Introduction: What is this pain?
It starts as tightness in the upper solar plexus. Then it starts to droop like the top of an ice cream cone on a 100-degree day, eventually melting over everything to form a vague coating of ambivalence. Sometimes it matures into hopelessness and, for some, even depression. The “it” is the yearning for meaning. And it can swallow you whole.
I started to feel it in my twenties as I struggled to cling to my dream of being a Broadway star while entering what would be my seventh year of waiting tables in New York City. I had given myself five years to make it, but by the seventh, I still needed to work “day jobs” to get by. It was at that point that I first remember straining to hear some guidance as to what I was meant to do with my life.
The straining hurt, and the answers did not come quickly. Two years went by, my depression deepening into complete darkness, and then suddenly, meaning came for me in the form of painting floors and stuffing envelopes for the Manhattan Center for Living—a short-lived nonprofit organization that was a haven for people dealing with life-threatening illnesses. Doing menial work for a worthy cause gave more meaning to my life in a handful of Wednesday afternoons than all the years of slogging my way through college and a professional acting career did. It made more sense than the previous four years of therapy had, too.
One day, as I painted the floor with white, high-gloss paint, the rocking motion of rolling the roller and the sound of the paint separating from the roll and smacking on the floor, I was brought into a peaceful place. I felt comfort in the task itself. I was fully aware of my actions and fully focused on them. All anxiety about the future or pain about the past began to disappear.
When I finished painting that day, I was alone in a large space that was white of wall, ceiling, and floor. It was there that I settled down at a folding table and chair to the next task that had been left for me.