Reflections on the Hardest Year of My Life

This year, my marriage fell apart and I lost the person who’d been my best friend and partner for the past 10+ years of my life. It was and still is devastating. There have been days I did not want to get out of bed. There have been days when I, in fact, did not get out of bed. But there have also been moments of surprising joy and more intense human connection than I have ever experienced before. These are some of the thoughts and ideas that have sprung out of the deep personal reflection that perhaps only things like grief and failure can inspire. These are the values I’d like to use to guide my decision making as I enter a new year that holds more unknowns and possibilities than any other year I’ve encountered so far.

Embrace Vulnerability

I attended a writing workshop in July. One of the core exercises was to write in response to a prompt for a very short period of time (5–15 minutes) before reading it aloud to the group and receiving immediate feedback. This exercise inspired absolute terror in me. I remember thinking that if I’d had the option of taking off all my clothes instead of sharing my uncensored, unedited writing, I would’ve opted for the former without hesitation. But unfortunately (or fortunately), I did not have that option. Doing this exercise repeatedly forced me to write and share things that were trite and boring and embarrassing, but also some things that turned out to be kind of witty and funny, and some things that were just… honest. I was proudest of successful attempts at humor and clever turns of phrases, but time and time again, what got the strongest positive response was not wit or even insight, but vulnerability — times when I let raw emotion and honest truth just sit there.

At first I thought, Huh. And then I thought, Oh. I do this — use language or humor to deflect and distract — all the time. Not just in my writing, but in my life. Not that jokes and wordplay are necessarily bad. They’ve given me much joy in life, but next week no one’s going to remember your witty comeback, but they are going to remember that time you trusted them enough to reveal something true about yourself. Not about the person you would like to be or the person you’d like others to see you as, but the actual person you are right now, with all your imperfections and insecurities.

I’ve learned that vulnerability begets vulnerability. I’ve had more intimate and rewarding conversations with people over the past year than ever before. I’ve had people tell me about their marital troubles, their infidelities, their miscarriages, the secret doubts and fears they have about their careers and families — all the Big Life Questions that keep us up at night but we usually keep to ourselves. Most of these people I had known for many years, and yet we never talked about these things until now. The ability to cultivate deeper, more meaningful relationships is the single, best thing to have come out of the end of the most important relationship I’ve had so far. It is what has sustained me over the past year and what gives me hope for the future.

Social media is often criticized for facilitating the creation of falsely perfect narratives of people’s lives. This certainly happens, but it’s a result not of Facebook or Instagram, but of people’s fear of being judged and rejected if they reveal their imperfect selves. As many people do when they are going through a tough time, I tried to quit social media because I believed it was making me unhappy. When that didn’t work and I felt increasingly socially isolated, I tried to use social media more intentionally. I wrote longer posts about things I cared about. I asked more questions. I reached out to people I don’t normally interact with. I publicly committed to doing projects in the hopes that social pressure will help me follow through on them. I’ve found that social media and technology in general can be very useful tools for creating moments of vulnerability and connection with people. And one of my goals for 2017 is to continue to explore new ways to do this, both online and offline.

Resist Your Natural Impulses

This is a somewhat counterintuitive principle that I’ve found really helpful this year. Everybody has natural tendencies. For example, some people are default-yes’s and have trouble saying no; others are default-no’s and have trouble saying yes to things and people, particularly new ones. Some people want to schedule every minute of their lives; others hate making plans. During times of adversity, people tend to retreat even further toward the extreme they already favored. For example, drowning themselves in work, partying a lot, or withdrawing from social contact, depending on your preference. It feels incredibly safe to do this and it’s horribly unhealthy.

Even if you’re not close to the extreme end of any of these spectra, it’s still almost certain you have not achieved the perfect balance. Therefore, you should make conscious efforts to go against your natural impulses. I have a page in my notebook where I’ve drawn a long, horizontal arrow to the right. On the left, I list my natural tendencies (e.g., saying no, planning ahead, pragmatism, cynicism, novelty-seeking, keeping things to myself, etc.). On the right, I list the opposites (e.g., saying yes, spontaneity, idealism, optimism, routine, opening up to people, etc.) I try to look at this diagram whenever I’m having trouble making a decision and go with the choice that takes me closer to the right. It’s almost never the choice I instinctively want to make and I’m almost always glad I picked it after the fact.

Commit Small Acts of Kindness

When life is easy, people being kind and considerate makes you smile. When life is hard, someone doing something nice for you makes your day and possibly more. I’ve had people (sometimes unexpected ones) reach out to me over the past year and it’s made such a big difference. I’ve also not heard from people I considered good friends, which has been disappointing and hurtful. I try not to hold this against them because hey, I get it. You’re busy, it’s awkward, you don’t know what to say, you’ll do it this weekend. I get it because I’ve done the exact, same thing to other people. But I’m going to try to stop letting potential social discomfort prevent me from reaching out and being kind to others, whether that’s expressing empathy for a friend I haven’t talked to in years or helping a stranger on the street.

Appreciate and Create Art

If relationships were this year’s MVP, a close 2nd place would go to art. Never have music, writing, film, TV, comedy, sculpture, and other visual arts been more meaningful and inspiring. I probably experienced as much emotional catharsis at Burning Man and listening to the Postal Service on repeat as I did in all of my therapy sessions combined.

Before this year, I experienced 3–4 years of intense happiness, which, as someone who has been slightly to severely unhappy for most of my life, was a profoundly new experience. I was really engaged with the work I was doing, I loved the people I was spending time with, and I was learning tons of new things. The seemingly impossible perfection of my life on Facebook was actually a pretty accurate representation, for a while. Apart from just being really enjoyable, this period was also valuable in that it gave me the confidence to do things outside of my comfort zone, which included developing a lot of the friendships I have today. But looking back on it now, I realize that I didn’t read much, I didn’t write at all, I basically only consumed media that was entertaining, and I avoided thinking about difficult or unpleasant things. In short, my experience of art was fun but shallow.

Happiness, like success, tends to lead to complacency. Failure and unhappiness force you to reassess everything in your life, from where you live and what you do on a daily basis to who the most important people in your life are and what you’d like to contribute to society. And during this process, I kept coming back to and thinking about art and how it’s not just something that can be “fun” or “cool,” but something that can make people’s lives better.

I’ve never thought of myself as being an “artistic” person. Mostly because in elementary school I sucked at drawing and was always annoyed whenever we had to do arts and crafts. I was the kid who thought, “Ugghh, why do we have to glue shit onto paper? Can’t I just write a book report and be done with it??” (Note: This is a fictional dramatization of real events. 7-year-old me was probably not so foul-mouthed.) In hindsight, I just had a very limited understanding of what art is. I’ve always loved writing, photography, and playing music. I don’t have much experience with any of these things, but I’d like to devote 2017 to doing these things weekly, if not daily, as well as supporting art and artists through events and purchases at least a few times a month.

Express Gratitude

The importance of gratitude is repeated to the point of being cliché and yet it still bears repeating. In spite of all the terrible things that have happened this year, I realize there is still so much to be grateful for. In fact, I’m probably even more grateful for these things now because I’ve been able to rely on them to help get me through 2016: caring people, health, financial security. There are many people in the world who do not have these things, so I’m incredibly lucky and grateful for them.

I think I’ve generally been fairly good at identifying and feeling gratitude throughout my life, but I’ve not always been very good at expressing it. So the last of my goals for 2017 is to express gratitude more often, especially to the wonderful people in my life. In 2014, I kept a gratitude jar. Next year, I’d like to resurrect the practice and whenever I add a note about someone I’m grateful for, I’m going to actually tell them and do something nice for them.

And if you’ve read this far, you’re probably one of the people I’m very grateful to know, so thank you. And happy new year.