“This above all—ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: Must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple, “I must,” then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and lightest hour must be a sign of this urge and testimony to it.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
The moment has stayed encased in glass since I was probably 15 or 16.
I don’t even remember what caused the argument. I’ve kept the memory in the dark, cocooned since the day I saw the blind fury in my brother’s eyes. His full mighty pain slashed out and what I saw behind his mask of rage hurt more than anything. Confusion. Neither of us knew anything of dealing with explosive feelings—even of the common kind—fear, inferiority and shame.
Where had it come from? And why think of it now?
I sit here in this time warp thinking back to the family room fight I can barely remember, but I recall how terrified I was and how hot tears sprang from my eyes. Growing up, we’d had plenty of fights, but this was different, lethal. I wept for him, for his future family, what I feared would be much more suffering. I cried for the role I’d played in his history with my criticism and cruelty.
The memory has since brought me to tears again and though apologies were made and life goes on, revealing family dynamics doesn’t conceal scars.
Such history is always new. So what else is here? What use might it serve?
This is the work, this choosing to see beauty in pain, and its specific elements. Why should pain so often be required? Something originated there and we experienced it firsthand in flashing adrenaline, that familiar gasping, a constricting around the throat.
He hit me and though unexpected, I know I deserved it. I’ll feel it at times at the piano in passages that don’t seem to hold any particular charge. Any conflict can uncover it, even indirect. I’ll feel that surge of fear and my heart coils to flee. So many confrontations, pain’s wild claws bared, and that animal awareness mashes out peace, displacing the soft wax of calmer moments.
I feel it now, twisting its shape again of these unspoken words.
Nearly 25 years ago now, my too-hot scrutiny finally pushed the simmering too far, and cumulatively, I can profess to know this now, that I didn’t know then and couldn’t articulate, how fear snaps the senses awake, icy pellets of rain in the face, the metallic sting of electricity.
Doesn’t all beauty birth in pain? Why else would it carry its own flavor and smell?
“God’s job is not to make sick people healthy…. God’s job is to make sick people brave.” – Harold Kushner
In effort, in difficult circumstance, isn’t struggle with opposition necessary for the rare fortunate result called beauty?
And beauty doesn’t arise in all conflict, but in the fight for goodness amongst great evil. In the valiance of truth contrasted with the dark lie. In the slender stalk rising from the impossibly polluted, irrepressible through iron and concrete, through tangle of challenges, the soft red bud somehow slowly emerging through inhospitable soil.
Beauty is the life that should never have survived.
He struck and whatever went before or came after, I sucked in a breath, suddenly aware that it was just life, its challenges and terrors too impossible to be believed, in all its complexity, and how could any beauty be possible. In later years, I’d experience a panic that seemed it could nearly constrict my throat for good. And I feel the weight of this herenow perfectly balanced in the mysterious symmetry of influences between past and present.
What should I do with it and where should it go now? Should I lift my hand from the jar and let the transformation free? Would it glisten in the warming day? Could it attract attention and be appreciated for what it is, the fusion of ideal conditions, such singular form?
If only we knew the pain that went into every micron, every filament of creation… Wouldn’t our bodies burst with the beauty?
The question is ringing in my heart: how much can you bear?
The pained faces of the starving African children in Saturday morning commercials. The hard anger of so many lives without hope.Maybe the only question is what to do with it. To not grow deadened to it, yes. But what more?
I hear my older daughter reading in the other room, the younger listening. So innocent, unaware. The energy buzzing in my spine won’t forget. I can’t move on to busy work. I must use the essential lesson.
Beneath every lesser impulse, at the bottom, I want us to live. And I want to live this and feel this and share this: don’t be surprised, my soul, by opposition while fighting for birth through this long tunnel of life.
Why shouldn’t we find trouble? Searing pain? Dragons? Fire? Fearsome reflective pools revealing the myriad deaths in all our selfish desires before reaching the goal? Why wouldn’t we have to walk on the fragile skulls of the billion explorers who died in the myriad grimy alcoves?
Why wouldn’t there be thousands opposing us reaching that light?
And why should there be any light at all?
Can I ignore the bald impossibility of such ideal conditions? Can I withhold a single word of unbridled praise for this chance? Protected, suspended in just the right balance for this very experience of what he knew would best teach me the essential truth, could this be anything but another step toward the brilliant treasured world beyond?
When you’ve seen beauty arising from your pain you know it: there’s no answer but that we must be sustained every step by something so powerful, so common, so holy. Such ridiculous beauty flourishing abundant everywhere should not exist.
I cried then and I cry again now. Men learn so young how to bottle their light. But in the pressure, they learn to appreciate stark contrasts. The concentration that squeezes out all else. The darker the tunnel, the brighter the light becomes. This is the struggle I want to live.
As David prayed, “Unite my heart to fear thy name.”
Isn’t this the hope that spurs me continually on, to still seek when all other lights have flickered out?
Everywhere remain depths unplumbed. Who needs the hope our experiences have brought?
We must walk on through the dark, the pain, the inconsolable beauty. We must fight to share our discoveries. And we must venture to the places others would rather not venture, against the pain of even the strongest opposition.