27 and Vulnerable: A Very-Special “Lifting Fog” Episode



DISCLAIMER: This essay is actually not about Wes Anderson movies (thank GOD!) but popular culture is always the easiest entry point to expressing actual human feelings, some of which I may dredge up below.

When I first saw The Royal Tenenbaums I was 15 and had no idea what to make of this thing I was watching. It was a comedy, maybe? Earlier that year my friends and I had seen comedies like Zoolander and Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back, which we knew were comedies because they made us laugh. Tenenbaums on the other hand squeezed laughter — uncomfortable laughter — between scenes of stylized and fairly graphic attempted suicide and old men contemplating the pain they’ve wrought on their families. Like I said…what in the shit was this? People create art that can scratch multiple emotional itches? One minute I’m belly-laughing at the line “You heard me, Coltrane” and the next I’m desperately holding back tears from my  best friend, because Ben Stiller’s “I had a rough year, Dad” has just about flattened me. I think I understood then, instinctively, that this uncomfortable balance between funny and sad is what really makes me tick. BUT THESE SEESAW FEELINGS, MAN, THEY’RE TOO GODDAMN MUCH.

So naturally I left Tenenbaums convinced that I was somehow a “comedy” writer, and spent the next 12 years laboring under this idea. It took until Christmas this year — the time of all great revelations — to begin to fully process something I’d understood as a sophomore in high school, then deliberately swept under the rug for half my life:

  1. I’m not that funny.
  2. I’m not that sad. (If the old men aimlessly wandering the third floor of the Santa Monica Barnes & Noble have taught me anything, it’s that I am not that sad.)

What I am is caught somewhere in-between, a place where life is often most hilarious when it’s absolutely depressing and can be truly pathetic in its funniest moments. But actually embracing that nebulous terrain — i.e. conveying true vulnerability as both a writer and person — is something I was never much keen to do. Sincerity and healthy emotional growth? Who needs that?!

In 2013 I found myself in the first real relationship of my life. (Please save your laughter for the end of the essay!) Now this, a relationship, is something I’d wanted for a long time. And this person…I’d wanted her for a long time, too. Sparing any real personal detail, I’ll tell you that she’s kind, and passionate, and whole-hearted in a way that suggests she’s been through a lot and figured some shit out. She has. Her smile and laugh (a three-note number that reminds me of the NBC chime) radiate warmth that everyone in the room feels. About the only ho-hum thing I could write about her is that she’s from New Jersey, and that just makes me love her more.

None of this did I really understand, let alone say to her, in the time we were together.

You (by which I mean me) convince yourself that the true purpose of life isn’t joy or meaning or spiritual fulfillment, as this tear-trigger Apple ad brilliantly conveys

but some undefined sense of “comfort,” or more accurately the ability to shut yourself off from the pain and messiness of actual human engagement. This is how I lived the first 27 years of my life. I had a lot of tweets favorited in that time! And then someone — a particularly messy someone — enters your life, threatening to upend so much of what you’ve believed about yourself, about who you’re “supposed to be”…

And you (me) run from it, or worse — you don’t engage. And then this amazing firebrand of a human being (so amazing she wants to be with you) wises up. And then she’s gone. And you start to see just how comfortable “comfort” really is.

Probably the worst thing to ever happen to me was being named “Best Entertainer” at Kindergarten graduation. First of all, this was inaccurate — Gil Cosnett was much funnier, and would reclaim the title come senior superlative time. It also cemented in my mind this ridiculous expectation that I be “on” all the time. And if for whatever reason I couldn’t summon the funny that boiled, like magma, at my core…then what was the point in even engaging? Better to pull a Brian Wilson and retreat, only to come back stronger when I was good and ready.

That’s so fucking stupid. But, like learning my daily headaches were almost 100% a hydration issue, it took me 27 years to REALLY GET IT.

Now, undertaking a Radical Personal Transformation™ means binging on your share of self-help texts and motivational speeches. Some, like Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, unequivocally change your perspective. Others feel a little too crystal healing to be of any use. But the wisest words I’ve encountered — on the suggestion of a very wise friend — are from two TEDTalks delivered by researcher Brene Brown. “The Power of Vulnerability” and “Listening to Shame” wrestle to the ground in 40 minutes issues that had, unbeknownst to me, colored my entire life. Here’s the end of “Shame”:

“If we’re going to find our way back to each other, vulnerability is going to be that path. And I know it’s seductive to stand outside the arena, because I think I did it my whole life, and think to myself, I’m going to go in there and kick some ass when I’m bulletproof and when I’m perfect. And that is seductive. But the truth is that never happens. And even if you got as perfect as you could and as bulletproof as you could possibly muster when you got in there, that’s not what we want to see. We want you to go in. We want to be with you and across from you. And we just want, for ourselves and the people we care about and the people we work with, to dare greatly.”

This person I love — she’s gone now, has been gone. And I know that, in order to stand any chance of whole-heartedly “entering the arena” and living life messily, openly…I need to really let her go. That makes me sad. But it’s somehow freeing to feel that way, too — proof of life lived, and not watched from the sidelines.

I wish so badly that I could have been that Brene Brown talk, that Apple commercial, The Royal Tenenbaums with you (holy cow this is a terrible metaphor/sentence!) when I had the chance. But I also know that I wasn’t, and maybe couldn’t have been, without you finally opening my eyes to the fear and guardedness I’ve carried for so, so long. Thank you, forever, for ending things. In happiness and sadness — you’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me.

TOMORROW: Miley said what?!?

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3 Responses to “27 and Vulnerable: A Very-Special “Lifting Fog” Episode”

  1. Hyocynth Says:

    Henning, we are always so much more under the surface then we let the world see. I’m sorry you’re hurting, but glad you are who you are.

    • Henning Says:

      Hyocynth, thank you so much for the nice note! Feels freeing to share this stuff, and hopefully in a mildly entertaining way.

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