There is a scene in the 2023 Netflix series Kaleidoscope in which the lead character, played by the inimitable Giancarlo Esposito, says to his young daughter, “Show me where you’re brave.” She responds by putting her finger to her head. “Now show me where you’re strong,” he says, and in response, she puts her finger on her heart.
I am feeling neither brave nor strong right now. This has all been so much harder than I had the capacity to expect.
A month ago, I was staring into the darkness of this amputation, so much of it unknown. It was easy then, to be brave in those moments of doubt, easy to talk myself into believing that whatever monsters lurked in the shadows would be manageable. Now, in the light of day, I see some of the enormity of them, and it leaves me trembling. The phantom pains were especially bad last week—absolutely crazy-making.
And I had my stitches taken out, the nurse going on and on about what a great job the surgeon had done. “This incision is gorgeous,” she said. I couldn’t help wondering if we were looking at the same thing because all I could see was the stuff of horror films, and it took everything in me to fight back the tears and the fear that Cynthia, and even I, would forever turn our heads to avoid looking at it.
I don’t want to turn my gaze from my own body; the thought of it makes me tremendously sad.
I know a time will come when the phantom pain subsides; it already feels like it has calmed down a bit. I named the worst of it “Vlad the Impaler” for the sensation of being stabbed over and over in the sole of a foot I don’t have. He seems to be losing interest in coming by quite so frequently, however; he’s a little less stabby now. And I know (more honestly, I hope) the time will come, probably not so long from now, when I will see in these scars something more than what I see now. But that doesn’t make now much easier.
What makes it a little easier is that being strong or being brave is not a matter of feeling. Strength and courage are what we conjure from deep places within us to override the feelings and to take whatever next step is necessary and not give up.
Twelve years ago, I spent 40 nights in the hospital, waiting for my body to heal from the accident that set all these shenanigans in motion. The constant drip of painkillers had a constipating effect on my body, and because I could neither get to a toilet nor (because of my broken pelvis) sit on it if I could, I had a nightly date with a nurse, an enema, and a bedpan, above which I would hover by holding onto the bars suspended above my bed—and I would do this in a room with three other patients. The nurse would pull the curtains and joke about giving me my privacy, knowing there are things a curtain can’t possibly conceal. It was hell. It’s funny now, but at the time, I gritted my teeth and wept, knowing there was no way I could ever do this. Until I did. What choice did I have?
We can do hard things. We often choose not to, but when we must, we do. We do not do them because we’re brave enough or strong enough. We do them because we have no choice—or because not doing them is even harder—and it is doing them that makes us brave or strong enough to do it again when we have to.
It is one of those paradoxes of life: we don’t do hard things because we’re resilient; we are resilient because we do hard things.
To do otherwise is to settle. To give up on dreams and allow ourselves to fade away from being the person we are becoming and slide into the great mass of humanity that is resigned not to live artfully, not to risk the possibility that their one life could light sparks beyond what we believe ourselves capable. To live with as few bruises as possible and to get used to the slow silencing of our dreams. No one sets out to live like that, but it happens because settling is so much easier. We wake up one morning and there we are, mired in the normal and the easy. To me, that is so much harder. It’s an easier place to get to but so much harder to live with.
I fear settling for whatever version of my life lies ahead of me if I don’t do the hard things. The hard things are always temporary, and usually not as traumatic as we fear. The hard things make us more interesting.
Remember: what doesn’t kill us gives us something to blog about. It gives us a story. But more than that, it makes us resilient; it makes future hard things a little less hard, if only because we know we’ve bounced back before and we can do so again. Sadly, the opposite is also true. When we shrink away in the face of whatever obstacles block the path to our dreams, we reinforce the idea that, in fact, we can’t do hard things, and because of that limiting belief, our armour gets a little softer, the shadows get a little scarier, and our dreams get further and further away as it becomes easier and easier to settle.
The poet E.E. Cummings once observed that “unbeing dead isn’t being alive.” In my experience, unbeing deadlies on the near side of whatever hard thing blocks your dreams right now, and being alive—truly awake and vital—lies on the other side of that hard thing and whatever adventure it takes for you to get there.
Art-making always takes risk. So does living artfully. But it’s the difference between unbeing dead and being truly alive, which has never once been for the faint of heart.
We don’t need to feel brave to act with courage, and we don’t need to feel strong to find that we are.
But we do need to step into the hard things and—if it helps—to point to your head to remember where you’re brave, and put your finger on your heart to remind you where you are strong.
For the Love of the Photograph (and those who make them),
Footnotes: An Update on my Amputation
I had a cast molded for my residual limb this week, and on July 05, I’ll be fitted for my first prosthetic leg and foot and will begin walking again. It’ll be slow at first, and I suspect they’ll want me to use crutches so I’m not fully weight-bearing. And it’ll take some time to work up to the point where I can wear my prosthesis full-time, but this amazes me: I had surgery on June 05, and I will walk again on July 05. One month! This first prosthetic leg and foot will be temporary; it’ll take some time to get everything working and customized. The socket into which my residual leg fits will probably be remade a couple of times as my leg shrinks, and my choice of foot will take some time in terms of discovering the technology that is best for me, but these are all steps down a miraculous road, and I’m so grateful to all of you for your support. It gets less scary with every step. Thank you!