Knowing Thyself

To listen to me reading this blog post in audio form:


I’ve questioned whether I can make it through this book: A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, the likes of which I discovered propped up in one of those little free libraries situated on a quiet neighborhood street in town. I almost didn’t take it, on account of the Oprah’s Book Club sticker adhered to the cover, which was designed to be a draw, a first-class recommendation, a rubber-stamp of approval by someone people trust. For me, though, it served only the ill-affects of resigning to a fate that had been chosen – neigh, thrusted – upon the masses, as though a woman who graces the cover of every O magazine should wield the power to say what’s hot in the literary world. How does this work? Do people care so little for their own opinion that they should have cause to hold hers in such high regard as to turn over their decision making power? But, I digress.

The reason I may not get through this book has nothing, in fact, to do with the circular sticker glued to the front. Instead, it has to do with the sheer visceral magnitude of the writer’s account of getting sober – in what turns out to be the oldest residential drug and alcohol treatment facility in the world, located in the state of Minnesota. The rock-bottom nature of his experience. The clutching force of how far a human being can spiral down the black hole of depravity. The hellish descriptions of agony. But it’s the realness that keeps me reading. And I know that since he mustered the ability to relive it while coiled over his computer, hands shaky on the keys, I can settle in beside him and listen to his story.

The point? There’s a time to push through discomfort and there’s a time not to. It depends on the situation and where we’re at. If we don’t know ourselves well, it becomes almost impossible to intuit which time calls for which action. Sometimes discomfort is a sign of needing to stop engaging with something because it may trigger us in un-beneficial ways. Other times, it’s a sign to keep going because it affords us the opportunity to learn and grow. And only we ourselves can know which time is which.

I recently attended a writer’s panel as part of the Montana Book Festival, entitled: Embracing the Unhappy Ending, Why Sad Stories Matter. While I anticipate this particular book I’ve just started reading to end on some kind of upswing or hopeful note, currently there is only excruciating pain and terrible hardship that graces each gut-wrenching page. And right now I feel as though I can read it and not get taken down by it. That it will afford me the ability to develop a wider perspective and deepen my understanding of the disease of addiction, which affects so many so brutally, my stepdad for instance. But I know that at times in the past it would not have been good for me to keep reading this book. It would’ve weighed me down and caused too much despair, clouded my vision with too much darkness. It’s important to listen to that voice inside of us that says, No, it’s too much right now.

A member of the audience at the panel said it best. He said, “In sadness I feel I’m being given something but in despair I feel something is being taken away.” I translated his comments as there being a difference between subjecting ourselves to a book that embodies an authentically sad true-life experience verses a hyped-up, over-dramatized, semi-real, despairing tale of woe.

It’s important to lean into the stories and experiences that bring up feelings of discomfort – how else will we learn how to move through them? AND it’s important to know ourselves well enough to know when it’s not the right time, or when enough is enough. Discomfort ranges from mild to severe and is ever-changing, because we’re ever-changing. And the thing about discomfort is: IT IS EVERYWHERE WE GO. We cannot escape discomfort – that’s not a thing. If we’re looking to be discomfort-free, for there to be zero awkward moments, boy are we in for a lifetime of struggle. But the more we come into relationship with ourselves, the more skilled we become in being able to determine what to do when discomfort arises.

This book I’m reading is hella uncomfortable. But I know I can handle it and that I’ll become a better person for reading it. So, there’s that.

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