Before I get started, how about a quick joke?
Q: What’s brown and sticky?
A: A stick.
That’s one my favorite jokes. It’s funny simply for exposing where our minds naturally take us. Also, it makes me laugh every time I tell it because I can picture my now 14-year-old son telling me it over a decade ago with his deadpan expression and no idea why it was funny. In fact, he might have thought he was teaching me a “fun fact” about wood.
Now that you’re amused (I hope), here goes:
The other day, I happened to see someone whom I’ve not seen in over a year. While I’d been somewhat kept up-to-date on the happenings in his life through a mutual friend, I hadn’t had any interaction with him in 2015. According to our shared friend, his 2015 was “hard.” One sick parent, one parent who fell back into the bottle after close to two decades of sobriety, a mentally-ill sibling with criminal charges. All that in addition to the everyday challenges and struggles we all face. Every time our shared friend would let me know how this guy was doing it was worse than before.
To me, it was heartbreaking.
Now, I don’t know this guy well, but I’ve always liked him. He’s smart and articulate and kind. While he’s a holder of strong opinions, I’ve never heard him personally criticize those who hold opinions opposite to his. He’s a class act in that way.
Although I might have been able to pass off a look of ignorance to his circumstances when we first saw one another, I figured were I to ask, “So how have you been?” he would have been stuck trying to decide whether to tell me or gloss over the truth with a “fine, and you?”
So instead, I said, “It’s good to see you. I’m sorry to hear you’ve had such a hard time of late.”
He looked almost relieved. I’d like to think this was on account of my forthrightness, but it might have been more about not having to pretend that all was well when it was clear from my inquiry that we both knew all was not. I didn’t give him the choice to respond to a socially neutral, even shallow, “What’s up? It’s been a while.”
His reply was honest.
“Thank you. It’s been a shitty year. A really, really shitty year.”
We talked for a bit about the details. He told me more than our mutual friend had.
He gave his circumstance color and texture: brown and sticky.
After he’d had his say, he looked at me and added, “But you know what? I now know that I can get through a year of shit and be all right.” He paused and then said, “And you know what I’m talking about because you’ve been through a shit storm of your own.”
(It was at this moment that I realized our mutual friend had shared with him some of the details of my life.)
His words were not critical or judgmental. Just matter-of-fact. I didn’t feel involuntarily vulnerable. I felt a camaraderie.
I smiled and said, “I did get through it. You’re right. I kept plodding along, regardless of the amount of shit people threw at me. And I did manage to make it to the other side. And you know what, you will, too.”
I said that optimistically, but I think he will.
And now, instead of asking our mutual friend how he’s doing, I’m going to ask him directly. Cut out the middleman. Primarily because our shared friend told me he was having a “hard” year. That was inaccurate. He was having a “shitty” year.
And that’s in a whole different category. Those of us who have been through a shower of brown and sticky know.