Everything Is Okay

It has always fascinated me that sometimes the people who need help the most are those who are the best at making it seem like everything is okay.

Do you know how many comedians suffer from clinical depression? I don’t, but I know that it’s a lot. In fact, let’s expand this thought. How many entertainers do you think suffer from some sort of mental illness? Don’t quote me, but I’m willing to bet the percentage is higher for them than it is for us non-famous people. Why? Because these are people who need to be seen, who need some kind of confirmation from others in order to feel okay. These are also people who have some sense of needing an escape from reality.

I recently watched Patch Adams, a movie that I recommend to anybody and everybody. Robin Williams stars in this true story about a man who was a little bit different. He wanted to help people, and he had a gift for understanding others and connecting with them through comedy. He wanted to be a doctor of the soul, in a way; he believed in treating the whole patient, not just their vital signs, in a time when this sort of thinking was very much frowned upon. Patch was misunderstood by quite a lot of people, but those who believed in him really, truly believed in him.

He had a huge heart, and sometimes it was so big that he got hurt: his best friend was killed by one of their patients in an attempt to meet the patient at his home and talk him out of hurting himself. Patch felt guilty, like he had been wrong all along, like he couldn’t go on. He even tried to quit. But one thing about having a big heart and helping a lot of people is that sometimes when you’re down, those people pick you back up again.

It was a little bit painful to watch Robin Williams in this role, given how close the film ultimately hits to home for him. Robin Williams is a great example of somebody who needed so badly to escape from what was inside him, and whose escape happened to bring others an incredible amount of joy. It also happened to make him look happy and successful and in control. To me, his death didn’t make sense: how could someone who made others so happy, someone who was such an incredible human being, be so unhappy with himself? He had a family, a career, he did something that it seemed like he loved. How did all of these things not add up to happiness?

I look back at Robin in possibly my favorite two roles of his- Patch Adams and Good Will Hunting- and I see a man who I don’t think was acting. I see someone who was gifted at helping others, but not himself. Someone who was self-deprecating, but in a funny way, so other people didn’t much mind. Someone who was a genius, and of course he was flawed, because what genius isn’t? I see his crooked smile, the one he gives with his eyebrows just a little bit furrowed, as if to say, “I’m trying my hardest to be happy, but please notice that I’m not.” The vulnerability is beautiful, and it’s incredibly tragic.

Why do I bring all of this up? Because hiding emotions behind a happy face didn’t only happen to Robin Williams. I see it all the time. The strongest people on the outside are sometimes the frailest on the inside. The people who are so great at helping others? Well, it may be because of how much they’ve had to help themselves. Empathy, humor, goodness, selflessness: all of these beautiful qualities often come attached to some kind of pain. I guess that’s life’s way of making sure that everyone knows what it’s like to hurt, so that the good times will feel that much better. At least that’s what I’d like to think.

Here’s to a man who taught us an important lesson: everybody, even the most talented or funny or wonderful person, needs somebody to ask them whether or not they’re okay. And another, maybe even more important: we are all allowed not to be.

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Not the End

Hey everyone, I have great news.

Life after death has been explained.

Kind of.

I recently read an article entitled “Near Death, Explained.” It’s a really interesting read; I recommend it. I was fascinated to read about people who research Near Death Experiences (NDEs), and what they’ve learned from case studies.

Quick note: I’m not going to get religious or spiritual, and I’m not going to offer my own opinion on what happens when we die. Just bear with me, you’ll see where I’m going with this.

Long story short, many people who have been clinically dead and then come back to life have shared similar stories of their experiences. Even though their brains are “off” and there’s no way they could possibly see or hear, this article tells multiple stories of people who were able to describe with detail exactly what was happening during the time that they were clinically dead. We’ve all heard of this phenomenon of out-of-body experiences, and it seems that there might be a pattern to them. People also shared stories of the classic light at the end of the tunnel, and being greeted by departed relatives and then led back into life by them as well. This type of story has been around for ages; how cool would it be if there was some validity to it?

Now, it would be incredible if we discovered what happens when we die. It would also probably be terrifying. One thing that’s for sure is that it would take people ages to warm up to the idea that there’s a definitive answer, if they ever did at all. But let’s forget about this idea of finding an answer for a moment and focus on one of the really unbelievable things this article brings up. Even when these people decidedly do not have the ability to move, see, hear, or understand what’s going on, they do.

You know adrenaline? Of course you do. It’s our magic switch. Adrenaline is what we get when we are so scared that our body actually biologically responds by giving us magic go juice. If we see something heavy fall onto somebody we care about, we get so freaked out that adrenaline gives us the superhuman strength to lift it up. If we care about an interview or a performance so much that we feel sick, those nerves tell our body to release adrenaline, and it makes us perform better than ever. The fact that adrenaline exists proves that when humans are provided with a challenge, we get stronger and better because of it.

Even when there’s no adrenaline involved, challenges still make us better. Think about going through some kind of rejection or break up. Didn’t you come out stronger on the other side? Maybe a little sadder, but certainly wiser. Humans are built to be resilient; if we weren’t, our species would have given up a long time ago. Let’s face it, life is really hard.

And what do you get at the end? Death. You went through all kinds of experiences, you worked on making yourself a better person, you accomplished so much and touched so many, and at the end you just die. When you think of it that way, of course we have religion. What else would give us hope in the face of such an unceremonious ending to what was a full and vibrant story?

And of course it’s going to take a tremendous amount of research to get to a point where it’s considered fact, but there’s this idea that even in death we humans go above and beyond. What do you do when you’re scared? You overcome. What do you do when something heavy falls on your loved one? You lift it up. And what do you do when your brain is turned off? You see. You see more than ever, in fact. And if you get the gift of coming back to life afterward, you are forever changed by the experience.

So whatever this means for science or religion or life or death, let’s remember one thing. Humans are built to last. We’re built to overcome. And we’re good at it, too. One of my favorite quotes used to be, “If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.” Every challenge you encounter is not over until you’ve found a way to be better because of it. It doesn’t mean that you always get what you want, but it does mean that there’s no bad thing in life that is simply bad and nothing else. There is always a way to see road bumps positively, and there’s always a way to be better because of them. We can do it, because we are human.

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What Are We?

Being “cultured” is extremely important to me. I want to appreciate all kinds of art and music, and as such I sometimes agree to do things that I wouldn’t otherwise care about. For example, I hate to admit it, but I don’t particularly like classical music. However, if I see an opportunity to go to the symphony, you know I’m there, because I want to be the kind of person who appreciates classical music and whose intelligence and ability to connect with others improves because of it.

But as much as I try, art in particular is hit or miss. I’ll go to museums, but when I don’t get something I really don’t get it. And I’m loud about it, too. (“This is literally a red square! I can draw this! Why is it here!? Gahhhhh!) So this week when I visited Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts I felt no surprise at the fact that certain works of art completely underwhelmed me.

For example, this painting by Paul Gauguin, entitled “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?”

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“No,” I said to myself, staring at the huge canvas. “This painting is not trying to tell me that it asks the biggest questions of human existence. This artist is so pretentious. This is a bunch of people standing around outside, that’s all.” I may not be attuned to the deep symbolism of art, but I am always open to learning, so I gave the painting’s description a try. It turns out that this painting depicts life’s journey. Viewing from right to left, we witness birth and childhood. In the center, at life’s prime and standing out possibly the most, is the adolescent or young adult. And moving further along, we see adulthood and, finally, weak and dark death.

I admit that the painting’s purpose makes sense to me now that I know the description, but I’m not sure whether everyone would have quite put it together given only the title. On one hand, it’s frustrating; why put this piece in front of me that has so many hidden meanings and secrets, if I’m never going to be able to figure them out? But on the other hand, isn’t that life? In life, potentially meaningless things are put in front of us all of the time, and it’s our job to attempt to appreciate them. When people show up in our lives, we see in them what I first saw in this painting: an appearance. But we have the potential to ask for the description, to find out what makes that person tick, to discover the secrets and hidden meanings. Maybe it takes more work, but I think it’s certainly more rewarding.

I think that art, even if we don’t enjoy it, teaches us an important life lesson. Everything has a meaning, if you’re willing to see it. Maybe when I frustratedly stare at a red square, that’s all I see. But maybe the artist saw the red square as a movement, a rebellion against religious depictions. Maybe he or she saw it as a metaphor for all-encompassing power. Or maybe that artist just wanted to make people think. As humans, we can go around being angry that not everything fits into our personal understanding of the world. But, in the words of one of my favorite meaning-finders, Ted Mosby, “Or…”

Or we can decide that even if we don’t understand someone or something, that someone or something still deserves to be understood. Or we can give each person and thing in life the benefit of our effort. Or we can learn to live with acceptance of the confusing, un-pattern-able world around us. Or we can recognize that every person is more than meets the eye. Or we can rejoice in the fact that we don’t know everything, that there’s always more to learn. Or we can exercise our minds, forcing ourselves to find a deeper meaning in everything. Because there is always a deeper meaning. Always.

Our artist friend Paul Gauguin asked, “What are we?” Not who, but what. Because we’re not just people. We’re a collection of a trillion bits of atoms and memories and experiences and organs and a soul. There is so much more to us than we, let alone anyone else, will ever understand. We’re more than people just standing around. We’re going through the journey of life, and maybe it’s hard to understand, but we have everything to gain if we just try.

The Mapparium

Seeing, or even thinking about, the whole world isn’t something we do often. I don’t know about other people, but I definitely don’t look at maps just for fun. In fact, many of us don’t consider where we are very often at all.

Growing up in Austin, Texas, I constantly put my life in the context of place. Life in Austin was in many ways framed around the idea of living in a proud blue city encased within a prouder red state. I knew that certain values of mine were punched up by the place I lived. When I went to college in Los Angeles, I was fascinated by the all of the cultural differences I observed just by moving halfway across the country. My “yes ma’am” and “yes sir” manners, respected and appreciated in Austin, were now an insult. The way people talked to each other was different. And, to my horror, nobody had heard of queso. Now I live in Boston, where I am again highly aware of how life is affected by living on the east coast, in New England, in America’s first city. (And still nobody wants to hear “yes ma’am” or “yes sir.”) I think it’s all so fascinating.

Today I took a friend to a place called the Mapparium, which is a giant glass globe created to scale (1 inch=22 miles). It lives inside of a museum, where visitors can walk through and, in a way, stand inside the world. It was fascinating. I stood, looking around at places I’d been, places I wanted to go, places that were bigger or smaller than I had realized, places that I hadn’t ever heard of. Suddenly I was exploring, and an enormous hunger to do more hit me hard.

A short presentation graced us with some of the prominent voices of various countries in the world. The presentation remarked that humans all make our home here, we just all do it a little differently. It showed how many countries used democracy when the globe was created (1935) and how many use it now (hint: lots more).

It’s not often that we think of the world as one place, unified by the people who change it. I myself have spent the last several years as an amateur anthropologist, finding nothing but differences between cities in the same country. And i find all of that fascinating, but what if that’s not the best way to look at it?

What if we looked at similarities across nations instead of differences? What if we tried more to learn about what we have in common? I can see that helping in areas as diverse as international relations and medicine.

Standing inside the Mapparium made me feel like I wanted to do something about the fact that I live in a great big wonderful world. It made me want to get out and explore it, to learn as much as I could about everywhere from New Zealand to Egypt to Lithuania. It made me feel connected to others, like a citizen of the world. Because that’s what we all really are. We each do it our own way, but we’re all just people living in this big ball that we call the world.