Real suffering isn’t photogenic

In The Lego Movie, the prophetic minifig Vitruvius spurs the hero on to greatness by feeding him a cliched line about being special. “I know it sounds like a cat poster,” Vitruvius admits, “But it’s true!”

Lately, I’m rediscovering the truth of a cat-posterish idea myself: change hurts. We all know this is true, yes? We’re all familiar with a whole panoply of phrases that express this idea linking progress and suffering: “No pain, no gain;” “You have to break some eggs to make an omelet;” “No guts, no glory;” “No cross, no crown,” and so on.

But the problem with living with a world in love with cat poster ideas is that it’s easy to click “like” or “up” or “favorite,” but somewhat harder to be the actual cat.

When we’re the cat — when we’re the one actually living through the suffering or pain, and enduring our circumstances beyond the quick freeze frame that captures our predicament — we often end up feeling dismayed, discouraged, even betrayed when we find ourselves genuinely suffering, and it genuinely hurts. We think we are prepared for the idea that change and progress only come through struggle and sweat, but maybe subconsciously we expect that struggle to look — well, photogenic.

There are many popular styles of romanticized pain: the gritty warrior with corded neck muscles squinting toward the coming battle; the elegantly wilting emo chick collapsing in a puddle of rosewater and mascara; the sepia-tinted mother with her chin held high against the world as her shabby chic children cling to her capable thighs; the robed faithful servant on his knees in anguish, just as muscular and splendid as the angel who comes to comfort him; the sleek long-distance runner powering through the rain, baring his perfect white teeth and lovin’ that burn.

These are all half truths about suffering and growth, pain and progress. Here’s the actual truth:  growth and change usually cause suffering, and suffering is ugly. Really ugly, not poster ugly.

If someone you love actually betrays you, your tears aren’t going to wend their way down your cheek like so many liquid crystals; you’re going to cry until your skin is blotchy, your nose runs, your teeth ache, and your sinuses fill up with snot. Being a soldier is, from what I hear, less often about guts and glory, and more about boredom, rashes, diarrhea, and fear. The true action of change is less like sprouting glorious wings and more like dissolving into horrible, stinky soup. Just ask any former caterpillar.

So, what’s the solution? Well, first of all, if what I’ve said above isn’t true for you, then carry on! If you truly gain inspiration and strength and encouragement from a poster or a meme, then that is great. If it works, it works. Sometimes an attractive image is what helps us to embrace necessary change instead of shrinking away from it.  Sometimes picturing ourselves as warriors instead of victims really does give us that extra oomph we need to push forward instead of giving up.

But if you find yourself suffering real pain, pain that just plain hurts instead of “hurts so good,” then don’t add to that pain because you feel like you’re somehow doing it wrong. You’re not a poster, you’re a person; and true suffering isn’t photogenic. So if you find yourself suffering and you feel stupid, or ugly, or confused, or exhausted, then realize that this is what true suffering looks like. Change hurts, and it’s not supposed to look nice. That’s what makes it painful! Don’t make yourself even more miserable than you have to be by expecting to be gorgeous in your misery. That’s a subtle and insidious temptation to despair.

Yes, some suffering is unavoidable. Yes, it’s usually necessary for growth and change. Yes, we are often at our best when we choose to be strong in the face of suffering. Yes, it’s often worthwhile, and there is often glory and joy on the other side.

But no, it’s not going to look good when you’re in the thick of it.

Trump’s presidency is one big cliché. Run for your lives.

As wave after wave of bizarre news rolls in from the White House, some Americans may be tempted to think, “We’ve never seen anything like this before!” But that’s not so. The Trump presidency is actually one long string of tired ideas we’ve heard a million times.

But here’s the catch: tired ideas are somewhat more startling when someone actually acts on them.

You remember that scene in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where the ship picks up a passenger. and they discover that he’s come from the island where dreams come true. At first, the sailors can’t believe their luck, expecting to find loved ones alive again, or to be reunited with old flames.

Not so fast.

 

“Fools!” said the man, stamping his foot with rage. “That is the sort of talk that brought me here, and I’d better have been drowned or never born. Do you hear what I say? This is where dreams — dreams, do you understand — come to life, come real. Not daydreams: dreams.”

There was about half a minute’s silence and then, with a great clatter of armour, the whole crew were tumbling down the main hatch as quick as they could and flinging themselves on the oars to row as they had never rowed before; and Drinian was swinging round the tiller, and they boatswain was giving out the quickest stroke that had ever been heard at sea. For it had taken everyone just that half-minute to remember certain dreams they had had–dreams that make you afraid of going to sleep again–and to realize what it would mean to land on a country where dreams come true.

The voyage of the ship of state in 2017 comes to mind; only it’s the Island Where Commencement Addresses Come True. You’ve been to one or two of these snoozers in your lifetime, right? Your head droops, your tongue begins to loll out of your mouth as you hear the speaker drone on and on through platitude after platitude.

Well, say what you will about 2017, it hasn’t been boring. Here’s a few clichés that wake you right up when they come to life and start picking out new drapes for the Oval Office:

You can be anything you want to be if you believe in yourself. You can become head of the Department of Education even if you know less about the inside of a classroom than your average hornet could pick up before it got squashed by the janitor. You can get an appointment to almost any cabinet post, and the only qualification you’ll need is that you are completely untainted by experience with or knowledge of your post.

Don’t let other people tell you what to believe, as long as you hold your truth in your heart. Although it’s probably not wise to claim Your Truth was just a slip of the tongue when you you have already told the world Your Truth three separate times.

Don’t let anything divert you from pursuing your passion. Not marriage, not consent, not bodily autonomy. Just grab.

Never let anyone else define you or put artificial boundaries on what you can achieve. Separation of powers, schmeparation of powers. States’ right, schmates rights. Limited government . . . well, you get the schmidea.

Don’t sit back and let your friends shape the future. Be the change you (for some ungodly inexplicable reason) wish to see in the world.

But do lean on your friends. Lean hard.

Reject being limited by labels. People want to call you “pro-life,” that’s fine. You’ll take their vote. But you’ll go ahead and gleefully reject child refugees, gut legal protections for kids with special needs, openly mock the disabled, enthusiastically promote torture, and yank health insurance from the poor, including children and pregnant women.  And test out your awesome new military powers by killing an 8-year-old American girl. Let them label you “pro-life!”  You’re bigger than any label.

Reach for the stars. Or the Vatican. Or Russia. Or . . . just hang around in your bathrobe watching TV and leafing through drape fabric swatches.

And finally:

No matter what they take from you, they can’t take away your dignity. Nothing from nothing leaves nothing, updated several times daily.

 

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Image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr (Creative Commons)