On the inside of an oyster’s shell, there’s a layer called the mantle that safeguards its vital organs. When a grain of sand sneaks its way between the mantle and the shell — as is bound to happen in the unruly current of the ocean — the oyster produces a protective substance called nacre, which coats the grit to reduce irritation. Little by little, layer by layer, it wraps around and around the discomfort until it forms an iridescent gem.
Sometimes, this process takes six months. Larger pearls can take up to four years to develop. Only the oysters whose first pearls prove to be well-formed — the ones that are particularly good at gently transforming their unease into art — repeat the process.
I haven’t written one of these blogposts in nearly three weeks. I’ve started, then stopped; I’ve planned, then detoured. Things keep getting in the way: a pesky cold, or an unexpected work assignment, or wonky blood sugars caused by my type 1 diabetes. As the small stuff sneaks under my skin, I find myself feeling far behind on various personal projects, unable to accomplish anything beyond what’s absolutely necessary.
In the moments of disruption, it’s easy to slip into frustration. I am trying to get somewhere. I am trying to make things that matter. How am I supposed to produce and progress if stuff keeps getting in the way?
Somehow, when I set my grandiose goals, I always forget to leave space for the stuff that gets in the way. It’s the same reason I repeatedly underestimate how long it will take me to get anywhere on the New York subway: I check the route on Google Maps, and I take its predicted time estimate for truth, neglecting to allow an extra ten minutes for whatever is going to go wrong.
Nine times out of ten, something goes wrong. The train inexplicably stops in the middle of a tunnel. I have to wait for the next one, because every car is too jam-packed. My Metrocard needs to be replenished.
How much less frustrating might our lives be if we could just accept that there is always something? There is always something — some grain of grit that sneaks between the shells and under the skin.
We get irked by the disruptions because we want to believe that we command the currents, and that the tides are ours for the taking. Every time something muddies the waters, making life rougher than we want it to be, it’s a reminder of our lack of control.
In order for real life to be real life, it has to actually be real life. In order to experience the good stuff, you have to experience the not-good stuff — the small but scratchy frustrations, the deep pains, the intense challenges, all of the stuff that interrupts the illusion of smooth security.
You can have glimmers of fortune like fairytales. You can hit a streak of six green lights in a row. You can win tickets to the Beyonce concert or a free flight to Barbados. You can get the promotion or the book deal or the admission to your top choice college despite its meager 5% admissions rate. You can find a $50 bill on the sidewalk. You can fall in love. You can stumble onto the subway platform just in time to catch your train, and arrive at your destination early, without a hitch.
But if this surreally sweet stuff is allowed to happen — if life leaves space for the fairytales — then the fairytales have to leave space for life, too.
Sometimes, you have to hit a streak of six red lights in a row. You have to get sick with the flu just before the big presentation. You have to fall prey to a planet-sized nose zit on the night of your highly anticipated hot date. You have to lose a $50 bill from your back pocket. You have to have your heart broken. You have to have the sorts of moments that induce pleas of, “Why me?”
It’s not you. It’s not unfairness nor injustice; it’s not even a negative thing.
It’s just life. It’s just life, with its disorienting diversions, inserting itself into the safe shells of your story.
There is no easy, cozy way to reveal your greatest strengths or boldest work. You can’t produce anything precious without discomfort to instigate the process.
Only when life gets gritty do you learn to make your nacre. Only when hard stuff happens do you figure out your comforts. Books or Broad City marathons, yoga or jazz music, coffee or croissants — your simple pleasures help you coat the rough stuff with continued joy.
Whatever you ultimately make of your limited time in the unruly current of this crazy world, it will be the result of the soft sweetness that you’ve wrapped around and around your different discomforts. It will be the preciousness produced by taking all of your unease and turning it around into something precious.
What if even the silliest intrusions — the trains that run late, the stuffy colds, the annoyances that seem like meaningless distractions — might actually be minuscule opportunities to spin the coarseness of human life into tiny, dazzling gems?
Savor your discomfort. Engage with what chafes.
Pearls aren’t made despite difficulty. They are made because of it.