If you’ve ever seen natural pearls, you know their beauty. The tale of how pearls are formed is common lore. A tiny irritant—say, a grain of sand—intrudes into the shell of a mollusk and begins to damage the delicate tissues inside. To protect itself, the animal secretes layer after layer of luminous nacre to coat the irritant and prevent further irritation.
I’ve heard this concept used to offer motivation and hope in incidents of human trials, the turning of that grain of sand into a beautiful gem through persistence and patience. “God changes caterpillars into butterflies, sand into pearls and coal into diamonds using time and pressure. He’s working on you, too,” or “No grit, no pearl.” As someone who has endured her share of grit, I’m here to tell you this is Truth.
However, there is another side to that whole grain of sand thing. Not all irritants are destined for pearlhood. Some just rub you raw and leave you bleeding. I mean that metaphorically, but it can also be taken literally. (You know this.) Sometimes, you just have to give that irritant the boot. Or at least knock the irritant out of your boot, lest it blister your toes. Don’t believe me? Try walking a mile with sand in your shoe.
Years ago (gross story alert) I kicked a sewing needle that had gotten embedded in our carpet. I hobbled to a chair amid much swearing, pulled the damn thing out of my bare toe, and tossed it in the trash. Two weeks later, my toe was enormous and very sore. Turns out the tip of the needle had broken off in my flesh, which had responded appropriately to this invader. No pearl, just yucky infection that took weeks to heal.
Sand grains can take the form of people, too. You know who I mean. That person you see on a regular basis, who is maybe a co-worker or a family member or a neighbor or even a partner who is always on your back, or forever needling you. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.) Sometimes, we can’t get away from these people. Family dinners or executive meetings in a professional setting mean we have to grin and bear it for a little while. That doesn’t mean you can’t lay down the law with this sandman (or sandperson) and coat them with the nacre of your boundaries. Communicate clearly what you’re willing to tolerate, and what is not okay. Draw your lines and enforce them when necessary.
It could be even worse. Anyone who is sapping your confidence, undermining your success or derailing your happiness is not your friend, no matter who they are or what role they hold in your life. And gods forbid there be someone who is actively harming you in any way, whether physically, mentally or emotionally. Don’t look for the pearl in this situation. There isn’t one. This is abuse, plain and simple. Get out. Get safe. Get help.
There are those who walk through the fire and come out not unscathed, yet shining nonetheless. Anne Frank, Hellen Keller, and Malala Yousafzai are prime examples of women who endured harsh inescapable circumstances and rose above them in the aftermath as stronger, more focused individuals. Each of them accomplished feats afterward that would not have been likely without those trials. These are pearls held up as examples to anyone undergoing a struggle.
And of course, some trials are unavoidable—illness, loss, tragedy. These things can only be endured, used as a whetstone to sharpen us, hone our focus. The development of pearls from these experiences is not always evident, or immediate. In some cases, the pain must pass before we see the reward in its wake.
But among those hardships over which we have some control, there is a difference between the kinds that can strengthen, and those that diminish or harm or even endanger us. Those subtleties are not always easy to see, but it’s really important to recognize them for what they are. If your challenge has the potential or intention to help you grow and evolve, great. Straighten your shoulders, take up your sword, and run that gauntlet. If it is only wearing you down or causing you harm on any level, and you have the freedom to do so, walk away. Do it now. Don’t look back. Save your energy for the next battle, because you know there will be others. You can’t fight them all.
(Image from Pixabay.)