In the last 3 months I have visited 8 states, taken 9 flights and seen almost all of the people I consider family. I’ve shed tears with people who’ve known me my whole life and with those I just met. I’ve laughed and loved more in these 3 months than I had in the entire previous year, but when you’re living out of a suitcase you don’t really have much time to process all of that interaction and emotion. Now I’m home and I’m trying to sort through an emotional desk thats covered in stacks of papers and files, thoughts and feelings I’ve been setting aside for later. As I begin to go through them, one by one, I realize that almost all of these experiences and conversations can be sorted in to two piles, pain and love.
The pain I’ve felt and witnessed has ranged from physical pain to emotional growing pains to pain I know can never be fully healed in the soul. Some of my loved ones are going through pain I could never imagine and some are experiencing pain that I know so well, I’d give my right arm to take it away from them. I’ve also had several conversations about my own pain and found myself reflecting a lot on how thats shaped my life so far and how it will continue to shape me in the future.
As a society we are quick to admire, and shower with praise, those who manage to survive a personal tragedy without falling apart. It makes us feel better to talk about strength and fearlessness, to see a survivor of tragedy as a triumphant warrior instead of a broken person. We don’t focus on their battle scars or their broken souls, we just pat them on the back and pretend that simply surviving is all that matters.
I myself am a survivor of many a personal tragedy, but the more I reflect on my life thus far I realize that that might be all that I am. A survivor. Don’t get me wrong, I am a proud warrior, never afraid to show my scars or talk about how I got them. I’ve seen first hand how surviving my pain has allowed me to be there for others, to help them walk through theirs and know they aren’t alone. However when it comes to living, to enjoying life as a gift and not merely seeing a never-ending study in pain, obligation and sacrifice, I’m completely fucking clueless.
I’ll never forget the very sincere confusion on my husbands face the first time I told him that I had no idea how to be happy. That I had honestly never thought about what it was that would make me happy. I mean, I have always known what made me miserable and I knew I didn’t want those things, but that seemed like the best I could hope for. I set the bar at ‘Not Miserable’. Seemed reasonable to me.
Turns out, that’s actually a pretty common bar to set for people who’ve experienced personal tragedy. You stop hoping for good things and starting praying for nothing more than keeping new pain at bay. There is this constant worry that you aren’t sure how much you have left to give. How many more tragedies can you take? 2? 4? 0? And that’s why you don’t even bother hoping for happy, you’re too busy hoping you never hit 0. The fear of eventually arriving at that day keeps you from dreaming big and reaching for the stars, because you know you might not be able to afford the fall.
How much more of other people’s pain can I take on before I crumble under the weight? How much more do I have left to give myself or others before the bank of me is completely cleared out and I’m writing emotional checks I can’t cash?
Obviously living in that mind set isn’t really living, but how do I change it? How do I grow past just being a survivor of tragedy and pain? How do I live a life that fills my emotional bank account instead of constantly emptying it?
I sat last week and helplessly watched a grown man cry about a pain that I understand so well it was like listening to myself, and I realized that I had no words to comfort or advice to give because I myself have yet to find the answers. In that same moment something very personally profound hit me, I was looking at someone in so much pain they were blind to the love and compassion that was literally right in front them and no one could open his eyes to it…
I was looking at me.
Which brings me to emotional file pile number two; love.
My god, you wouldn’t believe the love I’ve had the privilege to witness these last few months. The incredible sacrifice that comes with the love of a parent for their child. The eternal love for someone long since passed and the love for those recently lost to this world. Old love that has been shaped by years of partnership and new love that still takes one’s breath away. The loving bond between two friends, unique and beautiful, shaped by shared struggles and joy. Unrequited love and love that doesn’t even know it’s love yet.
Being in the presence of so much love started to teach me to stop seeing myself through my own harsh and critical lens and to try and witness myself through the eyes of those that love me. I’ve spent so much time wishing those I loved could see themselves through my eyes, but never learned to see myself through theirs. For the first time, I saw so acutely the power my honesty had in changing how others saw themselves and was lucky enough to receive that honesty in return.
Most people feel so much more intensely than they ever express to one another. Afraid that our pain will make us undesirable or that our love won’t be returned. What I, and I think many other people, fail to realize is that you can’t receive the things your soul aches for until you overcome your fear to give those things first. Giving with no expectation has the power to break down walls that we all, as fragile souls, build up to protect ourselves. Giving to the ones we love can set them free to give back to us the things we desperately need to heal our pain, to truly live.
No change happens overnight. No lesson learned is easily implemented. All we can do is try. Every day. Try to learn to live and love in a way that heals ourselves as we heal others.