How to Fail at Saving Lives

Comments 44

Follow these 20 steps to do it right.


Have your parents get divorced when you’re young. Before kindergarten works. Ideally, they’ll live in different states, but more important is that you inexplicably take on the responsibility for their feelings, even though you’re five years old. It’s your job to never make your parents feel bad, because you love them exactly the same amount. It’s important that you learn to try to please everyone, even though it’s impossible.


Be nice to everyone at school, but don’t always be kind.

This is more about being accepted socially and not making others feel bad than it is about authenticity.

That means you’re nice to the smelly kid, the gay kid, and the awkward kid with bad acne when you’re near them, but you laugh privately with friends when they make jokes at their expense. If you say anything to defend them, maybe your friends will say: “What are you, a fag?” And you DEFINITELY don’t want to be called one of those. Not only are they different and weird, but God is also super-disappointed in their choices. It says so in the Bible. Jesus made onlookers uncomfortable by conversing with lepers and prostitutes, but you damn sure never saw him interacting with homosexuals, for God’s sake. Besides, those sinners throw footballs like a girl.

For Step 2, courage isn’t about being principled in the face of discomfort. Courage is about acting like a man.


Go to college and have your mind blown that not everyone is like you.

Make friends with black students and think back on times people told you N-word jokes and you laughed, or how adults taught you that once black people start moving into neighborhoods, a bunch of bad things happen, forcing all the white people to move to safer neighborhoods with nicer shopping malls, and without all that jungle music.

Be shocked that people believe different stories about God, but don’t seem evil.

Be so ignorant about other cultures that you mispronounce the Arab Student Union the “A-Rab Student Union” while speaking to the president of the organization while he is trying to foster outreach programs with the student newspaper’s editor after 9/11. Be embarrassed when a friend corrects your offensive pronunciation.

Make friends with gay people and learn they’re not the slightest bit attracted to your dumb, straight, ass.


Start dating your first serious girlfriend. Argue with her about politics and act like she’s stupid for disagreeing with you, even though she’s objectively smarter and better educated than you in every measurable way despite being two years younger.

Tell her during an argument over political issues that have zero impact on your individual lives that you would NEVER marry or have children with someone who thinks like she does. When you break up with her after more than two years together, make sure you do it in the most cowardly way possible.


Meet someone else who agrees with you on more political subjects, even though you pretty much only think and talk about politics every two or four years during major elections. The rest of the time, politics have essentially no impact on your life. But make a big deal out of it anyway. It’s okay if you alienate friends, neighbors, co-workers and family, because everyone who disagrees with you is wrong, and you should probably be around smarter people anyway.


Get married, because that’s what you do after college and stuff. Assume that she will love you like your parents love you. Always and forever — no matter what. It will make you feel better. Make “Never Getting Divorced” your primary life goal, because in your mid-20s, you can better appreciate its impact on your life.


Be shitty at marriage. Not in the obvious ways everyone talks about. In the nuanced and less-obvious ways no one talks about, even though they’re actually why divorce happens. You shouldn’t know you’re shitty at marriage so much as you should be patient and forgiving toward your nagging and emotionally unstable wife who is clearly going off the deep end once again over something minor.

Don’t admit too much fault or responsibility. After all, you wouldn’t want to have your Man Card revoked like some whipped, Nancy-boy pussy.


Get divorced. Let 30 years of whatever unresolved emotional and psychological bullshit you carry around in The Places We Don’t Talk About stab you in every mind- and heart-related orifice possible.




I don’t mean: Be sad for a little bit. I mean: Feel like you might die to the point where you almost want to just so you don’t have to feel that anymore.

Cry. Like, sob. Struggle to control your heart rate and the strange new panic-like feelings which pop up now and then without warning, even at times like work meetings or parties with friends.

If you think and feel the way you remember thinking and feeling for all of your life leading up to this point, it means you messed up Step 9. Go back and try again.


Start a blog where you tell people about Steps 1-10. Never stop looking for greater understanding of how this all happened. Never stop asking, over and over again: Why?


Have a major breakthrough, realizing that All These Things aren’t unique to you. Some of the details maybe. Like a murder-mystery, action movie, or romantic comedy, the details vary from story to story, but the themes and story arcs tend to all be the same. I’m not the only one.


Even though you’re a guy, women live your story, too.

Even though you’re straight, gay couples have the same fights.

Even though you’re American, people in the U.K., India, Australia, the Philippines, New Zealand, Malaysia, Russia, the Netherlands, Cambodia and Japan all know EXACTLY what you’re talking about.

Liberal feminists in Oregon get it. Conservative military vets in Florida get it. Black women know exactly how your wife felt just as Middle Eastern men know exactly how you feel.

Despite labelling’s best attempts, you can’t find enough different categories to prevent Truth from setting in: Holy shit. We’re really not as different as I’ve believed all this time.

Millions of reads. Tens of thousands of comments and emails. Over and over and over and over again, confirming: Your story is my story.


Keep looking for root causes. When conditions exist, there’s always a reason WHY. Kids would be great at finding root causes if they didn’t like playing so much more than researching, and if their parents liked truth more than comfort. Realize that Paul Newman’s Cool Hand Luke pretty much nailed it: “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”


Because you can’t outsmart yourself, you’ll realize quickly that telling people that THIS is the root cause of nearly every horrible thing that has ever happened or will ever happen is an exercise in futility. Because you yourself thought you were the smartest sonofabitch on Planet Earth, even though you were a stupid, ignorant pothead moron, and you wouldn’t have spent five seconds pondering anything like this.

You yourself thought your wife was wrong and you were right. You yourself thought things like therapy or counseling or any other form of mental health care was for weak-ass bitches, and not smart, healthy and sane people like you.


Hug your little boy in the morning before school and feel sad that you won’t see him later because he doesn’t always come home.

He has two homes now. Maybe he’s feeling responsible for managing your feelings because he loves you the same as his mom.


Drive to work. Hear Disturbed’s powerful and beautiful cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s classic “The Sound of Silence.”



Realize that Paul Simon was writing about everything you write and talk about on your blog. The song is about “the inability of people to communicate with each other, not particularly internationally but especially emotionally, so what you see around you are people unable to love each other,” Art Garfunkel once said in an interview.


Feel the weight and truth punch you in the face.

“And in the naked light I saw, Ten thousand people, maybe more, People talking without speaking, People hearing without listening, People writing songs, That voices never share, And no one dare, Disturb the sound of silence.”


Finally, come to terms with it all.

Today, little children will cry because their parents will divorce, or because they’re watching mommy and daddy scream at and hurt one another.

Hate will be spread.

Insults will be hurled.

Guns will be shot.

Bombs will detonate.

Bullies will bully.

Victims will be victimized.

Public servants will lie.

The hungry will starve.

The sick will not receive medicine.

They will happen. Each one of them. And many other bad things.


Because it’s inconvenient for people to listen while they hear. Because people want to be right about things which have no answers.

They want that more than they want to get along with someone who looks different or who grew up someplace where people did things differently.

They want it more than anything.

And you’ll get it, too. Because that was you. Caring more about the approval of kids or other adults than your own self-respect. Caring more about it than your wife’s wellbeing and the health of your family. Caring more about it than some strangers being hurt on the other side of the world that you don’t have to see or think about.

But because the Truth is the Truth no matter what, you’ll realize:

My failures in life and right now to communicate effectively are no different than the circumstances which cause virtually all non-illness-related misery in the world.

Every bad thing. From sadness to petty crimes to divorce to hate to murder to war. All of them, rooted in two people or groups who decide their opinions being deemed “correct” matters more than the fallout from their pride and ego.

It’s not hyperbole. It’s really life and death.

And you’ll want to save someone — anyone — with the simple idea.

It’s not HEAR. It’s LISTEN. There’s really a difference. And the difference means EVERYTHING.

Everything in Life that’s wrong is wrong because of that difference.

And you’ll wish it wasn’t true. Because all along, you’ve been part of the problem.

Silence, like a cancer, grows.

But my words like silent raindrops fell
And echoed in the wells of silence.

44 thoughts on “How to Fail at Saving Lives”

    1. Thank you.

      I hope it didn’t seem excessively self-indulgent. I don’t think it effectively conveyed my point as well as it could have, so maybe I’ll repeat it here:

      The reason people hurt others and feel hurt themselves on matters small and large (an argument with a romantic partner, or a violent murder), is because of how ineffectively we speak and listen to one another.

      I don’t think most people believe that, because it sounds too simple.

      But if you keep asking “Why?” over and over again, you almost always get to: “Because that person thinks the other person is wrong.”

      And I wonder if maybe a lot more people were aware of that, if we’d be more careful to understand the other person in the conversation, and to more deliberately choose our words and tone.

      Maybe then, a bunch of things unbreak.

      1. I write about this subject a lot, I understand what you are saying. We listen to reply instead of just listening to what is being said. At one point I wished that my ex would have just asked if I was ok instead of making assumptions and retreating from me. My blog post Are you okay?sums up how I blamed myself for my behavior when in all reality I was reacting and then he reacted by retreating when communication would have been the better option. Hope I’m making sense

    1. Hey Robert.

      I don’t know whether this means you think I’m a stupid moron, or whether it means you liked it.

      In either case, I sincerely appreciate you reading it.

        1. Thank you, Robert.

          It’s funny. I’m not especially hippie-ish nor especially liberal in a macro-political sense.

          On any given subject, I would say I’m in favor of “letting the best idea win.”

          I try to acknowledge (with Travis’ elitist musical tastes being the notable exception) that I never have the whole story or all of the answers, despite spending the first 30-ish years of my life believing I had.

          I am for pragmatism. I am always for The Thing that Makes Life Best for the Most People.

          Which is a dangerous and slipperly slope, as two people rarely agree on what that might be.

          The difference between war and teamwork is so subtle.

          Warring people or groups or nations want “The Best Thing” to happen, also, but neither side agrees what that looks and feels like.

          Teammates/Partners/Married couples/Communities/Brotherhoods/Sisterhoods/etc. want “The Best Thing” to happen also, only they’re willing help that person over there succeed because THAT equals forward progress or more points. In sports. In politics. At work.

          In Life.

          While I am immensely flattered (understatement) that you’d compare something I’ve written to legitimate literary works, I think Ginsberg and the Beat Generation writers who helped spearhead the whole Berkley-based Make Love, Not War hippie movement in the 1960s were heavily motivated by politics and religion.

          I will never ask a liberal or conservative thinker to change his or her opinion.

          I will never ask a devout person to believe a different story about God.

          But I’m deeply committed to the idea of viewing another person not as an obstacle but as a teammate. A person who we should work with toward the common goal of, let’s say, Making Shit Better.

          Maybe if we stopped yelling at one another about the color of Starbucks coffee cups, and transsexuals going to the bathroom, and the tax returns/birth certificates of political figures, and put our minds to Things Which Very Immediately and Directly Affect Humans Around Us, we’d all discover that in Life’s Pie Chart, we all actually only differ on a small slice of it.

          That we ignore the huge part we share, and scream over the little parts that make us unique and diverse (read: NOT boring), causes all of the shitty things that happen.

          That’s literally the root cause.

          And I don’t think very many people ever pause whatever mindless drone activities they’re doing while muttering what an asshole the other driver is or how stupid the politician they disagree with on TV is to realize it.

          Everything that sucks in our lives is NOT because of the people we are disagreeing with or the subject matter of the disagreement itself.

          It’s because of how we collectively behave WHEN we disagree.

          And the band played on.

          1. Wow, such a huge reply for this rather unimportant New Zealander. I feel really privileged. I thought I was an (honest) writer; then I read your stuff and realised (in a positive way) that I was neither.

            For someone who is trying so hard to not be a role model, you are a really great role model! How on earth do you get the time to respond to people like myself? My mind boggles but well, you certainly have more stamina than I.

            I’ve long admired the frankness (i.e. directness) of your writing; I simply do NOT have your courage. I really do admire the ‘guts’ (term used by CS Lewis in ‘Mere Christianity’) it takes to write what you write; and how you write it too.

            The latest post was a step above though and I think can be pretty favorable compared with ‘Howl’ (at least in my eyes. I know you’ll never buy into this which I respect. Still, a powerful piece of writing and it kind of hit me in the stomach, took my breath away, had me against the ropes where I could not throw a punch.

            In other words, rally good stuff.

            What else to say? So many things that I could say but here’s a thumbnail sketch:

            High school computing teacher
            Widower with 2 kids (my wife passed away in my arms 16 years ago while I had two kids under 5).
            I love God (I’m really really really really lucky that way; I don’t really deserve his Grace but I gobble it up anyway. It’s kept me free from drugs, alcohol, gambling etc… all my life)
            Doing really well financially after a long time going nowhere
            Trying to write a book aimed at teenagers and using your writing as inspiration (it’s my second attempt; my first did not get published; I am not in your league).
            Really adore women and mostly have gotten on really well with them (but only because I wasn’t looking for a replacement partner).

            Marriage scares me too much now. I just don’t think I can sustain the emotion needed to maintain a romantic/coupled relationship for the rest of my life/their life. It’s really really hard trying to keep myself happy much less someone else. And I’m have to put them before me anyway so I am equally screwed either way.

            I really don’t know how long-term couples do it. It looks really hard from the outside all over again.

            But hey, my sons are grown young men now so I am remarkably lucky (no sex, drugs just lots of rock-and-roll).

            I don’t have any solutions anymore; I just try to get through the next day. I have found Victor Frankl writings really really helpful in terms of overcoming failure/loss
            but that’s just me and I’m not suggesting for a moment that anyone else should do that (my father was a Holocaust Jew and his writings helped him immensely)

            Anyway, just thought I’d respond. Your writing is breath-taking at times as in when someone punches me in the stomach

            A good thing; the standard to aspire to

            Like Liz Gilbert
            I know your writings are saving lives and making the world better

            Power to you

            Kia kaha (means ‘stay strong’ in Maori).

  1. This is an amazing post. Can’t even think of the right words to comment with…. thoughts and feelings traveling all over from the brain to the heart and back again.

    1. When I first started doing this, all I knew how to do was “feel.” It was exhausting.

      Anymore, I feel infinitely more balanced. I no longer write things that evoke much of my own emotion.

      But this one made me “feel.”

      Thank you for the kind words.

      1. Feeling balanced is half the battle. Dealing with the feelings and perpetually discovering new ones, that’s a whole different story. Glad you get to share yours with us <3

      2. Matt, when I finished reading your reply to baog3 the first thing that popped into my head was “when you feel, you can deal”.

        I think I just coined a phrase! A really corny phrase

        But you know what I mean. You had to go through the exhausting work of feeling in order for you to make sense of it and find your balance.

        And now you see reality as it REALLY is, not how you assumed really was.

    1. Thank you. 🙂

      I’m trying to do the same. I think everything in our lives and the lives of those we directly impact gets better when we do.

  2. Disturbed’s cover of “The Sound of Silence” is not powerful and beautiful. It is a giant fly-covered dog pile unceremoniously dropped on an all-time classic. It’s the most offensive thing to happen to my ears since Hellyeah’s hellish cover of Phil Collins’ “I Don’t Care Anymore”. In fact, the two of them are surely a sign of the impending apocalypse.

    I say this because the Truth is the Truth no matter what.


  3. On a more serious note, though, yes, your essential point–“The reason people hurt others and feel hurt themselves on matters small and large is because of how ineffectively we speak and listen to one another”–is spot on, and I smash my face against that Great Truth. Every. Single. Day.

    With my wife.

    With my kids.

    With my mother.

    With my friends.

    With my co-workers.

    Not just strangers. Not just people with whom I’m not “in tune”. EVERYONE. It is exhausting. Truly, devastatingly exhausting. Down to the core. But there literally could be no more vitally important work to be done in this world. However, the amount of time investment it requires to get it right with multiple people really makes me lament that we have such a short time in this world.

    More and more, I’m coming to the conviction that what the human race needs to help definitively cure its common ills is more time.

    1. If Life had seen fit to make days 36 hours, Big Business would have simply structured standard 60-hour work weeks.

      I’m NOT against work. I think work (at least what I do) is quite rewarding and interesting.

      I AM against the way we have structured the 20th/21st Century Game of Life which is:

      1. Be born.

      2. Go to school, learning The Things One Needs to Get a Job.

      3. Get a Job.

      4. Buy House and Car and many, many Things.

      5. Have Sex and Make More Future Consumers.

      6. Go to Job Every Day to Make Rule Makers More Profit.

      7. Earn Just Enough Money to Pay for Shelter, Transportation (to School and Job), and Food

      8. Die

      The thing I am most cynical about in the world is the Great Rat Race Lie everyone has bought into.

      At this point, it’s so ingrained since we’re born into it, no one ever stops to ask the question:

      “Why am I doing this again? Ohhhh. Just to have enough money for shelter, transportation and food? Neat!”

      1. Exactly. And as soon as a spouse and, especially, kids come into the picture, you’re more trapped into the Great Rat Race Lie than ever because you’re no longer the only one depending on you.

        When they said money is the root of all evil, it wasn’t just a witticism. It is one of the Great Foundational Truths of Our Existence.

        1. Quote from one of the awesome ladies in my co-hort “I just want to do this so I can work part time one day…”
          I think I am going to make that a plaque and hang that over my door post…

          1. I wouldn’t really do that, but I very much appreciated her sentiment in that statement.
            I have thought a lot about money and our culture. We seemed to have made something that was beneficial for US (the plural of you)- that being trade, and made it into how are we beneficial to trade. There’s a reason we call it being “a slave to the grind”. ..

          2. First, Matt- I want you to know I did/do appreciate what I felt was a bit of your own emotional vulnerability in this post. I hope my response wasn’t less than sensitive to that.
            But, that being said- here is a question about living out your values, when you have a family.
            It seems like we live in a world were work CAN become a necessary evil. Anyone is fortunate if they can find a job that pays and one they feel inspired to do, or in the very least one they feel uses their interests and skills well.
            Travis, you mentioned that you become even more obligated to the corporate grind (and it’s politics- which pollutes so many otherwise good jobs) when you have a family.
            I get that. But, I am curious how you can teach them/show them how to become their whole selves- how important their personhood is, and how THAT really is the most important thing even over fitting the mold to become financially secure. …
            Does that question make sense?

          3. Im annoying myself by posting again, but I wanted to add- it does connect with communicating with others. It has to start at the base with understanding your own humanity, and the respect of your own personhood. If your life is about running the rat race, the getting and achieving- who cares about anyone else’s experience or feelings. But it you understood your own humanity, you can automatically attribute some sense of the same to another person- even one very different than you.

          4. “You’re welcome to NOT respond or like this little comment of mine, I’d rather you keep boundaries that are healthy for you. smile emoticon “..: )

    2. “Not just strangers. Not just people with whom I’m not “in tune”. EVERYONE. It is exhausting. Truly, devastatingly exhausting. Down to the core.”

      So very true. Travis. Thanks for saying what I was thinking.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read it and leave the nice note.

      Feel free to belittle Travis’ clearly flawed musical tastes as they are the obvious exception to the Different Doesn’t Always Mean Wrong rule. 😉

  4. Tears. So much insight and truth. I never comment but “come here” for comfort ALL THE TIME. Thanks for doing what you do Matt, and know that it helps at least one of us keep our head above water. Sincere gratitude to you sir, and to the regular commenters

    1. That’s a really nice thing to read. Not the tears part. But everything else. Thank you very much for taking a moment to share this.

  5. To All: Food for Thought

    From today’s NY Times, “Intimacy for the Avoidant” by David Brooks:

    “Last month Andrew Sullivan published a moving and much-discussed essay in New York magazine titled “I Used to Be A Human Being” about what it’s like to have your soul hollowed by the web.

    “By rapidly substituting virtual reality for reality, we are diminishing the scope of (intimate) interaction even as we multiply the number of people with whom we interact. We remove or drastically filter all the information we might get by being with another person. We reduce them to some outlines — a Facebook ‘friend,’ an Instagram photo, a text message — in a controlled and sequestered world that exists largely free of the sudden eruptions or encumbrances of actual human interaction. We become each other’s ‘contacts’ efficient shadows of ourselves.”

    At saturation level, social media reduces the amount of time people spend in uninterrupted solitude, the time when people can excavate and process their internal states……”

  6. In effect, you are growing into a whole new person, emotionally, and that is why it is so exhaustive. And the realization that you’ve come to, the conclusions you’ve determined to be accurate through massive validation of others in similar circumstance, has lent an urgency to your writing. The need to assist others in the understanding so that the level of pain you endured, is mitigated or even thwarted completely. I do love your writing.

  7. OK first of all any post referencing that cover of Disturbed is WINNING. I’ll respect someone’s right not to like it. I guess. I mean, America. But I think it’s a very appropriate and socially relevant remake on a classic, refreshed to articulate the raw emotions we’re not equipped to handle with the violent unpredictability the world has handed us.

    I mean – terrorism and Facebook. If that isn’t the Sound of Silence….

    Besides….knowing of, and loving, this song made me instantly cool to my daughter’s boyfriend.


    Loved this post and hope I can help rewrite #21.

    1. Thank you. Don’t let Travis fool you with his outstanding vocabulary and kindness. He’s totally wrong about that song. 😉

      1. Well, now, let’s not say “wrong.” Let’s acknowledge he had a different experience than we did. And perhaps he values tradition more than embracing change….? 🙂 😉

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