I was recently informed of the death of a talented, extraordinary young man who lost his life tragically at the age of 27. A few days after his death, one of his close friends wrote me to share the news. She told me a bit more about him—the devotion he had to his girlfriend; the love he offered to those in his life; the strength that kept him going. And then she shared something that hit me like a ton of bricks.
She said that the rabbi who had officiated at his funeral had mentioned my writings in his eulogy.
This wrecked me.
This was, truly, one of the most humbling things I had ever been told. I interact with people in pain all the time, but it felt almost impossible to respond to her. I kept asking myself, over and over again, how do I bear witness to this?
The reality is that the words of this woman destroyed me because when I heard that my work had been offered in the most intimate of gatherings, I felt inadequate. I felt pained. I felt guilty.
I was brought to my knees by one underlying thought:
Who am I to be a part of this man’s funeral, even if only for a moment?
Was I moved? Yes. I was unbelievably, incredibly moved. I felt beyond honored and humbled. But I also felt an almost unbearable pain.
After all, what are my words? How can they possibly honor this man who died far, far too young, leaving so many grieving souls in his wake?
This story illustrates something I fear we speak of far too little: the terrible scourge of inadequacy. You know what I'm talking about, don’t you? It doesn’t matter how confident, accomplished, or fortunate you are, feelings of inadequacy plague us all at one time or another.
You hear it when that pernicious voice inside whispers: you are not enough.
You feel it when someone is taken from you and the physical reaction in your body cries out: it should have been you.
You remember it when the loss of something dear to you screams inside your mind: it’s gone, forever. You’ve lost it.
These feelings often tear us apart. They are compounded by the fact that they are usually buried; hidden under layer upon layer of shame and fear.
This does not have to be.
INADEQUACY AND UNDERSTANDING
One of the terrors of experiencing adversity is that you, and only you, can experience it. No one can experience it for you. You are both alone and not alone at the same time.
It’s no secret that we’re hardwired for connection, and one of the greatest aches in life is the fact that we can’t literally invade each other’s hearts. We can’t reach into a loved one's consciousness and understand exactly what they're going through.
There is always an element of conjecture—a tear in the fabric, a separation, no matter how connected we might feel to someone.
These experiences often heighten the sense that we're not enough, because we're haunted by the feeling that we're not really as we should be. This could not be more true than in the aftermath of loss and tragedy, when our exteriors become battered shells and our walls often rise to the highest of highs at the same time.
So, what to do?
I can’t tell you exactly how to feel less inadequate. That would be a dangerous prescription. What I can say is that as I offer these words to you, I feel inadequate.
Although I'm a professional writer, writing isn’t easy for me. I live with a difficult medical condition and a disability. The mere act of typing can be brutally difficult. Yet for some reason, the more I write, the more centered and purposed I feel.
At the same time, I often feel inadequate in my writing. Speaking to people in pain via my words is both a great privilege and responsibility; one that sometimes leaves me feeling as if I am not enough. Yet in this inadequacy I find a clue: in my brokenness is my strength.
I understand that this feeling will never completely dissipate. I know that the work of life is not to kill this feeling, the work of life is to carry forward and choose to live, every day, in light of it.
Life is scattered with the shadows of paradox and contradiction. Just as with fear or grief, we don’t defeat inadequacy by trying to beat it, we "defeat" it by learning to live with it.
Most of us tend to do the opposite: we search endlessly for a "cure"—chiefly under the umbrella of "happiness"—and when we don’t find what we’re looking for, we fall deeper into the helplessness, self-sabotage, and inadequacy that terrorize lives.
Instead, perhaps we can start with a different heuristic:
In acknowledging the inadequacy of ourselves and others, we help each other to be understood.
Understanding lessens the horrors of inadequacy—not by destroying it, but by diminishing its power. Because no matter how inadequate you feel, you always have choices. You still have the ability to serve and to give what you can such that those you love are kept from the hell of hopelessness.
INADEQUACY AND ACKNOWLEDGMENT
When I feel like I'm not enough, I inevitably pause, and absorb the feelings.
I then whisper:
I feel you. I know you’re here. But you will not dictate my actions. You will not destroy my resolve.
Immediately the feelings begin to recede. I don’t move from “not enough” to "enough,” I move from “not enough” to “I feel like I’m not enough but I’m going to let myself live anyway."
My wounds are not my master. Yours are not either.
When you feel the beasts of inadequacy rise within you, let them ride. The more you try to numb them away, the more they will take root inside of you.
I promise no rainbows or chocolate bunnies. I cannot make your pain go away. Ever.
Life is hard. In some ways, life is cold, hard fact. We don’t always get what we want, things don’t always work out in the end, and terrible things happen all the time.
Acknowledging this isn’t cynical or angry or bitter. It’s real. It’s honest. And it’s loving.
Yet no matter how bad things get, no one can steal your inner agency. No one can prevent you from choosing to keep going, especially when your life has been ripped apart.
INADEQUACY AND THE WORK OF LIFE
After I was informed of this young man's death, I came across the words of one of my favorite writers—the author Sarah Manguso—who recently wrote the following:
“The purpose of being a serious writer is not to make something beautiful...but to keep people from despair. If people read your work and, as a result, choose life, then you are doing your job.”
Few words have illustrated the calling of the writer greater than that.
In a very real sense, there’s no doubt that a fundamental component in the experience of being human is to keep people from despair.
I hope, dear friends, to help keep you from despair. I want you to understand that the pain you feel is honored not because I can heal it, but because I can bear witness to it.
You can do the same. You can offer your solidarity by deliberately allowing yourself to stand inside another’s pain, as best you can.
Paradoxically, this often happens when you’re in great pain yourself. Perceived weakness often leads to a willingness to be of service to those who so desperately need you.
This is how it has always been for me. I have seemed to “help” most when I wasn’t trying to do anything at all. I was merely listening. I was present. I was offering myself via my brokenness, and via my choosing to suffer alongside a fellow sufferer, even when I felt like I was not enough.
When you choose to do the same, you are engaging in an act of great courage: you are acknowledging that you truly have no control over the world around you.
Because you don’t. None of us do.
We have far more control over our actions, our will, and our agency than we often think we do.
But we have very little control over the world around us.
We don’t know when tragedy will visit us.
We don’t know when we'll lose that which is most dear to us.
We don’t know when injury will wreck us, or financial calamity will come about.
And we don’t know when those around us will die, just as we don’t ever really know when we will die.
We only know that we are all moving inexorably towards death; its constancy remaining in us—the beast and beauty of time always lurking just underneath our pains and loves.
We can't choose when disaster will strike. But we can choose whether we'll stand with those who've had their lives turned upside down by it.
To do this is an act of remarkable love.
INADEQUACY AND PERSEVERANCE
If you're in great pain at the moment—if you've suffered a terrible loss—please do not feel as if there's something wrong with you if navigating it isn't "easy." The propagation of the myth that adversity should somehow be a cakewalk with a homemade remedy is a bullshit tyranny. Life isn’t easy. Sometimes it just feels like it's not really worth it.
So when you hear yourself saying “I can’t,” don’t respond with some empty affirmation in the vein of “Yes I can.” Instead, perhaps start with “I feel like I can’t, but I'm going to do what I can."
This is one of the core components of perseverance, and it is one of the greatest ways we can honor those we have lost.
I know that my words will never feel like enough to comfort the friends and family of the man I opened this piece with.
Yet I will keep offering what I can, because it is what I can. I will often fail. I will often feel inadequate. I will often want to give up.
You probably will as well.
I ask only this: when you feel like you’re not enough, first give it its due. Let it have its voice. Then, let it move you to do what you don't think you can.
INADEQUACY AND LOVE
I won't lie. It's very possible that in some sense, you will never feel like you’re enough.
Yet to those who love you and those whose lives you touch, you will forever be more than enough.
Wrapping our brains around this paradox can be incredibly difficult. But it is extraordinarily powerful.
After all, what if true bravery was found not in pretending that life must always be awesome, but in acknowledging that life sometimes truly sucks?
What if we did a better job of treating each other not as utilities—as objects to be exploited—but as the fragile, pained, beautiful beings we are?
In the end, I don’t write to convince you to agree with me or to appear sophisticated or even to show you something beautiful. Every time I go down that road, my work suffers.
Instead, I write to connect with you, to move you, and to offer you a piece of the aching pain that resides within me. I do this so that you might be kept from despair, and in the process, be kept from the horror of loneliness. If only for a few moments.
This offering is imperfect. It’s never complete. It always feels fragile.
But it encapsulates what I believe to be the essence of grief:
In many ways, life is love weeping.
My writings can do nothing except weep alongside you, and my words are but fragments of the wails we all experience in life. My words feel inadequate when I want them to accomplish something. But they are not meant to fix anything. Sometimes my words are broken. Sometimes they're sharp and assertive. Sometimes they're offensive. And sometimes, my words are a fragile, imperfect, messy hug of grace.
I hope that my words serve as one of these fragile, imperfect, messy hugs of grace to the loved ones of the wonderful young man who lost his life.
Please offer them freely. The choice to do so quite literally saves lives.
Especially when you feel inadequate.