“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom” wrote Anais Nin.
For me that day happened last July.
I was vacationing with my family in Corolla, South Carolina, when all the pain I had been feeling for the last year bubbled to the surface. It was like the sense of suffocation or drowning that William Styron describes in his classic Darkness Visible, but even messier. The experience was more distressing than any mood cycle of my past because I knew it wasn’t primarily physiological, and that a tweak to my medications wouldn’t deliver me from the panic.
To know peace would require the kind of change that was terrifying, a step into the unknown where I would have to pull off the mask of my false self and embrace the scared little girl within me. I would have to face my addictions to alcohol, nicotine, shopping, and approval and identify the ache that was feeding them. I would have to bring into consciousness the pain that was driving self-destructive behavior.
This task required getting honest in my marriage and in all of my relationships, risking the hurt feelings and rejection that I was so scared of. It entailed being bold in my career — chasing after my dream of being a mental health advocate. And it demanded that I begin discerning the faint whisper of wisdom from within me and follow my voice of truth toward healing and wholeness.
One night in Corolla I sat up ruminating until four in the morning. I could hardly breathe through the pain.
I realized I had choice but to get real.
Exposing our humanity is a risky stunt in our smiley-faced culture. Pain is regarded as a symptom of neurosis or disorder. There is nothing noble about it. To express the range of human emotions, including despair, is often met with aversion. In living authentically I have repelled certain people from whom I craved acceptance and approval.
However, continuing the facade wasn’t an option for me.
The bud had to open.
We get to our real selves when a death, divorce, or illness pulls out the foundation from beneath us. All the defining features we once ascribed to ourselves no longer fit, and we look into the mirror and ask, “Who the hell am I?” Mine happened as part of a midlife crisis when I suddenly approached every facet of my life with a curiosity that severed the ground beneath me.
In his book Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, Franciscan priest Richard Rohr describes this process as “falling upward” into the second half of our life. We spend our first decades building “containers” or sources of identity for ourselves: I am a government contractor, a wife, a mother of two teenagers, a Catholic, and a really irresponsible dog owner. In the second half of our life, we find the contents that the containers were meant to hold.
Fr. Rohr calls it “shadow work” because it is full of humiliation.
I call it getting real.
“Generally, by the time you are Real,” explains the Skin Horse to the Rabbit in The Velveteen Rabbit, “most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
That’s right, once you are real you can’t be ugly.
Becoming your true self is uncomfortable but beautiful.
To blossom is worth the pain.