A Word of Complaint

It feels almost miraculous.  Everything in my life (well, almost everything) that was holding me back (funny, I feel anxious just writing that) is now, well, perhaps not gone, but markedly better.
  • I have a whole new set of tools for thinking about my eating and my body and my weight; I even forget to count calories most days (and know that it is better to stop myself when I start and simply ask whether I am hungry), and yet, I am eating better than I ever have and (mirabile dictu) enjoying my food.
  • Our home is calm and happy, no longer stuffed full of junk we don't need.   Even better, I have gone shopping several times in the past month and come home without having bought anything because I couldn't find anything that was exactly right.
  • I have established a regular schedule for working on my research and stuck to it for nine months even though I am not on leave.  I have made good progress on my translation, as well as researched, written, sent out for review, and revised (still in progress) my first new piece in over two years.  
  • I have more time in my day than I ever imagined I could, and yet somehow all of the work that I need to do is getting done, at a calmer, steadier pace than ever before in my life.  And I have time (make time, recognize that I need time) to walk the dog two or three times every day.  Plus go to fencing practice two evenings a week.  And I have learned how to say no.
Which is a problem, because now I have nothing to write about.  Okay, not nothing, but markedly less.  How is it so much easier to come up with something to say when we're suffering?

I know.  At least, I think I know.  Elaine Scarry says something very provocative (and wise) in her The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (1986) about how pain destroys language, reduces us to animal cries.  "Ah, ah, ah!"  But as soon as we break into speech ("Woe is me!"), we take the first small step back into rationality and humanity.  We begin to imagine things being other than they are, other than simply pain, and we start to articulate ways in which the world might be otherwise so that we are no longer in pain.  Language is a tool for alleviating pain.

It seems to be less good at describing joy.  As I was sitting in meditation this morning, the thought came to me that this is why so many stories end simply, "And they lived happily ever after."  Well, happy stories, at least.  The whole point typically is that "they" (the young lovers, the struggling artists, the adventurers in search of their dream) have spent the duration of the story overcoming obstacles.  The end (to the story, at least) comes when there is no more pain.  Nothing to struggle for anymore, only bliss to enjoy.  It's why most people's image of Heaven is (sometimes even to them) boring: it's the thing you attain after overcoming adversity, and all of the drama (and excitement) is in the quest, not the achievement itself.

Paradoxically, we wither and die when we have nothing to strive for, nothing to overcome.  I know I read that somewhere.  It seems true.  Perhaps it's why we feel unhappiest just when we achieve everything that we ever hoped for; it's the end of the game--and we want to keep playing.  Yes, it's much better winning the bout than losing, but even worse is the feeling (thus the let-down after one's last D-E) that we can't fence anymore, that we have to stop, even if only for the day.  We would much rather be back on the strip, back in the struggle, back testing ourselves against an opponent, back risking the possibility that we might lose.

And yet, there is suffering, and there is suffering.  It is one thing to take on a challenge and test your abilities to their limit.  It is wholly another to spend your life convinced that you are a failure despite all evidence to the contrary.  It is one thing not to let yourself rest on your laurels and be willing to get back into the fray.  It is wholly another to believe that the reason you have so much trouble achieving your dream is because you don't deserve to have it or are fundamentally broken.  It is one thing to embrace the risk of failure for the purposes of creating something new.  It is wholly another not even to try because you have been told (by yourself or others) that you don't have the talent for something.  It is one thing to have scars because you allowed yourself to try something you weren't sure you could.  It is wholly another to think that having scars means somehow you were wrong to live.

I look back on my younger self now and feel not a little regret, but much more compassion.  Did I really used to think that way, allow myself to be the victim if not of circumstance, then most definitely of other people's opinions?  I can see clearly now so many times in my life when I allowed someone else's opinion (I thought first to say "judgment," but that implies that they were somehow in the right) to overrule my discomfort, whether at needing to eat or feeling anxious about a particular social interaction or in feeling frustrated at wanting to learn.  That's a bit tangled, I know, but it's hard to put into words the calm that I now feel simply sitting on the bus with all of the other people and not being afraid of what they might think.  Just imagine how empowering this thought is in a faculty meeting.  Or at home.

Which is not to say that I never feel anxious anymore, who doesn't?  But it does mean that I have a better sense (I hope) of what feeling anxious means.  It's a message, not a threat (although it might be a message about a threat).  It's trying to teach you something.  There is no need to fight it or run away from it, only to sit with it until it teaches you what you need to learn.  And then you will know what the correct response is. 

It really is magical.  I hope that I can find the words to help you visit me here.  It's a wonderful place to be!


  1. Whatever became of the book you were writing a couple years ago? I recall you went to England. Some of your photographs were of topiary, and I thought the Bear riding the tail was funny.

  2. I am still working on it, research takes time!


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