The Weight That Isn’t There
Anxiety and Finding the Courage to Go Home
One of my strangest friendships is with a local homeless guy named Michael. He’s not a “street person,” exactly, in that he always seems to be staying with somebody, though the particular “somebody” changes from week to week, sometimes from day to day. Michael’s a deep thinker, full of intricate theories about life, God and the universe. He mixes and matches the sacred and the profane as if they were of one substance, passionately referencing Bible verses and Madonna song lyrics in the same breath. He’s incredibly serious; everything is equally serious to him. He has an opinion about everything, and everything is usually BAD, hurtful, and out to get him.
But I like Michael. I identify with him. He’s a tall, lanky guy in his late twenties, and he’s concerned with a lot of the same social issues that concern me. I see myself in him, the man I might have become if my life had been only a little bit different, if I’d turned left instead of right at certain crossroads in my life, or if Lady Luck had been just a little less by my side during the same critical years of youth in which she had clearly abandoned Michael. Michael reminds me of the part of me that would still sometimes love to surrender to self-pity, drop everything, and just give up. He’s a walking cautionary tale, a living symbol of what down and out looks in the real world.
Michael has also been one of my great life-teachers:
One evening, I ran into Michael at the bus stop. He was having trouble with this week’s “somebody,” and he was really down. His “somebody” was making demands he felt he couldn’t meet, and shouldn’t be asked to. He was hurt and angry. Down deep, he agrees that a guest in someone’s home ought to help out a little, pick up after himself, contribute to the food budget. It’s what you’d expect from any normal person. But Michael can’t see himself as one of those. “Normal” expectations force him to face what his life has amounted to in other people’s eyes. Michael would be fine if it weren’t for other people’s eyes, seeing himself in them, judging himself worthless by reflected standards he longs to feel worthy of, but just can’t. He can’t believe.
I was doing my best to cheer him up when Michael leapt up from the bus stop bench, wide-eyed and excited, off on one of his theories again. He was holding his arms out, bent at the elbows, palms cupped tensely upward like a juggler preparing to perform, like a human scales with something heavy in each hand.
“I’m really good at this measuring thing,” he said excitedly, nodding an enthusiastic yes. He shifted his outstretched hands in alternating ups and downs like a scale bobbing into motion. “I can take two objects just like this…” more of the shifting. “… and I can tell you what each one weighs within a few ounces. I’m really good at that.” Pride burned a soft but growing fire in his eyes. “But sometimes…”
Something was building. Michael was choking up. His arms were iron-rod stiff, trembling with the force of immanent eruption. He looked me in the eye and clenched one fist tight, then dropped it low. The trembling in his arms moved up into his voice.
“But sometimes… Sometimes the thing in this hand can be so heavy that the other thing…” he opened the hand still raised high. “It doesn’t matter how much it weighs, it’s light. It’s light in comparison. So light you think it’s not anything because the other thing is so heavy.”
He looked down now at the lowered, clenched fist. I looked, too. The thing so heavy, heavier than anything, held our eyes for a long, silent moment.
Michael slowly opened the clenched fist, finger by finger, like a flower blooming petal by petal. His voice softened.
“But you know what? Sometimes I open this hand and there’s nothing there. Sometimes the heaviest weight is the weight that isn’t there.”
He smiled. I smiled back. I could see Michael was past tonight’s crisis and could go home now, back to his “somebody,” renewed, at least until tomorrow.
What better definition could we ask for the word Anxiety? The weight that isn’t there. The weight of wasted potential, of what might have been, of what’s stalking us around life’s next corner, the unmet expectations of others. The weight that isn’t there makes everything light by comparison, makes everything empty and unimportant compared to the immeasurable burden pressing on our hearts and minds.
And one anxiety can flatten a whole world. Like a black hole in space, it draws all light into itself. It makes the darkness darker — so dark it can only be detected by its gravitational pull on everything around it, by the gradual disappearance, one by one, of the shining stars of happiness it consumes.
That night, Michael also showed me anxiety’s antidote — courage.
It’s not the daring to laugh at darkness, to charge in boldly like some Hercules or Rambo. It’s not the resolve to dream big dreams or scale great heights.
It is, instead, the quiet courage to peel back those fingers, to look, unflinchingly, into the empty fist. It’s the courage to accept the emptiness as a revelation, to recognize that the weight that isn’t there isn’t going away. It’s the courage, when the darkness falls, to remember the other hand on purpose, that the light is out there, to find our balance when all the visible evidence screams that balance is an impossible fool’s errand.
It’s the courage to live another day. It’s the courage to smile, get on the bus, and go home.