I possess a rather odd and illogical dread of odd numbered years. I suppose that my superstition began because almost consistently the most significant people in my life have died in a year marked by an odd number, or some especially dramatic and tragic event has taken place in times ending with a 1, 3, 5, 7 or 9. I quietly take a deep breath every other New Year’s Day and then heave a sigh of relief when we return to a reckoning in which an even number denotes the passage of time. I tend to laugh at my silliness and don’t really believe that there is some kind of curse on years not evenly divisible by two, but it’s a difficult habit to kick when a coincidence of bad karma occurs again and again just as I feared that it might. God knows that this year of 2017 has been rather strange and difficult for virtually everyone, but there is in fact a silver lining that is almost always hidden in even the most trying times.
We have dozens and dozens of platitudes about our human resiliency and the notion that the hardest moments in our lives often bring out the best in us and the people around us. Loss and trauma are no small things and their after effects often linger for decades, but those also tend to be the very instances when the overwhelming goodness of humans becomes the most evident. It is when we feel as though we are in our lowest valleys of despair that we learn that we are not alone, for heroes appear of whom we were often not even aware.
I just finished Mitch Albom’s novel The Five People You Meet in Heaven. I had never before read it because I was miffed that Mr. Albom had appeared to have created a best selling story that was similar to an idea that I had. I had to set my pettiness aside because two of my grandsons are reading the tale as one of the assignments for their English class. I sometimes help them to demystify the intricacies of literature and so I needed to be familiar with this particular book. I found that the theme and the writing style were far more interesting and less maudlin than I had supposed. The thread of the story reminded me that life takes so many unexpected turns that may seem negative at the time, but often contribute to our betterment without our even realizing it. It is when we are most challenged that we witness the true courage of the human spirit.
Nobody who is suffering really wants to hear that what they are enduring is God’s will or that what doesn’t kill them makes them stronger. In the midst of tragedy we are mostly overwhelmed and struggling just to make it from one day to the next. Sometimes it feels as though our entire lifetimes are riddled with challenges that keep us perennially weary. Like Eddie, the protagonist of The Five People You Meet in Heaven we may even feel as though we are dying a slow death. We fail to see what is really happening in our lives. We are so fixated on hurt and betrayals and losses that we never realize the thousands of ordinary moments when people are loving and sacrificing for us. We are driven to react more by the ugliness that we see than the goodness that is far more overwhelming. We become locked in a struggle to unravel the old conundrum of deciding whether the glass is half full or half empty.
As an educator I often encountered problems that were so trying that I began to question my abilities. I would stew over my powerlessness to reach the hearts and minds of everyone of my students. I tended to focus on the most terrible incidents of my daily routines in the classroom rather than recalling that I had done well more times than I had failed. Like most humans I was unforgiving of myself in my quest for a perfection that is in fact nonexistent. We innately know that none of us will get through life without enduring or even creating total mess ups now and again, and yet we upbraid ourselves for our very humanity. It takes a great deal of living and self reflection to ultimately learn how to be kind not only to ourselves but to our fellow men and women as well. The wisest among us are those who take the hard knocks without beating themselves just for being normal.
It has almost become a blood sport to criticize people and actions that we do not fully understand. We sometimes hide our own insecurities in a cloak of smugness, pretending to be more righteous than we really are. The best among us are less likely to do that, and we often secretly long to be more like them. We all know someone who seems to maintain an almost angelic optimism and an ability to keep a cool head when everyone else is melting down. If we take the time to learn more about such individuals we generally find that they have worked hard to be self aware and nonjudgemental. They actually choose to take life’s blows in stride. Theirs is a very conscious effort to stay calm and carry on even when the disappointments that they face threaten to push them into the abyss. They allow themselves to be fully human and to find the good that is always present even when it is unseen. Nobody ever escapes the trials of life. There is no Garden of Eden anywhere, but there are ways to step back just enough to get a wider view of what is happening and to witness the big picture of the world around us. When we are able to do that we almost always see that we are surrounded by more love than hate, more goodness than evil, more hope than despair.
In an era when we feel as though the very earth is wobbling it is especially confusing. We worry that mankind has gone mad, and there is certainly evidence that a significant proportion of our species is behaving badly. Still we have to remind ourselves that the sun is still rising and providing a new day to set ourselves straight. We have to inhale and truly see the brave souls who wade through high water to rescue the stranded, the courageous who run toward the bullets to aid the wounded, the friends and strangers who surprise us with their largesse. We are essentially a human race with the same blood tracing through our veins, the same desires for happiness, the same generous spirits. We cannot allow the ugliness to overtake the beauty of who we are as people. We shouldn’t have to go to heaven to learn the important lesson that each of us has significance in the flow of history and that our collective impact on life is far more dramatic than we might ever have imagined.
Perhaps if we all were to become more self aware and more conscious of all of the people around us we might find more hope even in odd numbered years or stressful times. We would gain a more realistic perspective of what is really happening in the long run. We would realize that it is incredibly rare for anyone to be always bad or always good. We might begin to enjoy more moments of clarity and insight if we learned first to look for the true meaning of what it means to be human. We might even find that those platitudes that sometimes irritate us exist because there are grains of truth and wisdom to be found in them. Mostly we will find the peace we seek when we take more time to number our blessings big and small.
I always think of how confused and unpleasant the world may appear to be from the vantage point of being in the middle a crowd on a noisy street. If we instead travel into the vastness and solitude of outer space we look down on a blue planet that is stunning in its beauty. It is as though in seeing the entirety of the earth we are able to finally understand how remarkable it truly is. That is what we must also do in assessing both ourselves and our fellow travelers in his journey between birth and death. It is a breathtaking experience to see all of the events of our lives put together forming a whole. Look carefully and you will see how truly beautiful we are.