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The Longest Journey Begins With a Single Misstep

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Since I was a child, my mind has churned with words, language, sound. Thoughts parade through my head at night. By day, the speed and intensity of what comes up sometimes keeps me from dealing with basic tasks effectively. Doctors have tried medication to calm my thought storms, but the treatments either don't work or dull me, dimming my light.

My thoughts fray and tire me, but without them I'm not truly myself. So I go on, crazy but oddly productive in ways that are valuable to me.

Puns, rhymes, peculiar associations come to me at the most random of times. In this instance, it was in the middle of the night. I woke with this sentence in my head:

"The longest journey begins with a single misstep."

I smiled at the play on words my subconscious had handed me, and began to wonder if it meant something or was just funny talk. As I drifted back to sleep, I tried to think of times at which a misstep might be an auspicious start to a long journey. I woke a second time, maybe an hour later, with what felt like the answer. I jotted down a few sentences on the writing pad I keep next to the bed. Here's what I've distilled from my scribbled notes:

Aeschylus, in ancient Greece, may be the first person credited with the idea that wisdom comes through suffering alone. Buddha spoke at length about suffering as a tool of transformation. In the Bible, God says "I have refined you, but not in the way silver is refined. Rather, I have refined you in the furnace of suffering." (Isaiah 48:10)

C.S. Lewis, speaking also of the Christian perspective, wrote in the early 20th century, "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world."

I got a letter from my sister Peggy last week in which she talked about Lent. She wrote about the sacrifices and hunger for which she and Catholics worldwide volunteer with the goal of spiritual transformation. There is deprivation, hunger, an acknowledgment of darkness so unflinching that it is almost an embrace. The suffering, in this instance, is willfully created and invited in. It's bracing -- my sister described it as like being doused in cold water -- but fortifying.

Secular voices have been divided on the point: Dale Carnegie wrote that discouragement and failure are two of the surest stepping stones to success. But many of his contemporaries, and popular voices since then, have instead suggested ways to avoid adversity or inoculate ourselves against its ravages through positive affirmations, self confidence boosters, and a plucky, can-do attitude.

As I lay there in my darkened room, I thought about how this short-term pragmatism -- being able to blinder oneself and "keep a good perspective" -- might conflict with what's ultimately best and most useful for us. By suggesting we champion adversity rather than allowing it and learning from it, have countless well-intentioned teachers stripped us of our most valuable lessons?

I then thought about what we showcase in our resumes. We highlight our successes, university degrees and achievements, hoping to be seen in the best possible light. We bury or minimize what we view as our trials and failures. Yet, if our goal is to present a global perspective on who we are, and our failures really tell the story more clearly than our cum laudes and awards, we are, ironically, leaving out the best parts of the story.

As a writer, I embrace secrets and untidiness in the lives of the characters I create. In the mid 1990s, I wrote a book manuscript called Splinters. It was about a deeply-troubled middle American family, and the title was drawn from the same basic notion chasing me, now, in my dreams -- that it's our scars and the shards of life that lodge beneath our skin that tell our story more honestly and rewardingly than the frilly parts.

So, I'm going with Aeschylus, Buddha and the architects of Christianity who believed slogging through the painful crap in life -- and letting that be our finest teacher -- far preferable to assiduously avoiding suffering through a process of anesthetization.

But if this is such great advice, why don't we heed it as a matter of course?

Because it is freaking difficult. It's making the conscious choice to chew on glass when there is milk and honey at the ready. It's remarkably counter-intuitive. It requires a willed reworking of our natural tendency to shy away from pain and make a dash for the arms of comfort.

What is the longest journey? To me, it is the one from here to enlightenment, to spiritual transformation. And without a costly misstep, or suffering, that journey can never even begin.

For more by Ben Patrick Johnson, click here.

For more on mindfulness, click here.

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