The Art of Embracing the Suck

And so, here you are. You’ve found yourself in a season that stinks. As Dr. Seuss once so brilliantly put it, “When you’re in a slump, you’re not in for much fun. Un-slumping yourself is not easily done.”  And so this year, I’ve been thinking a lot about how does one embrace the suck. When times of disharmony, dissonance, distress, disease, and every other ‘dis’ word you can think of, show-up uninvited, how do you navigate your way through that?

When I was in my mid-twenties, one of my friends and I decided we needed to go on an adventure. And since our  options were limited (because we both had jobs to be at the next morning) we decided, this was going to involve going for a moonlit hike. And so we headed out to a local nature area, and wandered the moonlit trails. It was a gorgeous night, and would have been a perfect and lovely memory except… most of what I remember about the night is this. After wandering in the dark woods, over hills and streams for several hours, we made our way back to a well-lit neighborhood, where upon walking up a grassy lawn…? I somehow twisted my ankle. Not the slight kind of twist…where you sit down and rest a minute but then you can walk it off? No, no… not that kind. It was the kind you hear the pop when it happens, and it leaves you unable to walk for the next few hours. Yes, that’s right. Somehow I endured hours of wandering around, in the dark woods, without a flashlight, and suffered no injury… however, upon walking up a well-lit, grassy lawn? That, apparently, was too much adventure to handle.

My friend and I went back to join some other friends, and finish the evening watching television, and icing my ankle. But despite the ice, over the next week, my ankle bore witness to what had happened by presenting every shade of the rainbow, first systematically, and then finally, simultaneously. I wanted the ankle to heal quickly, but sadly, the best way to heal an injury like that to stop putting weight on it until it’s ready. However, my job didn’t really offer that as an option, and so I mostly ignored the situation. The result was, I spent the next six months healing, and even for the two years following, anytime I would squat down and bend my ankle in a certain way? It would pop again, and I’d find myself limping yet again, for the rest of the day.

The human body bears witness to the fact, that we are designed to handle suckage (sucakge; a technical medical term, obviously.) The entire immune system (and I’m presently taking a graduate class in immunology, so this is on my mind a lot right now) is designed to adjust to potentially fatal alterations in our environment. Immunology is an exhausting field of study that makes my head want to explode typically divided into two arms; the innate immunity, and adaptive immunity. And while immunology is how we process pathological biology, our psychology has a similar system. We have innate responses to stress–fight or flight– but we also have adaptive responses. So how can we help the adaptive immunity, when things simply suck? Yes, sometimes we still have to just embrace the suck, because you can’t make the suck not be? But are there easier ways to make our way through the suck? Can we learn to embrace the suck, rather than just sucking-it-up? And does doing so provide benefits for our adaptive immunity? Can learning to embrace the suck actually aid in creating resilience of the heart?

Resilience is such a lovely word to me right now; it doesn’t imply a lack of pathological encounters, but rather our ability to adapt to such encounters, and recover quickly.

And so yes, embracing the suck, doesn’t make the suck not suck. But maybe embracing the suck, can build resilience, and with that, strength. Truth is, I’m still contemplating this idea, but I think it might be headed in the right direction. So, what is the art of embracing the suck? What is the process of building resilience?

The answer may need to be as unique, as the individual confronting it. The truth is, every time we encounter a new kind of grief, we will likely have to reassess our process. That said, however, I’ve been working to write down some of my process, in the hopes that it may help present-me as I’m embracing present-suckage. But also? I’m hoping, it may help future-me, and possibly you. So, here’s what my process is looking like so far.

Diagnoses (e.g., name the suck)

I think sometimes, we assume this is obvious. Maybe someone died, or maybe something was stolen. But I think what’s interesting, is how frequently the fatal pain isn’t the obvious pain. Many times it’s the subtle losses, that are masked behind larger ones. Maybe you lost a loved one? And that grief is real, but behind that grief, is another vague feeling; perhaps a lack of direction and purpose that follows that loss. But that too is grief. When you were planning on doing a, b, and c… but those things were contingent on x, y, and z… but then you find out there’s no x, y and z? What good is an alphabet anyway? In my experience, sometimes naming the actual emotion takes a little soul searching. An example: I expected to be married by this point in my life. The obvious grief, is in being single. But I find, I enjoy much of my time alone, and while this is a complicated emotional example (way more than I can summarize in this post) what has surprised me about this, is the masked losses, that surround that reality. Things like, a loss of connection in how my life looks compared to other women in my family or church. Connecting in certain ways, is more difficult, because my lived experience is increasingly becoming so different from theirs. It’s a subtle loss? But it’s a real grief, and one of the many pieces I have been processing during the last few years. And ignoring it, mostly means I end up in a shame spiral, either being bitter at other women, or shamed, or frustrated? But without knowing why. However, when I did some soul searching, and started naming that grief, my response changed. I was able to be kinder, both to myself, but also to other peoples response to me. You can’t expect to acquire immunity, to an unrecognized pathogen. You can’t expect to recover from a hurt, you refuse to even acknowledge. Doing this requires sitting down, and doing the soul work. For me, this looks like journaling, and a lot of long solo hikes in the wild. I’m not sure what it will look like for you, but I’m guessing it will require quiet, reflection, and taking the time to be alone with yourself.

Recuperation (care for your heart) 

For me, this can be the hardest. In the example of my twisted ankle? Finding rest for my injury, was almost impossible…? But mostly because I didn’t ask. If I had petitioned help in doing weight baring work for a week or two, perhaps I could have given my ankle some much needed rest. But I didn’t want to be a burden over something so dumb and insignificant as a twisted ankle (even though, anyone with eyes could see my black and blue ankle was injured.) So I didn’t ask–I masked my pain (trying to avoid limping when possible) and carried on. This was a clear example of ‘sucking-it-up.’ But how do you rest your spirit, when the hurts aren’t physical? To begin with, you have to realize your own value and sacredness, and ask for the time and space to heal. You can’t embrace the suck, if you don’t advocate for yourself. However, once you get past that, then what? One of the things I am noticing, is how beneficial it can be to bring a physical practice to an emotional experience. We aren’t separated out between spirit and body, nearly as much as we seem to act like we are. I love how many times, in the Bible, there is a physical acknowledgment to something. They build an alter, or have a festival; they eat a feast, or perform a ritual steeped in symbolism. There are obvious benefits to taking something unseen and intangible, and making it seen, and felt, and solidified.

And so, that is something I am trying to do in this season; practice taking time to be in my body, and feel my emotions, and release those through various physical practices. Believing in God comes in really handy at this point, because as I accompany the physical with meditation, and visualization, I can practice releasing those hurts, into God’s hands. The physical activities have value in of themselves, but their potency I believe is enhanced when they accompany the spiritual. I do this in more than one way, and this list is far from exhaustive; clearly it warrants it’s own separate blog post. Nonetheless, here’s a short list of my top four soul recuperation practices.

  • Spend time in nature If you follow my Instagram, it’s decently self-evident that I’m a huge believer in being outdoors. There is actually a substantial amount of evidence reminding us that we are made of the earth, and spending time there has quantifiable benefits to our emotional well-being.
  • Make Music This is more relevant to those who have a background playing music, but I recommend if you don’t know? This might be a great time to pick-up a ukulele, or another instrument, and learn how. I grew-up playing piano, and violin, and while my dedication to practice (ahem, lack-there-of) means I’m not really performance ready, the activity of playing remains a wonderful way to recoup my soul. While playing makes music a more physical practice, even listening has emotional benefits as well.
  • Eat good food It kind of goes without saying, but for me, when my emotional health goes, I find myself turning to food for comfort… and sometimes picking the easy buttons (prepackaged delights of nomy goodness.) There is likely a place for comfort food (nutritionist endorsed idea here) however, I am trying to remind myself during this season, that I am running a race, and so I need to care for my physical body like an athlete, making sure that I am eating plenty of nourishing substances that don’t simply make my emotions feel good momentarily, but help boost my emotions, in the long term.
  • Practice Yoga Again, this one isn’t lacking in research; but I do feel as though I should offer this disclaimer. I’m not sure anyone who actually practices yoga, would look at what I do and say, ah yes, this is a person practicing yoga! What I do is a long stretch from actual yoga… but the process of getting out a mat, and working a flow of motions that aim to stretch and strengthen the body? I am finding this to have immeasurable benefits for my heart (as well as also making my body feel better too.)

Rehabilitation (loving a new reality, and reestablishing hope)

So, you’ve named the suck. You’ve spent the time resting your body. So how do you move on, to the next stage? Rehabilitation is complicated. But along with maintaining the self-care practices alluded to above, for me, much of this work comes in reestablishing healthy hope. Instead of ignoring or denying the pain, I am accepting that disappointment, heartbreak, anger? They all happened. Maybe someone, or something betrayed your trust? I think politically, many Americans feel let down by the state of the government, and whoever the other-side was (which many of us realize, the other is sitting next to us at Thanksgiving dinner.) Many times, there is growth to be found, however, in the pain. And so right now, I’m looking not to ignore the disappointment of pain, but simply to look for the possibility in the pain. To quote Anne Shirley again,“It’s been my experience that you can nearly always enjoy things if you make up your mind firmly that you will.” And so, I’m making my mind up firmly (and this usually needs to happen fresh, at least once a day… sometimes more) that I am going to enjoy this season, learning to love a different reality, knowing that I cannot return to the hopes I held before, but believing that my truest hopes can still be anchored to something more. Two steps that I am finding necessary are as follows.  

  • Forgiveness I grew-up in a Christian tradition, where forgiveness is a mandate? And therefore, I didn’t actually realize there was an “if you forgive” discussion. There is. I also don’t think I understood what forgiveness was in a practical way. I highly recommend a book by Lewis Smedes called ‘The Art of Forgiveness’ which helped me become much clearer on the way to go about engaging in this process (and also, an argument for ‘if’ you should.) For me, this process is one of the hardest things I am learning to do, but also for me, it is non-negotiable.
  • Mental Monologue We all practice self-talk? But it’s important to rehearse positive self-talk. For me, I know I’m in trouble when I start rehearsing my internal ‘gotcha’ conversations. MY righteous indignation loves affirming to myself how right I am, but even if I am right, these practices do little in helping me move forwards towards the above mentioned forgiveness. I found this interview just yesterday of a ballerina, discussing her pre-performance practice. What I loved was how she would spend time visualizing her perfect presentation prior to it happening. I’m learning, that rather than meditating on those ‘gotcha’ conversations, it is better to meditate on the forgiveness conversations? Or simply to move on and meditate on the new hopes. We will become what we rehearse, and we will be what we practice. Right now, that means learning to mentally rehearse monologues that reflect the life I’m heading towards.

Pain can hold the potential to transform. The art of embracing the suck, is remembering that much of life is crucifixion, death, and resurrection… again and again. As Glennon Doyle Melton wisely says, “Everything we need to become, is in the hot-loneliness of now… We have it all wrong, we’re afraid of pain, but we were made for pain. We need to be afraid of the easy buttons… grief is like joy, it’s holy. Grief is the price we pay for love.”  Sucking-it-up is using the the easy buttons out. Embracing the suck is all about allowing the pain to lead us to our resurrection. That is the art of embracing the suck.

So, what practices help you, when you have to embrace the suck?