At least once a day the phrase “it’s hard being human” enters my brain. It usually arrives on the heels of my sons arguing with each other and me trying to teach them how to communicate more effectively. As a result of feeling hurt, one will lash out at the other, and before we know it the great domino effect of anger feeds off each other until they’re both in a rage. When we’ve slowed them back down to somewhere near neutral, I’ll say something like, “Next time he hurts your feelings, can you try saying, ‘That hurt my feelings’ or ‘Let’s take some space’ instead of lashing out?” It’s a conversation I’ve had a hundred times with them, and only recently has it begun to take hold so that once a while one of them will resist the impulse to lash out and instead say, “That hurt my feelings.” That one micro-moment changes everything, but how hard it is to catch the habitual, protective response of anger and take the risk of expressing ourselves with vulnerability! It’s hard being human.
My boys turn the conversation back around to us when my husband and I argue. “Why do you have to fight?!” they bemoan with pain in their voices. I give a litany of explanations: “We lose each other sometimes. It’s normal to argue, but we always find our way back.” But my husband simply says, “It’s hard being human.” There are a hundred ways to miss each other during a single day. There are hundred ways to miscommunicate or touch on an old wound when interacting with people that you love. We all have our particular form of madness: the wounds, insecurities, assumptions, expectations, deficits that arise simply from being human. And since so few of us received training or role-modeling for how to navigate relationships effectively, it’s a small miracle that we’re figuring this out at all.
It’s not only hard in relationships; it’s also hard in life. And if you’re highly sensitive – if the shield over your heart is thinner than most, if you’re aware of the nuances and textures of living that glide by most people – it’s even harder. An address on a piece of paper reminds me of my grandparents’ house and a wave of grief wells up in my heart. One day I said to my husband while we were washing dishes, “We never stop missing the people we lose, do we?” Having lost his dad at a young age, my husband is very familiar with grief, and he responded, “That’s because they’re still gone.” We have this idea that grief is an isolated event in response to acute loss, but for the highly sensitive person, grief is a daily experience. The passage of time alone is enough to send us into a small tornado of grief; my son will turn 13 in a few months and my heart aches for the baby he once was and soars for the young man he’s becoming. An unfettered heart feels everything, which is both our challenge and, ultimately, our gift.
For there is no doubt that it’s also a gift to be human. At least once a day my heart shimmers in a small fireworks display of gratitude and joy in response to the beauty that surrounds me. One day I brought home a mini seedless watermelon and when I sliced it down the middle, the subtle white star design that criss-crossed the pink flesh took my breath away. “Come look at this,” I called to my boys. “That’s so beautiful!” my younger son observed. “Nature is amazing,” said the older one. Their appreciation of something as simple as the inside of a watermelon took my breath away a second time and sent a waterfall of smiles rippling through my body. Or walking into the little apple orchard in spring when the white blossoms are heavy with fertility and I lay under the tree to absorb the sounds of a hundred bees buzzing. “How do they make that sound?” I wonder aloud. “It’s their wings,” my science-minded son replies.
The challenge and the gifts are the flip sides of the same coin, of course, and the more we accept and embrace the challenge – which means opening our hearts to the full range of feelings that enter and leave in the course of a single day – the deeper we delight in the joy. One of the great myths of the ego is that we can protect ourselves from feeling the pain of life and only seek joy. It doesn’t work that way. Sadness and joy, like the film Inside Out so beautifully depicts, co-habitate in the heart. Anger, jealousy, fear, disdain, disappointment, excitement, and happiness live there, too. To be fully human means to allow ourselves to feel everything, and to love ourselves through the feeling.
It’s not only our hearts that make being human a challenge, it’s also our minds and the thoughts that endlessly populate them that create a daily obstacle to wellness. If wellness depended on learning our multiplication tables and being able to identify nouns and verbs, our education system would serve us beautifully. But true wellness does not depend on these things. True wellness is about liking who we are and knowing who we are, and in order to know ourselves and like ourselves we have to be able to work with our thoughts effectively. We have to be able to identify when we’re caught in a story and learn how to detach from that story so that we can settle back into the present moment. Where do we learn this in our early education? We typically don’t.
To be human is to ache with both sorrow and joy. To be human is to hurt the ones we love and to be hurt by them as well. To be human is to feel lonely, jealous, envious, angry, alone, joyful, peaceful, excited, and serene. It can be so hard being human, but the challenges are only exacerbated when we judge those hards moments and fall into the trap of believing that they’re evidence of our brokenness. Having an argument with a loved one isn’t evidence of brokenness; it’s evidence of our humanity. Getting stuck in the sticky web of intrusive thoughts – from “What if I’m gay?” to “What if I’m a pedophile?” – isn’t evidence of badness but of our sensitivity and the ego’s attempt to consolidate our anxieties into one, clean – albeit torturous – thought. The more we accept our humanness, the more we can bring kindness to ourselves, and that kindness – that balm of self-compassion that can believe that maybe we’re okay – is one of the keys to freedom. When we stop fighting who we are, we grow into who we are meant to be.