How does personal tragedy make some bitter and others better?
Tragic figures like Virginia Wolf, Sylvia Plath, Vincent Van Gough and Ernest Hemingway were remarkable artists, but pain destroyed them – and they destroyed themselves.
But consider John McCain. He was shot down, taken as a prisoner of war with no treatment offered for two broken arms and a broken leg, and spent 5 1/2 years in a Hanoi prison where he was continually tortured with 2 years in solitary confinement. He attempted suicide as a POW, and was forced to record an anti-American statement for propaganda. How did he move beyond that experience and not become bitter? How can he be so positive, still looking forward towards great goals at age 70?
Think of Rose Kennedy, who lost her eldest son in WWII, a daughter in a plane crash, another daughter mentally ruined by a needless lobotomy, and had two other sons rise as world leaders only to be murdered before living out their promising legacies. She watched as a grandson was stricken with cancer, other grandsons turned to drugs, and one special grandson, the son of a murdered US President, crashed his plane on the way to wedding at Rose’s house. He was killed along with his new wife and her sister. Yet Rose always presented herself as positive, smiling and joyful, living over 100 years often being quoted as saying, “I choose to remember the good times”.
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. - Kahlil Gibran
A human person can only feel the greatest measure of joy when sorrow serves as a kind of barometer charting the changes. One is less likely to take joys for granted when the joys are measured against sorrow.
Take my suffering...
I was given up at birth, due to being illegitimate, then taken back into my birth family under the guise of being adopted. My mother was depressed and absent mentally, and emotionally. She married a pedophile when I was eleven. I was abused by him for four years before being forced to leave the home where he was permitted to stay.
I married at eighteen to find some stability, and was later abandoned by that husband when I was pregnant with my third child. I supported my children selling Tupperware.
Later I met the perfect man. He was loving, honest, loyal, hard-working, and was my first real best friend. He loved me and loved my children. I was 29 when I married him. Shortly after we were married, he adopted my children. I finally knew the fullness, the completeness, the happiness of marriage, family and home.
He died four years after we were married. His brother's wife dropped dead at his wake service. We had two funerals that week.
Some think I went crazy after my husband died. I started buying things like a publishing house and a boat that I saw at the mall. I made a failed attempt to end my life, but I survived clawing my way back to sanity, struggling with depression, financial hardships and the stresses of being a single parent of teenagers, nearly losing one of my children to drug addiction.
I stayed single for seven years and reluctantly accepted the offer for a date with a man I met at a garden center – Dan Burgoyne. He had just walked away from his life, becoming hermit-like, living in a two room cabin on an old estate, his only possessions - a brief case with important papers, a stereo, some CDs and books, a painting and a 1984 Jaguar with a Chevy engine.
I married Dan five months later. Why so quickly? We both knew suffering. We found joy in each other and clung to it.
That was nine years ago. We live in a beautiful home in the country, our six children grown, healthy and happy. We enjoy a simple life. To many, our life seems mundane. To us, it couldn’t be better.
I don’t want to get rid of that sadness; it’s part of who I am today. I feel like it’s a fertile soil at the bottom of my heart where everything wonderful grows – creativity, compassion, love and even joy. - Isabel Allende
I see people in my own family that can’t get beyond their suffering. The pain turns to blame, jealousy and resentment, and they become bitter and angry. They cut themselves off from the very comfort (the love of others) that would heal if only they’d let go of the pain and allow it to guide. Instead, they draw false comfort in trying to control people and circumstances in their lives. They can’t resist the temptation to identify and enumerate the causes of their suffering, blaming others, punishing others, casting nets of guilt over their so-called loved ones in a vain attempt to level the playing field between pain and justice. Sadly, their suffering is endless. It never lifts.
I thank God for my suffering ... for if I wasn’t abandoned by one spouse and lost another to death, I’d wouldn’t know the magnitude of blessing that comes from Dan's hand reaching out of his sleep to touch me when I get into bed each night. That casual brushing of the hand happens in millions of bedrooms around the world, but to me it’s a miracle every time, for I’ve known the absence of touch and the vacancy on the other side of the bed when no one reaches.
The presence of pain in my past magnifies the simple joys of today. It’s because I know the preciousness of present blessings that I have hope anticipating future happiness and courage to face any pending sorrows.
We must welcome suffering, not try to fix it or control it or blame someone for its having visited us. We need only realize that sorrow is not selective. It is random. Its frequency and degree don’t follow a path of deservedness. Trying to make sense of the pain stifles the growth, cuts us off from evolving into better people. We must allow sorrow in and let it fully occupy our lives – to feel it, live with it, let it grip us, shape us and hold us for its time.
It always passes.
As it lifts, evidence of a personal evolution seizes us. The color of joy is brighter, the abundance of blessing is more visible, and the ability to endure increases. Each sorrow gives birth to a blessing exponentially greater than itself, but only when we surrender to it. Understanding and wisdom come slowly and softly as side benefits.