A Snowflake Melts in Autumn
I was a bench warmer on a consolation division championship water polo team in high school. The t-shirt from that championship season sits in a plastic bin in a nondescript storage room in my garage. It shares space with the ratty white t-shirt from Governor’s School, about 15 softball t-shirts, dozens of commemorative race shirts, and about 3 million “Grey Out” Georgetown basketball t-shirts. These cotton mementos have traveled with me up and down the I-95 Corridor, from my undergraduate years at Georgetown to a frequently flooded studio apartment in a developing neighborhood that would later become Logan Circle, to the East Village when it still had a touch of edge, from the rattiest beach apartment in Margate to the suburbs of Trenton, to a never quite turned it around neighborhood in Washington, D.C., to the first home I owned in Alexandria, to a pod in industrial North Jersey for months, and now here to its hopeful final storage place.
Why do I hold on to these shirts when I’ll never wear them again? Why do I have more trouble parting with my son’s stuffed animals than he does?
I feel things very deeply. Resultantly, at times I am the caring, empathetic friend who will go the extra mile that you want by your side in a time of crisis, and at others I’m the hypersensitive narcissist so wrapped up in my own emotions that I perceive slights or harms even where they don’t exist.
I presume I was born this way, but at the very least I was nurtured to become this way. I had two parents who also feel things very deeply, but of course only one of them showed that to the world. It was only those closest to my father who understood how deeply he felt things. It was only in the most intimate of settings years later that I would learn the deep sadness and anger my father felt every time someone at school hurt me deeply.
“And your own worst enemy has come to town… your world keeps turning round and round… But everything is upside down.”
This depth of emotion permeates just about every aspect of my life. It’s affected my relationships. It defines my interests in politics and sports. My strong sense of fairness and justice ends up translating into a raging temper at unfairness and injustice. I have an odd tendency to anthropomorphize inanimate objects that have meaning to me. Not only do I feel things deeply, my perception is that everyone and everything that surrounds me in the world is feeling things just as deeply.
That can be overwhelming and paralyzing, because these emotions either get sent out into the world in some form of public reaction or they are burrowed into your soul. So an idiotic, racist tweet from Donald Trump makes me respond immediately with rhetorical bombast even before my reason can catch up with my passion in determining whether it’s worth my time to scream into the abyss. The obnoxious opposing sports fan becomes my mortal enemy, maybe because I don’t like the mirror he reflects upon me? The abusive or condescending boss- whether Voldemort or the Man with the Colorful Socks- can read all over my face how I feel about his actions and thus controls me. In making these very public reactions, I give the person to whom I’m reacting great power over me. It’s showing my neck to a predator.
Life has certainly taught me that a person with big emotions is going to be subject to many types of reactions. Some will merely condescend to this emotional honesty, considering it a form of weakness. Others will respond stoically, making you feel like you are on the Island of Emotional Misfit Freaks all by yourself. The most destructive will weaponize your emotional reactions, drawing them out for the sole purpose of mocking, belittling, or hurting you. And the worst part is you know they are doing it and sometimes you just can’t help yourself from giving them the reaction they covet.
I wrote most of this essay as I approached my 42nd birthday, as I was taking the chance to reflect back on a time of dramatic change in my life and the lessons I’d learned. Since November of 2016, I’d witnessed the most jarring political transformation of my lifetime. I’d changed jobs, leaving behind an agency I loved for a corporation I love even more. We moved our family of four from Alexandria, Virginia to New Jersey. I lived in five Airbnbs as I awaited closing our home- see 9,000 words I wrote on that subject last week. I have reconnected with some friends and bid adieu to others. All that change- all that LOSS- left me feeling lonely and vulnerable. I spent the month of May generally in a basement in Bedminster in my own form of purgatory.
I’ll never forget the people who were there for me when I needed friendly face or voice.
I put the essay aside, finding it to be too self-indulgent for me. Here’s an emotionally revelatory essay about how being emotionally revelatory is damaging! But the last few months have forced me to reevaluate even more relationships and how they’ve changed, and what those changes say about the depth of my emotions, and how and with whom I share those emotions.
For 42 years, I’ve made the conscious choice to lead with my emotions, and many times they’ve guided me along the right path. But at other times they’ve let me lonely, exposed, and weak.
One question I could never answer is whether vulnerability is a strength or a weakness. But perhaps that’s because me being me- seeing the world in black and white as I so often do- I only looked at the question as binary. Perhaps the truth is that vulnerability shared with those who have earned it is a beautiful thing, and vulnerability shared with those who have not is a self-defeating mistake.
Reflecting back now, a bit out of that abyss of loneliness but still not feeling wholly healed, I’m going public- this snowflake is melting one last time.
“When the promise is broken, you go on living, but it steals something from down in your soul.”
Moments of vulnerability are moments of definition for relationships. We rise to the occasion or we don’t, but our willingness to take the steps necessary or to fail to do so tells us everything we need to know about our relationship to the friend in need, or a friend’s relation to us when we are in need.
This is a time of particular vulnerability across our society- no one feels like they can depend on the institutions that once supported them. The libertarian philosophy has transcended politics to become a way of living that has deeply damaged the institutions that used to support us. Each person’s aim under this libertarian philosophy is the fulfillment of the self. It’s how a president can turn a humanitarian crisis into a petulant rant about how unfairly he’s treated. The loss of these protective institutions leaves us no safety net when we fail, and we all fail. And when we fail, we rage.
We want to blame someone or something for that anger fueled by vulnerability. It’s a problem in the never-ending cauldron of rage that is social media. Social media, and Twitter in particular, encourages individuals to exercise emotional/moral outrage in a way that is alienating and counterproductive.
Leading with emotion is also a problem in relationships. Overarching conclusions can be drawn from incomplete evidence. Absolute solutions might be applied to temporary problems. Sometimes a mutual grudge is really just a battle you’re fighting against yourself that you’ve invited an unwitting spectator to attend without telling him.
“But I’ve read this script and the costume fits, so I’ll play my part.”
Ten years ago, I changed my way of approaching others fundamentally. I’d been such a late bloomer in maturity and I’d inherited all of my mother’s emotional neediness. Those traits left me a natural and easy target for ridicule or abuse, none of which I deserved but all of which I now at least understand. Thank goodness my wonderful friends from Governor’s School- with whom I celebrated a quarter century of friendship this summer- came along at just the right moment to remind me that I had worth and to teach me about belief and purpose.
Because I’d been so unpopular and lonely in high school, I developed social skills that were aimed at ensuring everyone liked me. To be liked was the fundamental aim. This meant holding on to relationships that were flawed and backing down from fights that should have been fought. But after leaving those experiences behind in high school, I CRAVED admiration and kinship. I know that my wonderful Georgetown friends found this overwhelming and WAY TOO MUCH at the time, and maybe they still do. But some of them at least let me grow and accepted this part of me, even as it receded like my youthful crush on Donna Reed.
Leaving the phase of life in which you made certain friends is the ultimate test of those friendships. If the friendships survive the change of circumstances, they will likely last for a long time. In changing my job and my home state in the past few months, I’ve put many friendships to the test. And in returning to the scene of others, I’ve opened my heart with the expectation that they might blossom into what they once were or something even stronger.
I have certain core values that are non-negotiable, and if someone doesn’t share those values, there is no future for a friendship for us. We can debate tax policy or the military budget all day, and I will still respect you- even if you piss me off. But getting behind someone who is destroying our country’s fabric every day is a bridge too far. There is no room in my life for someone who promotes those values. I feel very confident about that choice.
So I’ve stopped holding on to those who don’t invest me, and I’ve cut off those who don’t share my values. That’s a hard one two punch when you face the loneliness and vulnerability of moving to an area where you know no one but your family. But the hardest journeys are often the most necessary ones.
One of my favorite episodes of “The Wonder Years” is the one in which Winnie’s family moves off of Kevin’s block. After feeling all the angst about losing the neighborly comfort of his soulmate, adult Kevin’s last reflection in the episode is that the world would need to get a little bigger. That’s the story of these wonder years of youth. Every day, my three and a half year old son’s universe grows exponentially- his desires, his vocabulary, his skills, just exploding by the hour. It’s indeed wondrous to behold.
But there comes a time when there’s no more bandwidth for the world to grow. Energy, both physical and emotional, become scarce. Family, profession, friends, and interests command so much space, and there’s no room to expand. Choices end up needing to be made.
My emotional resources are valuable and precious and I’m going to start treating them as such.
“You used to be so amused, at Napoleon in rags and the language that he used.”
As you know if you’re my friend, I’m obsessed with “Hamilton.” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton leads with emotion, passion, and ambition, and it serves him well before ultimately destroying him. I admire the man but I’d prefer not to end up battling some Republican talking head in Weehawkin at dawn. It’s time that I limit my emotions to those who deserve to see them, to the people who make the investment in me that deems them worthy of that sharing. It’s time for me to be more like my father. I’ll never stop feeling things deeply. That’s my nature. And I’ll never step yearning for fairness and justice.
But unlike Hamilton, I can use those emotions to fuel me while not allowing them to be my fatal flaw. Anyhow, revenge is a dish best served cold. Thirteen years ago, Chris Christie was tormenting my friends and colleagues in a hackish investigation aimed at propping up his own political ambitions. It took over a decade, but now he’s the least popular governor in an American history and a national laughingstock. It will eventually be Mueller Time for Trump and his cronies. It might take a long time, but people get what they deserve. And the closer to my chest that I play my cards, the further I’ll advance, the more powerful I’ll become, and the more likely I’ll be able to play a hand in that comeuppance someday. Bobby Axelrod on “Billions” didn’t exact his revenge against the family that tormented him as a working class caddie until decades later. If he’d blown up in the moment, they would have seen it coming.
“These are the last words I have to say, that’s why it took so long to write. There will be other words some other day, but that’s the story of my life.”
Since moving, it’s been very evident who has stepped up in my life. My closest friends have made the investment to be a part of our lives in deep and meaningful ways, whether they could be near us or not. We’ve made promising new connections from which we build our new life. Those are the friends that deserve space in my life. My world is going to get a lot smaller by choice and necessity. Part of creating a more intimate space around me is eliminating the emotional reactions that can define me.
Today I miss my first Steelers-Ravens game, and it’s the first time my abandonment of football has stung. But I also feel a great deal of shame about how much emotion — both positive and negative — I devoted to football over the years when other things deserved so much more time and attention. (Maybe someday you’ll feel the same way about all the time and attention you devoted to Donald Trump, some rational future version of myself whispers into my ear.) Being a member of a family and a good employee and a civic-minded individual is time-consuming.
There just isn’t time for petty anger and grievances, just as there isn’t time for petty people. The world got bigger for Kevin and Winnie, just as it will for my son and daughter, but it’s necessarily gotten smaller for me. But in that smaller space, all the relationships that remain are more intimate and have much greater potential for growth.
Those few in the innermost circles are entitled to the good and bad that is me at my most unvarnished, because they’ve invested in me despite all those big emotions. The rest can fade away, and from this day forward I hope my public reactions will be based on reason, patience, and good humor.
Maybe it’s time to go into the garage and put aside the Governor’s School t-shirt and a few other meaningful ones while tossing out many others that are only cluttering my life.