The grit in the oyster, the pearl in the shell


The art of living is to make use of suffering.

This tweet by Jonathan Carroll caught me off guard because it rang true and at the same time, recalled a memory. To be more precise, it recalled a feeling. How wonderful that we can revisit the past, how amazing and terrible and comforting and scary.

A while ago I sat with colleagues, friends and strangers in a cold cathedral. Church pews remain my least favourite seat; cold, hard and shiny enough to slide off. I planted my feet firmly and folded my hands, my childhood lessons well learned. The priest intoned, we sang. Jewelled sunlight filtered through tall windows, and we listened.

He spoke about ‘Ava’ and her battle with ill health, that had ended shortly after her husband retired to spend more time with her. The priest spoke about many things, but one idea caught in the folds of my mind and stuck.

Suffering bravely borne is often bracketed with religious faith, but here the priest went further. He talked about her suffering as an action that achieved something more than heavenly approval. ‘Ava’ did not let her issues define her, and she lived her best life in spite of them.

“She turned the grit into a pearl.”

If there is a piece of grit in your life, and you can’t eject it, and it won’t leave of its own accord, then what? You can toughen up and stop feeling, you can numb yourself and stop feeling. Or you can acknowledge the discomfort or pain, and make something else of it.

Perhaps it will make you more empathetic. Perhaps it will nudge you to help others deal with their grit. Perhaps it will simply allow you to go on, without being broken.

Or perhaps you are an artist, which is to say, you can perform magic.

You can take the merest wisp of an idea, an image, a sensation, and make it into something new and different. You can add substance and polish until you have something that is better. Being an artist and creator does not wholly depend on mining the suffering  which touches us all in some way. But art cannot always be fuelled by joy either.

Transmute the base metal of distress. Hold it, feel its sharp edges until it is intimately known, accept the pain. It is art to show, by how we live or what we make, that hurt can be survived and there is more to life than tears. We artists can only hope that people will see and understand our message.

Art is life’s alchemy.

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