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The breakdown is also the breakthrough

Years ago at a college party someone remarked to me that drunk people walk like this: fine, fine, fine, fine — oh sh*t, falling. Parties were really never my scene, but that image stuck with me and I remember it to this day because it seemed like a really good metaphor.

I think for a lot of us life goes something like this: fine, fine, fine, fine — oh sh*t, falling apart.

I know it goes this way for me sometimes.

Sometimes that’s just the way things are. Sometimes life is unexpected and hard and we didn’t want it to be this way and then suddenly it is and we’re falling apart. Sometimes it’s all beyond our control.

But sometimes I think there’s something else at play — sometimes I think it’s the same for us as it is for the drunk person: we’re trying so hard to prove something (that we’re doing okay, that we’ve got this, that we’re fine, no really) that we don’t see our downfall coming until we’re landing on our face.

The truth is that pretending works for a while — right up to the point where I start to feel a just a little more confident, start to think that maybe this time I’m going to get away with it… And then it catches up with me and I trip spectacularly over how not-okay I’ve been all along.

I’ve been thinking about this recently in the context of chronic pain (but the lesson applies more generally) — because about a month ago I spent a week walking in Wales with a friend and experienced seven glorious, pain-free days and because my back wasn’t hurting and I was tired from walking, I actually slept. Which is to say that by the end of the week I actually felt kind of amazing.

It’s been a very long time since I felt amazing. So long that I had mostly forgotten what amazing feels like.

And then I came back to Boston and my back started hurting and I stopped sleeping well (the two go together for me), and all of a sudden there I was: tripping over how not-okay I was and fraying apart at my edges.

I’m not even sure that the last four weeks have been worse than “normal” — I think maybe it’s just me that’s changed. Because I’d forgotten what it was like to feel good, until suddenly I did.

In the end it doesn’t matter: the truth is simply that I am in need of a new “normal”, that I am no longer willing to push on as I have been.

Somewhere in the last four weeks my strength for fighting through being in pain ran out. All of my toughness disappeared on me.

This is what the breakdown looks like.

It’s not always loud and messy and tear-soaked. Sometimes it’s quiet and gentle.

But here’s the thing: I’ve fallen down and out and over enough times now to know that the breakdown can also be a really, really good thing.

Because reaching the end of your rope is always immediately and immensely clarifying.

You thought you still had some wiggle room, but then suddenly there it is: the end of your pretending leaves you with nowhere left to hide from your truth.

It’s terrifying and terrific: the breakdown is also the breakthrough. Or at least it can be if we’re willing to let it be both.

I used to be so afraid of falling apart that I never learned how to let the breakdown become the breakthrough. Whenever I felt myself falling apart, I did the only thing I knew how to do: I held on to anything I could reach as tightly as I could, to try and keep the pieces of myself together.

But in order to get to the breakthrough we have to stop pretending.

We have to hit the bottom and let ourselves shatter a little.

We have to stop to take a really good look around, instead of immediately getting up and heading on our way — hoping that no one noticed our stumble.

The breakthrough demands our curiosity, our willingness to linger, to take stock of what hurts and what’s broken and what are we no longer willing to put back together.

What is true for me today is this: I am no longer willing to be tough on pain.

What is true for you will inevitably be different. Your breakdown and your breakthrough are yours, and yours alone.

But you’ll know when you’ve found the truth you’re looking for because it will land in your body with a thump, an almost-visceral sensation that lies somewhere between a punch to the gut and an enormous sigh of relief.

And if you thought that getting to this knowing was the hard part, I have unfortunate news for you. The truth is that knowing is only the first step that makes the journey possible.

Insight without action is really just another form of hiding. And (because the truth is always a paradox…) there’s really nothing wrong with hiding.

It’s okay to be not-ready.

Just be honest with yourself that not-ready is where you’re at. Say: not today, but maybe someday — and let yourself sit with that.

Someday you’re going to be ready and, when you are, you’ll get to face the scariest part: the part where you take your knowing and you use it to reshape your life around some new principle you’ve never lived by before.

For me, today, that new principle is this: I want to be soft with pain. Wherever pain shows up I want to meet it with gentleness.

None of this will be easy. Change never is.

Our lives aren’t designed to accommodate the messiness of our human needs. 

To be soft with pain I’ll have to make changes at work and at home, I’ll have to have uncomfortable conversations with managers and untangle old habits to make space for new ways of being.

Being soft on pain demands that where pain shows up I will pull up a chair and give pain its very own seat at my table. It demands that I carve out new spaces in my life, to make room for pain to be present and to allow pain to have whatever it needs.

And the very worst part: I have no idea if any of this will be “worth it”. I have no guarantee that any of this will “work”.

After seven years of chronic pain, I live perpetually in a state of both really believing that not feeling this way is possible, and not really believing that any particular change will be the one that finally makes a difference. (I keep making them anyway, because you really never know…)

But what I do know is that I’m tired of fighting with pain and I can choose to put my weapons down.

The pain may or may not go away — but I can choose today to end the war.

Because today I am willing to admit that sometimes our strength lies not in our toughness but in our softness. In our willingness to lay down our arms and let what is true for us right now matter more than any story we might have about who, what, or how we are supposed to be.

At the end of the day, this is always the real breakthrough: the moment we choose to end our war with reality and turn instead toward allowing what is to shape us into the people we are ready to become.

Much love,
Jessica

Healing has its own timeline

As I’ve been watching the seasons change here in Boston, I’ve found myself unexpectedly at odds with the Earth’s natural rhythm: as the world slips into the dark winter months, my energy finally seems to be returning.

I feel hesitant to say such things out loud because this isn’t the first time I’ve hoped I was recovering only to find myself slipping back into familiar lassitude.

And yet, here I am again, quietly announcing that this time I hope it’s true.

You might think that after however many months (has it been four or five now? I’ve lost count…), I’d be used to the slowness with which this healing has proceeded, but it’s still so easy to trip over my own impatience.

I’ll have a really great day where I feel amazing and get a lot done… and then I’ll spend the next three days recovering.

But here’s the thing: this is just what healing looks like.

As much as I wish that healing was a straight line from unwell to well, a steady climb from rock-bottom to dazzling new heights, the reality of it seems to be that healing looks more like a rambling mountain road filled with unexpected twists, sudden turns, and jarring bumps.

And, just like when driving that winding road, it is easy to get frustrated.

It is easy to feel that after months of malaise there hasn’t been any real progress. But if I take the long view — if I compare where I am now to where I was three months ago, or twelve — it becomes easy to see how different things are now from how they were then.

I think that the changing season serves as a really good metaphor for how change proceeds in our lives. I can predict the first snow of winter no better than I can pin the day on the calendar when I’ll be “better” or “ready” or “healed”.

As much as my mind might wish to do so, there’s no line to be drawn in the sand — no well-defined boundary to cross between “when I was there” and “now that I’m here”.

At the change of the seasons, the weather is often volatile and contrary — a dizzying tour of hot, then cold, then hot again. And yet, there’s an underlying trend: summer’s heat yields inevitably to winter’s cold, and eventually cold will yield to warmth again. But the exact progression of days and temperatures that will lead us from here to there is impossible to guess.

I’m increasingly convinced that all change proceeds like this: a dizzying tumult of ups and downs, that mixes us up until we’re not quite sure how far we’ve come or how far we’ve yet to go. A series of largely-random fluctuations that catches us so off-guard it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture.

And my mind hates this.

My mind hates being unable to predict, because what I cannot predict I cannot control, and what I cannot control seems dangerous.

My mind wants to say that if I cannot predict when I will be well again then there is no way to know I will ever be well. And yet when I look at the trend over the past few months, it remains clear to me that I am getting better.

And here’s another truth: it’s when I let my fear run away with me and forget to trust the process that I trip myself up.

When anxiety wins I stop listening to the needs of my body, I overdo things, I relapse.

When anxiety wins I lose patience, I become unable to remember all the reasons there are to hope, all the evidence I can see pointing to signs of improvement.

When anxiety wins I slip back to where I was a month ago, or two — I slip back until I fall into something familiar. A pattern, a rhythm, a habit that I recognize because we’re old friends now: I spent my summer becoming intimately acquainted with their shape and heft.

And so now when anxiety wins I slip back, but in backsliding I find myself once again on solid ground. Familiar, well-worn ground I’ve walked four dozen times before.

When you think about it, it’s almost magic: the process itself catches me.

Over and over I return to where I began and each time it gets easier to crack the puzzle because I’ve practiced this now. This place is familiar but time has moved on and I’m not the same person I was the first time I landed here.

The more times this happens, the more I trust myself to hit the bottom and rise up again.

It is this trust that offers us real freedom, I think. When rock bottom is something we fear hitting, fear holds us prisoner. It becomes impossible to do anything that might trigger any sign of collapse for fear it might grow into an inescapable, all-consuming collapse.

When fear holds us prisoner, we inevitably find ourselves unable to risk anything at all.

But when we trust in our own ability to bottom out and pick ourselves back up and try again, the paths that used to seem too risky might begin to seem more enticing.

And if we can learn to navigate the dark days with kindness, with awareness, with compassion and gentleness — then we can learn to bring these qualities to the bright days, too — and ultimately everything gets better.

So if you’re muddling through a dark time right now, I’d encourage you to make friends with the process. Learn how to comfort yourself through the dark times.

Because falling apart is inevitable. 

No matter how much we try to control things, no matter how hard we work to protect ourselves — our hearts will always be vulnerable to life’s bumps and bruises.

But if you can learn to greet the dark days with gentle curiosity instead of fear or anger, if you can learn to comfort yourself with compassion instead of beating yourself up with self-judgement — then I really believe that you can do anything.

Much love,
Jessica

 

Some thoughts on faith

This week I had the pleasure of reading Glennon Melton’s Carry On, Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life. The book is series of short memoir essays that read similar to blog posts (unsurprisingly, since Melton blogs at Momastery.com). The book is a quick read and delightful — honest and wise and laugh-out-loud funny in places.

The book is also rather Christian. Melton makes many references to Jesus, to God, and to her faith — unorthodox as her faith may sometimes be. (Her position, I believe, is that as a recovering “ex-everything” she really has no right to judge). But her faith is very much front-and-center in this book and I was surprised by how triggering I found that.

Not because I was unaware that religion makes me uncomfortable, but simply by how much it bothered me to have someone be so candid about it. And so I think reading this book was really important for me (and I’m very glad I did!) because it forced me to reconsider a lot of my beliefs around religion and about faith.

I wasn’t raised in a religion or with a faith. If I was raised with a faith, it was probably “logic” or “science” or “reason” — and in retrospect these things make miserable faiths because they leave no room for our perfectly imperfect humanity. But I did not know this until I was much older and I never questioned these ideas of faith because organized religion does a terrible job of marketing itself and so I really thought that I was better off.

From where I stood, the advantages of a religious faith were invisible. In my admittedly limited experience, religion usually seems to do more to make people anxious and narrow-minded than to create space for more kindness and compassion in the world.

While I know that, in practice, this is not true, and that there are many people (perhaps even most) for whom faith is a comfort that increases their ability to extend kindness and compassion toward others (the “Christian feeling” of the 19th Century), the truth is that these days, from an outsider’s perspective, “Christian feeling” seems often to be more about hatred than kindness. (And I’m picking on the Christians here a little; I think the same is true of many of the world’s religions.)

So I don’t love religious doctrine or institutions, but what I realized in reading Carry On, Warrior is that Glennon Melton and I share a lot of the same ideas about faith.

Because as much as I don’t ever see myself participating in an organized religion — in the past few years I’ve been busy reinventing my idea of faith. And that idea doesn’t look much like Melton’s Jesus. But increasingly I think that faith is important, and a faith in Jesus seems to me no worse than any other.

My faith is not so well defined as any religious symbol — it is a faith in nature, in beauty, in goodness. I believe that nature is good and beautiful and that, as part of nature, we are good and beautiful, too. And perhaps this is not so different than what Jesus would have us believe — but that doesn’t mean I’ll ever worship in a church.

I prefer my worship out beneath the open skies or here, upon the altar of the empty page.

But I do believe we all need a little faith. Without faith we cannot trust or hope, and without hope we have no reason to act with kindness and compassion in the world.

If there is anything I feel certain of, it’s that the world today needs every drop of kindness and compassion we can bear to part with right now. We’ve spent the industrial era moving away from these ideals, I think.

The industrial era asked us to sacrifice our humanity in order to better play the part of the machine and we’ve done so. But now the machines are taking over and the only thing we’ll have left to call our own will be the strength our humanity. (Check out this article from The Atlantic if you want to know more.)

So I don’t know much about faith and nothing at all of God — but if I have to believe in something, I guess I choose to believe in the power of compassionate humanity to save the world. To believe in anything else seems just too dang scary right now.

 

I’d love for this to be a conversation, not a monologue! Do you have a faith? If so, how does your faith impact your experience living in the world? Let me know in the comments below.

 

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