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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

You don’t have to be fierce to be strong

I’ve been thinking a lot about courage and strength the past few weeks. Like many of you, I’ve felt called to step outside of my comfort zone in new ways — in forms ranging from contacting my congressional representatives to beginning work on a new ebook.

I used to have a really narrow definition of courage and strength: a definition in which both of those things revolved around fierceness and speaking up and striving.

But this isn’t the kind of courage and strength I’ve felt called to lately — instead, I’ve looking toward a quieter, gentler kind of strength.

A strength that endures instead of burning out in a fiery blast of fierceness.

This kind of strength seems different to me — it is equal parts fierceness and kindness, strong but also gentle.

This kind of strength checks in to notice how I am doing.

When I am tired, this strength listens and rests. It doesn’t push me beyond my own limits, it doesn’t tell me that I have to finish, that the work isn’t done, or that I have to keep going.

This strength puts me to bed when I am tired and feeds me when I am hungry and it asks me to take a break and move my body when I am stiff and aching from too many hours at the computer.

This strength wakes me up in the mornings and chooses to take time for my meditation because it knows that I am stronger when I dedicate some time to calming myself, to noticing my thoughts and feelings, to offering myself my own attention and dusting out the cobwebs so that the light can shine through.

This strength knows what I myself have long struggled with: that a life is more than just the sum-total of words written or Senators called. That a life is ultimately a taking-care, an act of devotion to the needs and desires of a single human body bearing a single human soul.

This strength knows that both body and soul require nourishment if they are to remain healthy — that the heart can be strong only when the body that carries it is not aching with hunger, pain, or exhaustion.

And finally I have come to a place from which I cannot see these things as anything other than what they are: the necessary things that strengthen me.

This taking-care is not a frivolous waste of time that could be dedicated to more important activities.

These are the more important activities.

Not because the other things are not important — but because without taking time for the things that strengthen me, my fierceness will burn out and when I am nothing but ash I will have nothing left to offer to anyone else.

So I’m going to say it again: You don’t need to be fierce to be strong.

A fire is fierce and strong but it burns its fuel and dies.

A tree is not fierce, but it is strong, and it may survive hundreds or even thousands of years.

Always in the past I have been the fire, burning out and then healing and rising again from my own ashes. But this time I wish to endure — to be more like the tree.

I think that now more than ever we’re going to need this new (to me) kind of strength — a strength that endures instead of burning out. A strength that takes punches and keeps going. A strength that can see through dark days without losing faith.

Because I’m sitting here with my eyes wide open. I’ve been reading the news. I see what we’re facing. But I want to believe there’s a possibility for goodness to be born here, that there is possibility that those of us who (like my favorite sign from the Women’s March) went to sleep on November 8th, 2016 Democrats and woke up Activists.

I believe that where we were asleep now we might choose to be awake. And that in our awakening we might be strong enough to change everything.

But it starts here.

It starts with us and our strength — not the fiery fierce kind that burns but the gentle, enduring kind that’s capable of standing, not just for a day, or a month, or four years — but the kind that might support us for the rest of our lives.

This kind of courage and strength starts with us.

It starts with each of us opening our hearts to what is present: our fears, our anxieties, our needs. It starts with each of us meeting ourselves with kindness: soothing our fears, quieting our anxieties, and tending to our needs so that we are strong enough to show up day after day after day — not just for ourselves, but for ourselves first and then for everyone around us.

Because where we were a nation divided, we will need to be a nation united. And I don’t know how exactly we get there, but it starts with each of us opening our hearts to what is present: the fears of those who are “other”, the anxieties that keep people awake at night, the needs of those who are different than us.

And so the question I want to leave you with is this: what will you seek to create in the coming days, months, and years?

Because this kind of strength doesn’t feed on fear, it feeds on the possibility that even darkness can be transmuted into light — if only enough people are willing to open their hearts and take a stand.

This is one those moments when we all have to choose: not just how we will fight, but how we will heal.

We get to decide what new goodness we will bring into the world to meet the ugliness around us — so that this might not just be an ending but also a new beginning.

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