May 19, 2021
Over a cup of coffee, my friend, Drew, tells me about the time he sat on the edge of his bathtub with a pistol in his mouth. He tells me how depressed and alone he felt. And he tells me how, all these years later, he can still taste the metal and feel it rattling between his teeth.
Then it’s my turn. So, as the Hawaiian sun slowly fills the apartment, I tell him about the booze and drugs and one-night stands. I tell him about the emptiness and anxiety. And I tell him about the morning I woke up—wishing I’d never wake up again.
We joke about how seriously we took ourselves as devout, young military men. We gripe about the poor medical care we’ve both received from the VA. But we also concede—damn few in this country get a free college degree.
We talk about how badly we both wanted to be accepted by our peers and superiors. How terrified we were to be seen as weak. And how we compensated (and then some) with bravado and recklessness. “Scared little boys with guns,” Drew says, shaking his head—his smile almost wistful, his eyes unflinching.
“That is why the true warrior cannot speak of battle save to his brothers who have been there with him,” Steven Pressfield wrote in Gates of Fire. “The truth is too holy, too sacred, for words.”
Yet, we’re all in a battle. All fighting a small, persistent war with ourselves. “Fear doesn’t go away,” Pressfield also wrote. “The warrior and the artist live by the same code of necessity, which dictates that the battle must be fought anew every day.”
Amazing things happen when you tell people who you are. We are healed by the silent acceptance of the person sitting across from us. Their vulnerability embracing ours, right when we need it most.
If you do not tell the truth, though, no one will know you. And you will know they don’t know you. And you will not feel seen. Which is the same as feeling abandoned or unloved. And your war will continue.
With the support of his wife, Christin—his “Korean angel,” to whom he attributes his salvation—Drew has become one of the most humble, loving, and centered human beings I’ve ever known. Using a warrior’s philosophy and Spartan resolve, he’s made his life alone reason enough to push ahead.
“And so I commanded myself to live,” Seneca wrote, after being exiled from Rome in 41 AD. “For sometimes it is an act of bravery even to live.”
The smells of breakfast and Christin’s soft singing drift in from the kitchen. How much pain and trouble would we both have avoided, Drew and I wonder aloud, had we been able to open up about our insecurities—had we just talked to each other—all those years ago?
Six weeks later, my girlfriend Ella walks around her apartment, one by one, putting the candles to bed. We met just two weeks ago, when I moved here to Sweden. For both of us, though, it feels more like two years. I suppose we have been just talking for nearly that long.
Before I got to Stockholm, we’d seen each other only twice: On an island off the coast of Thailand, we passed each other on a beach. And, with just a glance, something urgent was exchanged. We saw each other the next morning, too, on a street with no cars. This time, looking back, I smiled and she waved. (Yes, you did!)
Then, with a bit of artful online stalking, she found me. And more so now than ever, I’m so glad she did.
“Did I see you this morning on walking street?” I asked—hopeful and briefly skeptical.
“Yes you did 🙂 I actually turned around later to say hello to you. But couldn’t find you.”
“I wish you had.”
Since then, we’ve talked about everything: love, sex, marriage, exes, money, kids, family, trauma. We’ve talked about our wildest dreams and biggest fears. We’ve talked about our pasts and hopeful future. And we talked about all of this—before we even met. Hoping to share it all again one day in person. But not knowing if we ever would.
I’m standing at the sink when she comes up and wraps her arms around me from behind. She rests her head between my shoulder blades as I finish the last few dishes and dry my hands. When I turn around, she looks me down then up, her infinite, brown eyes eventually settling on my face. “What a man,” she says, softer and louder than any words I have ever heard.
I die a thousand times in this moment. And I am born again a thousand more. She knows more about me than any human being on this planet. And I know her, too. She knows what I’m feeling, because I tell her every day. And I know what she needs, because I was listening the first time.
In The Course of Love, Alain de Botton describes our detrimental yet deep desire for “wordless understanding.”
“That may be why,” de Botton writes, “in relationships, even the most eloquent among us may instinctively prefer not to spell things out when our partners are at risk of failing to read us properly. Only wordless and accurate mind reading can feel like a true sign that our partner is someone to be trusted; only when we don’t have to explain can we feel certain that we are genuinely understood.”
Or, maybe—just talk to each other.