"Ruin is a gift. Ruin is the road to transformation."
~Elizabeth Gilbert, author of The Signature of All Things and Eat, Pray, Love
We frequently reject what's behind Gilbert's quote above. And many readers did. Here's the response she posted on her Facebook page.
Dear Ones -
OK, so I don't usually quote myself on this page, but a reader asked me today if I would take a moment to further explain this idea that ruin can sometimes be a gift in our lives.
*takes a deep breath*
Let me begin by saying that the ruin I'm talking about here is not something I would encourage anyone to ever deliberately seek. I've seen people who chase darkness and destruction on purpose (sometimes for the glamour of it, sometimes for the romance of it, sometimes for the sheer self-hatred of it) and this is not a path that I am capable of endorsing for anybody.
No, I'm talking about the ruin that happens to you, without you ever seeing it coming. The chaos that sneaks up on you.
Because sometimes the bottom falls out of our lives. People leave us. Precious certainties are yanked away. We lose our health, our money, our gifts, our faith, our familiar surroundings, our trust. All the truths that we thought we could believe in forever suddenly depart us with no warning. The ground that we always knew was solid under our feet turns out to have been nothing but a trap door all along. (And then there's another trap door under that one.) We disappoint ourselves. We are disappointed by others. We get dead lost. We are no longer longer recognizable to ourselves when we look in the mirror. It all falls to ruin.
And that, my friends, is when things start to get really interesting.
This is the chapter of life that Joseph Campbell called "The Dark Night of the Soul" — and it's a necessary step in every hero's journey. It's also the hardest thing in the world. Nobody ever chooses to stand in this place; it just happens to you. And you will often see later that it needed to happen to you, if you were to ever become more than a mere passenger on Earth. Because this dark place is where you must decide whether to die or live. You cannot go back to what you knew, because what you knew is a pile of smoking rubble. You cannot stay where you are, because where you are is a bleak shroud of despair. You can only move forward into the absolute unknown. And the only way to move forward is to change.
Change, to put it simply, is the suck.
Nobody wants to do it — not real change, not soul change, not the painful molecular change required to truly become who you need to be. Nobody ever does real transformation for fun. Nobody ever does it on a dare. You do it only when your back is so far against the wall that you have no choice anymore.
Or, rather, you do have a choice — you can always die. As Sartre said: "Exits are everywhere." But you don't want to die, so you discover that you have no choice except to find a new way to live. Which seems next to impossible, but somehow, if you fight hard enough, isn't. Because you know what else is everywhere? ENTRANCES. The task then becomes to find your entrance — to fight your way through the tunnel, into the dim hope of your own light.
The other day, I asked my dear friend Rayya Elias (who wrote the memoir "Harley Loco" about her years of heroin addiction) if — looking back on the pain and suffering of her life — she could imagine any scenario under which she could have gotten clean and sober earlier. I was imagining that maybe if she'd been sent to the right rehab, or had found a more kindly therapist, or had been told just the right words of encouragement by a wise former junkie, or had been rescued by the right family member...maybe she could have spared herself years of addiction and pain. Rayya's answer initially shocked me, and then made perfect sense. She said: "The only way I could've quit drugs sooner would have been if everyone had abandoned me sooner."
She explained that, as long as she was protected from total ruin by everyone's love and care and support and enabling, she never had to completely face her own darkest place. So she lingered in the murk, hovering just above rock bottom ruin for years, barely getting by on scraps and crumbs. It was only when she had destroyed every relationship, only when everyone had left, only when she had been banished from everyone's homes and lives, only when there was nobody left who would pick up the phone anymore when she called, only when she was dead alone with no money and no good will and no second chances left…it was only then, at the loneliest bottom of her existence, that she could finally hear the question that echoes at us constantly through the universe: "Is this really how you want to live?"
Her answer, to her own surprise, was "No." And when that answer, loud and clear, becomes NO…that's where our transformation always begins.
The changes in your life from that point forward will not be immediate and crisp. They never will be. Transformation isn't easy. It isn't pretty. (Ever watch a bird hatch? It's fucking exhausting.) You don't ascend from that lowest place of your life in a tidy straight line, moving a few inches upward every day. No, it's a messy and jerky and unpredictable trajectory. But it is a trajectory. And the general direction — from the moment of your decision forward — is always going to be UP. Up and out. You will shed whatever (and whomever) you need to shed. You will find whatever (and whomever) you need to find. You will crawl and bawl. Until eventually you are standing, finally, on your own two feet in your own shower of light. Until you are the person you never would have been, had you never met your own worst darkness face-to-face.
And that is the gift that ruin offers us.