An Introduction: Pain, growth, and the importance of surrender

January 8, 2012 § Leave a comment

It’s currently 3:24 AM on the third day of the new year, and slowly I’m beginning to wrestle with the mixed feelings of dread, anxiety and excitement that have been churning in my stomach for the past several weeks. So many things are budding into fruition, and it feels as though the fully awakened thoughts that have so carefully eluded me for years are finally skating closer towards my fingertips, within my reach. They’re all fragile at this stage, easily trampled and pushed down into the earth where their promise will decompose into compost. But the fact that I am sitting here, awake, despite the congestion weighing down my chest and filling my nostrils is evidence that this year will be different.

Right before New Year’s Eve Neil Gaiman prompted his readers to make more mistakes in 2012. In many ways it seems like mistakes have been following me throughout 2011. I’ve made plenty of mistakes, as is unavoidable. They make me think back to one of my architecture professor’s statements, one of her many that struck me during lecture so hard that it ricocheted around my mind for months afterward—a mistake is a sign of discovery. I have made so many mistakes over the past two semesters—and plenty more beyond that, of course—but what really brings me pain is the realization that I’ve only made them in the attempt to avoid them. I’ve been riddled by a fear, and whether it’s a fear of failure or a fear of mediocrity or fear of hurt I’m not sure; perhaps they’re all the same.  

It’s a fear composed of many different pieces—a fear of losing control, losing inherent characteristics which have grown to define me, of losing the respect and admiration of the people who inspire me and whom I love. It’s driven by the knowledge, at least a little, that while you’re experiencing pain it’s impossible to remember what the happier times that are almost always just ahead feel like, like the pain of being lost at sea waiting for rescue. And it’s also a fear of being so damaged that your efforts are worthless and you find yourself irreparable.

In my sophomore year of high school I had to give a presentation on the skeletal system in the human body. There are so few things I remember from that year of school—learning, although I wouldn’t have admitted it and perhaps didn’t realize it then, was far from being my top priority—but I remember falling in love with the structure of bones and the process through which they grow.

On the inside, bones are a matrix of spongy tissue made from calcium and other minerals built inside a solid frame. The density of this interior correlates with the bone strength—the denser the tissue, the less likely the bone is to break. Bone turnover is the process that repairs broken or damaged bones and allows a skeleton to grow over time. As bones break or undergo stress, minerals are pulled into solid matrix, and what emerges is a stronger tissue made more durable by the initial breakdown.

It’s a process of deconstruction followed by immediate reconstruction. A process of ripping things apart and knocking them down to make way for something better.

Sometimes when I think of dancing and running I think of how when I was little, I wanted to do ballet and gymnastics with all the other girls in class but my mom wouldn’t let me. She was afraid I would end up frail and crippled, my joints permanently shattered by the stress of handstands and jetés. To this day, she disapproves of my running because she thinks it’s going to ruin my joints.

I find comfort in the knowledge that as long as I stretch, rest and eat well, running will do no more damage than most other physical activities. But more importantly, I find comfort in the fact that pain and injury are unavoidable, and perhaps that knowledge is a signal for pain and anguish to be embraced as part of an ongoing process. Bone formation and resorption are partners in crime, acting in tandem—so, too, are the processes of destruction and creation.

As last semester drew to a close I found myself resolving to not let that fear cripple me again. That fear of letting go, the fear of, as Tony Oursler said, “constructing the void.” It’s the anxiety that rips you as you watch the clock strike 3:59 AM and you’re typing up what you fear is the shittiest, most pretentious and repetitive essay you’ve ever written but you force yourself to pump it out anyway because if you don’t write SOMETHING now, then for god’s sake, when will you?

If beauty is a process, like design, then perhaps pain is a necessary part of beauty, too. Like the pain in studying deep into the lonely, sleepness night gripped with the feeling that you will never understand the words in front of you, or pain in the feeling that your existence is dispensable and your work easily replaceable, or pain in the feeling that the people you love don’t love you equally in return or maybe love you for reasons that aren’t true or or or

The pain of deconstruction. Feeling your bones decomposing, anxiety gripping your broken skeleton, gravity pulling at your crumbling backbone.

Beauty exists there, too, in that mysterious space between now and what awaits ahead.

I remember visiting San Diego for the first time with my parents in April of 2010. It was just a few days after I had been waitlisted at my favorite school and with that email came the crushing realization that I had spent the majority of my four years of high school steeped in the belief that any work I did was useless, therefore not worth the effort, and that perhaps biding my time persuading myself to be content with the mediocre work I did was a reasonable alternative to being happy and proud and refreshingly awake. I stared into the cloudy sunset, feet buried in the cold sand as far away from my parents as I could get, and I cried. I had cried on the plane ride to the West, and I cried on the drive back to Carmel, and I cried in our hotel in the suburbs of San Francisco and silently in the chapel at Stanford as I gazed up into the stained glass skylight, because it finally hit me that the burden of not knowing what could have been was infinitely worse than crashing and burning and then rebuilding yourself again.

Beauty hangs on to the cracks of time between fallen tears and rolls off them like breaths in a musical score. It is what hangs between the terrifying void and the uncertainty of the unknowable future, it is imbibed in the anxiety that suffocates you as you feel yourself falling in love or burn an old work or stand through an open sunroof as you speed down a winding road.

Beauty, too, is terrifying, but even the possibility of intoxication is a worthwhile reward. Resorption and turnover in tandem. Beauty, if goodness is necessarily beautiful, cannot exist without sacrifice; opening up to the possibility of failure creates a breeding ground for both the fresh and refreshing.

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