy shop where my dad would stop to buy salted, roasted cashews (him) or red swedish fish (me) and wailed, “I wish I’d never been born.” My dad got down in front of me, “Don’t you ever say that again,” he said, his face turning red, then purple. He grabbed me and shook me a little. He was emotional and looked horrified and angry. I got the message quickly that there was no place to put the feelings I was having, so I just nodded tearfully and agreed, and when we left the candy shop I forced those Swedish fish over the giant lump in my throat so he wouldn’t know I was still upset. I can still remember how painful it was.
When you learn to internalize your feelings and edit them out of conversations to avoid upsetting the people around you, good luck feeling known or understood by anyone, including yourself. It’s very possible to grow up and have no idea why you feel the way you do because long ago you cut off the pathway that allows feelings to rise and be experienced so you can know yourself. By the time I was a teenager, I had an eating disorder and blinding migraines so awful they’d land me in the ER. Any big feeling you push down is going to rise back up in some way or another. Any culture that teaches you to push down big feelings is going to raise unwell, dis-eased people, whether we’re talking about the culture at home, or the culture we all swim in. At my dad’s, my job was to be his tiny caregiver. I was the keeper of his emotional wellbeing, which didn’t leave much room for me to have any feelings at all. I was allowed to be: happy, grateful, cheerful, quiet, helpful, serious, silly, or cooperative, but it was not okay for me to be sad or angry. At my mom’s I was also expected to be happy, cheerful, helpful, cooperative and so on, and if I seemed sad or upset, my mother treated my feelings as an annoyance and chalked them up to my dramatic and overly sensitive nature, especially if the thing I was sad or upset about was her alcoholism. She once told me I was born with a “certain melancholia” and I remember feeling this was equally hilarious and enraging.
The other huge problem with repressing big emotions is that you cannot be accountable for your actions because you aren’t in tune with your feelings. You’ll act out and surprise yourself with the heat of your response or the coldness, and if you’re afraid of being “caught out” you might even double down on your choices to try to save face. Have you ever been in an altercation with someone, and after you start breathing normally again, you realize you probably did overreact, you probably were triggered, but still don’t want to back down and admit it? You know what I’m talking about, that moment where you realize, oops, I think I might be in the wrong, or the more this person is talking the more I realize why they feel the way they do, but now I don’t want to eat the humble pie and apologize? We’ve all been there.
Whatever the culture around feelings was in the house you grew up in, most of us have also grown up in a culture where women are not supposed to be angry or ambitious and men are not supposed to be scared or vulnerable. I think this is starting to change, but we’re still having all kinds of gender wars and insanity around trying to police the way people feel, how they dress, who they love, and what pronouns they want to use. We’re not okay. We’re not open and accepting and focusing on keeping our own side of the street clean. Literally no one anywhere has any business minding anyone else’s business, full stop. If someone is not hurting you, move along. If you think the world should be a more loving and peaceful place, start by being more loving and peaceful yourself. The very first thing to consider is the quality of your inner voice. Is your inner voice hostile, shaming, demeaning or unforgiving? That’s a great thing to start working on, right now, because that voice is inside your head all day, every day. If you’re militant with yourself, don’t you think that militant energy is going to be directed at other people?
Do you allow yourself to feel however you feel? If you’re feeling scared, do you just lean into that fear so you can understand yourself more deeply, or do you push it away? There are so many ways to numb ourselves - drugs and alcohol, Netflix, online shopping, sex. Do the people in your life feel safe coming to you with any and all of their feelings? If someone you love shares something that makes you uncomfortable or flies in the face of how you want them to feel or think they should feel, what do you do? If someone you love wants things you don’t understand or don’t like, what do you do? If you need to express how you’re feeling to someone you love, how do you handle that? Do you avoid the hard conversations because you want to spare someone else’s feelings? If you see that someone is struggling, do you move toward them or away from them? Do you require those close to you to walk on eggshells? If you’re having a tough day or you’re in a foul mood, do you take everyone down with you? Truly consider how gentle you are with yourself and other people because it matters.
Come As You Are is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
I come to this because I feel sure that many people are at war within themselves. I think you have to be in a tremendous amount of pain to make a plan to go to an elementary school or a high school or college or movie theater or grocery store or hotel room with a vantage point on a music festival, or to go into a church, synagogue, or mosque to shoot as many people as possible with a weapon designed for carnage. To have that little regard for human life, for the individual people you are taking from this world, for the people who love them who will never be able to take another breath in the same way again or go to sleep at night or wake up in the morning or do anything at all because they have to live with the way the person they loved most on this earth was taken, horribly and violently and without cause when they weren’t even there to shield them. I want to throw up when I think of those kids. I don’t understand how anyone can not want to throw up, and I do not just mean children who have been taken in mass shootings but children everywhere in the world who are paying with their lives because the adults around them have lost the thread. Something has deeply and unthinkably gone wrong to arrive at that place where human life means nothing anymore, but friends, something has gone deeply wrong everywhere. We’ve lost our minds. Too many human beings feel angry, unseen, discarded, disrespected, oppressed, alienated or rejected. It’s the root cause of all the outward violence we’re hit with, every day of the week, all over the globe and it is painful to bear witness. It is painful to feel powerless and vulnerable in a world where you’re just trying to love your people and coexist with your neighbors and keep a roof over your head. It’s heartbreaking and devastating and tough to live through.
“The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” This quote has been attributed to Mahatma Gandhi and former Presidents Hubert Humphrey and Harry S. Truman, but whoever said it, the fact is we’re letting our children die. We’re letting our children die. I wish I could snap my fingers and make it stop. I wish we would all go to sleep tonight and wake up tomorrow to find the world had magically reset itself and was peaceful and sane. But since neither of those things are likely, the one thing I know we can all do is think about what we’re contributing to the world around us. How we’re responding to our own feelings, how much space we’re allowing ourselves to feel whatever we need to feel, how much of that energy of acceptance we’re extending to the people around us, how we’re communicating when we’re upset. I know it might seem inconsequential in the face of all this unimaginable tragedy, but I suspect it's one of the foundational issues creating all this madness. Too many people are suffering in silence, or they’re speaking up and no one is listening, or they’re acting out and no one is seeing. If people were kinder to themselves and kinder to each other, we wouldn’t be in this mess. The human species is made up of human beings. We don’t get a lot of time on this planet, but we get enough to decide whether we’re going to be part of the problem or the solution and whether we’re going to be kind or cruel.
If you want to meet me in real time to talk about communication and all these other topics, I’ll be here Friday 11/17/23 at 11:15am PST or you can wait for the Come As You Are Podcast version. If you’d like to meet me in the real world, I would love that so much.