My grandchildren read The Glass Castle this summer and recommended it to me. It is the memoir of a gifted writer recounting her sometimes harrowing, sometimes enchanting life with parents who at the very least were plagued by major eccentricities and alcoholism, and at worst suffered from bipolar disorder. The children at first saw their family disfunction as somewhat unique and maybe even rather fun. As they matured they began to realize that their situation was dangerous and unhealthy, and they were eventually able to break away from parents never willing to admit that their problems were real. The fairytale of denial can be enchanting for a time, but ultimately each of us encounter problems that me must face without guile if we are to overcome them.
I doubt that there is an individual anywhere on planet earth who has not felt victimized by circumstances at least once in a lifetime. Our existences are plagued by all sorts of wants and needs. We may live in grinding poverty or be afflicted with some terrible illness. We may lose a parent or child or loved one. We may seem to have no luck other than the bad variety. Our hard work may go up in flames. We may feel bullied or disliked because of our race, or religion, or sexual orientation. Each person sometimes feels as though life is cruel and difficult. To a greater or lesser extent we have all had moments of despair, longing, doubt, anger. We learn soon enough that life doesn’t always seem fair.
As we journey through the number of our days we have ups and downs, happy times and sad. We succeed and we fail. How we choose to approach each moment more often determines what our outlook will ultimately be than anything else. Some people learn early on to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and carry on no matter what happens. They understand that the power that they have lies within. They refuse to devolve into a state of despair. They take charge of their destinies by maintaining optimism even in the face of great darkness.
Think of Holocaust survivors. Those who were not killed in the concentration camps still saw great evil, destruction, horror. Few would have blamed any of them for shutting down, refusing to rejoin society. Nonetheless, most of them went on to lead full lives. They learned how to chase the demonic images from their minds. They never forgot, but they allowed themselves to find happiness and to celebrate life. Perhaps because of their experiences they actually achieved a greater appreciation for simple joys than most of us. They understood the importance of love and its ultimate power over evil.
I often think about Jesus dying on the cross. He accepted the fate of dying a horrible and humiliating death because He wanted us to understand that part of the human experience is to endure suffering. None of us can escape sickness, death, disappointments. Unless we are afflicted with a severe mental illness, we can take charge of how to react to the slings and arrows that come our way. Our road my indeed be difficult, but the best among us learn to deal with whatever comes.
I was recently conversing with a friend who was outlining some health issues that her husband is experiencing. She spoke of taking a break from her cares and woes by getting her hair done. She has gone to the same hair dresser for years and the two of them have become confidantes. In the course of the cutting and styling of her tresses my friend learned that the beautician and her husband are dealing with almost unimaginable difficulties that somehow made her own concerns seem less dire. As she noted, we don’t have to go far to find someone whose problems are bigger than ours. In fact, we are all in this crazy thing called life together, and none of us are going to entirely escape hardships.
There are many folks who assume things about certain groups of people these days. We seem to think that some among us are so privileged that they are unable to understand our own travails. I tend to believe that such thinking is cockeyed because even the wealthiest people on earth know sadness, sometimes to a greater extent than the rest of us. They may appear to have everything that the heart desires, but in truth many times they are brokenhearted. Think of the rich and famous who only recently have left this earth by their own hands because the weight of the world became too much for them to bear.
It is true that we do not receive equal shares of good fortune and tragedy. There are indeed some who appear to have more than their fair share. There are no guarantees that we will see justice at every turn. That does not mean that we should despair or grow jealous, or insist that we must take from others to make ourselves feel better. Instead I suggest that we understand that we will encounter pitfalls and even downright unfairness, so it is important to learn ways that help us to move past such things.
Life is a marathon, filled with pain and scars, but also wonders. Sometimes to get past the ugliness we have to find a tiny patch of beauty and hope. The young girl who grew up to write The Glass Castle learned to view her life from the perspective of reality. She and her siblings endured much want, but they also found the joys of simplicity. Their parents were hardly models of responsibility, but they gave the children the gift of finding beauty in any situation. That’s the challenge that we all face.