Have you ever been knocked down by something in your life? Completely and utterly brought low to a place you hadn’t known? Vulnerable in a way that you never had been before? If so, you will know where I am coming from. And if not, you may understand someone else in your life better. Or someone in your community better.
I am getting over a bad bout of illness. The details are unimportant. There are always people who are more sick or less sick than you. Not unlike grief or trauma where somebody has always had it much worse or much easier than you did. Comparisons are really pointless. What matters is the impact. It doesn’t matter if it was a small tornado or a large tornado that tore down your house. What matters most in that moment is that you lost your house. What matters is how you feel looking at the wreckage. What matters is how you can come back from it.
The nature of this particular bout of illness shattered my illusion of resilience. I lost the innocence of believing I could gut through anything. It’s not that I have never been sick, in fact, I have been sicker. But this small tornado of illness tore down my house –the house I had built, had worked so hard to rebuild, the house I thought I belonged to. A house of energy and can-do-it-ness. A house with rose colored windows that determined how I saw the world. A house that never thought it could get knocked down.
I have tried to explain this new place, post-sickness, and the first description would would be ‘not-me.’ But that’s not accurate. It is me. It’s just a side of me that I have never gotten to know. It’s just a side of me that I have been terrified of, have denied was there, even when it was there. Other times of being hit by life I was able to dodge this side, I had enough energy or something, to slip through some door and leave this darker, slower side behind. But not this time. This time, slow and dark was all I had.
This period of time is marked by absence—and not surprisingly, feels negative; the very definition of something that is marked by absence rather than presence. But it is really both. It is the absence of the familiar side of the self; and the presence of the unfamiliar. With the slow, dark side of myself that has every right to feel and act negatively—at best, I have flat out ignored this side, and at worst I have been mean and disdainful. And now, after all these years—this dark side and I are roommates.
As Wendell Berry said, when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work. And that’s exactly where I am. In this unfamiliar place, I don’t know where I am, and I don’t have my familiar ways of marshaling myself and the world. I no longer know what to do, and I find myself in my real work: learning to belong to this side too. Learning that belonging to our dark side, or our slow side, or our exhausted side means that we belong to something bigger, not smaller. I had no idea that I would learn this: there is an odd reassurance in sitting so close to the thing that used to scare you away. I wouldn’t say that my slow, dark roommate and I are best friends, but I wouldn’t say we are enemies any longer. She, the slow, darker side, is now a part of the mix; will be a part of the familiar, will be built in to the new house as it is built again. I know this is true, and I have no real idea of what it means. But not knowing, yes, that is where the work is.
© 2016 Gretchen L Schmelzer, PhD