We humans come in all shapes and sizes and ways of thinking. With our diversity running the gamut it’s only natural that we react to tragedy and setbacks differently as well. There are the consummate optimists who find a silver lining in every cloud and the realists who believe that sometimes life just sucks and there is nothing redeeming to be found in horrific moments. Nonetheless, we tend to do our best to be flexible whenever we find ourselves reeling from some horrible situation. We look for ways to make sense of the unacceptable. We create trite sayings about learning from our mistakes or becoming stronger from life’s trials. If we are incredibly spiritual we may even insist that God never gives us more than we can handle, even as we struggle under the weight and unfairness of some tests of our human spirit.
I am among the millions of humans who has managed to recover from the challenges and tragedies that have marked my life, but I would lie if I did not admit that I have deep scars from many of those difficulties. I am able to put on a good face because I know that people have a limited capacity for understanding how some hurts never really heal. I have learned that most humans want to be kind and helpful, but if a tragedy lingers for too long they lose interest. Thus I, like many, have often simply masked my suffering with forced smiles, fake courage, empty expressions of positivity that I knew were not true. It’s what we tend to do whenever we realize that society has deemed it time for us to move on from our pain. We have learned that the rest of the world generally prefers for us to be strong.
Our truths can make everyone else uncomfortable. If we are lucky we have one or two people with whom we might be totally honest. Otherwise we are forced to bear up under our woes, not speak of our sorrow or losses. I learned from my mother’s experience that only the strongest of our friends and acquaintances will stick with us in our most profound moments of darkness. When she was a beautiful, happy married woman she had more friends than anyone I had ever witnessed. After my father died they rallied for a brief time but then slowly dwindled away when her tears lingered longer and threatened their comfort with her. I remember hearing people tell her to get a grip, to just pray, to think good thoughts, to try harder to be her delightful self again.
I suppose that their advice was well meaning, but in some ways it was cruel and ill advised. They did not allow her the time she needed to emotionally deal with the shocking reality of my father’s death. She had no job, no money, no education, three children to raise alone, and most horribly, a mental illness growing in her brain of which she and everyone else was still unaware. She eventually managed to create a facade of normalcy, but by then her circle of friends had shrunk to an abysmally low level. Only the most loyal and loving stuck with her as her world continued to unravel while her bipolar disorder took hold of every day of the remainder of her life.
There are indeed situations that are so horrific that to insist that the affected person find something positive in the circumstance is absurd. Asking them to believe that such events are making them stronger is too often little more than a big lie. In our own feeble efforts to make ourselves feel less uncomfortable around someone who is suffering we all too often reach for platitudes that only worsen their condition. The individual whose child has been murdered or the soul who has learned that a beloved family member is going to die just needs our love, not our lectures. Sometimes the best thing we might do is hold someone while they cry. The understanding warmth of our silence may be the best comfort.
I once had a student who seemed to leave a trail of havoc wherever he went. One day he was such a problem in my classroom that I told him to get out and wait for me in the hallway. I was intensely frustrated with his horrific behavior and needed to calm down before confronting him. When I finally felt comfortable enough to talk with him I blurted out a terribly insulting question. I wanted to know what was wrong with him. I insisted on learning why he was always intent on ruining the usual calm of my classroom.
With a poisonous look on his face he angrily responded that I would be like him if I had lost my father the way he had. Not missing a beat, I countered that I too had lost my father to death when I was only eight and that I had never once acted the way he did. Not to be outdone by my refutation he screamed that my father had left because of an accident, but his had left because he no longer wanted to be with the family. He noted that I knew that my father loved me, but his father had demonstrated that he did not care about anyone but himself. “Why should I bother caring about anything?” he blustered.
At that moment I silenced my urge to lecture him and simply let the tears of understanding that were welling in my heart fall freely. He in turn fell forward into my arms and we both sobbed uncontrollably while we hugged. We needed no more words. There was an understanding between us that we both needed. We acknowledged the hurt that we had hidden from view in our own ways. We both felt the raw honesty of that moment and from that point forward we no longer battled each other in the classroom. He became a model student, but more importantly he understood that he was not alone, nor was I.
We would all do well to support the people around us with understanding and empathy rather than platitudes and trite sayings that may in fact do more harm than good. We need to allow people the time that they need to work through the tragedies, losses and disappointments that befall them without expecting them to have a false optimism. Thoughts and prayers are nice, but sometimes just being that silent shoulder to lean on is the best option of all. We probably do indeed grow from our cloudy days, but the truth is that most of us would rather grow without the pains. Sometimes clouds are just dark and dreary.