Briars, Pain, & Truth
As a youngster, most of my days were spent playing video games, at practice for one sport or another, or finishing my homework. But on cool Autumn days, I had a hidden and special place I spent some alone time. It was my sanctum of peace.
Surrounded on three sides by a small winding creek, my sanctum sanctorum was the place I came when I needed to escape the troubles at home with my dad, take a break from gaming, or enjoy the solitary comforts of silence.
Two paths led to my sanctum. At least that’s what I thought. But one perfect Autumn day in the woods of North Carolina, I decided to see if I could find a third way to access my sanctum. Stuffed with a few snacks, a water bottle, and a notebook to write down some angsty teenage poetry, I slung my backpack over my shoulders and headed off.
An Unexpected Journey
My path on that particular day was the kind of path hikers love to traverse: no designated trail for your feet, tree branches that required dodging, and the satisfying sound of leaves and twigs crunching like crinkled paper underfoot. Heading off the beaten path is fun.
But untrodden paths, require more attention.
And as teenage minds are apt to do: I lost my focus. Becoming more attentive to the ricocheting thoughts in my skull, it wasn’t long before I realized what normally guided me to my sanctum—the faint gossipy babble of the creek—had gone silent. I was now trekking into uncharted territory.
A Wayfaring Stranger
In an effort to reorient myself, I turned back to what I assumed was the general direction of the creek and continued on my path. Minutes later, after dodging countless tree branches that were set up like a bank’s laser defense system, I knew where I was: I was in the brush, the thick of the forest.
With no clear sign or familiar marking, I stopped and took a moment to decide my next move. And I noticed that I had I walked up onto a small ridge. Nothing precarious, but high enough that if I wanted to get to the floor below me, my best bet was to slide down on my ass like a kid going downstairs.
So I sat down and tried to ignore the damp ground underneath, tightened the straps of my backpack, and scooted my butt down the incline. But Autumn’s falling leaves hide unknown dangers. And I wasn’t prepared for the quick chain of events that happened next.
Snared by Mother Nature
In a matter of seconds, I was skidding down a naturally created slip-n-slide. Stopping wasn’t a choice. The ground was too wet and all I could do was enjoy the ride. But it wasn’t an enjoyable jaunt along the forest floor. Throughout my descent, I felt small pinpricks all over my body. And when I finally stopped my slide, the stings I felt all over filled my mind with fear.
I was going to die right here in this forest because I had landed in a hidden yellowjackets nest.
Here’s the thing: I’m allergic to bees, wasps, and hornets. I won’t die if I’m stung by a random bee or wasp, per se. But as a kid, any sting would cause massive swelling. Like the time my forearm swelled to the size of my thigh (small child thighs, I assure you not the 24-inch mounds of muscle they are now).
Still, landing in a yellowjackets nest meant I might end up like Macaulay Culkin in My Girl. Dying in the woods was not how I imagined my death. The fear and adrenaline, at least for a moment or two, canceled out the pain. Catching my breath, I realized there was nothing to be afraid of, there was no buzzing. No buzzing meant no yellowjackets. Phew.
Then what the hell had caused all of this pain in my body?
I tried to move my arms and legs. But that only sent more tiny teeth ripping into my flesh. There was only one other explanation. As I moved my eyes around to see where this slip n slide had deposited me, my next assumption was correct. Mother Nature had snared me in her own rabbit trap. I was lying in the middle of a briar patch.
There’s No (Pain-Free) Escape
Getting caught in a briar patch fucking sucks. It’s like being packed into a subway car, where everyone, except you, is a giant pincushion with the pointy ends of the needles facing toward you. With every jerk of the train, you find yourself stabbed with tiny pinpricks. Oh yeah, and even worse, the next stop is yours. Except no one else gets off. Which means you have to dip, duck, dodge, and push your way to the exit—there’s no pain-free way out of this.
That is what a briar patch feels like.
In the Thicket, Again
I found myself in another briar patch recently. This time, though, the briar patch wasn’t Mother Nature’s creation. Instead, I found myself under the needles of frustration creatively. Writing had become excruciating and the simple act of sitting down to do it, only made me more miserable. Every word I wrote felt as arid as the surface of Tatooine.
The briar patch I fell into years ago was more luxurious than the creative thicket I felt trapped under.
But, before I go any further, though, let me finish my briar patch story.
Frustrated, dispirited, and angry at my situation, I stared up at the branches above me; sucking down as much air as I could, hoping to breathe away the pain coursing through my body.
Here were my options:
A: I could slide backward and go back the way I came
B: Continue sliding down the hill and through the briar patch
C: Deal with the pain of moving my hands and arms to cover my face and stand.
D: Lie there in the patch waiting for either starvation to kill me or for rescue from a search party.
I collected my thoughts, inhaled a deep breath, and opted to go with option C: I moved my arms through the agonizing thistles and placed my hands over my face. With my face covered — my hands acting as a shield — I took one final deep breath and thrust my body up through the nefarious needles.
Once I knew my face and eyes were clear of danger, I opened them and from my seated position was able to see the extent of the briar patch.
Thankfully, it was small.
It was a good thing this was Autumn and perfect jeans weather. If it had been Summer, this experience would have been far more unpleasant. As I stood, a few more thistles made it through my shirt. Nothing too bad, but still enough to make me wince. Once standing, I took a giant step backward, away from any wet ground, and exited Mother Nature’s trap. I pulled out the needles that had implanted themselves in my skin and rolled my sleeves down to cover the small creeks of blood running down my arms.
There would be no visiting my sanctum that day. Instead, I headed home to clean up.
The Return Home
A few weeks ago, on a trip back home to North Carolina, I had a few conversations with my friends about their creative process. We talked about how they create, what their process looks like, and what they do when they can’t create and feel trapped. The underlying message from each discussion was that no matter what, they press on—they keep creating.
Whether the creativity comes via silent sessions of coloring, writing a letter to a friend, working on their old rusty Jeep, or sitting down with a new book and creating the world of the author in their mind, creatively, my friends press on. Inside they may feel like they’re encased by the thorns of frustration. And as agonizing as it may feel to continue doing the work, pain is only temporary.
Pain is the prophet of truth.
If you allow it to preach to you, open yourself to its words—let it wash over you—only then will you be ready for the truth. It’s easy when we’re frustrated to give up, throw in the towel, and await death under the stingers of disappointment. But truth brings the gift of strength.
And strength is what’s on the other side of pain. And it’s here, on the other side of pain, that we grow.
Thinking back to all the emotional or physical pain I’ve experienced in life, once the pain subsided, I came out the other side stronger.
How many times have you become frustrated with progress trying to lose weight, or understanding a formula in math class, or felt frustrated in a relationship? How many times have you stared at the needles of frustration, opting to stay underneath them because moving beyond them was a painful concept?
Perceived pain can feel more excruciating than pain itself. But growth doesn’t come without a few scars, bruises, or tears.
It is far harder and more painful to be a blocked artist than it is to do the work. – Julia Cameron
Writing Through the Pain
The thought of “might have been” is a far more debilitating and painful scar than any scar you receive by taking action and doing the work. Was it agonizing to sit and write trivial adolescent drivel in my morning journal?
Yes. I hated every mark my pencil scribbled. Writing at my desk wasn’t any better. Each stroke of the keys felt more painful than 10,000 bee stings. If it wasn’t for the fact I’d swell up like Violet Beauregarde, I would have preferred a nest of yellowjackets to the agony I felt in this creative briar patch.
Could I have avoided it?
Sure. I could’ve sat my ass down and binged episodes Louie or had a Star Wars marathon? I could’ve done all of that and avoided writing at all costs. But I’d still be stuck.
Speaking of Louie CK, if you look beyond his crass comedy, you’ll find that many of his stories, and subsequent jokes, come from a sense of extreme sadness; a province of pain that allows Louie to tell the world his truth. As I struggled to exit this creative briar patch, I was reminded of this interview with Louie.
During this interview, not only does Louie make you feel guilty for texting while driving but he shoves a truth in your face: that we’re afraid to be alone. Our phones and constant connectedness to the world prevent us from ever having to deal with the sharp pains of loneliness.
After a few jokes, Louie continues to hammer home that there’s a beauty in this feeling. That you’re lucky to feel sad.
Because when you let yourself feel sad, when you allow yourself to open up, only then can you truly connect with your deepest emotions and let happiness flood in.
Stuck in my mind, unsure of where to go with writing, I took Louie’s advice; and I wept. For five minutes, I sat in my living room, submerged in sadness. Everything I was afraid to feel, that I was trying so hard to put in words, came out in a flash. And I let it happen.
I let the sadness hit me like a truck.
And Louie was right. As I accepted the sadness, the frustration, the anger, everything that I felt inside, in a matter of moments, it all turned around. I accepted the sadness, enjoyed it for what it was, but knew that it was only temporary. I let it do its thing and then moved on. Though that sadness was painful, it was necessary.
Once it had run its course, and I had let it wash over me, only then did my brain give me it’s gift: the memory of that Autumn day long ago. I had been writing all week, searching for the right words. Trying to force something from inside to come out and put itself on the page.
But pain is the harbinger of truth. And without pain, there is no truth.
Sometimes, as creatives, but mostly as human beings, we need to acknowledge our own pain. Allow moments of sadness, grief, anger, and frustration to flow through you. Avoiding it does nothing. It only keeps you blocked and prevents you from making a change. If you listen to the pain, let it speak to you, it will reveal it’s nugget of truth.
I could have stayed inert in that briar patch all those years ago. Letting pain, or the assumption of coming pain, keep me from saving myself.
But I didn’t. I knew the only way to escape my situation was to deal with a few moments of pain and continue on my trek.
There’s one underlying truth in life: Progress isn’t made without a little pain.
Enjoy the pain. The pain of the process is a sign that you’re getting stronger, that you’re about to grow.