I'm a perpetual navel gazer. In fact, I do it so often my bellybutton will probably take out a restraining order on me any day now. So I'll take any excuse to reflect, like say, the beginning of a new year.
I sit and look over the 12 months worth of pictures I posted on Facebook page and smile at the moments I shared with my friends and family. I chat with my kids and my husband about their favorite moments of the year and take stock of what I have and whom I love. But I spend the most time thinking about the challenges I faced and the things I might like to change. Basically, I shake up the sand and see what comes loose.
As much as I might like others to catch my attention, it's always the big-boulder issues that jut out toward the top; the kind with jagged edges that leave psychological cuts and bruises. I know them well, their permanent scars show in my deepest insecurities and chronically bad habits. For years I got pretty good at dodging them; it wasn't worth the pain of getting close.
In my youth it was easier to turn my back on anything emotionally difficult in my life and pick one of the many visceral pleasures I knew would soothe my ache for the moment. But all that got me was 15 pounds, a monster Visa bill and a raging headache. Without facing the issue, all of my potential steppingstones remained barbed.
As I grew older, and with the reality of careers, kids and cancer, I realized that avoidance was no longer a luxury I could afford. In order to make a lasting change in my life I couldn't simply sidestep these sharp stones, I had to grab them with both hands, turn them over, investigate them from every angle and suffer the scrapes. It was the only way to create a path through my pain rather than a detour.
Ground down with honesty and reflection, smoothed with attention and familiarity, even the sharpest of edges became easy to touch. I could then move and fit these rocks nicely together with other rounded ones from my past. Each painful experience honed and transformed to work together and create a foundation of emotional resilience. And time all of those challenges, which once seemed huge and insurmountable, became smaller and more manageable.
The smaller pebbles of my history settled toward the bottom, filling in the cracks of my personal strength, shoring me up for the times when I felt like I might break. Those stones of losing an important job, or the letter from my editor telling me to start again combined to form the base; the grains of my 6th grade heartbreak and getting out-touched in butterfly when I was 10 provided the grout.
At 43, I have come to the age when many of my contemporaries have begun experiencing real, tangible trauma and have begun to feel the heavy weight of adult responsibility. Some have lost parents, spouses and even children to illness and accidents. Others provide long-term care to loved ones, at great cost to themselves and their families. They are divorcing, deploying and depressed. Regardless of the circumstance, very few are escaping the damage that only true sorrow can bring.
My family and I have faced some hefty loss, too, and it would be so easy to slide into anger and stay there. But I refuse to accept that any pain we suffer is wasted, or that a tear we shed is in vain. Instead, I choose to believe that every challenge we face head-on isn't just important, it is essential to our development as individuals to grow and succeed emotionally. It is by turning those stones and filling in the mortar that we establish our strength. Each time we address our pain it is simply a building block in transit.
I stand upright because I lost that job, suffered that heartbreak, and got out-touched in butterfly. Because my dad died of cancer before he could read this. Because just a few years ago George had three brothers and now he has one. Because George got cancer and so did I. And because I might have passed down my mutated genes to three, beautiful children so they might get cancer, too.
Those are some big, sharp rocks.
But I keep picking them up, turning them over, getting cut, and figuring out why. And with time I soften the edges enough (I hope) not to get hurt by them again. Then I put them down next to the other weathered rocks to help make me strong. And I do it over and over again, building up my footing.
I have always felt that the greatest gift from God was perspective. Since pain can often be a breeding ground for myopia, a step up is a great tool to prevent me from getting stuck. With each stone under my feet my view gets bigger and better; I guess I can thank my struggles, in part, for that vista.
I know I have much to experience, much to learn, but with each challenge the process gets simpler. And I know that all of my challenges have worth.
I'm not done building, but it's a start.