Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The parable of the cracked jar

An Indian legend tells of a man who carried water to his village every day, in two large jars tied to the ends of a wooden pole, which he balanced on his back. One of the jars was older than the other, and had some small cracks; every time the man covered the distance to his house, half of the water was lost.

For two years, the man made the same journey. The younger jar was always very proud of its performance, safe in the knowledge that it was up to the mission it had been made for, while the other jar was mortified with shame at only fulfilling half of its allotted task, even though it knew that those cracks were the result of many years hard work. It was so ashamed that one day, while the man got ready to fetch water from the well, it decided to speak to him:
– I want to apologize, but because of the many years of service, you are only able to deliver half of my load, and quench half of the thirst which awaits you at your home.

The man smiled, and said – When we return, observe carefully the path.

And so it did. And the jar noticed that, on its side, many flowers and plants grew.

– See how nature is more lovely on your side? – commented the man. – I always knew you were cracked, and decided to make use of this fact. I planted flowers and vegetables, and you have always watered them. I have picked many roses to decorate my house with, I have fed my children with lettuce, cabbage and onions. If you were not as you are, how could I have done that?

I met someone recently who offered her shoulder to support me during a moment of fragility. I had a frightening and unforeseeable health scare in the midst of a very intense period in the very last days preparing a performance. One day, just before an orchestral dress rehearsal, I found myself unable to compartmentalize my feelings in order to keep it together so I could function at full steam. And I did something I have not done often. I asked for help. I asked someone to listen so I could articulate my fears in the hope that would make it easier for me to pull myself together.

At a time when she was indescribably busy, juggling the numerous balls that lead up to creating a show in the last days of rehearsal, this person took the time to sit with me and talk. And at one point in that talk, she said something that turned my ideas about my self, my identity, and my life's journey on their head and made me rethink everything I have believed to be true about myself.

As the child of a rage-a-holic, I lived in a bizarre world where I never knew from one day (or moment) to the next when the other shoe would drop. As a result of this upbringing, for most of my life I've always been waiting to flinch. I've functioned like a battle-scarred war veteran. As I learned more about such things and understood my symptoms in the context of post-traumatic stress, I started to define myself as the walking wounded, as someone who was damaged by those experiences in my early life but who seemingly functions at a high level in the world for periods of time, only to withdraw (sometimes secretly, sometimes overtly) into depression, sadness, self-pity, anger, self-judgement, and most of all regret: if only things had been different, I could be different, better, stronger.

On the other hand, I also came to realize that I have depression to thank for much of what I have come to know about myself. Had I not felt so miserable, some days barely to get out of bed, I would not have been inspired to think, to sort things out and seek the help of others to help me make sense of the chaos. But I always wished it had been different. That I had been different, normal - whatever I imagined that to be. And when I would go out into the world, I pretended to others and to myself that I was not me, I was someone else. Even (or especially) when I was not okay, I endeavoured to create the impression that I was fine. This was yet another layer of violence upon my spirit, now self-inflicted.

This colleague and new friend saw right through me. She intuitively recognized the real me as someone who had also experienced a youth where fear and anticipation of the imminent catastrophe was ever-present, and proceeded to point out that I am much stronger than I have been willing to acknowledge, that what I have believed about myself for so long is not necessarily the only true interpretation. Perhaps the real story is not that I am flawed by my wounds and scars, but rather that they are precisely what make me incredibly powerful. They made me a survivor, the hero of my own life. They made me a resilient, compassionate, empathetic, and fiercely committed person. They make me the truly compelling artist, both the creator and the creative vessel that I am.

Karl Ulrich Schnabel said: "An artist experiences emotions that are much more intense than those most people feel. On a daily basis, we handle emotions that are so intense that they would kill most people." There is a danger that we can disown the jar of our own life because we fear or disparage the cracks we bear. We feel that they are too deep, too wide, too broken. The cracked jar in the parable felt sorry for the water bearer because the jar saw its cracks as flaws and thus felt it wasn’t up to doing its job.

If we look at our own jars this way and try to deny them, reject them, put them in the corner to collect dust, pretend we have no cracks, present a normalized fa├žade to the world for fear of having our cracks noticed and judged, we are wasting life’s most precious opportunities.

So, like the jar of the parable, that which was thought to be damaged, wounded, cracked, actually gives life. And through it gardens are watered and beautiful flowers bloom for all to enjoy. Life invites each one of us to use the cracks in our jar to water the gardens of our lives, to create new life and to inspire new growth along our path in this journey.

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