Sometimes my world is a room where water is leaking through cracks in the walls. At the rate new cracks are forming, I’ll never seal as many as I need to, and I’ll never make peace with the amount of water pooling at my feet. Suspended between these two certainties like Spiderman holding back a train with two handfuls of web and his body, I can’t contort my face like he does. New cracks will form if you let them see you sweat. Muffled voices outside the room say I don’t need to seal so many. They’re relaxing their expectations in response to my failure to seal enough and the only way to fix this is to seal even more.
I tend to write about the cracks, not the feeling. I tend to swipe at the feeling obliquely even though I know how much of the best writing comes from reckoning with feelings directly. A good writer may point at them more artfully than I have, or may fictionalize their sources, but will reckon with them.
Unless we can earn money and clout by doing so, our culture encourages us to not do so. Patriarchal norms cheer on my false conflation of “expressing pain” with “foisting pain onto others.” Being closed off, emotionally detached, loath to acknowledge emotional pain: this flies under the radar, disguised as a personality trait, a biological reflex. A fixed thing to be worked around. While such a tendency may solidify over time via repetition, it’s nothing more than a repeated action, learned and conditioned. It can be unlearned, depending on one’s willingness to go against cultural currents. It can also be ignored, leaving one to keep radiating pain in diffuse ways, like waste heat lost by an electrical appliance.
I wouldn’t trade away this realization, but like any paradigm shift it brings vertigo and unease. What good is it, really? What good is any form of honest self-expression, let alone one revolving around personal emotions (ugh), in a world where our capacity to care has been so exhausted?
My dogs will sometimes sigh as if the weight of the world is on their shoulders; the way I jokingly respond to them — what problems do you have, exactly? — is the way I genuinely treat myself. Next to the horror and trauma that others carry, my emotional pain seems unwarranted. This serves as a great excuse to not confront it.
I put all that to the side; I try the simplest actionable step I can get from these realizations. Instead of letting pain fly or stuffing it down, I take careful hold of it and I slowly unspool it. Each pull hurts. In that leaking room, though, something unusual happens. Big groups of cracks disappear.
Title photo: Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway, Utah