By Eleanora Morrison
Personal tragedy and grief are universal: we will all face pain at some point in our lives. These are the challenges that oppose our triumphs in life, and in part, define our human existence. How we overcome our struggles and despair, however, is always a personal decision. The choices we make during the days that feel dark determine whether or not we make it back to the light.
Despite struggle and setback being a communal truth, it seems that only the minority of all people lean into that truth and acknowledge darkness head-on in order to defeat it and come out stronger on the other side. Among that minority, even fewer share their truth publicly so that others can seek solace in it. One of the courageous and inspiring few who have successfully led the world through her words is New York Times Bestselling Author and national public figure, Cheryl Strayed.
After losing her mother to lung cancer when she was only twenty two years-old, Cheryl’s life began to unravel quickly when it should have just been beginning. She lived years of darkness, experiencing her lowest of lows. Then she made a daring and drastic decision to hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State—alone.
Decades later, she made sense of this trying and transformative experience with the realized perspective of what it meant for her life. Cheryl wrote her truths and recounted her harrowing solo journey in the form of a memoir, Wild, that joined her already-popular body of writing works (Torch and Tiny Beautiful Things). Brought into the public eye by Oprah, Wild was then adopted by Reese Witherspoon and adapted to film. Reese played Cheryl in the Oscar nominated movie, and Laura Dern played Cheryl’s mother.
With her latest book Brave Enough now released and flying off of the shelves as yet another New York Times Bestseller, Ballet San Antonio invited Cheryl Strayed to be the guest of honor at their recent fundraising luncheon to share her story with donors, friends and community supporters, illustrating the parallels between the art that her words create about shared human experience and the art that the Ballet San Antonio dancers’ movements create, conveying similar truths. Before Cheryl landed in San Antonio, we had a discussion about her life and career, and she elaborated on the deeper meanings behind quotes from her public speeches and others that she chose to publish in Brave Enough.
Eleanora Morrison: “That reach for the extraordinary is bound up in the self-doubt, the self–loathing, the darkness, the difficulty, the things that we bury.” What did you mean by this?
Cheryl Strayed: That’s really true. Again, it’s a message that a lot of us have to work to undo as we grow up. We so often think that we have to be someone else to be extraordinary, or great, or philanthropic, or…fill in the blank. What I’ve found in my life is that the closer I can get to really being transparent–what I feel or think on the inside being very much reflected out to where I am in the world–the closer I get to my own power. The greatest success that I’ve achieved in my career is by way of being my most vulnerable self. So often we are afraid to do that because we think the world will reject us, but that really couldn’t be farther from the truth.
When you have the courage to show yourself, not to change into some imagined mythical person, but when you think about your evolution and your transformation as not into the other but inward into your most authentic self, the people around you begin to see themselves in you. They know you’re telling them the truth. They’ll say, “me too, I understand. Thank you for being brave, because you helped me be brave too.” Just like in nature, when we see a caterpillar turning into a butterfly…it appears that it is becoming something else, but it is becoming itself. That’s very powerful.
EM: My next favorite quote that I want to discuss is, “Hello, fear. Thank you for being here. You’re my indication that I’m doing exactly what I need to do.” I think that so many people are just so afraid to be vulnerable and are so afraid to fail, that they don’t take the risks to realize their true potential. Once they feel fear they run, rather than lean into it and grow.
CS: It’s absolutely true. There is no way around fear. Everyone has it. We are all constantly afraid. To me, courage isn’t the absence of fear, it is persisting in the face of it. I have really learned very powerfully over and over again, in every aspect of my life, to just say “fear and doubt is part of this.” You just have to keep going…fear of failure and self-doubt are always a part of the club. They are a given, and they always show up. But there are other things that we draw upon that also show up for us: mission, creativity, vision, fun, play…and when we welcome fear, but tell it that it can’t be our ruler, we are freed to do the things we are meant to do.
EM: “You’re looking for the explanation, the loophole, the bright twist in the dark tale that reverses your story’s course. But it won’t reverse–for me or for you or for anyone who has ever been wronged, which is everyone. Allow your acceptance of the universality of suffering to be a transformative experience. You do that by simply looking at what pains you squarely in the face and then moving on. You don’t have to move fast or far. You can go just an inch. You can mark your progress breath by breath.” This quote of yours from Brave Enough is extremely powerful because it’s just so comforting. What are your thoughts on suffering?
CS: Suffering is just part of life. In so many ways it’s just a waste of energy to spend your time saying that you want things to be different than they are. You want the person back who broke up with you, you want the person alive who died and who you miss, you wanted the job or award you felt you deserved but you didn’t get…but that’s where people get stuck. There is nothing you can do. You have to take your experiences and learn from them and move on.
It’s not quite the same with grief and loss, because that never goes away. But you have to accept that it is part of your story. You can’t rewrite your past and what has happened to you, but you can rewrite the future, and the outcome that you have turned a dark twist in your tale into something very bright. You can turn your curses into blessings. You will be better for it, and the world will be too.
Edited from an interview by Eleanora Morrison.