There is hardly a person on the face of the earth whose life is always smooth sailing. Sometimes we observe people who appear to be immune from the trials that stalk the rest of us, but the truth is that they too have dealt with tragedy and disappointment just as we all do. The sad fact of life is that sadness and loss is inescapable. There will indeed be times when we will have to pull ourselves out of the depths of despair and find ways to keep moving forward in the hopes of finding brighter days ahead.
I learned this at a very early age when I lost my father so suddenly and cruelly. In those days adults assumed that children were generally unaware of the kinds of deep emotions that come with adult grief. The general feeling was that keeping children busy with play and friendships would be enough to pull them out of the doldrums of sadness. It was a belief in innocence that prompted such thinking, but we now know that it was wrong. Children indeed have complex emotions that should be addressed, but are not always noticed because they have an amazing ability to adjust to whatever situation befalls them. They instinctively find ways to survive.
My own resilience came from school. I quickly learned that being a good student was a way of crowding out the sorrow that was consuming me. If I paid attention to my teachers, did my homework, studied and read I filled the hours of each day with a powerful diversion. I was able to carry on as though I had moved on from the horror of my father’s death. Nonetheless my pain remained buried deeply inside my soul. It was agonizing to hide it and to pretend that all was well. it made me feel self conscious and different because I did not yet realize that other people were carrying challenges of their own.
I made it past the debilitating feelings of loss because I channeled every bit of my anguish into being an exceptional student. I found so much solace in my classes at school. Just learning and moving from one grade to the next was my tranquilizer, a method for calming the beast that lurked inside my mind. Everyone marveled at how well I had adjusted to my father’s death. One of my dearest friends even wondered aloud how I had managed to forget him so quickly. I was unable and possibly unwilling to admit to the sorrow that stalked me every single day. I worried that if I opened that Pandora’s box I might never recover again. So I remained silent and just kept using school as my therapy.
Eventually I matured enough to be open about how devastating my father’s death had been to me. I found that talking about it with caring and intelligent people was incredibly helpful. I saw that bottling up my feelings and pretending that all was normal only intensified the anger that I felt in losing the man who had influenced me so profoundly. Honesty with myself and others helped me to heal the damage that still lingered in my heart.
I suppose I was about twenty five years old when I looked in the mirror and realized that I was really okay. I had learned that tragedy is as much a part of life as triumph. I found joy in both my work as a teacher, which was a kind of extension of my studious childhood, and in admitting to my feelings no matter how scary they were. I found a balance that has sustained me through other challenges that unmoored me from time to time. I learned how to be good to myself, how to calm my worries, and how to freely admit to my human frailties. All in all this has served me well.
When I became a teacher I understood that my students would sometimes be dealing with their own concerns and that they might not be able to channel their feelings into their studies the way I had always done. I often helped them to get past the rough patches in their lives. I wanted them to understand that it was okay to express their frustrations and ask for help.
For some reason we have enshrined the image of the stoic as an ideal that we should strive to achieve. We honor the person who seems able to recover quickly from setbacks without emotional turmoil. We hint that it is a form of weakness to fall apart even for a brief moment. We make fun of tears, especially from boys and men. We equate courage with those who never appear to break. It is a dangerous way of modeling behavior for our young. It leads them to believe that they are somehow damaged whenever their emotions take hold of them. Their efforts to stifle pain can lead to dependence on temporary fixes like drugs or alcohol or even spending money.
We all must find ways to be resilient or we will be ground down into the muck. My journey to healing began with sublimation, but ultimately it also had to include an honest discussion of how deeply I felt my loss. It is only in talking human to human that we find the courage and strength to move forward, never quite the same as we had once been but stronger. Resilience is not about ignoring how we feel. It is about admitting that we sometimes need help to heal.