Dying in Plain Sight

Published on September 12th, 2019

10,000 hours. This is the number made famous by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. The claim is that it's the (minimum) time necessary to achieve mastery in a subject matter. The bad news: it's not a guarantee. Without proper knowledge, strategy, and natural talent, it can be a lot of effort with minimal results.

10,000 hours. This is the approximate amount of time I spent with my childhood friends from the time I was about five years old until we graduated high school together. Besides sleep, it's hard to think of a time we weren't together (e.g., at babysitters, school, sports games, playing video games, etc.) We were thick as thieves, having spent so much time together in our formative years.

What's the common thread between these two situations?

Through no fault of their own, my best friends had no clue how deep I was in depression with fear of imminent danger or of dying. How'd this happen? Here's what I believe to be true.

Selective Attention

If you haven't already seen this before, stop everything and perform the 1-minute exercise in this video. I'll wait. Trust me; it's worth it.

Fucking crazy, huh? The first time I watched this, I thought it was a sleight of hand trick. I then watched it a 2nd time and couldn't believe that I would miss something so obvious. And yet, we all do this every day. We are so focused on work or social media or our family or politics that we completely tune out everything else.

Selective Deception

From the outside, people thought we had a perfect family. My mom was beloved by everyone. Literally. Everyone. And I was the good kid with great grades, and I excelled in sports. The same with my brother Danny, although he swapped sports for skateboarding.

There was one problem. Homelife wasn't great. And on some days, it was downright dangerous. I hate telling the story, but my parents fought hard. On at least two situations that I remember vividly, I wasn't sure one of them was going to make it through the night alive. They are not best friends again, but during that chapter of their life, it was an incredibly dangerous time and place to be a kid.

I don't resent or blame them. Since that time, I've learned a lot about alcoholism and the family dynamics that can come about. One typical pattern is learning the art of deception — the ability to put a smile on one's face while being anxious and afraid inside. I became so skilled at this that nobody seemed even to be aware that there was any problem at all. The following is a recent example.

Last year was my 20-year high school reunion. I didn't go mostly because of the costs and logistics of flying from Colorado to NY with my entire family. However, I was fortunate enough that my best friend was coming in April to visit while his wife was at a conference. It's always a blast seeing him, and we took the day to go visit Garden of the Gods and catch up. It was a gorgeous day, and the park is breathtaking.

On the drive, we, of course, reflected on the good old times. However, this time, we did something we never did before. This time we had an open and honest conversation about the bad times. He apologized several times for his ignorance, but there was nothing to apologize for. We were just kids. And if you didn't know the signs of a family battling with alcoholism, how would you know? And even if you did, what if they were all masterful coverup artists like my family?

The Many Dying in Plain Sight

If you can't relate to this experience, consider yourself lucky. It's not an uncommon experience, although it may take many forms. Sometimes it's a person dealing with extreme anxiety, loneliness, or depression. Sometimes its an alcoholism or drug addiction. Sometimes its heartbreak due to the loss of a family member.

Whatever the case may be, you probably bump into dozens of people on a daily basis that are dealing with challenges in life. Some of them are minor, but others can be crushing. Unfortunately, things like selective attention and deception can hide or mask what should be visible right in front of us.

As someone who has gone through some hellacious moments and lived to tell the tale, I've made it a point to pay it forward. All it takes is listening and watching for queues and then asking a simple question. How are you doing? And once the initial bullshit answer is given, asking again while looking them straight in the eyes. No, how are you really doing?

If the person isn't ready or willing to go there, don't force them. But in my experience, this can be both somewhat traumatic but massively transformative. In my experience, what typically happens is a person wakes from their daydream, noticing that someone actually stopped their busy day to see them. Many people are not used to this. They may have all this pent up emotion or thoughts but no one to express them to. Until... you ask. In my experience, this can open the flood gates. No, you don't have to fix them or be their therapist. But just being a listening friend (or stranger) may be just the nudge they need to feel some relief and see there is still hope in humanity.

Hiding in plain sight are people dying in plain sight. There may live in a city yet feel utterly alone and lost in a crowd. But you. You can change this by being the person that looks them in the eyes. The person that asks a genuine question. The person that listens without intent to respond, fix, or prove a point.

You can be that kind soul that brings grace to a person who's lost hope. There is so much to be gained by giving.

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About Rick Manelius

Quick Stats: CXO of Atomic Form. Graduated from MIT in '03 (BS) and '09 (PhD). Life hacker and peak performance enthusiast. This blog is my experiment in creative writing, self-expression, and sharing what I've learned along my journey. For more information, read my full bio here or contact me.