The Middle is Where the Magic Happens
Four years ago, my family took a road trip out west. All six of us were crammed into an RV with nowhere to find silence and refuge except for a tiny bathroom you could barely bend down in. It was an...adventure.
On day three or four, we visited Zion National Park, Utah. After failing to persuade my sister into spending a night in my tent amidst the beauty and under the desert stars, I moved onto adventure idea number two: convincing everyone to go on a “moderate” grade hiking trail on a very hot day. The long story short is that no one brought enough water and by time we reached the middle, half of the family was making a no-brainer turn around. Stubborn and determined to finish, I convinced my two sisters to continue on with me. With barely any water left, we continued upward - bend after bend, mile after mile. I’ll never forget how difficult it actually was (moderate, my a**), but as we were beginning to reach the top - passing through tall yellow brush to find the lookout point, our mouths dry as the desert around us - we saw the view. It was one of the most striking views I’ve seen at the end of a hike: a canyon wrapped in green mountains and red rock that cascaded around a symmetrical, magical, jurassic-park-like opening of the never-ending valley that lay ahead. I had this moment of realization as I was flooded with awe: the view would be meaningless without the climb.
I realize this sounds cliche and that Miley Cyrus wrote a song about it but it’s important. Without the journey (the part in between the beginning and the glorious end), there is no reward. There’s no opportunity for grace to carry us, for shells to be cracked open, for pain to transform into healing. There’s no growth, just stagnation.
As Brené Brown puts it: “You can’t skip day two.” In the context of her visit to Pixar where she shares her infamous Lake Travis story (see Chapter Two: Civilization Stops at the Waterline of her book, “Rising Strong”) and dives into the science behind story-telling, she continues:
Day two, or whatever that middle space is for your own process, is when you’re “in the dark” - the door has been closed behind you. You’re too far in to turn around and not enough to the end to see the light.
The middle - the freaking perpetual, gut-wrenching middle - is the most important part. It’s painstaking because we can’t see the end or the way out. We’re challenged to get curious in the monotony, to lean into the wading pain and find the courage to keep stepping forward into unknown territory. It’s absolutely terrifying. And it often paralyzes us in that fear, though we don’t even know it, because we numb.
In my journey, the middle happened twice. First between 3-10 months of my pregnancy and almost more profoundly, 2-8 months after Renley was born. In the former, I was challenged to sit through the waiting of her due date, reckoning with every little insecurity and flaw that caused me pain and letting go of a future that didn’t exist. In the latter, I was challenged to absorb and accept the often times routineness new life of motherhood, letting go of my idea of productivity and former sense of freedom. The murky middle was the toughest part. But what did it lend? Clarity beyond. Self-awareness beyond. Coping mechanism BEYOND. I couldn’t be sharing all of this without the middle.
You can’t skip day two.
But the middle doesn’t just take place in long journeys. There are days when I feel like my world is crashing down around me. I have days of low energy, spiked anxiety, feeling so uncomfortable with myself and what I'm feeling that I don't want to speak to - or even look at - anyone at my train stop. What I know now is that when I'm hiding it's because I'm hurting and I don't want anyone to see it. I can go days of feeling like a shell of myself, slumping into the sofa in the evenings, scrolling aimlessly for something to fill me up, to give me inspiration, to fill the void. But these little crashes and limbo arenas are so necessary for me. Necessary to feel and sit with - so often times an opportunity to come to deeper understanding of myself - but also necessary because I eventually come to a point where I know I have to find a way up and out. A point when I know I need to get vulnerable and search deeper for the hurt lying beneath the surface. That turning point is often filled with tears and it teaches me that I am resilient - not powerless despite my momentary powerlessness. It's a point we all come to or are searching for the courage to come to - after days, months, maybe even years of feeling like a shell of ourselves. We finally find the motivation to step into the gym, to tell a friend or family member that we're barely holding it together, we finally make that appointment with a therapist so and so recommended awhile back, maybe we finally sit in silence (for once), we turn our phones upside down and close our eyes in meditation and prayer. We take one second of courage and we do something to help lift our heads above water. And maybe it doesn't work, but we keeping searching for the surface.
I wrote about this on my guide on grief, but a therapist once told me that I had to think of sad emotions like a wave. When you learn to surf, you learn quickly after a few hard nose dives - after being pulled and held under the surface by the current - that you have absolutely no control over the waves. You can't find your way out, you can't think your way out, you just have to let go and let the wave pass before you can find your way to the surface. The waves always come, they always peak and they always crash. And then the next set arrives.
When the crash comes, it comes, and it's difficult to remember it will end. But eventually - crash and after crash - we learn to rest in the knowing that this one too will end. But the most profound thing I've learned is not just that it will end, but that beauty lies in the peak, in the crash but especially the middle, because it always lends the opportunity for courage, connection, vulnerability, understanding and - eventually - a new beginning.