Dying On a Staircase

A few weeks ago I was playing a game with some students called Anomia. In the game each person pulls a card from the middle deck and flips it over in front of them. Each card has a shape and a category on it. If your card matches the shape of someone else’s you have to race to give an example from the category on their card. Whoever does it first wins the duel and takes the other person’s card. A category could be anything from “Jungle Animal” to “An Insulting Name”. If we are playing together and our cards have matching shapes then the duel is on! If I say “Monkey” before you say “Stinky Face” then I win the duel! (Let’s just be honest, that was very rude of you, so I should win anyway. Better luck next time.)

Anyways, during our last round someone flipped over a card with a yellow circle that read, “Form of Exercise”. Easy, right? I had at least 5 ideas that came to mind. Jogging. Basketball. Lifting weights. Piece of cake. We went around the circle and it came to be my turn. I flipped over my card. A yellow circle. A match! I quickly reread her card and blurted out my favorite form of exercise: “NONE!”

I keep it real.
Real lazy.

I have seriously spent 5 minutes driving around a mall parking lot because I didn’t want to walk all the way from the nosebleeds to the front door. Last week I searched the whole downstairs looking for something that I thought was probably upstairs because I wanted to rule out  every possible option before walking up the stairs. One time I was in a deep conversation with someone and told them abruptly that I needed to let them go. Why? Because I knew that I was approaching a long staircase and I wanted to avoid the awkward moment where they would undoubtedly ask me, “Are you okay? You’re breathing REALLY hard.” And then I would have to make the tough decision to tell the truth —- “I just walked up 20 stairs. NO, I’m not okay. Call an ambulance!“— or to embellish a little bit — “Sorry! I had to race into the intersection to save a little boy from oncoming traffic. He’s safe now but I gotta let you go – I’m gonna be on the news!

All that to prove the now obvious: me and stairs are really just friends with benefits.
Like, “Sorry stairs…I need you to get places and do things, but I just don’t really want to spend my life with you. I hope you can understand.

See, up until I went to college I never lived somewhere with a full flight of stairs (with the exception of the basement). When Josh and I moved into our first house that had an upstairs bedroom it took some getting used to. I remember getting so frustrated one morning because I ran up and down the stairs about 10 times. I walked up to get dressed for work. Then I walked back down to have breakfast. Then I decided my outfit looked stupid so I ran back up stairs. Once I rushed back down to put my shoes on I realized I had left my phone sitting on the bed and ran back up huffing and puffing. This went on for the entire morning. Everything I should have done or could have done while I was at the top of the steps kept coming back to my mind as soon as I was downstairs and each thought sent me dashing up the stairs in a flurry to accomplish what I needed to.

The French have a phrase called “Spirit of the Staircase” – L’esprit de L’escalier.

This term is used to describe the experience of having the perfect response, retort, or comeback after the fact. This happens to me a lot; every witty comeback or hilarious comment comes to me as soon as I’m alone.

Rumor has it that French encyclopedist (apparently that’s a thing?) Denis Diderot coined the phrase after enjoying a dinner party at a prominent statesman’s home. During dinner a remark was made that left him reeling for a witty response, but despite his efforts to respond Diderot was left with a blank slate. Speechless. How embarrassing. Diderot stated that it wasn’t until he left the party and made it to the bottom of the staircase that he could finally think clearly. Then, and only then was he able to come up with his poised response to his opponent. Genius! Witty! Too late…
The moment had passed and his words held no weight now.
All he could do then was try and shake the missed opportunity from his mind.

But if you’ve ever been in Mr. Diderots fancy french shoes then you know it isn’t always that simple. Even as you descend the staircase, leave the party, walk away from the person, and try to forget the missed opportunity – you can’t. Even after you’ve left the last step of the staircase the tragedy of what you’ve missed swirls in your mind. It follows you home that night. It crawls into bed with you. It haunts your sleep.

Someone once told me that I couldn’t do something and I was so upset that I sealed my lips and nodded my head. It wasn’t until 10 hours later that I finally got over my self-pity and summoned enough courage to tell that person how embarrassingly wrong they were about me. But I was too late. The moment had passed and I was left alone with my thoughts.

When a friend decided his only option was to take his own life I sat crumpled on the floor of a borrowed house and climbed the staircase over and over in my mind wondering what I could have said that would have changed this reality. But I was too late. No matter how fast I scaled the stairs, I could never get back to the moments we shared. The moment had passed and I was left with “What-If” haunted dreams.

I’ve realized in the aftermath of these situations, and countless others, that over time I have locked myself into an Escherian Stairwell – a looping climb of stairs that has never led to anything new. I have surrendered myself to a life filled with never ending climbing and striving to get back to something – to have another chance – to regain a wasted opportunity – to say what I had always wanted to say.

Oh, how we’ve gotten so good at running back to moments that have passed us. We can gaze back up the banister with regret in our hearts and say with absolute certainty
“I should have said this.”
“I could have done this.”
“I would have acted differently.”
That’s because after the fact, on the last step, everything looks different.

Sure, there is learning that happens when we look back. But more often than not the learning is choked out by the feeling of loss. Lost time. Lost relationships. Lost opportunities. Lost memories. Lost dignity.

This is what I have been feeling: a deep lostness and a grand longing.
I realize that I have lost too much of my life by living on the whim of the staircase and sacrificed too little to break out of the never-ending climbing. The spirit of the staircase has carried me out of the present and back to the past. Out of God’s will and into my own plans. Away from being present and open and toward being detached and bitter.

I have given too much of my life to L’esprit de L’escalier.
Lived too many days wondering what I could have done or should have said.
Taken too many steps backwards, huffing and puffing about the past, instead of living in the present.

I don’t want to live on the staircase anymore. It’s going to kill the best parts of me.
I don’t want to be headed somewhere with my mind on what happened 64 steps ago. It’s going to kill my future. I don’t want to give away another second of this wild life to what could have been done or should have been said. It’s not worth dying over.

This goes for all of us. It’s time to get off. If we let it, this up and down regret is going to steal away the most wonderful parts of who we are.

And who are we?
We are more than backward thinkers steeped in lostness.
We are more than wanderers living up the banister and sleeping with what-ifs.

Oh, we are more than conquerors.



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