“Do you really mean that?”

In January 2018 I wondered how the heck I ended up in a failure cycle for nearly 25 years.

Wondering can be painful.

It was then.

Of course I wasn’t failing at everything through those years. I kept a career, raised a family, built a marriage. But I did have a sense that somehow my life had gone grossly off track in a way I just couldn’t get a grip on understanding. As far as I was concerned, I had lost my capacity to succeed in the ways I used to in the earlier days. What went wrong?

Whatever it was, it convinced me that I was a failure.

That’s not a happy place. It gets darker the more you isolate from the pain. And pain can only be tolerated for so long.

This past week I met someone who is living in a desperate place. Scared. Panicky. Tearful. Completely self-isolated. Failing. We met in a very strange way. I wished him well as I passed by and he literally barked back, “Do you really mean that?”

What a question. It stopped me in my tracks. I took a breath as I hesitated then said, “Yes, I absolutely mean it.”

It shocked him. So I asked him, “Why did you ask me that?” He said, “Because I don’t believe anyone cares anymore.”

When we cut ourselves off from the world around us, most will not know the hell we are living in. Even those who do care for people will not know what you are experiencing unless you give a hint. This man on the street desperately gave me a hint, and I recognized it.

I recognized it because, well, because I knew the signs.

Living through failures, perceived or real, can be an attention focusing device. We can learn from them. We can grow and be transformed by them. But we cannot deny they are real to our own understanding if we care to move toward a better place in life.

I took a very long hard look at what lead to my sense of failure. I enlisted others to help, and though I healed eventually, the process was at first terrifying and quite uncomfortable. But as I persevered, confidence began to return, and the wounds became less pronounced.

Next time you wish someone well, consider following it up with a question that explicitly shows you care. Everyone experiences their own hell at some point. You’ll never know unless you ask.

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