eight words

I’ve been semi-binging Vlogbrothers on YouTube since I watched Hank Green’s episode last week entitled “The Most Important 10 Words a Stranger Ever Said to Me” and which he said changed his life forever. It changed my life, too.

I mean, who knows what else I’ll uncover in there.

Please, take 4 minutes and watch that video yourownself. I’ll wait.

Here are the ten words that changed Hank’s life:

“I know. I wish I could dance like him, too.”

“Him” was a kid his own age who was dancing, as Hank put it, “way too hard”. Hank was cringe-watching this boy dance his heart out, and the girl who said those words, who was a few years older and, therefore, someone who probably knew cool when she saw it, was watching with envy.

And it was those words that made him realize: I just gotta live my life the way I wanna live my life.

Those ten words are not the ones that hit home for me. Here is my key takeaway from that video:

“Putting myself out there is my extreme sport.”

This is the opposite of how I’ve lived my life. Like Hank before that girl turned his world on-end, I am watching the dancers with envy and cringe-watching myself in the past tense. Neither of these activities can be called living. Nor are they enjoyable. But that has been the nature of my life, more or less, for the sixty years or so.

This is why I sought and am getting mental health care. It’s why I have an on-going mindfulness practice. It’s why I pay attention to videos like this.

When I heard Hank Green say “Putting myself out there is my extreme sport”, those eight words hit me the way the girl’s ten words hit him: I could no longer live my life as I had been up to that moment. A new idea had been put into my mind, and I was no longer the person I was before clicking play on that video.

As soon as the video ended, I went and had a conversation I had been dreading (not to mention fantasizing doomily about) for days. And you know what? It wasn’t awful. It was good. We even laughed because, as it turned out, what I had been dreading was not an actual thing.

A few days later, I went for a bike ride and came across a man who was tending flowers in concrete planters in the middle of the road (placed by the city to prevent car traffic). I stopped and chatted with him. I never stop and chat with people about anything! I am terrified of stopping and chatting with people, but goddammit, I’ve had enough of being afraid of doing things I want to do. We had a nice chat, and I know I made him feel good because a stranger had stopped to compliment him on his flowers and his efforts.

I did that. Me, Mr Terrified-of-strangers; I watched a 4-minute video, took it to heart, and had a simple but excellent chat with a very nice man doing a very nice thing.

I doubt I would have responded to that video in this way six months ago. You have to be ready to change, and you need the resources inside to change. My mental health care, especially my mindfulness practice based in the values-based therapy of ACT*, has helped me to identify my values and figure out how to live them. “Not being afraid of life” is, for the time-being, one of my values, in parallel with “do stuff I really like and enjoy the hell out of it”. 

I still have a lot to do to “overcome” my anxieties more completely. I still ruminate on things I dread, fantasizing how awful they will be. I still make mistakes because my awareness is not on the thing I’m doing at the moment. And my living circumstances contain a measure of suckiness over which I have no control and can only impact by how I choose to let it affect my thoughts.

Hank Green never claimed those ten words fixed his life in any way. They didn’t, but, as he put it, he let her be one of the voices in his head. He started caring less about what others might think. In his words,

“I did start to take up more space and live through moments where I wasn’t sure what everyone would think of what I was doing or how I was acting, because – who knows?”

For him, worried that he might be the one about whom everyone thought “What a dork!”, realizing that at least one person might think “I wish I could do that, too” meant that worrying about what anyone thought was a waste of time and energy.

That girl’s ten words gave him a kick in the pants that shook him out of a negative attitude and towards a positive one. He grabbed ahold of those words and let them pull him through life. Now I am grabbing his eight words and doing the same.

I was a skier growing up, but not every good. I remember what it was like to stand at the top of a scary slope and look down. I only had one choice: lean forward and get going. Even if I looked dorky with my snowplowish turns, I survived every one of those runs. And I loved that I could do it, even if I never looked as cool as the really good skiers.

And it was never as frightening as chatting with a stranger.

*ACT: Acceptance and Values Therapy. A mindfulness- (and science-) based program that includes identifying and defining personal values and then learning how to live your life based on these. I highly recommend “The Happiness Trap” by Russ Harris to learn more. (At Powell’s Bookstore and available as an ebook.)

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