There is now an infamous story in my family of how early one morning on my way to work, I hugged a curb too tight coming out of my neighborhood and scratched the side of my new car. Somehow, I left thousands of dollars of damage. Yet, the mailbox was untouched. Yes, the mailbox was just fine!
I went back after work, prepared to write a note and to pay for the mailbox. However, there it stood completely unscathed, a strange miraculous mailbox that could damage a car but still stand strong. The outrageous part of this story is that I had just gotten my car back from the repair shop the day before.
This was a low moment in my confidence in my driving skills. Most people who knew me well were a little concerned about my driving abilities at that point. To be fair, I had not had a car incident since high school. Wrecking a car twice, a brand new one at that, was embarrassing to say the least.
Hitting a mailbox causes a lot of laughs, as it should! It is self-inflicted damage to my car. However, in the spaces between the humor, familiar narratives of shame were triggered. “What is wrong with me?” I thought as I processed this new legacy of battling mailboxes with my car. I felt bad about hitting the mailbox, and I wondered what must be wrong with me that I hit it.
I knew the road was narrow to turn on. I knew that there was always oncoming traffic. I knew that the mailbox jutted out into the street. All of these things make for a recipe for collision. However, I still hit it, and I wondered whether I was the only one who had made this mistake.
However, I still hit it, and I wondered whether I was the only one who had made this mistake.
This is a question that I hear all the time from adults: What is wrong with me? Am I the only one? Does anyone else struggle with this?
This series of questions only doubles our pain and our struggle. It layers shame on top of pain. Whatever it is we are battling in our painful and hopeless moments, we often believe that we are the only one. It leaves us with two problems: our struggle and the notion that we are the only people messed up enough to deal with it.
The truth is there is no struggle in this life that someone else has not also encountered. There is almost palpable pressure released in therapy rooms when someone hears for the first time that they are not the only one. There is deep comfort in knowing you are not alone.
We can call this idea “common humanity.” It is an essential ingredient for compassion for ourselves and others. In order to extend kindness, we must understand that we are not the only ones who struggle. Common humanity helps us understand that neither our successes nor failures define us.
The truth is there is no struggle in this life that someone else has not also encountered.
Now back to the mailbox. I have had an ongoing healing relationship with this ridiculous mailbox since I first encountered it with the side of my car. Now, I always check in on it as I drive by. I don’t notice the other mailboxes so much. I should name the mailbox at this point.
The mailbox serves as a constant teacher for me. Week after week, the poor thing has been hit and knocked down. The disoriented angle and shape it is left in are almost always different, but it is clear that it has been knocked down again by another car.
The first time I saw this pattern, I text my husband, “It wasn’t just me! Someone else hit the mailbox!” It has happened so often now that it is a family joke, and we all look for it. Each time I see the banged up mailbox, I am reminded of the truth of common humanity.
Each time I see the banged up mailbox, I am reminded of the truth of common humanity.
I am not the only human to hit this mailbox. “I am not the only one” is reemphasized in my mind. Then, I think about who might have been the most recent person to hit the mailbox, and I have compassion for them. It’s funny how I am much more apt to give compassion to others than I am to myself. But how can we truly love our neighbors as ourselves if we don’t treat ourselves well? I find that it is easier to be kind when I know I am not the only one.
Apparently, it got so bad with this mailbox that the owners eventually changed the direction of the entire thing. Now, it is parallel to the sidewalk it once hung off of. It no longer sits perpendicular and juts out into the road. Even so, tonight as I drove home, the poor mailbox was completely bent over in a way I had never seen before, practically doing a backbend.
I thought about the person who hit it, and I laughed with compassion for them. I hope they had compassion for themselves too. I hoped they would soon learn that they are not the only one.
Has there ever been a moment where you realized you were not the only one? How did that commonality make you feel?
Image via Caroline Williams