Marshall was with Melanie for more than two years when he caught her sleeping with a former student. It was a stupid act made only slightly more sensible by the fact that Melanie was a thoughtless 33-year-old who read the cluelessness of a young undergrad as sweet naiveté. Confused and devastated, Marshall left her and all his belongings behind, moved into a studio apartment, languished in misery, and wrote poetry. He was at a low point in his life, but his writing was never stronger. This isn’t surprising. The best writing is driven by a desire to change the world. Put another way, the best writing comes from sadness and anger. Very little else of value does.
Marshall is a close friend of mine and I attend his readings whenever I can. I know the history behind his poems, but recognizing biographical specifics adds little to art honest enough that it expresses universally felt sentiments. More important than my insider knowledge was the powerful inquiry that guided all of my friend’s post break-up poetry: what do you do with the hurt that happens to you? I’ve asked myself this question before. We all have.
I was condemned to a hospital bed for almost two months when I was 16. My left lung spontaneously ruptured, collapsed, and filled with fluid. Doctors cut a dime-sized hole in my side and jammed a plastic tube between my ribs to drain my pleural cavity of its pink content. My inner gunk collected into a canister beside my cot. I spent the days dreading the excruciating pain that would follow even the most minor movements in that astonishingly uncomfortable bed.
Shortly after my left lung began to re-inflate, the right one collapsed (I think he was jealous of all the attention his twin received). Another organ failure meant more cuts, tubes, and gunk, but less morphine since the doctors discovered that I had a terrible allergy to the substance. It caused a red line, as ominous as it was itchy, to travel from the IV in my arm to my heart.
When my left lung collapsed again, the doctors changed their tactics. They sprinkled a talcum-like substance on my lungs to, in their words, “destroy the pleural space.” I wasn’t too keen on the destruction of anything in my body and it probably showed in the whites of my eyes. So the pulmonologist explained this procedure to me in more appropriate terms. He said that he was going to chemically irritate my lungs, which would cause them to harden and prevent their future collapse. The doctor forgot to mention one crucial fact though, which Wikipedia is keen to point out: “Chemical pleurodesis is a painful procedure.”
I mention my hospital stay to say, like my friend Marshall, I’ve experienced hurt. Just not during my two month hospital holiday.
Real hurt is instantly recognizable. It places an implacable weight against your chest and keeps it there until you feel like you are about to break. It’s a weight far more painful than the kind you might experience as a consequence of faulty lungs, and unfortunately, this potent form of hurt is so much more common. Although it afflicts all of us at some point in our lives, this hurt has the paradoxical effect of convincing its victims that they are the only ones to ever experience suffering. Hurt possesses you. You become hurt and that is your identity for a while.
This kind of hurt consorts with loss — death, breakups, anything that generates terrible endings with irrevocable finality. Marshall felt it when he lost Melanie. My girlfriend felt it when her entire apartment burned to the ground, engulfing everything she ever owned, including her cat. I felt it when I watched the man who raised me pass away earlier this year.
These events take so much from you, but they also give you something in return: a choice. You can let hurt defeat you, break you down until all you want is for others to feel the same hurt. Or you can move on and learn to empathize with an entire population of people who have faced similar situations. You can choose to perpetuate suffering or do your best to alleviate it. Ironically, accomplishing the latter requires a painstaking amount of effort. Misery loves company and in order to avoid adding to its ranks, you must be vigilante, thoughtful, and compassionate. You have to think beyond yourself — an incredibly difficult thing to do when confronted with life’s difficulties.
Marshall is spending more time with friends and has even begun dating other people. My girlfriend just adopted a puppy and sprints home during her lunch break every day to walk the little guy. The struggles and tragedies of the past remain in their thoughts, but they don’t let these memories consume them. They’ve made a conscious decision to move forward. I’m proud of them both and hope that I can match their strength during my weakest moments.
What do you do with the hurt that happens to you? You let it go.