“Great,” my neighbor in the next office beams when I ask how she’s doing. “Absolutely great.” She adds an emphatic nod to her smile. “Work and life in perfect balance!”
My neighbor’s deadpan sarcasm is balm for my soul. I could tell her about last night’s endless hours of inexplicable toddler screaming my wife and I endured — hand, foot, and mouth disease, we later figure out — that today locks me in a fog. But I don’t need to: My neighbor’s bottomless pain sublimates into a high-gloss understanding. She feels “great.” I feel heard.
“Check this out,” I tell her, pulling out of my backpack a copy of Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence. “This is what I was reading yesterday morning on the bus. Two minutes later, I’m stepping off the sidewalk as cars keep turning left against a red left-turn arrow. I’m in the middle of the intersection when this car keeps lurching toward me, the passenger angrily waving at me to get out of their way. And that’s when I turn around, stand still, and flip them off.”
Of course I know I’m not supposed to do this. Of course I know, even as it’s happening, that my amygdala is giving my own prefrontal cortex the middle finger. But you know what? When it’s been weeks since anybody in my family has been healthy, when getting a full night’s sleep feels like a pipe dream, when the most restful time of my week is the Monday morning commute, why yes, there are moments when I feel like reaching into my own skull, ripping out my little reptilian brain, stretching it out like a pulled noodle, and wrapping it tightly around the throat of the stranger endangering my life.
Smiling and saying nothing is normal. It’s also scary AF. Hell on earth, as far as I’m concerned, means feeling the rawness of life by a thousand cuts and keeping it under wraps. Will the universe implode if I admit this?
“Oh, my God,” my neighbor shoots back at me. “Did I tell you about what happened yesterday on my way here?” No. I don’t believe she did. Do tell. “So I’m standing at a traffic light when this car tears through a puddle,” she shares, “drenching me from head to foot. That’s when I unloaded. The torrent of profanity . . .” she trails off and we both chuckle. I hate that my neighbor went through this. It pains me. I’m also relieved my experience isn’t exactly unique. It’s uplifting. And the universe does not implode.
I hope you have people who can fully see you. I also hope you can be there in this way for others. The more sublime aspects of our world only have room to reveal themselves, I find, when we admit to each other without pretense the indignities that life offers up with casual cruelty. Maybe it’s these daily contusions, big and small, that bring us together when we’re vulnerable enough to let them.