18 Inches of Daylight

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Simple word, simple concept. And maybe the most important thing any of us can be.

At its root, being wrong is proof we're alive. We are trying. We are failing. We are getting hurt.
We are being bruised, beaten, cut open.

And scars only form on the living.

Take it from a guy who statistically should be dead many times over. I have flailed impotently in the grip of a disease that's only mission is to win. And the cancer win equation is simple: When it wins, you lose.

And yes, death is a loss we will all inevitably experience first-hand and alone. And there's no way to flip it the bird before we cross that threshold.

But maybe there is.

I was bouncing between channels the other night and I found myself frozen in awe as I watched a montage of Gale Sayers, arguably one of the greatest running backs in history, slipping through wall after wall of men hell bent on his putting him belly-up and broken.

"Eighteen inches of daylight. That's all I need."

His only words in the five-minute montage.

Sayers needed to see just enough daylight through the defensive line to get the smallest glimpse of the end zone. Enough daylight to slip through a wall that didn't want just to stop him dead in his tracks but force him onto his heels, stop his momentum, put him on his ass, break him in a way he would never have the chance to stand back up from.

He understood that all the daylight in the world is meaningless if you're flat on your back.

I spend countless hours every year locking arms with people trembling at the ledge of their own mortality. We'll sit in the enormity of the blackness that comes in the quietest hours of the night and we'll laugh and we'll curse and we'll cry. And then when there is no more blood or electricity left to burn we will strategize a plan to stand back up and claw open those eighteen inches.

Because they are there. For all of us.

I think we all know there's no shortage of pain in life.

A friendship decimated by a handful of words that can't be unspoken.
A family set ablaze by addiction.
A relationship irrevocably tangled by a spider web of old fault lines.
A soul-crushing job that blunts our ability to imagine a different future for ourselves.

All a seemingly endless mental battle to reconcile the disparity between the reality in front of our noses and the one we wish it were.

But we have to find those eighteen inches of daylight.
And that means being wrong. A lot.

We need to go head first into that wall and fall back.
We need to gain a few yards and then have them stolen away a minute later.
We need to lose it all and then pace hungrily at the sidelines until we get another shot at that run.
We need to slip through the hole, barrel our way into the end zone and risk the possibility that when we get there we might discover someone let us down and the calories we just burned were empty ones.

So we have to find love and we have to lose it again.
We have to find a new job and walk away from it again.
We have to ask for help and find it's not there and ask for it again.
We have to let go of all the bricks in our backpacks we didn't place there ourselves and we have to let go of some of the ones we actually did.
We have to quiet the noise in our heads long enough to find the notes through the bars.

I just got a phone call letting me know that one of my patients, a 27-year-old father of two young girls, decided last night that he didn't have the strength to find that strip of daylight through the line.
So he took his own life and he took his own daylight.
And with it, the daylight of so many others.
A couple nights ago I asked him to find my shoulders in the darkness and hang on.
I asked him to allow me to help him break through the wall.
I told him I would carry him through even though I was also carrying the weight of my own new fight with the disease that spends literally every second trying to blot out my own path to the end zone.

The worst part is that he had a potentially curable disease. But it was one that would require him to make peace with his own humanness.
One that would invariably knock him on his ass over and over and over.
One that would require him to be wrong.
A lot.
But he chose the only type of wrong that can't be made right.

So I'm writing this now for all of you who are staring down your own unbroken defensive lines.

Find those eighteen inches.
Claw them open if you have to.
All the daylight in the world is meaningless if you're flat on your back.


If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.