Before the Break (or: the way we see challenges once they become accomplishments)

Updated: Mar 25, 2019

Once as a performing exercise, a director made me break through a wooden board with the palm of my hand.

When I heard about the assignment, I was terrified (surprisingly enough, my Bachelors in Music didn’t prepare me for such workplace tasks). I knew nothing about karate. Or tae kwon do. Or whatever denomination of martial arts mere mortals use to defy the laws of physics. But I did know that obstacles like these are overcome with the mind, not the body. Which is what terrified me.

I know that my mind, like that of many creatives, is in a constant state of change. I am easily stimulated— to excitement, to empathy, to laser-like attention, to disheartenment, to boredom. Most creatives I know possess a mind that is similarly fluid and agile, which I’m sure is what makes them great artists.

But unlike the mind, a block of wood is a solid opponent. It is an adversary that has to be conquered immediately and deftly in a matter of seconds in order to break through. No widdling away bit by bit. No “I’ll get further tomorrow.” The slightest hesitation secures failure, which results in possible injury and definite pain.

While spending a painstaking hour of karate-chopping the air and learning the technique of breaking a board, I learned the importance of visualization. Actors have a phrase called “playing to win,” meaning that when your character is confronted with conflict, he or she needs to play the positive of the scene— the good you want as a result of the struggle, not succumb to the hardship of the struggle itself. Likewise, in order to break the beam I learned that I had to visualize the other side of the board. Where I wanted my hand to break through to. So, having learned all this, I stepped forward into position. I visualized. Then I executed.

The board didn’t just break. It shattered. I shook. I laughed. I held my splintered board tightly like a thunder-fearing child clutches a blanket during a midnight storm. I found some tweezers for my director to remove shards of the plank from his hands.

But here’s what’s really messed up.

Before the break, the plank of wood was massive. Dense. Immovable. Impossible.

And then it wasn’t.

When the adrenaline left my body, I actually witnessed my brain sabotage my accomplishment. The block of wood transformed under my gaze. The voice in my head, the one that just a moment before was petrified of the plank, said: “this board feels so light.” And, “this is what beginner martial artists do— a third grader could have done this.” And, “this is nothing— have you seen the video of the dude who broke an arrow with his throat?”

As my mind began to spin circles around itself, encircling my accomplishment and turning it to mush, I stopped everything. And I realized that I had just caught my brain red-handed as it tried to pickpocket my accomplishment.

Because reader, isn’t that what people who make a living making art do?

I’ll never write a symphony this long. My art will never make it into this gallery. I’ll never perform at this opera house. I’ll never finish the hat.

And then you do. And as time goes on, the less the it means. You rewatch videos of your performance and cringe at every mistake. You fall out of favor with the gallery that hired you so you get a bad taste in your mouth whenever you think back on your show. The person who gets the spotlight next looks newer and shinier and better to you.

The way we view the world, our craft, and therefore our accomplishments is fluid. That riverlike rushing momentum is what keeps us moving forward, as artists and as people. It is good and useful- improvement makes us better and keeps us innovative in the face of competition. But far too often, I’ve found that the current in my mind actually drowns my past achievements, and in turn takes down the girl I was when I accomplished them.

Driving home from rehearsal after the break, I tried to recall as many the other accomplishments in my past as I could. And with each conjuration, I caught myself treating these achievements in the same way as I treated that board— I am inclined to lace the sweetness of success with the arsenic of contempt. So in order to break the habit of degradation, I have had to substitute an initiative of affirmation. And truth be told, I haven’t nailed it yet. I still struggle to see my accomplishments clearly and impartially. But I know that it begins with telling myself, “You were a girl who made the best of what she had to do the good she could.”

Imagine for a moment the bully on the school playground when you were a kid. Didn’t that kid usually have their own issues to sort out, and because they weren’t emotionally strong enough to face what really bothered them, they took out their pain on defenseless littler kids instead? Regardless of the kindness with which we treat others, we have a tendency to play both bully and victim to ourselves. So I challenge myself, and I challenge you to come with me, to stand up for the younger you when the older and wiser you plays the bully. Tap into the bravery to face the new day with courage, not belittle the past day with cowardice.

Stay vigilant, Hustlers.

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