After years of thinking about it, I recently decided to learn to surf (full disclaimer, I totally suck - but still absolutely love it). Besides being a lot of fun, it also teaches you some great lessons.
One of the first things I discovered was how arbitrary and punishing the ocean can be. You get up on the board, and before you know it, the sea shows you who is the real boss and tosses you around. As if to remind you, “I’m a force of nature and you’re a puny human.”
Once your flogging is over, you make sure all your limbs are still bending the right way and you take deep breaths, grateful for all that beautiful oxygen in your lungs (I never knew JUST how long I could hold my breath!). This is one of the ways surfing reminds me of real life. Sometimes a huge wave seems to come out of nowhere and knock you down, leaving you disoriented and gasping for breath. That’s exactly where I found myself in the first months of 2020.
When I say disoriented and gasping for breath, I’m being at least somewhat literal. I found myself sobbing on my apartment floor for months straight, wondering how everything changed so fast and desperately trying to rediscover a safe and stable shore to plant my feet.
My personal destructive wave began with the break-up of a five-year relationship. We’d built a life together in San Francisco. He had kids, we had pets, and our social activities revolved around our life as a couple. That all evaporated in an instant when we separated and I moved back to Los Angeles.
The move happened just as the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns began. People were panicking. People were dying. People were wearing rubber gloves to get their mail from their mailbox, spraying down their vegetables with rubbing alcohol and wearing hazmat suits to the bank. People were suffering in many ways and forms. One of those forms is still affecting millions and we are probably going to be discussing the impact for years to come. The effect on our mental health.
Covid hit me like a full on tsunami. The shutdowns felt to me like they couldn’t have come at a worse time. After my separation, I badly needed to get out and have social distractions with friends, and that was simply impossible in the spring of 2020.
Adding to the sense of complete disorientation, through the effects of the pandemic, my company’s business was cut in half. Joe was stuck in the Middle East as he and his wife and newborn fought through visa and passport red tape and pandemic travel restrictions (which turned out to be a blessing in disguise for them - they were “stuck” with the brand new grandparents who were delighted to spend so much time with the baby). The neighborhood I had moved to turned into a crime and homeless hotbed nearly overnight after many people lost their jobs and were struggling to find a way. I lost 20 pounds because I could barely force myself to eat. I couldn’t sleep.
It felt like every single important anchor in my life had been uprooted: my most personal relationship, the city I lived in, my ability to travel, social activities with friends, the business, my safety, my health, and my finances. All of them were disintegrating, and I was crumbling right along with all of it.
What DID I still have? My experiences. Everything I had done in my life was still inside me.
But it was buried. And no matter how many people said “just be happy!” or “you’ll be fine!”, it didn’t make a difference.
In this period of deep reflection and in the midst of that awful, perfect storm, I had a small but golden moment where I received a powerful reminder from an important experience from a few years prior.
During one of my trips to Japan, I spent a day learning all about samurai culture. A particularly memorable part of the teaching was when my trainer pulled out a short but incredibly sharp sword and handed it to me. "Attach this tantō to your belt and wear it at all times. It is used voluntary to die with honor rather than fall into the hands of their enemies and tortured.”
He further explained that “The practice is called seppuku. The ceremonial disembowelment, which is usually part of a more elaborate ritual and performed in front of spectators, consists of plunging the tantō into the belly and drawing the blade from left to right, slicing the belly open." Um, yikes.
True samurai haven't existed for about 150 years, and I’ll venture the opinion that we’re better off in a world with less ritual self-disembowelment. But the samurai culture goes much deeper than the more extreme things that tend to grab our attention.
The influence of these great warriors still manifests itself deeply in Japanese culture. You can see visual reminders of it all around, be it a great castle, a carefully planned garden, or beautifully preserved samurai residences. More importantly, the philosophy of the samurai is deeply ingrained in the psyche of the Japanese people.
The basis of samurai conduct is bushido, "the way of the warrior.” This unique philosophy values honor, reckless bravery, and selflessness, as well as duty to the warrior's master. It includes the willingness to give up one’s life and embrace death when required. The way of the warrior, with its self-discipline, respect for masters, and ethical behavior, is still an inspiration for many Japanese to this day.
But to me, what makes the samurai so especially interesting is that they were expected to be more than warriors. For them, there was no contradiction between the skills of appreciating high culture and fighting skills. An ancient saying of the warriors was bun bu ryo do: "the pen and sword in accord.” It was common for samurai to enjoy calligraphy, tea ceremony, poetry, music, and study. (another fun fact - money was beneath them so only their wives handled it).
I absolutely loved learning all this. I proudly wore my kimono and soaked in the education and history of this way of life. (The fact that I am pretty sure I would never actually have to slay myself or someone else with a sword helped me preserve this affection!).
At the end of my samurai training, we had a traditional tea matcha ceremony, and as I held my beautiful ceramic cup I noticed it was filled with uneven gold lines. I asked what was behind this interesting detail.
The samurai described to me Kintsugi, a Japanese philosophy that treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise. (If you’re familiar with the concept of wabi-sabi, it’s a similar but not identical philosophy). One manifestation of Kintsugi is expressed by a longstanding tradition with broken ceramic items. Instead of disposing of it or fixing it to make it look like new, the cracks are filled with a gold colored metal. This emphasizes, not hides, the break.
As the samurai trainer explained all this, I felt an instant affinity with this philosophy. It’s a tangible demonstration of the idea that mistakes, brokenness, and the storms of life can have beautiful effects and shouldn’t be hidden or thrown away, but instead they should be recognized and displayed. It was a powerful reminder that everything – the good, the bad, and the ugly – can serve us and we should waste no experience.
Your own self can chip and break and need repairs. And that’s okay - we don’t need to hide it. Just like in the philosophy of Kintsugi, our cracks give us character, make us unique, and reflect our personal history. I left Japan loving it even more than I had before.
Fast forward back to my months of hell in early 2020. I’m thinking of a particularly low moment, just after I moved away from San Francisco, and I was morosely unpacking boxes in my new place in LA.
In one box, I stumbled across my matcha cup from that tea ceremony in Japan. It was as if the experiential wealth from that Japan trip was sitting in my account and resurfaced as a reminder at just the right moment.
When I saw that cup with its gold in the broken place, I knew if I could get through this hell, I would come out on the other side stronger. I would know myself better and eventually see in my emotional scars increased character and depth. I would also see the cracks and hurts in others and have intensified empathy for them. I knew I would never be the same again because this ordeal had broken me open. But maybe that was a good thing.
So, this cheesy insight scene from a romcom meant I was instantly healed, right? Of course not. This wasn’t a Hollywood story, it was real life. You can have these sustaining moments, but that doesn’t mean you’re handed a Get Out of Jail Free cards (I would need one of those, too, but that’s a story for later in this chapter). Insight is invaluable, but you still need to walk through the fire and come out on the other side.
The moment when I saw that teacup, I was able to step outside of herself for a few minutes and see that wider perspective, and know that hard times don’t last forever and will eventually transform into a more beautiful and stronger sense of character.
And those fixed parts are now some of my most treasured. I looked my demons in the eye and came out on the other side.