Look! I Did A Thing (+Tom Papa On What Love Is)

A Tom Papa quote got me all choked up a few weeks ago. I heard it right before I did a thing. A BIG thing. But first, the quote. It’s from his book, You’re Doing Great!: And Other Reasons To Stay Alive.

We’re all somewhat unpleasant–which is another way of saying disgusting–and we’re all flawed. All of us. That’s what love is. Finding someone whose flaws you can put up with.

There’s two sides of this. The first is that we’re flawed. But the second is that despite our flaws, we’re worthy of love. Nothing big happens without believing you’re worthy.

Papa’s quote came up while he was on Mike Birbiglia’s podcast. They’re both comedians, and they both know how to make a joke about themselves. They’re also happily married. “Happily” is the operative word here. It’s a signal, beyond the funny, for how this quote runs deeper.

Part of recognizing we’re unpleasant, and disgusting, and flawed, is feeling like we’re not just unlovable, but wholly unworthy of being loved. Holy s*** that hurts to even write. If you can’t even like yourself, how is anybody else supposed to like you? I wrestled with this a lot over the past several years. I was pretty sure I was just supposed to be alone. I’d made my peace with it.

There were a lot of hard choices to make. There was a lot of unpleasant, if not outright disgusting muck to wade through. I started with nobody to talk to except a therapist. After a few years of paying someone to tell me “You should probably talk to more people than just me,” I listened.

I gradually started sharing pieces of what was going on, but only with a select few friends and family. They were some of the hardest conversations I’ve ever had.

I’m not good at opening up like that. Or, I should say, I wasn’t good at it. No practice. If you’re already feeling unlovable and unworthy of love, you can’t even begin to imagine how sharing details of your trashcan life is going to help in any way. I mean, these people are already barely there as far as you can tell.

Asking, “Do you have time to talk” is hard. It’s not a celebration. It’s not like you just won a championship and are sneaking up to dump a cooler of Gatorade on their heads while screaming with mutual joy. Instead, you’re asking them to listen about how you just lost your 17th consecutive season in a sport they barely knew existed, let alone that someone could be this bad at. To top it off, the only liquid being spilled has the distinct odor of summertime dumpster water. The look on their face tells you it’s really not good. They’re also visibly disturbed by how unphased by the smell you are.

But it worked. The talking, not the losing and dumpster water bit. I was opening up. They weren’t running away screaming. A lot of them had stories too.

This is bravery. When you finally find out you’re not alone. How the lonely ones, plural(!), really aren’t the only ones. How many others were going through trauma and pain too. Thank the gods for friends.

In time, I shared all of it with the one. The one who effortlessly assumed best friend status. The one who told me, “You’re doing great.” The one who, despite seeing my many, many flaws, didn’t just put up with them, but said, “Yeah, you think I don’t know this about you? It’s part of what makes you you. I get it. You’re doing great. Oh, and, maybe lay off that dumpster water? Not for me, but for yourself.”

I cried when she told me this. Repeatedly. I cried when Birbiglia read the quote, and I thought about what I know about his own history – of being zippered into a sleeping bag, drugged, with mittens on each hand so his sleep walking wouldn’t endanger himself or anyone else. I cried for the unpleasant, disgusting, unworthy mess Papa’s 4 sentences communicate. I cried because it made me remember all of these feelings.

We’re all somewhat unpleasant–which is another way of saying disgusting–and we’re all flawed. All of us. That’s what love is. Finding someone whose flaws you can put up with.

It’s not just about their flaws. It’s about ours. And if you can find somebody who you can level with – the floor is still the floor, but the sky’s only the first glimpse of a limit. Watch out moon. Watch out stars.

If this seems like the most non-romantic quote I could muster a week from the most important question I’ve ever asked, it’s because I don’t (yet) have the words to properly describe this. It’s too big. The thing. The things. Too close. Too opposite from where I saw my life going, just a few years go before we met. I had only been finding new floors. Danker dumpsters. Now there’s just so much… sky.

The only words that’ve made honest sense coming out of my own mouth so far were in response to her counter-asking, “What about you – do you?”

My answer was, “Heart and soul. With both feet.”

You know what love is. 

Ps. in case it’s not obvious yet, she said yes. And I couldn’t be happier.

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