Warning: This column has nothing whatsoever to do with Valentine’s, the Lunar New Year, or other such niceties. You may find it helpful, however, if Life has thrown you a few curve balls or wicked sinkers lately, which it has to me.
Last year did not end well. I was besieged by viral invaders which held me hostage for five weeks, taking potshots at the rest of the family. Concurrent with the physical onslaught, I was blindsided by some unexpected and exceedingly vexatious bureaucratic bull poo-poo that necessitated ridiculously expensive legal counsel and which, I will just add, was neither deserved nor appreciated. All this on top of work, Christmas, on-going chronic illness and at a time of year in which I lost both parents and a husband. Not a good month, December. I did not begin the new year in a celebratory mood; I felt besieged, a bit persecuted even.
Truth be told, life’s been challenging far longer than a couple of months; it’s been more like a few years. There do seem to be periods in life that are preternaturally onerous, long stretches where you feel an unwelcome kinship with Job. In such periods everything seems to fall apart, physically, emotionally, financially—you name it. And just when you wonder if there could possibly be anything else, something else happens. Such difficult stretches present very real, very painful challenges to body, mind and spirit. They wear one down.
Being a very intense and emotional person, I take such times rather hard. In my family of origin little deals were Big Deals, and Big Deals were ENORMOUS. Anything that deviated from How It Should Be was cause for perturbation. It’s in my DNA to experience intense emotionality. I really get into my feelings. I can swim around in them for days. It can take a little while for me to remember that as terrific as having one’s feelings might be, it’s also important to haul oneself out of Lake Lachrymosity, towel-off, and catch one’s emotional and spiritual breath. Once I stop swimming around in my oh-so-important feelings and surrender to my exhaustion, insights often arise.
Case in point: During a lull in the December offensive it occurred to me—as much as it pains me to say it—that what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. The bleak stretches of life show us what we’re made of. They can develop character, build endurance and cultivate compassion—or they can crush you. In the same way that poor soil can produce grapes that make incredible wine, the dry, rocky parts of our journeys provide the difficult circumstances that produce rich fruits of trust, wisdom and compassion. Soulfulness is born through suffering.
I thought this as I drove home one evening just before Christmas. Outside was an enormous, very dense, dark cloud, brilliantly illuminated at its edges by the winter sun. “That,” I pointed out to my son, “is what is meant by a ‘silver lining.’” And then it occurred to me: A silver lining doesn’t make everything peachy keen. It still might rain on your party and ruin your plans. But it does bring to mind Ghandi’s famous words: “In the midst of darkness, light persists.” You have to cling to that light. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I let go completely and fall into despair, cursing the darkness. But regardless of how I choose to respond in any given moment, the light is still there, waiting.
We all have our notions of how things will go and how life “should” be. The rough patches bring us back to reality, to humility, to the essential. Suddenly, it’s not about next week or next month or the five year plan: it’s about one foot in front of the other. It’s about breathing. It’s about a truly meaningful conversation—with oneself and with God. It’s about letting go of our illusions of control and meeting Life on its terms—not ours—with as much grace as one can muster.
It’s possible that, just maybe, these difficult times bring us to our knees in order that we might find the true ground upon which we stand. And ultimately, that true and solid ground is a very good place to be.