When Shirley Temple started out in acting, she recalls how if any of the child actors misbehaved the studio executives would put them in a dark closet with nothing to sit on but a block of ice. According to Temple, while the punishment was harsh, it instilled in her a lesson she never forgot. That time was precious. That one way or another, the job would have to get done.
I don’t know why that anecdote has been popping into my mind. Maybe because I haven’t been feeling up to doing my own job lately. Because I feel like I’m locked in my own closet with only a block of ice to sit on. I hate everything I write. It all feels stale and unoriginal. It’s why I haven’t sent a newsletter in two weeks. I told myself I deserved a break. I did the same thing with the gym. It’s been a full month since I’ve looked at myself on a treadmill. It’s just too much for me right now, I thought. I’ll start in the new year.
Until then I’ll keep arguing with my husband. Lashing back at family members. Obsessing over past mistakes. Ignoring emails and text messages. ‘Forgetting’ to floss. Avoiding, I guess. Avoiding when I should be engaging and engaging when I should be avoiding. Now it’s two days until a new year, a new decade, and while a new dawn of possibilities glows on the horizon, I can’t find the energy to get up for it.
It’s gone. My energy. Lost somewhere in 2019 along with my $200 highlights and tolerance for tequila. Of course I’ve been retracing my steps. You lost it somewhere in all the projects you took on, I tell myself. But those projects are almost finished. Besides, I wanted those projects. It’s from when you had the flu and went to work anyway. You never fully recovered. Oh, bullshit, another voice pops in. You lost this energy years ago – when you got comfortable.
If I’m being honest with myself, really honest, I’ll admit I haven’t lost my energy. Because energy isn’t something you can lose. I’ve taken enough breaks – spent enough days in front of Netflix, drank enough wine on Tuesday evening and had enough mini vacations – to know that energy is easily replenished. The problem is that I’ve lost my nerve.
I’m like a skinless chicken. Easily spooked. I stop midway through thoughts, ideas, actions because the pain of it. It’s too much, too hard. I’ve forgotten what it’s like to push through. To finish it out. To do it even though (or because) it will hurt. To take the lashings bravely. I can’t remember the last time I experienced the elation that comes from pushing through to the other side. Thinking about it now, I guess that’s where my energy is. Wrapped up in that elation on the other side. The reason I don’t have it is I’ve refused to cross the road. Thinking there’s some shortcut. That it’ll arrive on my doorstop in an Amazon box. But energy isn’t like that. Energy begets energy. And the fuel, the ember that lights that energy is spurred by action. And pain is almost always a byproduct of action.
I saw a cartoon the other day. It was a girl in a cafe, coffee in hand, sitting across a table from a black cloud with white eyes and a mouth. The caption read: I have decided to befriend my sadness. Sometimes we get coffee. I couldn’t stop looking at it. Maybe it was the way it was illustrated. The slope of the girl’s nose. The smile on the black bob. Or maybe I had never seen sadness constructed in such a recognizable way. Whatever it was, I realized I needed to do the same thing with pain. I need to start getting coffee with it.
To look pain as a friend. A presence to greet with acceptance, for better or worse. When she wakes me up to go to the gym with her, I will not wave her off. When she shows up at work, I will let her in, asking her to sit with me until I finish. I will enjoy her company on the subway home, until she gets off at her own stop. When she shows up on the treadmill I will see her as having arrived to cheer me on. She’s that friend I’ve been looking for. The one who will run errands with me, sit in traffic with me, be there when I wake up alone in the middle of the night.
If I can’t be happy to see her, I will at least be used to seeing her. And soon, her presence will be comfortable enough for me to entertain no matter where I am.
I will write the newsletter even if it isn’t my best. Because to persevere and produce something that’s not my best but still push through it, is how I get better. It’s how I get used to the sting of dissatisfaction. To call the client today even though I don’t want to because I know the pain will come either way. Sooner or later I’ll have to sit with it. So do it now. Greet it excitedly. Stay with pain. Stay with change. Stay with the unknown. Don’t be so quick to let go of the stretch when it starts to burn. So quick to stop running when it begins to hurt. So quick to stop writing when I don’t feel inspired. If any of us are going to have any chance at fulfilling our new year resolutions, we’ll need to reestablish our relationship with pain. Because if courage is the building block of character, pain is the building block of change.