When We Don't Have the Words


"I wish I knew what to tell you." I can't tell you how many times I've heard someone say this, or something like this, to me. It's usually happened during times I was with a friend and carrying a heavy burden.

These friends would sit across the table from me, or next to me on the couch or in the car, or over the phone. They'd say different versions of the same sentiment:

"I don't have any great advice for you."

"I'm sorry I don't have anything better to say to you."

"I don't have any answers for you."

"I don't think there's anything I can tell you to make this better."

Every time, I'd look at them, smile, and say, "I know. And I didn't expect you to."

When I look back on those times, it's not some sage advice, some powerful maxim, some quotable proverb that I remember or appreciate.

It was simply that friend's presence.

It was that they were there with me, they had taken the time to hear me and see my pain. That made all the difference in the world. I didn't need anything more from them. I didn't need them to bear the responsibility of shining a bright light with the perfect words. Simply sitting with me kept the darkness at bay.

So don't feel bad when you're sitting there with a friend who's going through stuff and you don't have all the right words to say.

The fact that you're sitting there is already enough.


Flickr photo ©2010 ...storrao...

The Four Words That Almost Buried Me

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I have all kinds of phrases I use on a daily basis. Some I've picked up from friends: "Holy rip." - to be used as an expression of surprise or awe, like during the opening sequence of Gravity. "Holy rip. This is amazing." Also to be used as an expression of disgust, like during the second half of Gravity"Holy rip. This is not happening."

Some I've picked up from TV shows: "TREAT YO SELF." - to be used to justify spending money without any rational thought, but I usually just say this before I eat an obscene amount of ice cream.

Some I started to use ironically but have now become a legitimate part of my vocabulary: "That's cray." - I don't even notice it anymore; it's that normal.

There's another phrase I started to use, and it was a spinoff of the FML trend:

I hate my life.

It was supposed to be funny. I spill my drink on myself at work (which happens way more often than it should for an adult)--"I hate my life." I forget my keys in the house when I leave in the morning--"I hate my life." The episode of How I Met Your Mother that I'm watching online freezes, so I have to start the whole thing over and sit through the marathon of ads that CBS.com runs--"I hate my life."

You know. The struggle is real. First world problems. Hashtag something-or-other.

But then something strange started to happen. I was going through a rough season. I would go to sleep hoping that I could get to the next day as soon as possible and forget all my troubles. I would wake up not wanting to face the looming mountain ahead of me. I would leave my crowded work place, my crowded church, my crowded friend's living room and find some isolated spot--the bathroom, the porch, the parking lot--place my head in my hands, and tremble until the sorrow that had built up inside finally subsided. I would be driving down the highway when I felt like I had suddenly driven off the side of a bridge and slammed into the frigid arms of the Schuylkill River, and pain and regret swallowed me into blackness.

I would shake my head quickly, like I was trying to clear an Etch-a-Sketch, and found myself saying, every time:

I hate my life.

Those four words became more than catchphrase or a cute joke. They became my truth, my reality, the pen recording my past, the cell mate of my present, and the gatekeeper to my future.

I began to believe them--I really did hate my life. It didn't matter what good was happening. It didn't matter how successful I was. It didn't matter that I had friends who loved me. I hated my life--what power words can have to bury us in the dirt. What started as a joke began to shape itself into reality. I believed those words now. I lived in them. They clung to me like cold, wet clothing, and the more I said them, the more they stuck to my skin.

Sometimes, words may be the only key to unlock the chains other words have placed on us.

I fell under the dark enchantment of "I hate my life" for months before I began to snap out of the spell. Then I received an email from someone who had the power to make my chains heavier or to set me free. Here's what she wrote to me (edited to protect some of the more personal details):

This is what I want you to know--it gets better. One day at a time, you will make it through this...There's no quick fix to this. You're in shock. There's been a renting. Your life has been torn in two and no matter what happens now, you're not the same Paul you've always been. You will get back to being successful, but it's all going to look different, feel different because you're different.   

But that's the good news. When you're ready, you have the opportunity to build bigger dreams than the ones you've had--dreams you didn't know were possible before, dreams as big as the sky. I believe in you.

Winters like the one we've had this year on the east coast--this frigid, never-ending winter--remind me of the startling difference between having the sunlight fall on my face versus being under the shadow of clouds instead. It's the difference between treacherous ice and smooth paths, bone-deep chills and spirit-lifting warmth.

Those words thawed me out and brought me into a spring I desperately needed. They gave me a glimmer of green when the gray crept up to whisper death and despair. I didn't let go of them. I held them close. I let my heart slowly pump them out to every part of my ailing body until even my fingertips and my toes felt warm with them.

I will get better.

I will be okay.

I can build bigger dreams than the ones that have died.

I can dream dreams I didn't even dare to think about before.

I used to be buried alive, but I could feel the sun again. Now, when I lie down in bed, I want to stay up and dream. When I wake up, I can't wait for where the climb might take me that day. Slowly but surely, I've worked the old phrase out of my system and replaced it with one I intend to keep until I've sucked in my last breath:

I love my life.


Friends, let's bring life and hope and spring and warmth with our words. To others and to ourselves. And let's do it more often, yeah? It could be the difference between life and death. Thanks to all of you who have been committed to speaking life to me--I'm more grateful than you can know.

Trolls and Mirrors

Trolls. They're no longer relegated to the pages of fantasy stories. They are here. They live amongst us.

If you haven't kept up with the lingo, then let me fill you in. When you need the straight-up, down-and-dirty scoop on something, you go straight to the only legitimate source left these days:

Urban Dictionary.

According to Urban Dictionary, a troll is someone "posts a deliberately provocative message to a newsgroup or message board with the intention of causing maximum disruption and argument," or someone who "continually harangues and harasses others." And I like this--a troll is someone "with nothing worthwhile to add to a certain conversation."


We all know trolls. We've seen their work. We've seen their inflammatory comments and posts online. We've scoffed at how anyone could be so ignorant. We've been pulled into completely unproductive debates with them.

I don't want to limit today's post to only trolls, though.

Go onto any article or blog post online that generates decent traffic and comments, and almost every one of them will have great examples of people being reckless with their words. If you really want some examples that will make you want to scrub your eyes and mind clean, find some articles on the Steubenville rape case, or Amanda Knox, or any YouTube video.

Not all of those ignorant posts are by trolls. They're made by your neighbor, your coworker, a member of your family, your friend. They could have been made by you. They could have been made by me.

The internet has made us reckless with our words. There is something about the internet that has taken compassion, grace, and dignity out of what we write and speak to people and to the world. This has to stop.

Rachel Held Evans recently wrote a post recapping her Lent resolution to turn all her hate mail into origami.

One thing she said really stuck out to me as something so many people seem to be missing when we fire away with comments on an article, a blog post, or on social media:

I am a real human being, living a very real life, with a very real capacity to be hurt, to be loved, to heal, and to forgive.

The author of the article on which we comment, the writer of the blog post, and the subjects of those articles are human beings.

The gay people, the Republicans, the Democrats, the President of the United States, the athletes we address on social media are human beings.

They are not characters in a TV show or movie or novel. They are not figments of our imagination. They are not intangible objects or electromagnetic waves that we capture in our modems and cable lines.

They are real people. With real lives. With real flesh. With real hearts.

I've been trying my best to take time every once in a while to reinforce with my eighth-grade students the importance of this issue. I tell them that if what they're posting on Facebook or Twitter isn't something they'd be willing to say to someone's face, then they probably shouldn't post it.

Unfortunately, I know more adults than kids who need to learn this lesson.

Being behind the screen of a computer or phone has taken away two valuable pieces of relational communication--the time to consider what we say, and the look in someone's eyes as they react to our words.

Even if a Christian feels strongly that homosexuality is wrong, I'm fairly sure they would change the way they express their thoughts about it if they were sitting across from someone who is gay. If they were looking right at the very real face of a very real person who could react and respond. If there were very real consequences to the words we spoke.

The same goes for a myriad of scenarios, but this doesn't change: Our words have weight and force. Sometimes those words land as heavy blows for the people to whom they're spoken or about whom they're spoken.

I propose we start a movement--a movement in which we stop hiding in the dark as monsters and step out into the light.

A movement in which we infuse compassion and grace when we speak no matter the medium we use.

A movement in which we consider the weight of our words and their power to either give dignity to people or take it away.

Let's start a movement that does away with trolls. And eliminating the trolls starts with the one hiding in the mirror.