I’m not much for souvenir-buying as a rule. In fact, I detest it. (Thus I came home from three months in Rome, Italy, with nothing but a stack of postcards and some dried flowers I’d plucked at various points and saved in the pages of my journal.) So my recent trip to Hawaii yielded little in the way of mementos brought home…except for some pearls.
I should add as an aside that I love pearls. As a fashion accessory they’re feminine, classy, understated, but they’re so much more than accessories. They possess this fascinating quality of age—and yes, of suffering. There’s a reason we so often find pearl imagery associated with wisdom and the pursuit of wisdom.
For ages I’ve wanted a nice strand of fresh water pearls (less expensive than rarer sorts), and I happened upon a great deal on a couple strands at an outdoor market in Honolulu. I definitely swooped. Then on the last day of our trip we got kind of tricked into this touristy “pick your pearl” deal by a very fast-moving, smooth-talking saleswoman who snapped us up before we had time to protest. The way it works: they have a basket full of oysters, and you get to pick the oyster; they then pry it open right in front of you and pull out the pearl. These were cultured pearls, perfectly smooth, round, lovely. My extremely generous father insisted on getting each of us a piece of jewelry made with our pearls, so I brought home a beautiful pair of black pearl earrings.
As a result I’ve found myself thinking a lot about pearls since coming home. I’m fascinated by the way pearls are made. A piece of sand gets into the oyster’s shell and lodges itself there, which obviously isn’t very comfortable, so the oyster puts out a protectant–called “nacre,” the same substance the shell is made of–that coats the grain of sand. The result, after a time, is a beautiful pearl. There’s nobility to that image: pearls are the direct result of suffering.
I’ve found we humans can work around our various irritants by a similar process. How many of us look back on times in our lives when we suffered horribly—the death of a loved one, a painful break-up, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, spiritual struggles—and find we no longer suffer from those times? Instead, we regard them as points of real value…even beauty. Pearls of wisdom acquired through the experience of pain, healing, and growth. In my own life I can think of several examples, from those painful coming-of-age crushes in early high school, to being turned down just after college for mission work I desperately wanted to do, to the death of my grandfather. It makes dealing with current irritants and sufferings a little easier, knowing what they can become in the future if we just hold fast. In particular, those of us who still struggle through this time of singleness can take comfort in knowing we’re cultivating a pearl of particular beauty.
I should add a word of warning here as well. While we can cultivate our present sufferings this way, it doesn’t mean that we do. I’ve been reading various articles on the phenomenon of singleness among our generation for a discussion group I’ll be joining this week, and I’m struck—and saddened—by the incredible bitterness of the writers. Granted, these authors are writing on the issue from a purely secular standpoint, and they are a bit older than I (late 30s and early 40s). One decided to have a child via sperm donor, and another opted out of what would probably have been a great marriage (she herself admits it) ten years ago. They talk about their various sexual encounters, sing the praises of the “emancipation of women,” and then complain that marriage (which is all about “partnership”) remains so elusive. I could go on for days about their failure to connect certain dots, so I won’t. I will only say, I see certain aspects of this tendency in myself, and I have to fight against it with every fiber of my being. I think we all do.
It’s so easy to be bitter.
In many ways, I already am bitter. I hear it in my conversation, I feel it in my gut on those long, lonely Sunday afternoons. When Friend Number Umpteen calls and announces through giddy laughter, “I’m engaged,” when old high school friends are married and pregnant with child number 1, number 2, when it starts to feel like “everyone else” is moving on with their lives and I’m … still … here … yeah, I’m not cultivating any pearls in those times. I’m developing welts and lacerations as I rail against the irritants, instead of letting them cultivate within me.
And there’s not really an answer to this, either. Looking to the future and what today’s suffering can be provides scant comfort on those days when your soul just aches. Sometimes we just have to grope about in the darkness. It helps to look through the pearls we’ve collected so far, to remind us. And then … just sit tight.