On Mountains

these mountains

that you are carrying,

you were only supposed to climb.

-Najwa Zebian

We are told there are five stages of grief, but I wonder if the fifth stage is less an endpoint and more a warning sign. Moving from denial–>anger–>bargaining–>depression is horribly, deeply painful, but it is to be expected. Or perhaps it is that we get so used to the pain, waking up and reapplying the bandages becomes our norm, so that when we reach this elusive fifth stage of acceptance, we aren’t prepared.

In the least emotional teenager, hormone-fueled way, pain can be so comforting. When you have been subjected to such immense emptiness and (paradoxically) such depth of aching for so long, pain can seem like the only constant. The only anchor keeping your feet on the ground, reminding you that you are a human who, if anything else, is here to serve the purpose of suffering. And time, time in all her relentless glory, works every cringe into your muscle memory so that after a while, you forget that you ever woke up without the heaviness of a mental battering on your shoulder. All these mountains that are supposed to be here for us to climb, to venture, to experiment, to pick up and put down, to marvel; yet here we are thinking that they are ours to carry.

For a privileged, strong, hard-working few, that stage of acceptance hits you like the feeling you get when you walk out a dark movie theater and the sun becomes blinding–you momentarily forgot that it was day, you forgot that the world could be so bright. The unbearable lightness is overwhelming–a beautiful, terrifying, unique experience that has changed me and molded me and is only awarded to those who have clawed through twilight I would never wish upon anyone. The beauty and the warmth is new and shiny and a facet of the world you will never, ever take for granted—but then what happens?

People don’t talk about grieving pain. But you do. You miss the aches, you miss the familiarity of emptiness at the end of the day, the control that comes with isolation and punishment. Here, in the midst of the kind of lightness I never knew was possible, those four previous stages creep up on me and knock knock knock back onto my door. Usually its when your roots have been shaken, when life has shifted, when you find your soil is in desperate need of watering–and this is when I am reminded and amazed at the incredible strength of the human spirit. Because here you are, at a crossroads, thirsty and lost, and time and time again we rise. We choose the light, we allow the pain to be felt, even to be grieved–but we don’t allow it to make its home in our hearts again.

I read a line in a post that stuck with me: “My desire to be alive has been surpassed, but only by my desire to do more than just stay alive.” And that, I think, is the key to the fifth stage. You have reached acceptance, you know that you deserve so much more in this lifetime than mountains strapped on your back–but beyond that, you know you are capable of more than carrying mountains. You yearn for discovery, for the unknown. Every morning I wake up and dare pain to come calling–and when it does, I will look it in the eye and thank it for the lessons it has taught me, shake its hand and acknowledge the place in my heart it once held, and then we will go our separate ways.

Because I refuse to be stagnant. If pain is comfort, is familiarity, then I prefer it to be a short-term guest. It would be silly to think there can be a life without pain, and honestly, I don’t want that either–I think sadness and grief and heaviness add another dimension to your life experience. They fill up and highlight and lengthen and add depth, making room for goodness you never knew existed. But if there is one thing I know about myself, it is that I am consistently choosing the unfamiliar, the uncharted path. And this is where another paradox lies, because the more I shake up my routine and uproot myself, the more the cycle rears up its head and tries to be heard. The mountains start to look less like an adventure and more like a burden to add to my backpack. But as long as I continue to recognize that this is all an illusion, that my strength lies in my ability to continue to put one foot in front of the other no matter the circumstances, no matter whether the mountain is ice or snow or mud or molten lava, then I have comfort in knowing that I will always reach the summit.

To all of you out there grieving your pain, wondering how in the world it is possible to miss the comfortable emptiness in the midst of all this radiance, I’m with you. I think of it like I am just adding on an extra layer to the masterpiece I am painting–another shade of the deepest orange, a stroke of the brush that gives my piece just what it needed to realize its full beauty. I dwell in uncertainty and welcome the indeterminate, and in return I have been greeted with fullness and the kind of abundance I used to never believe I deserved.

Healing is a process that I don’t think ever ends. Accepting that can be difficult–but every time you do, every time you flex your change muscles and reframe the looming hills into the wonderful, exciting picture of peaks and valleys and twists and turns that they are, you gain strength that will carry you farther than any restrictive familiarity ever could.

xx mm