Every month, Man Repeller poses a story idea and invites open submissions that answer the prompt in under 500 words. For September, they asked the question: Does growing up have to hurt? I tried my hand at writing a response and while it wasn’t chosen—this lovely poem was—I wanted to share what I wrote; it was a fun one to write that ended up in a different place than I thought it would—and, frankly, I’m shocked I stuck to the word count.
I currently have a few small injuries: a blister from breaking in new loafers; a bruised shin from kicking myself with the heel of said loafers; and, a few raw cuticles courtesy of a childhood habit I never quite grew out of. If I have a hangnail, I’ll worry at it absentmindedly, often not realizing if it starts bleeding. It’s not that it doesn’t hurt, but it’s a small pain I’ve become accustomed to.
I can’t remember when I started picking at my nails, only that when I wanted to paint them in elementary school it was nearly impossible. In fifth grade, my friend taught me to paint the skin of the quick so my nails looked longer (spoiler: they didn’t). The nailpolish burned my sore skin and often peeled in the shower. Eventually, with the help of gel manicures in college, my nails grew to a reasonable length. But my cuticles haven’t been so lucky.
Writing about a childhood habit I haven’t yet broken seems antithesis to an essay about growing up. But something feels appropriate about this adolescent holdover having an element of physical pain. After all, our scrapes, bruises, and scars so often punctuate our growth—injuries that hurt all the more for betraying our childhood belief of invincibility. Childhood discomfort is literally referred to as growing pains, and we already know physical pain serves an evolutionary purpose. (You’re not going to touch a hot stove more than once). But what about the hurts that happen while growing up that aren’t physical, that don’t leave visible scars?
Fifth grade, the year I tried hiding my shame-inducing nail-picking habit, is the same year I remember being desperately heartsick for the first time over fighting with friends. I’ve now gone through several friend breakups—but the hurt hasn’t gone away because I’m older. Rather, it has merely been softened by familiarity. And I think this idea is how I arrived at the slightly overwrought metaphor about my poor shredded cuticles. Repetition, while an apt teacher, is not always a cure.
Growing up hurts like life itself hurts: inevitably. But I’m saying this with truly as little discouragement as I can muster. Hurt, and all the pain within it, is complicated. From it, we learn to appreciate its absence; we learn how sometimes, even when we want to empathize, we can only sympathize. As Elaine Scarry said, “to have great pain is to have certainty; to hear that another person has pain is to have doubt.”
Hurt is as full of nuance as happiness, that fickle state of being that’s frequently the focus of modern essayists and social media darlings alike. What if we start looking at hurt not as capital “H” Hurt, but as something that, like happiness, comes in ebbs and flows and is just another part of life? Maybe, by giving it the same examination as happiness, we’ll find it needn’t be avoided or feared. And, in the meantime, I’ll keep trying to stop messing with my cuticles.