In the summer of 2008, I was an intern at an Office of the White House in Washington D.C. called the Council on Environmental Quality.
CEQ’s offices are located across the street from the White House inside a Secret Service secured square on a road called Jackson Place.
The office houses the President’s appointed advisors and staff members who work on the President’s behalf on all matters of the environment, from fishing and wildlife conservation to climate change, establishing national parks, preserving natural resources, and beyond.
I moved to the District just a few days after I graduated from college and at the time I thought that the prestigious internship I had landed was to be a springboard for a much longer career in public service.
A writer in my heart who held a love of language, my dream back then was to become a presidential speechwriter someday.
Then, a massive recession happened.
Then, while journaling one restless night I had an awakening moment that redefined my understanding of “leadership” and what I thought I had been seeking for most of my life.
Then, I got recruited for a job to work closely alongside a guy who was running for governor back in my home state.
Then, I fell depressed, had a crisis of identity, quit the job, and more than a decade later, this story is arriving in your inbox.
To be honest, I haven’t thought very much about my time in Washington D.C. lately — despite slyly slipping in a mention of the White House office at which I worked in a recent newsletter that I sent to you — that is, until earlier this summer, when memories of my summer internship came rushing back.
What prompted the memories?
I had received a group email from the former Chairman of CEQ, named Jim, who was reaching out to all former advisers, presidential appointees, and staffers to organize a small reunion party, which was planned to occur around larger Administration reunion in D.C. this past September.
While I was delighted to see the list of familiar names in the email chain in my inbox, my initial reaction was what you might expect from a former intern:
“Did you mean to include me on this email?”
There were two plausible scenarios that I could wrap my head around.
The first scenario: My work as an unpaid intern for one summer at this White House office was so remarkable, so outstanding, and so memorable that the former Chairman and presidential appointee made a special point to invite me to this reunion party, a full 11 years later. He simply had to have me there.
The second and far more realistic scenario: It was a group email blast that no one had noticed I was included on.
Within a couple of days, though, it became clear that I had been invited — although, not in ways that would necessarily puff up my ego. As it turns out, every former staffer and even intern was invited to the party, which is pretty cool and says a lot about the caliber of humans with whom I was lucky enough to work. It was a markedly familial and supportive workplace. I definitely took those qualities for granted when I was 22 years old.
While I was indeed invited, and despite having terrific memories from my time at that office to boot, I nevertheless heard myself, yet again, write off the invitation, saying:
“It’s not like I would make the effort to go back to D.C., for the first time in years, just to attend this reunion party, where it was distinctly possible that absolutely no one would remember me… would I?”
But what if it would be fun? an innocent, feel-good voice within me chimed back. Wouldn’t it be great to catch up with some of those folks?
That’s when some old, familiar, shadowy “shame scripts” came roaring back.
I began to hear myself say things like:
“Dude, what do you really think you’re going to bring to the table with these people — if you decide to go?”
“What are you really going to offer anyone there?”
“Who’s going to care that you’re ‘a writer’ these days?”
“Will anyone even understand what it is you ‘do’ for work? Or what you’re trying to ‘do’ with your life?”
“What if you walk in and know nobody? What if they laugh you out of the room?”
“Who the flat hell are you to attend a White House office reunion party?”
These stories, these subtle and sneaking narratives, which propel some of my harshest self-limiting beliefs around my self-worth, self-esteem, and value as a person, are ones I’ve known all too well throughout my life.
Like an evil arch-nemesis, this shadowy figure called Shame rises out from the recesses of my mind — a Boogeyman of a villain, always there, ever-present, ready to return as soon as some (usually) social or professional situation arises that challenges me to feel worthy, deserving, or capable.
This voice, which I’ve grappled with for decades, tries to keep me not just hidden from perceived threats and dangers, or protected from outsider judgment and criticism. It tries to keep me small.
The shadow of shame that I have known to follow me for many years tries to stop what I consider to be, conversely, my soul’s calling: a deep wish to be seen; an unrelenting desire to feel “enough” just because I am; an instinctive yearning to serve some ounce of goodness in the world, even from as seemingly little as just caring enough to try.
As I’ve gotten more and more attuned to the sneaking shadow of shame that tries to derail what I have long felt called to express with my life, I’ve developed a personal practice and discipline to face what I feel I am avoiding the most.
Whenever I do, I am usually able to quell that unwanted shame shadow.
In turn, I lift up, give power to, and stay aligned with the positive and good and wholesome qualities that I have long been seeking from my work, my writing, my relationships, and in all other areas of my life.
We might call it selfhood, or self-love, or self-acceptance.
Usually, I just call it wholeness.
Even after having identified my shame shadow — that old culprit that has held me back for years, and that I did not want to let “win” in this instance — it still wasn’t as clear, obvious, or certain a decision to simply fly down to D.C. and attend the reunion.
While, when I was younger, I would often find myself making rash decisions with defiance and even a twinge of anger just to spite my avoidance, these days, I try to make more patient and integrated choices that honor more than just the idea of “facing what I’m avoiding the most.”
After taking a few weeks to think and feel the decision through — including budgeting out the trip, talking with friends and family members about it, and using my imagination and feel-senses to “place” or envision myself at the party, as if to assess the potential Pros and Cons of attending — I decided that I would attend, after all.
The writer and storyteller in me said, for better or for worse — whether I knew no one at the party or found myself in a room full of friendly and familiar faces; whether I was laughed out of the room, or awkwardly sat in the corner to play with a dog for a couple of hours — I would at the very least have a story to tell from the experience.
Maybe I would have a moment of reckoning with how my life could have been had I stayed in the District a decade ago, or had I not quit my job, or had choices and decisions panned out just slightly differently.
At the very, very least, I would be facing down my shame shadow, and “putting myself out there” yet again, and be seen despite the shame-impulse to keep hidden.
So, on a Friday this past September, I packed a small bag and caught a flight down to Washington D.C.
Just a few hours later, in Arlington, Virginia, I walked into a stranger’s house where three balloons were bobbing in front, with the letters “CEQ” written across them in black Sharpie.
“Here goes nothing,” I said as I walked in the door.
This is the point in the story when you might expect a dramatic climax in the narrative.
Because, after all, as I walked in the door of this White House Reunion party, I too was expecting a dramatic climax to the narrative build-up of my getting there:
– An 18-year story, from the day I watched two skyscrapers collapse upon themselves from my high school library’s fuzzy television set when I said that I would do some good in a world that appeared to so desperately need it.
– A 15-year trajectory, from when I selected Political Science as the subject of my studies in college and even signed up for a year of Military Leadership 101 training with the Army ROTC as a freshman.
– An 11-year narrative arc, from the day I finished my internship in 2008 to this past September, at which time I found myself reliving the memories all over again.
– A 10-year journey, from quitting my job and leaving a career in public service behind to choose a life of writing and teaching and storytelling, instead.
…and all of the journeys within those journeys; countless thousands of cycles within cycles, choices within choices, and narrative arcs within themselves.
You might expect a dramatic climax in this story now, because I did too.
But, as is so often the case when we are simply living out the most true, honest, and important matters in our lives, it’s usually never drama that drives the real story. Dramatic twists and turns abound in life, as in compelling stories, but usually not when we anticipate them or can see them coming.
(What with the “drama” of dramatic twists and turns usually being unpredictable and unforeseen and all.)
I didn’t meet the former President when I walked in and talk the night away with him at the party, nor did I help a big wig involved with environmental advocacy figure out how to solve climate change by telling a single story, nor did I discover that I wanted to move back to Washington D.C. and restart my old career all these years later.
But for that matter, nor was I laughed out of the room upon arrival, nor was I left with no one to talk to who actually knew me, nor was I found quietly playing with a very anxious Golden Doodle in the corner as the party panned out centrally.
I had a great time.
I had what felt like a dozen meaningful conversations.
I felt as though I said some things that were useful.
I felt seen and appreciated by a bunch of folks who, to my surprise, remembered those few months we shared an office together those 11 years later.
And I’ll tell you a little more about those exchanges when I write to you next.
But, for now…
Real stories typically occur in the ripe, raw middle of the polar extremes that we fear and fret, or over-romanticize and wistfully imagine. Real stories — by which I mean the ones we live in, every day — usually unfold modestly, incrementally, and in their own time.
We can’t propel the authentic stories of our lives with sheer desperation, or outright impatience, or feverish anxiety, or because we so damn well want a big and life-changing “win” that turns the page on the past, once and for all.
The narrative centerpieces of our whole lives — and who we are, deep down, as souls — unfolds like a love that builds with time, and trust, and continual openness; like a tree whose rise is only as sure and steady as its roots go deep.
We can’t force the stories that we most want to be living.
But we can make concerted choices to stay true to the story’s gradual, eventual, and steady unfolding.
For me, what I have learned that’s helped me stay true to that unfolding is facing what I would far rather avoid — in life, in career, in travels, in romance, and beyond.
Every time I sit down and write, I do so to face my avoidance.
When I meditate every morning, I face what I would rather avoid.
When I go to the gym to work out, I would rather avoid it.
When I imagine a project, a book, a program, or a workshop, I would so much rather avoid it than actually see it through.
Whenever I ask her out on another date, despite my wanting it, it’s the fear of being rejected or not being good enough that I would so much rather avoid than face.
Sometimes, “facing what I’m avoiding” is an exercise in self-study. At times like those, I’ll go out of my way to do one thing that I’d rather avoid — say, for 100 days, instead of resorting to something habitual, or resigning myself to somewhere familiar, or simply feeling hidden from life.
I know that, deep down, my highest self requires that of me: to stay ever-vigilant and disciplined about not allowing my shame shadow to keep me small and hidden.
But, most of the time, it’s not such a methodical process.
Most of the time, it’s instinctive — a responsive and intuitive series of choices — to go into the place that scares me because I sense that, for better or for worse, it will be worth it.
Whenever I walk through that door, it’s usually not a dramatic twist, a sudden turn, or a wild narrative climax that finds me there.
Whenever I walk through that door, I find that the door is just one more door in a long, long series of doors, carrying me through the narrative centerpiece of the life that I truly want to be living.
The steady middle.
The ripe, raw, real story.
Patient, like love.
On its own time.
Deep, before far, like the tree.
One door at a time.