“Life is fragile and heartbreaking. It turns upside down in a minute. Love your children, hold them tight. Love your family, hold them close. Love your friends, keep them near. Be gentle with others, as so many are fragile and struggling. Actually, I think it’s best to assume everyone is struggling, so treat everyone with love, tenderness, and compassion.” – Maria Shriver
I was making the rounds on social media last week. I happened to see a post by Maria Shriver, a personal heroine of mine, that moved me to tears. She had recently lost her beautiful cousin, Saoirse, who was only 22 to a drug overdose. Maria’s quote touched me at my core. It made me think that it’s more important than ever for us to be real – real with ourselves so we can be real with others.
We should assume that in some way every single person is struggling on the inside. If the struggle is part of life and it’s necessary for us to evolve and grow as humans, isn’t it time for us to normalize it into the conversation? Isn’t it time we ended the shame, the stigma – for ourselves and for others? Isn’t it time for us to learn there’s immense courage in vulnerability? Isn’t it time we realized being vulnerable and sharing our darkest moments, the dark nights of the soul, could be the key to saving lives – our own and others?
I remember when my kids were in high school. It wasn’t an easy time. After 20 years of emotional abuse and having been broken to the core, I filed for a divorce. My ex husband angrily refused to leave the house which meant 7 months of a horrendous court battle to force him to leave while enduring months of torment, rage, and abuse. It also meant that my children were put smack dab stuck in the middle right where they didn’t belong. It left deep scars on their young psyches … and on me.
My daughter had gone to a Kairos Retreat during her junior year at New Trier High School. It was a Christian retreat, a weekend where the teens were removed from their homes and their cell phones, and given a safe space to begin opening up to their inner worlds. It was a weekend to learn about themselves and others, a time for courage in vulnerability. The greatest lesson from Kairos was that things aren’t always as they seem. Much of what we believe about others and the lives they live is simply an illusion. We are all struggling in some way.
The area we lived in was the North Shore of Chicago. It was a wealthy suburb filled with white picket fences and perfectly manicured houses. There were mansions that lined the lakefront. It was a community where there was an unspoken understanding. Perfection ruled … and vulnerability and deep dark secrets were quietly swept under the rug. Everything always seemed so perfect. Only, it wasn’t.
Kairos was a welcome retreat, a refuge for teens who were struggling and those who didn’t know they were. Kairos was about being real and letting your shield down. It was a weekend designed to create a safe space to open up and allow those deep dark secrets out into the light, the light of compassion, empathy and understanding.
I’ll never forget the stories my children shared, not personal stories of others, but their own personal experience of transformation and not feeling so alone for the very first time. They were finally able to see for themselves, to peek behind the curtain of perfection, and to see that the wizard isn’t necessarily real. They would understand that no matter how perfect a life looks, how much wealth a family accumulates, how many opportunities and advantages someone has, this doesn’t give them a free pass out of the dark night of the soul. Behind the mansion walls and picket fences, there was a universal pain that existed. What they shared through that weekend was finally feeling they weren’t so alone. They understood that the struggle was real and no amount of money, advantages , or perfection could buy their way out of it, numb it, pretend it away or cover it up. They found that the stories they wrote in their minds about how easy life was for others was fiction.
I remember high school being a painful time. I felt so alone. I lived in my head, disconnected from my heart. I thought there was something wrong with me … deeply, fundamentally wrong. It took me until my mid 50’s to begin to unwind the decade of stories I was telling myself and the beliefs I had accumulated over a lifetime of being told I wasn’t worthy to understand that I was.
I learned at an early age to cover things up, to push them as far down as I could into the deep, dark recesses within, and to pretend that everything was OK. The thing is, darkness doesn’t go away on its own. Anything that’s suppressed, repressed, rejected, or denied only builds up over time. It’s all energy. Transformation cannot take place in the darkness. Transformation can only happen when we have the courage to bring light to the darkness or the darkness to the light.
Looking at images of Saoirse, Maria Shriver’s young cousin, defied what we think of as someone suffering from depression or mental illness. Yet she spent much of her life struggling. A privileged life doesn’t lessen the burdens, the darkness, or the struggle. Sometimes, it enhances it.
We’ll never know the dark moments that led to her losing her young life. It wasn’t the first time as she openly and bravely talked about trying to take her own life years ago. She courageously talked about her own struggles in the hopes of helping others. No one knows yet what led to her passing. Now, she’s gone and there’s an outpouring of love and compassion that was waiting for her – love and compassion that could have saved her if she had asked for help.
I’ve had many dark moments in my life. I’ve gone through bouts of depression. I’ve gone through periods of soul crushing despair. There have been times I wanted to give up; times I thought it might be easier to just leave the pain behind than face it head on; times I thought I’d be better off in a different place – times I believed the world would be better off without me, or that no one would care if I left.
It’s impossible to see the light when you’re in the midst of the tunnel. It’s only when we emerge from the tunnel that we can find the light. Yet, we can ask for help, reach out from the dark tunnel to find a hand to lift us out – to lift us up. We can allow ourselves to be vulnerable and ask others to help us to find the light until we can see it for ourselves.
Vulnerability is a powerful antidote to depression. Vulnerability is courage. Courage is asking for help. Asking for help is a way out of the darkness and into the light. Asking for help isn’t weakness. It is strength and it may be the hardest thing you’ve ever done. It also may be what saves your life. It’s up to us to remove the stigma around depression and darkness. Struggle is part of life. It’s not meant to end your life.
Are you ready to be part of the solution – to let your shield down?
I know I am. Carrying that damn shield around, lugging it through over 5 decades of life, was exhausting. It stopped me from living – living a life that’s full out and Fierce.
Taboos and stigmas exist because we allow it. Taboos and stigmas keep us trapped believing there is something wrong with us. I assure you there isn’t.
We’ve been taught that Shields protect us. Perhaps … but they also keep us trapped and is the isolation worth it? Or healthy? I think not. It’s impossible to live in the light if you’re hiding behind a shield.
Assume everyone is struggling. If you know someone that seems depressed or forlorn from the struggle, take the time to simply tell them they are loved. Let them know that they matter … to you … and to others. Life moves so damn fast sometimes that we neglect letting others know how much they are appreciated. Research on suicide shows us that, in hindsight, there were signs before someone takes their own life. It’s important for us to be awake and aware – to be mindful if we see someone we love begin to behave differently, to isolate themselves or to seem a bit more down and depressed. Oftentimes, there’s a cry for help. The more present we are in our own lives, taking care of our emotional health and well being, the more we are able to see the signs and get help before it’s too late.
Moxie requires courage. Courage is vulnerability. Vulnerability is allowing your shield to drop, your heart to open and to be real.
Vulnerability is like a magnet for the light – the light of empathy, the light of compassion, the light of kindness, the light that extinguishes the darkness. The light that’s inside of you. The light that’s inside of me. The light that’s inside of us. The light that connects us. The light that is you.
An update to this post: As suggested in the comments by one of my readers, and wholeheartedly agreed by me, PLEASE make sure to get professional help when you are in the midst of depression, despair or a dark night of the soul. It’s imperative to be real with ourselves before the darkness overwhelms us. Sending love and light your way. Catherine