— Amma Marfo (@ammamarfo) January 18, 2014
I had the opportunity to spend time with the resident assistant staffs for all six Colleges of the Fenway this past weekend as a presenter for their spring staff training. I was surprised to see several of the Emmanuel RAs, students who I work with often, bound into my session with excitement, asking me what we were going to do while they were there. More specifically, they wanted to know if we were going to do a meditation.
This was not an idle or irrelevant request, by the way. When I spoke to them during their own specific staff training last spring, we talked about developing copings strategies for stress, time management, and the importance of relaxation. Many of them were meeting me for the first time in that session, and were seeing me speak on something of great personal importance to me. I had a rare moment of honesty during that hour, and one that I’ve learned to embrace from some pretty great comedians.
As you may know from a recent post, I just finished and wholly enjoyed Rob Delaney’s book Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage. In addition to just being a hilarious read in the same vein as Tina Fey’s Bossypants or Nick Offerman’s Paddle Your Own Canoe, it digs deeper to address some of Rob’s less funny and more personal demons, like his struggle with alcoholism and battles with depression. An example of his honesty:
Shortly after I left the house, I got a call from one of the guys and he told me that Luke had OD’d and died. I was crushed. He was a doctor and so f***ing handsome and smart and nice. Shouldn’t all that have added up into some sort of cosmic or karmic armor that protected him? What was his f***ing SAT score? I ﬁgured Luke was just lured by his easy access to prescription meds and that he would get it together after getting burned. How were people like me supposed to stay sober if handsome doctors could just up and relapse and die?
A few days later his brother called me. I’d never met his brother, but he’d gotten phone numbers of some of the guys Luke had told him about and decided to call them. He cried as he spoke to me and I’m crying right now thinking about it. He asked me to stay sober because he didn’t want anybody else to die like his brother did. He loved his brother and he called me, a stranger, to ask me to not get loaded again and die, to honor his brother. I don’t know about the value of blood pacts or oaths, but I know that when I recall that conversation, with me sitting on the edge of my bed, stunned and crying, listening to another man cry, I am prompted to stay the f*** sober and try to help others do the same.
Needless to say, this is not what you expect to read in a comedian’s book. As I read his heartfelt and occasionally heartbreaking account of his harder times, particularly as he spoke about how its informed the life he lives today with his wife and family, i was reminded of a pair of funny women who laugh through their pain: Maria Bamford and Tig Notaro.
Maria Bamford has been joking for years about her struggles with depression, and the relationship she’s built with her parents as a result of those struggles. Her diminutive but expressive voice allows her to incite giggles with what would otherwise be very painful stories. She reminds us that we can smile through our tougher days, and that we still have the power to help those around us smile in the process.
And then…there’s Tig Notaro. Tig Notaro’s latest hardship became public during a 2013 standup special that she started with the salutation: “Hello…thank you, thank you, I have cancer.” What followed was a beautifully honest hour of comedy(!) about how she navigated her cancer diagnosis and treatment, while dealing with family troubles and the dissolution of a relationship. There is a tremendous level of bravery that comes with the type of disclosure she made in front of the people at her show; rather than link you to the special itself, I want to share the Fresh Air interview where she talks more about it. I listen to a LOT of NPR, and it’s one of the best interviews I’ve ever heard.
I have been incredibly lucky to have colleagues and students who have responded favorably when I have shared struggles of my own. When I talk to students about the importance of relaxation, stress relief, and attention to self-care, that conversation is coupled with the story of how my neglect of these things led to considerable weight gain and hair loss. My research and sharing of my introversion research is paired with my stories of how being misunderstood affected my development. This is a terrifying prospect: what if they don’t trust me afterward? What if they think I’m crazy? In both cases, of course there were extremely personal details that were left out; however, by the end of our time together, they knew me a little bit better and that has been helpful.
Maria, Rob, and Tig serve as powerful reminders that, if done thoughtfully and with a guiding lesson to frame it, we can be honest about our hard times and still do our jobs well. It may not be your preferred route and I would never say that it should be, but the possibility generally exists. I never expected students to bound into my training sessions, sessions that are generally about pretty serious topics. But by pairing them with fun anecdotes, activities, and opportunities to see themselves in the stories I tell, I find that they really enjoy it.
Have you found ways to share your hard times with students and colleagues? How have they responded?