The Other Three S's: Advice for My Son

I don't cry anymore. And I hate that I don't.

I have always attributed this weird paralysis to the emotional lockdown I developed years ago when my oncologist told me I would be dead in three months. A survival mechanism I designed to keep my eyes fixated on reaching the living Me at the other side of the brushfire.

I'm writing this now because I am again floating in that viscous nowhere space of the dying. I recently received blood tests that indicated I am again in another fight for my life. A currently unsurvivable cancer. The same tireless enemy I have dedicated the last 18 years to understanding, demystifying and destroying. One that I spend part of every day helping others navigate and battle back into submission. I talk endlessly about this nowhere space because it informs the very way I approach every day of my life. And I've usually had the luxury of being on the other side of it. But here I am. Smack dab in the middle of the blaze again, pushing myself through those flames toward the living Me.

I rarely, if ever, discuss or quantify exactly what gets me through every day. Both the traumatic ones and the mundane, the good and the bad. And as my son nears his 18th birthday--a milestone and moment that statistically I shouldn't be alive to see--I realize that my daily survival all amounts to three things. Three rules I never spell out explicitly for him, but have been trying, mostly unknowingly, to instill in him since the moment he was able to grasp even the simplest concepts of life:

1. SHOW UP I mean this both literally and figuratively. Show up. Be present. Be with the person you are with in this moment. Shut your mouth and listen. Pain and joy and anger and all other human emotions are subjective, and the size of any one feeling in any given moment has the power to completely consume even the strongest and wisest among us. People often say to me, "I don't have a right to complain after all you've been through" but I always tell them that the worst pain they've ever experienced is still the worst pain for them so the visceral feeling will feel identical. And I never diminish that. Because no matter what the most practiced narcissists will tell you, there's no hierarchy for pain. So even if it feels tiny to you, even if it feels like something you've mastered, it often feels like literally everything in that one moment for someone else. Try to remember that when someone is standing so close to something that big, they can't see anything else at all. No matter what that thing is. And as someone whose hours are on fire, I can tell you that even the worst, most embarrassing, most painful, most shameful, most horrific moments a human being can experience are a fucking luxury. And the simple thought that someone might hold you and protect you in that space--or even try--is enough to make the mammoth seem manageable. Enough to let you catch your breath. Because if you're breathing, then change is not only possible, but guaranteed.

2. STAY HUMBLE I don't mean this in an "aw-shucks" way. I'm not talking about modesty or false modesty. I mean stay humble in a way that informs the universe you are never sure of anything. That you are open to learning. That you are open to being wrong. Because you will be. A lot. And that's a good thing. The most pain in my life has come directly from the times I believed I knew something--anything--as surely as I knew my own heartbeat. And that kind of imaginary altitude inevitably led to my most titanic falls. I was that guy who jumped off a building and was heard saying "so far so good" after I passed each window. Stay humble. It will make your heart porous in a way nothing else can.

3. STAND UP This is as simple as it sounds. Stand up. Relationships, jobs, family, life--all will knock you down in a way that will leave you absolutely breathless at one time or another. You'll feel betrayed, devastated, broken, impotent, furious, misunderstood, vulnerable and absolutely powerless. But you'll only stay that way if you choose to. Being the victim is easy. It requires only enough energy to wave a white flag. A flag that, while often earned, should come with an expiration date. You can define yourself by your failures and your circumstances or you can define yourself by the trail of color you leave in your wake as you shed that pain in exchange for beauty. Let your catastrophe be the force that drives you to create something better for yourself. You can fall into a stream but you will only drown if you stay there. So wave that white flag for a day or a week or a month. But then take a deep breath, untuck your skyline, stand up and fucking run.

I've had so many reasons over the past several years to throw in the towel both clinically and emotionally, but I've passed through that brushfire too many times to ever doubt the beauty on the other side.

There are no bad days, my Danny boy. Only hard ones. So show up, stand up and stay humble. The rest will fall into place.