First you heat carbon and iron to 1450 C, then cool it rapidly. This makes the steel hard, but it shatters easily. Next you heat it to a lower temperature, say, 650 C, and cool it slowly. The end result is hard but not brittle, with springy strength. This is tempering.
I thought about tempering last week when I heard someone say that they just couldn’t handle certain feelings. That they were so overwhelmed by the things they saw and heard and felt that they simply had to lock those feelings away. I understood the impulse; I just don’t think it’s a long-term solution.
In order to avoid the pain in front of me, I have drowned myself in a bottle, binge-read, shopped ‘til I dropped, or eaten myself into a stupor. I’d probably still be doing all of the above if they actually worked. They don’t. The things that I want to avoid have a way of breaking through the doors I shove them behind. They kick out the hinges at 3 a.m. and perch on the end of the bed, wanting to talk. There’s no getting away from them.
So I’m left in an untenable position. When I can’t take in one more tragedy or memory, and locking it away doesn’t work, what can I do?
The tempering of a metal realigns its molecules to increase pliability and strength. You heat the compound just enough to shift those molecules into a stronger configuration. Then you allow it to cool slowly.
In order to be strong and resilient, we need the same treatment. We need the part where we enter the fire—but not too hot, not too long. We need the part where we are allowed to rest, but not forever. Doing too much of the first renders us brittle and liable to crack; doing only the second leaves us weak and prone to bending under the load.
There are practices for entering the fire. We can learn to simply notice how our body feels. Today the grief is a weight on my chest. Yesterday the anxiety jittered in my gut. Either way, I simply feel it. No story, no ignoring. A few minutes of practice can shift my heart and mind into a stronger configuration, better able to deal with the unexpected storms.
And then I rest, consciously. We lay our hands on what is beautiful in the world, says Francis of Assisi. So I walk in the woods, I listen to the creek, I make a meal for someone that I love, I pay attention. I rest in the pulse of Love that connects us all.
It’s not superhuman capacity that allows some people to carry a load of suffering gracefully. It’s the gradual shouldering of weight combined with the cultivation of a quiet heart. Each of us has the capacity to be tempered, if we’re willing to enter the fire. If we’re willing to rest our hands on Beauty.