Open and Be Opened

“What happens when people open their hearts? They get better.”

― Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood

I remember feeling as a child that all the adults around were very closed off. My presence seemed to have very little effect on them, and any expression of love or need from me seemed to do little good to change that. There were not many open arms or open conversations. I was not encouraged to be open, and very little experiences were opened for me.

I could not understand why grown-ups left so little of themselves exposed to me while I felt nothing but desire to open myself to them. It left me feeling sad and lonely, though I didn’t realize it then.

I was a sensitive girl and as I got older; I retained that vulnerability far longer than most people do and like hitting any other milestone late in life, I sensed something must be wrong with me. When the other kids started to become so complicated, I stayed quite simple. It got harder to make friends and to feel close to anyone. I recognized the same walls forming in them that adults had, but I did not feel the same walls building in me. I saw them being wrapped in a kind of protection against the world. They grew independent, self-sufficient, and closed off to me too. 

I did try over the years to protect myself. I accepted my deficiencies and opted to at least emulate what I could not naturally comprehend or perceive myself. I constructed haphazard defenses and broad boundaries that were never quite right. I was always either too closed off or I was opening up too much or too quickly. My reactions to a breach were always wrong, too. I reacted too harshly, and then I forgave too easily. I was hurt again and again, but I never could manage to grow those protective calluses. I could never stop being that vulnerable girl. I still can’t. I am still soft. I am still too open.

Now that I am an adult, I can at least understand the danger, though I am no better at defending against it. The danger is other people and when you leave yourself open those other people get inside and, sometimes; they fill you up with all of their painful needs. They go for the softest parts of you, and that is where they hurt you the most. The only defense is to fortify your walls, and put bars and bolts on all the doors. You have to obscure the entrances and construct the corridors in such a way that no one can find their way inside, not even you. 

Now that I am an adult, I also understand there was never anything different or wrong about me at all. I know now that all that time I was getting it wrong everyone else was getting it wrong too. Some people are better are balancing boundaries with their need for acceptance and to be sure I am a little stunted in my emotional development, but I know now that all of us are excessively needing and loving and soft at our core. I know now that when we are closed off, we are only pretending. 

“So many people are shut up tight inside themselves like boxes, yet they would open up, unfolding quite wonderfully, if only you were interested in them.”

― Sylvia Plath, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams: Short Stories, Prose and Diary Excerpts

I know too that this pretending is an awful and exhausting way to live and many of us are living it every day. We are each is living with parts of ourselves heavily booby-trapped and guarded so well no one can even get close. We leave our childhood with painful lessons so persistent we can’t imagine ourselves whole again, but like me, every human still has that longing. Two things seem to hold us back.

For one, we insist on seeing the vulnerabilities of others exposed first. None of us wants to reveal their weak spots without assurances. None of us wants to be to blame for their own pain by inviting the threat in, and everyone not open to us is a potential threat.

Two, we have lived so long hating what is soft inside of us that seeing it in others elicits acute and consuming disgust. We are repulsed by people who are too open. Something isn’t right with them. Something went wrong in their development, and we don’t want any of it to rub off on us. We don’t want to be caught defenseless along with them.

But sometimes, if we are lucky, we meet the right person, or people, that can open us back up to the world. People we never had when we were younger and the world in us had to close up to keep safe. We call these people soulmates and to us, they can be like keys but that isn’t really true. People are not keys, and should never be treated as such. Instead, people are more like places where we feel safe to finally begin picking open the locks we’ve placed on ourselves. 

It doesn’t happen all at once, this opening, and there are real keys to find. 

The first and most important key is time, time that is given for the guard to relax and time that is taken to open the locks and crack the codes the right way. Too many of us are so desperate, so afraid really, that we rush and smash our way into other people so we can find love while keeping our own walls up. We break so much in others on our way in that soon the alarms start sounding and the people we love close up and close off to us. Then the next time you try to worm your way in its harder, and the next time harder still, and for the next person near impossible. Yes, it is an awful and exhausting existence.

Another key is honestly. The doors are to guard against deception and lies, people who would breach our walls only to consume or destroy us. As you unlock the doors in others and find a way through their defenses, you must unlock parts of yourself too. You must be brave and risk yourself what you as others to risk for you.

Love is the ultimate key, and love between any two people will do. Love between spouses, between friends, between siblings and even between strangers can open us up. Love for ourselves can do it too. What I needed as a soft and vulnerable child was love. What I did instead of hiding or stifling that love was to love back even harder. I know now that what I did was more courageous, and I see now that the mere survival of my heart is a miracle. 

Sometimes I can feel myself closing up too. I get exhausted trying so hard to connect with others and I get scared too. I’m afraid of the old rejection, of seeing again that it is me who is different, exposed, and in danger. I’m afraid of being hurt again or of hurting others in my ignorance and It’s an old habit cultivated so long it’s often automatic. I try, whenever I feel that way, to remember that I only have one life to live and to live it constructing elaborate locks to keep people out is a lonely and painful way to spend it. 

Now I am lucky enough to be able to love and be loved back. I am surrounded by people who offer me space and time, who are honest with me and risk themselves right back so that I can finally be open to them, to the world, and to myself. I can be needing and loving shame. I can be that sensitive and open little girl forever.

I want that for everyone. I want us all to feel safe enough, strong enough, loved enough to be open too. It has to start with love, and it can start with any kind of love at all. If you were never given that space or time or shown trust or honesty, you can begin with yourself.

Open at least to yourself.


This post was written in response to the WordPress Discover Prompt, Day 2: Open

Photo by Echo Grid on Unsplash

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A Joke Has Power

An old friend and I used to argue about whether or not a joke could ever go too far. His view was that comedy was a kind of sacred art that put comedians and the work they produced beyond criticism. He thought those who did criticize the art of comedy were either too sensitive or too stupid or simply unenlightened. They just “didn’t get the joke”. His view was that, as an artist, a comedian should never have to feel bad for their expression. It was, after all, beyond their control how their “expression” parsed and understood by the public, right?

My view was that, though of course everyone everywhere is allowed to say whatever they want, that doesn’t mean that some things, jokes included, aren’t distasteful or even harmful. I thought that if comedy were such a sacred art, it should always be striving to make the message clear and comedians should use their gift for the good of humanity not to hurt its most vulnerable populations. My view was that where comedy did not meet these ideals, it should be criticized, and the artist behind the joke should bear some responsibility for its impact.

We would go back and forth every few days, him saying that if people didn’t like the joke a comedian made, then they should simply leave the club, or turn off the TV rather than criticize and me saying the harm wasn’t with the people who could leave or change the channel, the harm lay with those who would stay and laugh. Those who believed the ugliness being spread below every pun and wisecrack.

He would ask me again and again what kind of jokes I would deem off-limits and I would say the obvious ones were those that made light of sexual assault or abuse and those that reinforced painful stereotypes of race, nationality, sex, gender, disability, religion, or sexual orientation. He would tell jokes that were examples of each and try to explain to me why they were so funny, why they were art. “Because rape is absurd”, he would say, or “because the stereotype is stupid”. After so many rounds, I usually just gave up feeling exhausted and hurt myself.

Looking back on the discussions now I can see that I lacked the language or the syntax to explain that our diverging viewpoints lay in the fact that we had clearly been hearing very different jokes over the course of our lives.

People make fun of each other for a lot of reasons. It’s a good way to bond. It’s a form of communication. A joke can make the truth of something easier to see and easier to swallow. A joke can even be an expression of love. Comedy lifts the spirits and brings us all together. I know that, and I also know that jokes can hurt and those who use them to hurt do so both intentionally and unintentionally.

What I tried to tell this friend was that perhaps he could not empathize with those who were hurting because he was not a part of the many groups being made fun of. He retorted that he himself had been bullied, and he himself had been the butt of jokes his whole life. Who would know better than he? What I couldn’t articulate was that though jokes about an individual person were painful (I know this firsthand too), they were not the same as jokes that reflected the long and widespread hate some people faced and felt hopeless to overcome in their day-to-day lives.

It’s one thing to have a joke thrown at you in anger, but some people have never had a joke thrown at them in disgust. Some people have never been able to see that the truth behind a joke was how much they were hated, not just by the person telling the joke, but by society at large. Some people were never afraid that with each telling of the joke that disgust would grow and put them in danger.

When I was young, my father used to make fun of women in front of me and from a very young age I understood the joke was never that “the stereotype of women being stupid is absurd”. The joke was simply that women were stupid. Those jokes were never directed at me, but later there would be others that were.

Growing up, my father’s side of the family would joke that anything I did that they didn’t like or understand was because of my “white side”. Those jokes hurt, but back then I couldn’t understand why, but I know now it was because it wasn’t a joke about me personally. What made the joke so harmful was it emphasized the place of mixed-race children as in-between and outside of both cultures they were born out of. The joke was about a stereotype of me and people like me, and also about the way the world viewed us then.

These are early and somewhat tame examples from my life, but there would be many more and much worse as I got older. I learned to navigate them, and then I had to learn to stop telling them myself. I learned that many people don’t understand their own jokes, and if asked to explain, they quickly grasp the harm they cause. I learned that many people laugh at jokes simply because others are laughing and that if we speak up, we might find others who will agree that it isn’t a matter of sensitivity, intelligence, enlightenment but of belief and impact.

Looking back, I did agree with my friend on one thing, comedy is a sacred art but where we disagreed was that comedy is beyond reproach. Jokes have power, and like any power, it can be used for good or for evil. They can hurt people as sure as any weapon and laughter is the hardest ammunition to defend against. Jokes have the power to reinforce cruel beliefs, or they can utterly shatter them and lift our consciousness.

I’m not just talking about jokes told on stages or aired on TV specials. I’m talking about the jokes you hear around the office, the memes you share on social media, and the one-liners you get off in a group of close friends. Each one seems so small on its own but take them all together with the ones you’ve uttered and the ones you’ve laughed at and you can see that humor is a big part of everyday human life.

We should ask more and better of such a complex and common medium. We should ask more of every joke and earn each laugh, be in the name of what is good, not what is easy. We should examine why something is funny and whether that makes it right to say. A joke should never be funny because it is hurtful. A joke should never be funny because it belittles, offends, or spreads hate. A joke is never just a joke. A joke, in some ways, is the most serious thing you can tell another person.

A joke has power, and that should never be taken lightly.


This post was written in response to the WordPress Discover Prompt, Day 1: Joke

Photo by Bogomil Mihaylov on Unsplash

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Brad Aaron Modlin on the Lessons We Learn Alone

“What You Missed That Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade” from Everyone at This Party Has Two Names // Brad Aaron Modlin

Mrs. Nelson explained how to stand still and listen
on the wind, how to find meaning in pumping gas,

how peeling potatoes can be a form of prayer. She took
questions on how not to feel lost in the dark

After lunch she distributed worksheets
that covered ways to remember your grandfather’s

voice. Then the class discussed falling asleep
without feeling you had forgotten to do something else—

something important—and how to believe
the house you wake in is your home. This prompted

Mrs. Nelson to draw a chalkboard diagram detailing
how to chant the Psalms during cigarette breaks,

and how not to squirm for sound when your own thoughts
are all you hear; also, that you have enough.

The English lesson was that I am
is a complete sentence.

And just before the afternoon bell, she made the math equation
look easy. The one that proves that hundreds of questions,

and feeling cold, and all those nights spent looking
for whatever it was you lost, and one person

add up to something.