This is what a pilates instructor of mine used to say. Of course, she was referring to our rear ends and thighs, as we trembled on the reformer, fatigued and wanting with every fiber in our being to sit down (lay down, pass out…). But she was right. Pain is where the change happens. In life, in love, in illness, the painful places are where we transform into something else. It is an almost impossible place to stay; to appreciate and fully experience what is happening, but it is an essential part of the process of growth and change.
With very few exceptions, if we are lucky enough to live long enough, we will experience some form of emotional or personal crisis. Sometimes, it is the result of a choice that we have made for ourselves–maybe we are switching careers late in the game, or moving from everything we’ve ever known for an opportunity someplace else. But quite often, the crisis is sparked as a result of something that we had no say in–the loss of a loved one or a natural disaster like fire or flood. Most often, in my work, it is the diagnosis of a disease like cancer that leads to a feeling of uncertainty and sometimes despair.
Though it surprises many, sometimes the point of crisis happens when someone is emerging from treatment with clean scans and a clear bill of health. The rest of the world looks at them and says, “You beat cancer!” and “You look great!”. But inside they feel quite different. They are changed. And they feel disconnected from themselves and sometimes they feel like they don’t know who they are. And while it feels like “beating cancer” should be glorious and hopeful and great, it quite often is a little shakier than they expect or know how to deal with. And this unsteady ground is hard to tolerate. It is painful.
I think a lot about change. About what it means and the inherent necessity and even the discomfort of it. But what I have spent less time thinking of is the actual point at which the change occurs. The space where life shifts and crumbles around you, the floor drops out from under you, and you are left to grope, looking for solid ground.
Generally speaking, change is a gradual, organic process. But when we experience an acute event like natural disaster or the loss of a loved one, we don’t get the easy, gradual immersion into what’s next. Next is now. And it hits you in the face and demands you make sense of it. The struggle, the pain, the confusion and challenge all lead us to what is next. We just can’t see where we’re going when we start.
When living in and emerging from crisis, there is an expectation. That, like a rubber-band, we will emerge from the experience and expect to go immediately back to who we were the day before everything blew up. But the meat and potatoes of it is the space in-between. The hard, messy, painful places before the ground reappears under our feet. I’m not saying it is comfortable, but it is always necessary. Or else you will be stuck moving back and forth, rather than cycling through.
In her excellent book, Rising Strong, Brené Brown talks about “the point of no return”. Apparently this saying is derived from the field of aviation, where a pilot in flight passes the point at which they would have enough gas to return to their place of origin. They are forced to keep going into the unknown sky, because they simply cannot go back. And even in the discomfort and uncertainty, they have no choice but to move forward.
And the thing is, in a similar fashion, we don’t get to go backwards. I always say that the notion of returning to a past iteration of yourself is the equivalent of pulling the size 6 jeans you wore in high school out of the closet and expecting them to fit. They won’t. And if they do, they don’t look the same. You are different, the world is different, and we don’t go backwards, no matter how comfortable we remember the past to be. Every day we are building a life, engaging in incremental changes of self, and emerging anew the next day.
Joan Didion said, “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise, they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the minds door at 4 am of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.”
So we get to remember who we were, honor the losses along the way, and emerge into what is next. But we don’t get to pretend that nothing is different, or that the struggle and pain didn’t exist. The struggle and pain are what mold and shape who we are becoming, and inform how we’ll move into our next chapter.
The good news is, in the midst of the disorder, the darkness and hurt, there is solid ground waiting for us. And when we find it, it is richer and more meaningful than the place we left behind. The tough part of the story is that we don’t have a magic map that will get us there. The process takes patience and insight and a tremendous tolerance for uncertainty and discomfort. Make no mistake—even in the darkness, you are moving forward.
So if you are reading this in the darkness, groping for ground, know that it is there. You will find it. And you will land in a place that will be comfortable and rewarding. But for now, have courage, and know that the only way to get to the light is to trudge through the darkness.