10/23/2014 06:19 pm ET Updated Dec 23, 2014

Stepping Out of the Closet and Into Your Life


Invariably every year around this time, with the leaves turning and the weather getting colder, I seem to spend a lot of time digging through the closets in our house -- looking for my warm hoodies, my favorite wool socks, and the comfy quilt to throw on top of the duvet as darkness comes sooner, and the nights get chillier.

I don't know what it is about closets that I find so appealing, but there's something comforting in their musty darkness and cramped quarters. They are a safe refuge for tattered ill-fitting clothes -- the forgotten, which we simply haven't got the heart to throw away.

Closets serve as a powerful metaphor in our lives, as we build the walls around us to keep the skeletons buried in our closets, or even in the tentative steps of those who have decided to embrace their sexual identity and come out of the closet publicly. There have been times when I too have chosen the solace of the closet and the company of the dust bunny denizens over the anxiety of stepping out of that closet to a life of uncertainty.

There's a fabulous TedTalk by equality advocate Ash Beckham in which she candidly discusses her experience coming out of the closet as a lesbian and the experience and wisdom she gained through that process. What I love about Ash Beckham's message is that she believes that to some degree, we all live in closets. In her words, "all a closet is, is a hard conversation." When I think about it like that, it reminds me of all the times that the words were screaming to get out of me, but they never breached my lips because I was incapacitated by how they might be received. It brings me right back to that closet metaphor yet again, and how I so often prefer the known pain of banging my head against that closed closet door to the fear of the unknown lying on the other side of that threshold.

When I look back at my life, I see a long corridor of closets -- an endless hallway of doors that I have creaked open, smashed through, and splintered apart. It reminds me of the opening sequence to the original Get Smart TV series from the 1960s. As soon as I walk through one doorway and I hear the echo of the door slamming behind me, immediately I come up against another closed door.

The real tragedy lies in the belief we can never open these closet doors; when in fact, the lock can only be opened from the inside. The key to this lock is not forged out of molten steel, but intricately woven out of fragile loss. Before we can open any of these doors in front of us, we need to be completely committed to letting something go, be it our greatest fear, the pain of rejection, the fallacy of control -- in short, any expectation of what we thought something should, or would, be. That cortisol-fueled venomous anxiety we held clenched inside us behind the door must give way to an ephemeral gnawing of the gut that coincides with release and uncertainty. It all sounds reasonable in theory, but it's so much harder in practice, as it's as though we have become addicted to letting go of the pain of the past, which has resided with us for so long.

So, what can we expect to find when we take those few tentative steps out of our closet? A better way of looking at that question is not "what can we expect to find out there," but rather, "what should we carry out there with us?" The answer is empathy. The one thing we are all seeking is the one thing we can only expect to receive if we have the faith to give it away freely ourselves. What keeps us shackled in our closets is fear and shame. The only way to alleviate those is to no longer compare our pain to others'. In the words of Ash Beckham: "Hard is not relative -- Hard is hard ... We need to stop ranking our hard against everyone else's hard." Empathy levels that playing field, and it moves us away from comparing, towards the enlightenment of identifying.

The most beautiful legacy you can leave for those you love is a long shadow-filled corridor of open doors that you have courageously walked through as you have moved closer and closer towards them.