Small Life, Slow Life: How to Find Beauty in the Pain.

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It was Christmas Eve, 2012. I’d been at work all day, watching happy customers come and go, arms amply filled from shoulder to wrist with bags full of gifts for their loved ones. It had drizzled the night before (this is Los Angeles, after all, so there’s no snow here), so the parking lot was wet with leftover puddles. People walked arm-in-arm, stopping for coffee or cups of hot chocolate before finishing up their holiday shopping. Eagerly, my co-workers clocked out early as business slowed down and they left the store, excitedly telling each other their holiday plans.

I clocked out around 5pm and went to my car as the last bit of sunlight receded behind the hills near my work. I could see my breath in the air and my boots made wet, squishy sounds as they crossed through the puddles. The leaves on the trees, wet and shiny, caught little iridescent fragments of orange light.

It was so, so beautiful.

And. I. Couldn’t. Breathe.

I can tell today is the most beautiful day, I texted my friend Marianne. But I swear to God, I can’t feel it.

C and I had been broken up for just over two months. I’d been telling myself lies, that the holiday season was going to bring him back to me, but so far, no dice. The thought of going home to my family and having to fake holiday cheer while we opened gifts felt like the most exhausting thing on the entire planet. I didn’t care about a single gift because there was only one thing I wanted, and the chance on that one happening wasn’t looking so great.

No one was coming to save me; no holiday miracle was in store for me. Inside my house, my family was anxiously waiting for me and my mom had made all of my favorite dishes. But the only thing I could think about was going home and going to bed.

How do you do it? How do you muscle through the pain when everyone else around is so happy?

You can’t. It’s impossible.

“I JUST FEEL PAIN. A LOT OF PAIN. I THOUGHT I COULD IMAGINE HOW MUCH THIS WOULD HURT, BUT I WAS WRONG.” –HARUKI MURAKAMI, SOUTH OF THE BORDER, WEST OF THE SUN 

“PAIN DEMANDS TO BE FELT.” –JOHN GREEN

Get rid of the pain 2x faster. Numb the pain. Stop the pain. Cool the pain. We’re all about it — getting the heck away from the pain. We are pleasure-seeking creatures and we’re wired to seek safe, stable, and happy conditions. But as anyone who’s been through it can tell you, there’s nothing stable about grief, heartbreak or loss.

It’s a rollercoaster. And there’s no getting off till the ride is done.

If you’re wanting exact steps + an action plan to take you from ground zero to happiness again, I’ve written about that here. The rest of you, stay put.

It’s not easy, it’s not fun, and I won’t say it’s even pleasurable, but there is a distinct beauty to pain that simply isn’t present during times of joy.

When I think back to the pain I was in then, I have a reverence for it. Like a difficult teacher, but extremely wise, that pain burned down acres of overgrown weeds and dead brush inside of me so that happiness could bloom anew. (Though it took so, so very much longer than I wanted it to.)

I go back and read things I wrote at that time, and the thing that stands out to me is how incredibly present I was!  I described every sensation of achiness in my chest, how my ribcage felt bound up my wire, how my insides felt hollowed out by a melon scooper. I wrote that I felt I’d been left for dead and that vultures were shredding up my flesh. It’s painful to go back and read those things, but I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t think that was some of the best writing I’ve ever done.

Joy speeds by in a flash; pain is slow and excruciating and it is happening RIGHT NOW. There’s no getting around it — wherever you are, that’s where you are.

I have these incredibly vivid memories of certain days — the entirety of them — when I was in that pain. Days I spent sitting on curbs in parking lots smoking cigarettes (don’t worry, I stopped that a long time ago), looking up at the sky, or watching crows do what crows do, or counting the number of cars that drove by. Or sitting on my balcony as night gave way to morning and suddenly, the stars were gone.

I remember entire passages of books I read, and how little by little, they began to crack the exterior of bitterness around my heart (some of those books: When Things Fall Apart; A Course in Miracles; Eat Pray Love; The Fault in Our Stars). I can remember (and this was years ago!) detailed conversations with my cousin I had over the breakup, and I could probably tell you every single text C sent me in during the six months we were apart.

But ask me to tell you about the day I got engaged. Or my wedding day. Or my honeymoon.

I barely remember them! I was so happy, I barely remember a thing. And everything has a fuzzy haze to it.

Pain is as clear as crystal. It’s etched into your mind.

Pain can make you present in this really heartbreaking, really beautiful way. You may notice the way cars rushing by sound like the ocean sometimes, or how your dog looks at you in a way that intuitively expresses his understanding that you’re suffering. You may be able to see the tiniest bug you’ve ever seen walking on a leaf, like I did one day.

Never would've noticed that guy before.

Never would’ve noticed that guy before. He was 1/4 the size of my pinky nail!

This is going to sound really weird, since we live in a culture that is so anti-pain. But here goes:

This time in your life that you’re in this excruciating pain is actually extremely precious.

I’m not bullshitting you — I really believe that.

It comes bearing gifts and it absolutely serves a purpose.

Don’t miss it.

What are some ways you can find the beauty in your pain?

Go for walks and take note of what you see. Pick an object, really look at it, and write all about it. Read a book about someone WAY worse off than you, or better yet, someone who went through exactly what you did and triumphed over it. Watch a cloud traverse across the entire arc of sky available to you. Zoom your vision into a single blade of grass and consider what it took for it to grow there. Buy a cheap plant from a home goods store and marvel at how it grows. Paint your nails and do a really good job — really take your time (soak them in soapy water, brush the surface, file & buff them). Listen to that song — you know the one — over and over and over and over, until you can sing it as though you wrote it. Watch music videos and imagine how the camera had to be set up to capture the shot. Write about the way your body feels when you can’t eat, can’t sleep, and can’t relate to anyone. Research things — the ingredients in shampoo, why jellyfish can survive without brains, hearts, lungs or blood; when the last dinosaur disappeared; what it takes to get a Ph.D. Notice things about people that they’re moving too fast to notice — the way they hold their pens, the way they walk which actually is revealing how anxious and rigid they feel, or the big smile that crosses someone’s face after a child runs by.

Notice all of it. Because soon you’ll be feeling better and you’ll be back in the world of reality. And then, you know what? You won’t notice any of it anymore.

The sound of the cars rushing by will be lost on you; you’ll be back to living in your head and you won’t ever watch music videos at 2am or marvel at how a blade of grass grows.

You’ll mean to take the time, but you won’t.

You’ll be living.

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11 thoughts on “Small Life, Slow Life: How to Find Beauty in the Pain.

  1. Brilliant article Jen 🙂

    What you’ve written is SO true, about pain being so excruciatingly slow. You’re right, there’s something about it that makes us remember the tiniest details of that phase even ages later. During the first month after my breakup, I remember spending all my time googling up ‘how to get your ex-boyfriend back’ and reading it all in a frenzy, my mind would be swimming with all that information and I’d shamelessly attempt to employ all those tactics, but in vain. During the second month, I found myself searching for ‘how to seek revenge on your ex’…bah…I can’t believe I even went through that phase (thankfully short lived), logic really has no place in a post-breakup brain. During the third month, I found myself taking online psychology quizzes and diagnosing myself with clinical depression/anxiety disorder/dysthymia and what not.

    It’s been 3.5 months now, and I find myself searching for more positive stuff ‘how to let go’/ inspirational stories (that’s how I came across your blog :)). I also came across an old book that had a chapter ‘Grief as a Blessing’ as explained by Rumi and that gave me a whole new perspective. It’s still a struggle, but at this stage, I am convinced that grief does serve a higher purpose and it can only change a person for the better. There is a certain sweetness in sorrow that is unparalleled to anything else. I’ve been reading about this extensively and I was SO thrilled to see that you’d written an article with this title, I just rushed to read it. THANK YOU Jen! 🙂

    <3,
    Jane

    • “There is a certain sweetness in sorrow that is unparalleled to anything else.”

      I truly couldn’t have said it better. You’re absolutely right and that’s exactly the point I was aiming for. My friend Mitch and I spent all four years of college talking about exactly that — the sweetness of being so, SO deeply sad, and why is it like that? But more than meditation, mindfulness, yoga or deep breathing, sorrow truly forces one to live in the moment. Second by painful second. It’s excruciating enough to bring you to your knees…and at the same time, you’re more alive than you’ve ever been!

      You said Rumi (OMG I LOVE[!] Rumi) and I found this:

      “I saw grief drinking a cup
      of sorrow and called out,
      ‘It tastes sweet, does it not?’
      ‘You’ve caught me,’ grief answered,
      ‘and you’ve ruined my business.
      …How can I sell sorrow,
      when you know it’s a blessing?’”
      ~Rumi

  2. Pingback: Small Life, Slow Life: On Feeling Ambivalent About the Holidays. | small life, slow life

  3. Such an inspiration; giving me hope, and encouragement. I don’t usually comment, like, subscribe, etc., but just wanted to say thank you for your words, time, and thoughtfulness. 🙂 Please keep writing, thanks!

  4. Jennifer, thank you so much for your words, I’ve never felt the need to leave a comment on anything I’ve ever come across before. Thank you for sharing the raw emotions that most of us don’t know how to put into words and feel the need to suffer in silence. ~from a perfect stranger in the midst of heartbreak and grief who is sincerely grateful for your writings.

    • Hi Leslie,

      Thank you ❤ And I'm so sorry you're going through that heartbreak and grief. If it's any comfort, just as none of us make it out alive in this life, no one escapes that heartbreak and grief either. It's a character builder, and one day, I promise(!), you'll be grateful this happened. Hang in there.

      "If you can hold on,
      If you can hold on…
      …Hold on."
      –The Killers (All These Things That I've Done)

  5. Dear Jen,

    I have exhausted all of the getting back together / letting go links on Google search, and by some miracle I stumbled onto your blog finally – ‘jackpot’, was my first response. As you have mentioned, all breakups are pretty much as unique as they’re the same, so I’m not going to make you read paragraphs about my ‘unique’ circumstances. I can summarise to this: he ended it abruptly because he realised how much my fear, insecurity, and anxiety is damaging him. It has be ~5 weeks, I’ve done my crying, I have been to therapy, went on dates, worked on my guns (the muscle kind), hung out with mates, been overseas. Generally, been feeling pretty damn good. However, my greatest problem is that once my holidays end, I’ll have to go back to my work place, and sit next to my ex everyday. So I thought, maybe I’ll try to be friendly and broke the silence by asking him how he’s doing on Facebook message. He ignored me. Since we’re also in the same friendship circle at work, I am worried that we wouldn’t be able to pull a Ross/Rachel and still hang out with the same friends. Do you have any idea why he might be ignoring me? Or how can I handle this situation that doesn’t squander any chances of friendship/reconciliation?

    Looking forward to your compassionate and wise words.

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