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 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.