I know I should be making lists of thing I am thankful for, but today the line that kept coming back in my head as an opening for an essay was this: Let me tell you a story of sorrow.

It is the story of a young man who grew up in Canada as the only child of immigrants from Canton, China. They were blue-collar workers but held such high hopes for their son. They loved him so dearly. He got clarinet lessons, he learned to speak French, he excelled in all the school subjects. He got into Harvard. He met me in the basement of 29 Garden Street, the overflow dormitory for freshmen that year, while I was playing ping pong, or watching my roommate play. Somehow we got to talking about violin. He mentioned how he loved Anne Sophie-Mutter, a well-known violinist in Europe but someone known only to those “in the know’ here in the U.S. He also mentioned that she would be performing in Boston later that week, and he knew of a way to stand in line for last-minute half-priced tickets. So we became friends. We skipped class, got up early and met at the T station one morning, transferring to the Green Line at Park Street and getting off at Symphony Hall. There was already a line forming outside when we got there, but we were one of the first people to arrive. We got the tickets, and then went to the concert later that day. We still have a picture of us proudly holding the tickets, dressed in “nice” clothes and posing for my roommate in my college dorm room.

I would meet my friend for lunch every month or two throughout the rest of our college years. He always spoke in a high-pitched squeaky-toned voice, was very meticulous in his schoolwork, and studied way too much. I always assumed he was headed to Harvard Medical School, like the rest of the people who studied just a little too much. One evening, we met at the Science Center and were headed to dinner somewhere in Harvard Square. He said to me, “Lisa, I want to introduce you to my boyfriend.” He walked me over to the movie theater on Church Street, where his boyfriend was standing in line for tickets. We greeted each other. I remember not quite knowing what to say. He was so matter-of-fact about it, and I never really pictured this happening to me in real life. I never knew anyone who was gay. I somehow didn’t think I’d ever meet one. I didn’t really care whether my friend was interested in men or women, but I guess he wanted me to know him at this level.

He ended up becoming a Rhodes scholar. He decided to cut the fellowship short and collected his Master’s degree in one year instead of the D.Phil. in two. He returned to Boston to work at an investment firm. The Harvard Medical School acceptance would be deferred for two years, and then dropped altogether. He continued on as an equity analyst for boutique investment firms, and worked his way up to senior analyst at a not quite bulge-bracket Wall Street firm. In other words, success.

I would visit him anytime I found myself in the same city throughout those years after college. I saw his first Boston condo and later his first New York condo. I remember the first time I saw him in Boston when he had taken on the “look” of a flamboyantly gay man. He had started going to the gym, wearing form-fitting T shirts, and acquired glasses with hip, mini-sized black plastic frames that sat low on the bridge of his nose. His hair was obviously being “styled” and no longer just “cut”. He wore a lot of black.

I heard about failed romances, and then I met his life partner, who now travels with him on all his business trips to San Francisco. They have a second home in Miami, where they spend the weekends during the New York City winters. They now share a condo in Manhattan, and a dog named Patrick.

Occasionally I’ll get a postcard from my friend, usually from a beautiful exotic place. The most recent was from the Algarves in Portugal. They travel the Conde Nast Traveler way, and know all of the Kimpton boutique hotels around the world. They’re considering another home purchase somewhere in San Francisco.

So you must be thinking, where is the sorrow here? Maybe there is no sorrow on the surface of this story. But what I know reveals the sorrow to me. My friend has never told his parents that he is gay. He owns a second condo in Manhattan that serves as a “decoy” so that when his parents visit their only son each year – usually staying for a month – it will appear that they are staying in their son’s condo. It is completely furnished, and he keeps enough belongings there to look like he lives there, but in fact he does not. He has only a few times introduced his life partner to his parents, saying he is “a friend”. When they ask if he has a girlfriend, he rolls his eyes and says, “Oh, Mom, you know I’m too BUSY for that!”

Many years ago when I visited the two of them in New York, I asked my friend why he thinks this is the best strategy for dealing with his parents.  “I mean, don’t you think they really want to know their own son?” I asked. His partner was encouraging me along these lines, since he agreed with me. My friend replied, “No. It would kill them.”

Disbelieving the hyperbole, I said, “Come ON. You think that after they got over the initial shock and horror, they would eventually come to terms with it and you’d all feel better?”

My friend was adamant. “No, you don’t know my mother. I saw how she got when I decided not to go to medical school. She literally threatened to kill herself, and I thought she would really do it. And I just can’t put her through that again.”

I sensed that he had his mind made up on this, but I pushed a little more. “You REALLY think it’s better that she die without ever really knowing her son.”

“Yes. It’s definitely much better this way. TRUST me.”

I have never really understood this story. I still don’t understand it. But what it reminds me of now, as I reflect on how we decide, how we take actions, and how we tell ourselves stories in order to keep our lives going, is that the human brain has a remarkable capacity to form associations. We can decide to believe whatever we want to believe, and our brain will help us believe it. Sometimes we call it memory. But our brain is actually constantly looking for ways to associate, group, and categorize information. We are wired for learning.

So if we recognize the power of this, we can decide what we want to learn. We can decide, at any time in our lives, to start practicing different associations and pathways for our brain to form. We can force the brain to think of alternatives, spend time in those alternative thoughts, and slowly strengthen the new associations. We can develop flexibility of our thinking by forcing ourselves to get new stimulation, or consider old stimuli in new ways. We can cultivate balance in our thinking by holding two opposite thoughts with equal consideration. It’s like yoga of the mind.

This is the basis of the meatiest part of Martha Beck life coaching, when we first try to get the client to feel their own bodies again (not as easy as you might think!), identify what current life situations seem to be associated with painful feelings in the body, and finally find the stories or thoughts about the situations that are actually causing the pain.

In my friend’s case, he had made up his mind that telling his parents the truth about himself was not an option, and constructed an entire life to keep up the appearances needed to maintain that facade. I haven’t talked to my friend about whether he can feel anything in his body related to this set of lies. My guess is, because he is such a brilliantly smart individual and is so validated for staying busy all the time, that his mind has a vice-grip on his existence and he doesn’t allow for much feeling in his body.

Or maybe my title reveals much more about my own thoughts than about his. Maybe he liberated himself long ago, somewhere back when he acknowledged to himself that he was gay, and that enabled him to go forward boldly with all of his decisions – to leave the Rhodes scholar a year early, to go into banking instead of medicine. Maybe the final little white lie really is sparing his parents the unnecessary suffering that they would inflict on themselves because of their stuck thinking. Maybe my friend really is free. And maybe everyone in that situation is as happy as they are ever going to be. Maybe they are all making the best of life as it is. Maybe I could learn a thing or two from him.

I know for sure that we are all human, and we all go through life in human bodies. Our bodies speak to us, and keep speaking to us, until we are really willing to listen. Our bodies are patient and kind. Our bodies are gentle observers of our every thought, feeling, and action. Our bodies absorb the energy we allow into it. Our bodies are resilient.

But like every living thing, our bodies need to be listened to in order to thrive. Often we are not the first ones to listen to our own bodies. We wait until we need a doctor with a stethoscope (do they even use them anymore?). Or an MRI or a blood test. Maybe we did not acquire the facilities of listening during our lives. So our bodies are here to teach us, to guide us.

I think about my friend’s story and I wonder why it came up as “sorrow” to me today. I wonder, what will I do to make my life work for me? How will I create my own sense of having lived, and made the best of my life as it is? Maybe I can’t do “everything”, but maybe I also need to clear out some space in my mind to see what I already have. Can I look at my life right now and just say “Thank you”?

I am here to find out. And for that I am thankful.

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