I sprouted early as a kid. In the fourth grade, I towered over many of my classmates, and especially over my two best friends. Lining up for school processions, they gathered at the beginning of the line, while I was the second or third person from the last. I recall one Saturday afternoon coming back from the circus. The three of us sat in the back seat analyzing our fingers. Sitting in between them, I stretched out my extended digits, and they laughed at how lengthy and lingering they were. I still remember that feeling – embarrassed by being different, and desperately wanting short fingers so that I could fit in.
It was years before I came to appreciate my long, slender fingers. I thank God for them today, as they help me reach more keys on the piano and help me to type faster. They are valuable instruments in gardening and painting. I can hoard more appetizers at a cocktail hour and look more intimidating when emphasizing a point with my kids.
Still, though, that pang of being different surfaces at times, as well as the craving to be like everyone else. It’s especially pronounced during times of transition, when I’m unsure of myself, or when I feel particularly broken.
Lately I have been sitting in the back seat of that car again, holding out my fingers, wishing I were less colorful, unconventional, volatile, sensitive, and quirky. I am envious of those who are more secure, stable, and grounded – people who have no need to express their innermost thoughts, who always say and do the right thing, who are perfectly content crunching numbers all day long. The more intense the insecurity, the more tempted I am to morph into an imitation of someone else, at least temporarily, to get some relief from the pain of being me.
Some of it has to do with my bipolar diagnosis — navigating the ups and downs of my manic-depressive illness. In my opinion, no other writer describes the inner tensions experienced with this condition better than Kay Redfield Jamison, the Dalio Family Professor in Mood Disorders at Johns Hopkins University. She reminds those of us with intense temperaments of the gifts that come with heightened imagination, sensitivity, and creativity. In her contribution to NPR’s “This I Believe” series, called “The Benefits of Restlessness and Jagged Edges,” she writes:
I believe that curiosity, wonder and passion are defining qualities of imaginative minds and great teachers; that restlessness and discontent are vital things; and that intense experience and suffering instruct us in ways that less intense emotions can never do. I believe, in short, that we are equally beholden to heart and mind, and that those who have particularly passionate temperaments and questioning minds leave the world a different place for their having been there.
Diagnosed with manic depression at the age of 18, she acknowledges the envy for calm, the longing for peace. Although the gifts of calmer dispositions are perhaps more obvious than those of more intense temperaments at certain points in our lives, there is great beauty found in the darker energies of creative spirits. She writes:
Exuberance and delight, tempered by deep depressions, have been lasting teachers. An intense temperament has convinced me to teach not only from books but from what I have learned from experience. So I try to impress upon young doctors and graduate students that tumultuousness, if coupled to discipline and a cool mind, is not such a bad sort of thing. That unless one wants to live a stunningly boring life, one ought to be on good terms with one’s darker side and one’s darker energies. And, above all, that one should learn from turmoil and pain, share one’s joy with those less joyful and encourage passion when it seems likely to promote the common good.
Should we spend too must time desiring someone else’s more stable disposition, we blind ourselves to the many blessings inherent in our colorfulness. It is best to appreciate the diversity of temperaments, while owning the one we were given and embracing the darker energies.
Similar words were spoken to me recently by Al Lindquist, the lead administrator of the depression support community on Facebook, Group Beyond Blue, that I started five years. “If you consider a kaleidoscope, it’s really a bunch of broken pieces held up to the light,” he explained. “There is extraordinary beauty in the brokenness when viewed against the light.”
As Rumi puts it, “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”
I think it’s human to want short fingers, to want to fit in. Persons living with bipolar disorder or chronic depression are especially tempted to swap their sensitivities and vulnerabilities for a more grounded disposition. But that doesn’t move you forward. Instead, you should hold your brokenness up to the light and see what happens. You should, as Elizabeth Gilbert says, “embrace the glorious mess that you are.”