Smoke and Mirrors

Smoke and Mirrors

Various friends, acquaintances and blog readers pull me aside sometimes to talk. Usually they want to talk about their friend (wink, wink), that’s going through something. I love that they do. I live under an avalanche of blessings, so if I can use my meager giftedness to pay something back, I am DOWN! Back to the point… when people pull me aside, they then proceed to pour out their problems and ask what I think they should do.

I reply, “Meet me at my office, pay me a hundred dollars and I will tell you.”

I kid, I only think it.

Unlike therapy, I already know theses folks on one level. With clients, I never get to see them in their natural habitat. With people that I know a little, I get to experience the snapshot that they show the world, but I also get a glance behind the curtain. It is amazing to see the façade and the underbelly all at once and marvel at how they can be so dang different.

People usually lay a little verbal groundwork first. It generally consists of them telling me that:

1. They are crazy; with the implication that they are different from the rest of the world

2. I may not want to know what’s knocking around in their head because I might not be able to handle it

There is a common thread that runs through these conversations. Almost without fail, the heart-pourer-outer feels like they are the only one going through a less than ideal situation. Each and every time someone takes me aside for help, they present their life to me like it is the first time I have ever heard the story. It isn’t.

There are only a handful of stories.

The names and faces are different, but the narrative seldom is.

A lot of people that pull me aside are in loveless/sexless/passionless marriages.

A lot of people that pull me aside are having parenting issues.

A lot of people are bored out of their skulls and not content with their lives.

Most people that pull me aside are in over their heads at something.

 

A mom that I helped get some stuff straightened out with her family told me that my wife must feel so lucky to have me as a husband because of how I talk to people and because I am good with kids. I laughed to myself because my wife would probably like to stab me with a fork sometimes. She lives with me; she has a different perspective. She knows my way of cleaning the kitchen floor is to call the dogs. She knows what it’s like to stare at the ceiling listening to me snore (allegedly). She knows the me that is outside of my office. That me ain’t always pretty!

It is a natural human tendency to compare what we have with what someone else has. When our grass is brown and crunching beneath out feet, of course the grass appears greener on the other side of the fence. Appearances are deceiving, it is all about perspective.

Facebook is the devil. It is a lie. It is to personal contentment what airbrushed Sports Illustrated models are to female body image.

Maybe that’s extreme, but bear with me, I am having a moment.

Facebook is a great way to advertise your garage sale. It is amazing at connecting you with friends you had not seen since back in the day. You probably lost contact with them because you weren’t really friends, but whatever… that’s a blog for a different day. I see a lot of people that are envied for their lives, marriages and children based on their Facebook posts. They post about the web of perfection that they have woven. The disheartened among us read on in shame, hoping to aspire to such greatness. People respond in praise:

“You are magical,’ they will say.

“I wish my husband would watch our kids for the whole day, what a saint,” they will type.

“That looks like the most delicious eggplant parmesan I have ever seen, you must send me the recipe,” they remark.

“I don’t know how you make it look so easy, girl,” they will praise.

Horsesh#*!

I see and hear the same at church and at work. It is almost comical what a direction correlation there is between idyllic projection of the perfect life and the actual hot-messes of reality. Believe me the folks that are living the fairly tale lives pull me aside for a chat too.

It is disconcerting to be approached by a parent that raves in all public forums about the joys of motherhood and then cries to me because her children get on her nerves and she says ugly things to them. I talk to admired, perfect husbands that affix their amazing wives on pedestals and then confide to me that the same wife is completely irrational an often unbearable.

It can be tough when we are sulking about what a tub of suck our own lives are and we see posts about other people’s heavenly existence. Believe me, it is a faulty comparison; you can’t compare reality to a carefully constructed fable.

With very few exceptions our friends and neighbors only show us what they want us to see. We in turn do our best not to let too much reality leak out around the edges of our veneer. I think there are a few different reasons for that.

1. People don’t want to reveal that they are not perfect.

2. People don’t want to admit failure

3. People don’t want to burden other folks with their junk

4. People have been burdened with so much junk already that they quit listening.

5. It’s painful/frustrating/insulting to care anymore

6. It’s generally embarrassing to be engaged in any or all of numbers 1-5

 A lady at work popped her head in my office and said, “Hey, do you have a minute?” It didn’t take her long to start problem pouring. Among other things, she said that her life is all smoke and mirrors. I have heard it many times, but that expression struck me a little sideways. It hit me; because by profession I am a smoke and mirror specialist. I realized that most people don’t have my perspective, how could they? Most people are on a cleverly fortified island only aware of their own problems. Their friends and neighbors are on their own similar islands. The walls aren’t breached in bath robes, through pleasantries exchanged across a strip of grass between driveways. They don’t know that a lot of people are struggling just like them. They don’t know that they are not the only ones using smoke and mirrors to cover it all up. They don’t know that the folks they envy; the people with great lives, are pulling me aside too. Each one is isolated with their particular form of misery and they feel like the only one.

I can imagine that if I were reading this that I might feel an undertow pulling towards a profound resolution that challenges the reader to keep it real, or let down their guard. I might be seeing the foreshadowing of the point: maybe if we dropped the charade, we would finally be fully evolved as a species.

Nope!

I don’t intend to challenge anyone to drop the smoke and mirrors. The more I think about it, the more I realize that they help keep polite society polite. Frankly, if we went around telling everyone what was really going on in our lives all the time, they might avoid us. We would probably return the favor.

The trick isn’t to aspire to be like the people that are really only jedi-mind-tricking us with a more sophisticated set of smoke and mirrors. The trick is to find your own contentment. You can maintain the pretense and pageantry you show the rest of the world all you want. Stop the coveting of other people’s phantom lives. Resist the temptation to believe the bullsh#* you create about your own.

If you are in a holding pattern, you have chosen it and you are the only one that can clean up the impending disaster behind the veneer. If you’re in a bad place, you are not the only one that is in pain. You are not the only one that feels desperate. A good start might be to align your self with people that you trust enough to get a peek at the real you; warts and all. In turn, maybe you can do them the courtesy of not looking away if the try to reveal theirs. The more exposure we have to what life is really like, the more comfortable we can become with our own human frailty. Find a real relationship or two and build from there.

As I am finishing this, it occurs to me that people use me for that. I am a surrogate friend: a problem dumpee. Again, I am happy to be, but if any of this is ringing true and I am not around, think about developing a relationship or two that can offer some support and allow someone to lean on you too, when needed.

People get used to their holding pattern of discontent. They get used to the level of suck they are in and will maintain it until the level of suck gets bigger than the anxiety of confronting the problem. Sometimes that never happens. If it does, that change may be a divorce, therapy, honest self reflection; whatever. One might have to swallow some pride, take the blame or cut the ties.

When people come to me for help, I always get around to this question: Do you trust me enough to let me challenge you? If not, then I am a supportive friend, I listen and ask questions and engage at the level they let me.

When a person does trust me I will let them know they are responsible for their own discontent. They have chosen to stay in that holding pattern because they can easily tolerate the extended low-level anxiety and discomfort of their lives. Prolonged misery is manageable enough because it is easier than the fear of the worst or the intensity of change. In the words of my late-great Grandma Bee, I tell them in a loving manner to poop or get off the pot. If any what was just read rings true, reread the last paragraph and replace the word they with the word you.

I hope God is working through me with this blog. That’s the point of it from my perspective. A blog that rattles a cage or touches a nerve isn’t worth much on its own. It is a spark, but not enough. If it was easy to right our own ships, we would have. We would have righted it way back when, not decades of holding pattern later. It isn’t easy; it is close to impossible to do on our own. We are too close. We are too prideful. Maybe we are just confused and hopeless; waiting for direction.

Pull me aside, I love when people do. Buy me coffee or lunch; let’s talk. Make an appointment, maybe.

I have been going back and forth with myself about how to finish. I want to put a nice bow on this; I failed. It is a baby bird and I am shoving it out of the nest. I love you all, but not as much as my gap wedge when I catch it just right.

6 comments
  1. Something I feel like I say to at least half of my clients: “we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.” (Steve Furtick) You completely nailed it with this. Also I LOVE the title of your blog and am jealous that I did not think of it first. :)

    • LOve that quote! I wish I would have know it sooner! I am working on a book of with the same name as my blog!

      • Thanks! Feel free to use it. Congratulations on your book! Let me know when it comes out.

  2. Emily said:

    Love your blog! You’re a beautiful writer.

  3. Kathleen said:

    Great stuff, Justin- your Dad and I are both enjoying reading your words of wisdom. Thanks for being so brave!!

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