“Tony, you’re Captain America,” a friend rejoiced. Locked in editing my recent short film, ¡Viva la Revolución!, he’s privied to my emotional presence daily. “Because you’re a principled motherfucker.”
Another buddy, struggling with a personal issue, said, “Having a conversation with you is like talking with Tony Robbins and Oprah!” I picked up my producing partner for a meeting, and in my car he saw my piano book. “Are you kidding me? Do you ever stop improving yourself?”
Everything I do each day is almost guaranteed to answer the question: “How will this help me improve?” Even my time with my adorable nieces and nephew, the intention is “if I want the perfectly balanced life, I need to practice this now for when I have kids in the future.” Time with friends is spent wondering, “How can my presence improve their lives today?” I ask myself, “How can I create a life that is full of learning, incomparable amounts of energy, well evolved principles, and intense adventure?”
I’ve tricked myself into feeling that my life is fulfilled by incessantly reading self-help, business, filmmaking, and psychology books as they help me better know myself and what I have chosen as my passion and profession. The friend who described me as ‘Captain America’ said: “No one can numb hurt the way you can.” I asked others about this. The same sentiment was repeated.
I numb the pain. Where is growth in that? Where in the hell is life in that?
A few weeks ago, I had moments where I felt so alive. Where I truly, deeply felt I was a human with emotions. The first was a level of vulnerability I hadn’t allowed myself to have with a person because I always wanted to solve a problem or prove I was present. For the first time I allowed myself to shine a light on true issues I had. A shift in me began to occur. One sending me diving headfirst into my deepest fears and insecurities.
As I normally would, I immediately filled my days with obsessive studying of vulnerability. I watched videos, read articles, listened and shared podcasts, and engaged my parents in a conversation about it. I wanted to know how to logically fit the pieces together and solve issues in my life. If I studied and understood my emotions better, I could be better for everyone else. I wouldn’t let myself feel the hurt. If I could pull the veil over my eyes, I could continue to push through the hurt.
My grandfather is not doing well these days. A man who built his life as a contractor is no longer allowed to drive or work. His mental health has deteriorated to where he can no longer safely do these things. He cannot accept it and it’s killing him inside. His zest for life has been replaced, leaving him laughing and sharing his loving smile far less. He has stated he’s ready to go almost daily and honestly, I too hope he does.
The same week this transformation embracing pain began, I believed he was going to die. He was complaining of headaches, his face was slouching, and my mom asked my dad to take him to the hospital. I was overcome with a feeling of gratitude. My mom, who has been having a difficult time refusing to accept this, continued on like nothing bothered her. In my need to solve her problem and refute my pain, I told her “Everything is going to be ok, mom.” She began to cry and said “I know. Leave me alone.” I pressed on, “It’s going to be ok.” More tears filled her eyes. She walked away, reluctantly but engaging in her pain.
Then, I got in my car, hysterically crying on the phone with my best friend, seeking to find a way to get a quick answer to relieve pressure. I called my siblings, telling them to prepare, that I felt today he would go. In their wisdom, they kept composure and guided me.
As I continued to read and build connections for the way I was feeling, I became more dejected and confused, looking for answers to logically support the stories I had constructed about myself. In addressing emotions through outside sources, I refused to allow meaningful change to occur. If I made myself a perfect machine, I would find my significance and cover up my wounds. Someone who prided himself on not having defenses had tricked himself into building up the most impenetrable wall of all. A wall of false knowledge, false wisdom, and false understanding. President Trump had nothing on my wall.
It wasn’t until a meeting with a dear friend that life changed. Five hours and a ruthlessly honest, incredibly vulnerable, perspective shifting conversation later, I came out reinvigorated, like Ebenezer Scrooge in The Muppet’s Christmas Carol, ready to give love “With a thankful heart, with an endless joy…a grateful smile and…with an open door.” This friend shared with me his own struggles with vulnerability. His relentlessness to not accept my wall, allowed me to see things for what they were, instead of what I’d built in my head. He showed me what I had been missing and encouraged me to look for answers within and see the pain of perfection.
I began the process of allowing myself to heal and be at peace with the ups and downs of life. Reading couldn’t give me the real solution I needed. Doing the complete opposite of what we’ve so often trained ourselves to do – avoid, blame, and build stories – I decided to go full force into what scared me the most: That I wasn’t enough and would never be enough. I allowed myself, as I preach to the kids I speak to in my youth empowerment presentations and to borrow a Navy SEAL creedo, “Embrace the [Stink],” the way I had always wanted, and to lean in to people that had earned a right to my full vulnerability. I no longer needed to solve problems or prove I had answers about their emotional queries or mine, rather I reached a point of “I’ve read all of these things and yet I still don’t know the answer. I want to find out more by feeling the pain.”
This is where life happens—in the imperfection. Where life gets its technicolor. Our imperfections are what make us who we are. No shield or armor, could produce the uniqueness, experience, the life, that being an imperfect person can bring.
It’s with relentless effort to deeply and fearlessly know oneself and one’s insecurities and fears, that you question yourself even more and feel the desire to go discover the world for yourself. To put yourself out there with a first kiss, allowing yourself to release the fear and pain, or the most difficult piece of vulnerability that we all struggle with– not having an answer and just being there for someone to lean on in times of uncertainty – to love them the way they need to be loved, that is true bravery. The hardest decisions, against the grain of your normal emotional and spiritual choices, are the true areas of growth.
A bubble of knowledge remains a bubble if we choose not to experience it ourselves through ruthless vulnerability to loved ones. There’s no book, video, or podcast that can give you true knowledge. They can give you tools, but never the true wisdom of feeling pain and the joys that come with falling on your face and getting back up. I’ve made a career and life of this, and I’m just now starting to completely love it. I ask you to join me in having the willingness to open your hearts to what life puts before us. To address our biggest fears, fully and completely. That’s courage, that makes you a superhero.