Love Stories

Broken Shells & Barnacles: A Story of Pain, Love, and Renewed Trust

I am at the beach moving through something obscure. There is an ache in my heart, a weight on my shoulders. I know better than to “try and figure out” what it’s all about, for that’s a job of the mind, and ultimately, I keep coming back to the simple fact that “the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.” (Blaise Pascal) So I breathe, becoming more present to the sensations in my body. Just observe, I tell myself.

Two young girls, maybe 3 and 5 in age, are playing on a blanket with their mother not too far from where I sit. Some time passes, when the older one gets up to walk towards the ocean with a bucket in her hand. The shoreline is covered with sharp objects, but she seems unphased by the pokes and prods on her bare feet.

Her younger sister decides to do the same and begins her journey. She marches through the sand, determined to get to the water in time to catch up to her older sibling, but the sand grows rougher beneath her feet the closer she gets, slowly transforming into a land of broken shells and barnacles. She is visibly struggling on the uneven terrain, stumbling like a drunk sailor, pausing after each painful step. Clumsily she skips to the side in hopes for a smoother surface, just to find another sharp object.

Suffering and confusion is written all over her innocent face. If she knew the expression “What the fuck!,” she would surely curse it under her sweet breath. Frozen, afraid to make another move, she cries out for help. “Get me out of this mess, mom!,” I hear her scream, though no words are muttered. I look to her mother who watches impartially. I wonder if she wants to run for her daughter’s rescue, like I do. As a chronic fixer, I admire her ability to see her daughter in pain and remain unmoved.

The older sibling has filled her bucket and is now stomping back victoriously, past her sister, who is still frozen in time, in pain. As if given permission to abandon her mission, she turns on her toes, now facing her mother and sister. She appears to be gathering inner strength for the journey back. It’s a slow process. She stops several times, crying out in pain. “This isn’t fair!,” I hear her desperate attempt to gain sympathy so someone comes to her rescue.

In that moment, I realize that I am giving the girl’s pain a voice. Everything I believe she is thinking, if not saying, is a projection of my own relationship to the broken shells and barnacles placed on my path. How many times I have cursed life for being unfair! How many times I have cried out for a savior to rescue me out of an experience I did not want to have and did not ask for – and still there it was!

How many times I have felt frozen in time, in pain, stumbling through life, searching for a remedy to all that I did not want to feel. Meanwhile reinforcing the belief that life was not fair with every unanswered prayer.

I return to my breath, almost completely lost in the girl’s pain. It’s so easy to do that – to get swept up in the experience of another. For me, this has been a consistent coping mechanism. Focusing on other people’s pain, and helping them to remedy it, I forget about my own unresolved inner conflicts. It’s a common story among chronic fixers and caretakers. It’s also the less talked about shadow of the archetypal healers among us.

That day at the beach, watching the young girl struggle, I discovered my own inner child, in pain, confused, about why a good-willed God, or good-natured Life, would place broken shells and barnacles beneath my bare feet. 

I laugh, relieved. Removed from the situation, I understand that the shells weren’t broken for the purpose of hurting our bare feet. Barnacles weren’t created to cut our skin open. As an observer, I can see how it may seem that way to the girl as she is crying out in pain because of they are hurting her feet. But it’s not that personal! Detached, I can see my own stories of pain, as they are projected onto her.

I see how I turn pain into MY pain. I see how when I make pain personal, it reinforces the belief that pain is a form of punishment and that Life is the rightful enforcer thereof. I think back to the times I found myself in a land of broken shells and barnacles, asking Why is this happening to me?, as if God, or Life, was punishing me on purpose. Every fight, break up, loss, rejection, broken dream, defeat, accident, and illness – reinforcing the belief that I am deeply flawed and deserve to be punished.

I lay down my arms and protective shields to let the pain in, weeping quietly, grieving with the girl that somewhere along the way forgot that Life is good-natured; that God is good-willed; that pain is not punishment. It’s a convenient lie to believe. There are ample of parts that I have learned to hide, like others, because they are deemed unworthy of love, but that’s not to say they aren’t there. And so of course, Life would punish me – or so the lie goes, continuing an old narrative that is filled with self-hate and abuse.

A wave of grief floods through me, pressing against the walls surrounding my heart. Water fills my eyes, and I allow it to be there. Just observe. Just breathe into the pain, I remind myself. With every inhale, I intend for my heart to open where it’s remained closed. With every exhale, I relax my body, asking it to soften, not tighten, as my heart breaks open. I can feel the resistance of the mind, thinking it’s in danger. No, No, No, I hear it panic. Yes, Yes, Yes, I respond softly. It’s OK.

It’s much harder to do the work required to soften into our wounded hearts, to sit with the pain, and see how we prevent ourselves from being loved, unconditionally, by Life, no matter how fucked up we think we are. It’s terribly difficult to trust Life when we are in pain. But my God, there is nothing more beautiful than to witness the breaking open of a wounded heart that’s learning to love and be loved again. If you are searching for a life’s purpose, let this be it, simply.

Of course it wouldn’t be a proper story without an ending. So what about the girl, the broken shells and barnacles? She safely returned to her mother with dried tears stuck to her face. It didn’t take long before I heard her loud laughter again, reminding me of the impermanence of everything, including pain. As for me – I get up on my own bare feet with dried tears stuck to my face, and walk slowly across the land of broken shells and barnacles, remembering that pain is not a form of punishment, but a mere result of being alive.

Reaching the shore where water and land meet, I let the wind caress me with the sweet touch of a mother’s unconditional love. Let me love you, she whispers. Whatever it takes, I thank her.

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