Each year on the second Sunday of May, I can expect a text message from my friend Jade. She might say, “Happy Hallmark-sponsored existential crisis day,” or “Happy thank-God-I-have-therapy-tomorrow day.”

I might respond with hearts, party-popper emojis, and a message that says, “Happy do-I-really-have-to-make-this-phone-call day.”

Sometimes, if Jade is feeling more earnest, she might write, “Thinking of you today” with a heart emoji. I might respond with a heart back.

Those texts are our unofficial tradition. We never talk about it otherwise—how our complicated relationships with our moms make Mother’s Day difficult. Jade and I might go the rest of the year without texting. She’s never asked for details on my relationship with my mother, and I’ve never asked about hers. We’re just audiences to each other’s experiences and nod to each other through our phones to know that someone else gets it. She doesn’t offer advice or too much sympathy. And I love her for it.

I share a lot of personal stories in this newsletter and in my book. A co-worker, Sisi, recently made fun of me for my excessive vulnerability based on an interaction with them that I tweeted about:

“Yesterday, Sisi spread their arms and said ‘you’re a published author!’ and I went ahead with the hug,” I wrote. “But they weren’t meaning to hug me, and I have to live with that embarrassment for the rest of my life.”

When Sisi responded, laughing at my public confession of a moment they had already forgotten, I sat with it for a while. “I feel like this applies to so much of what you publish but you could have lived with the embarrassment shorter if you didn't write about it to the public,” they wrote.

Of course, they’re right. I spent 15 minutes staring at their tweet and wondering why I sometimes proactively take opportunities to share personal embarrassment, guilt, or struggles publicly. And I found the answer when I listened to Jerrod Carmichael talk about his own secrets in an interview.

“The more honest I am, the freer I am,” he recently told Terry Gross on Fresh Air. The interview was about Carmichael’s new comedy special, Rothaniel, on HBO Max. And you should definitely watch it.

Watching Carmichael speak with an audience for an hour is seeing someone chase freedom through telling their secrets. In a special that’s part stand-up and part open therapy session, he shares secrets he had hidden throughout his life and career, including his father’s infidelity and his mom’s religious beliefs. He talks about how he learned to cover up those secrets and about the shame that comes with that. For the first time, he shares his real name: Jerrod was named Rothaniel, but he was so ashamed of it that he would hide legal documents, have his birth name removed from credit cards, and bribe editors to keep the name from school yearbooks.

And he comes out as gay, live onstage.

Jerrod Carmichael sitting onstage
Photo: HBO

“I never thought I’d come out. I didn’t think I’d ever, ever, ever come out,” he says. “At many points in my life I thought I’d rather die than confront the truth of that—to actually say it to people. Because I know it changes some people’s perception of me, and I can’t control that.”

His collection of reveals would feel like cheap gimmicks for sympathetic laughs if not for his tone and engagement with the audience. The audience becomes intimate with him quickly, to the point that I felt uncomfortable for Carmichael, wondering if their questions had gone too far. But Carmichael chooses to work through his emotion in the moment, processing his feelings as he talks through them out loud. You can almost see him weighing the pros and cons of sharing an added detail or a fleeting thought. Sometimes he laughs or uses a joke to crack the tension of what he’s feeling in the moment, then acknowledges that the impulse got the better of him, and chooses to give a more honest response.

He chooses to be free of the shame he felt when he kept so many secrets. At one point, he speaks about his revealed secrets in a sobering context that I related with the most:

“We say things like, Sometimes you grow, and you gotta leave people behind, or that people are in your life for a reason or a season. These kinds of cliché sayings,” he says. “It’s hard when that person is your mom.”

It’s inspiring to watch that kind of honesty happen onstage, to watch someone wrestle with shame in real time and on their own terms. It’s what I hope to do, at least sometimes, when I write. Maybe it’s beneficial to others, helping those who might read it and feel less alone, but the more selfish reason is the more honest one: Working through struggles publicly is the only way I’ve found to convince myself that I’m stronger than the hold that shame had on me growing up. And I learn something new about myself every time I write about something that makes me uncomfortable. If I don’t, I fear those secrets will turn back into shame. And there’s nothing I’ve experienced that’s worse than shame.

“[I’ve] been trying to be very honest, because my whole life was shrouded in secrets,” Carmichael says in Rothaniel. “And I figured the only route I haven’t tried was the truth. So I’m saying everything. Here’s everything.”

And sometimes, when someone shares everything, all they need back is a shared laugh.

Or a heart emoji.


Heads up that Humans Being is moving to Saturdays! It’s for logistical reasons that are too boring to explain here, but you can expect me in your inbox on Saturday instead of Friday from now on.

Thanks to everyone for their responses to last week’s essay about the secret joys of Christian entertainment. My favorite email was hard to choose—there were so many good ones recalling shows like Davey and Goliath and McGee and Me!—but this description from a reader named Marianna made me laugh:

“We often did ‘media fasts’ where we were not allowed to watch/listen to/read any secular media for like—you guessed it—forty days. It was like a cleanse … I loved the Greatest Adventure stories, though. Margo was queen.”

Marianna, I’ll never forget one of the most gangster lines in The Greatest Adventure set up by Margo. Esther said she was gonna step to the king against his wishes, and Margo is like, “But your highness, the king might put you—,” and Esther is like, “—to death? I must do this. And if I perish, I perish.” Esther landed it better than Ivan Drago.

This week’s book giveaway is Time Off: A Practical Guide to Building Your Rest Ethic and Finding Success Without the Stress, by John Fitch and Max Frenzel. If you work too much and want to turn over a new leaf, this one’s for you. Just send me an email with a heart emoji, and I’ll send the book to a random person who hits my inbox. You can reach me at humansbeing@theatlantic.com, or find me on Twitter at @JordanMCalhoun.