2014 was a difficult year for many people. Along with wars and civil unrest, riots, shootings, and miscarriages of justice, people in my extended family passed away before their time. I lost my cousin, who died at age 43 (cause of death kept within the immediate family – I wasn’t told). My wife’s cousin’s husband died in his sleep at 36. And another of my wife’s cousins – the first’s sister – died suddenly a couple weeks later. And my wife’s aunt lost a battle with cancer. Finally, my brother’s fiancée lost her sister to cancer. 2014 was a tough year, indeed. And yet, I have hope.
In the 1989 film, “Parenthood”, the Grandma character, played by Helen Shaw, delivers a short speech about the ups and downs of life. In it, she says, “I like the roller coaster. You get more out of it.” She was using her roller coaster story to illustrate how life can be thrilling, scary, and joyful. Pain and suffering are all part of the adventure. Many writers, poets, artists, and philosophers have made their careers on the inevitability of pain. Listen to Billie Holiday if you dare; “Good Morning, Heartache” is one of the saddest songs you will ever hear, and if you are even slightly susceptible to depression, I suggest you skip it.
On a recent perusal of Facebook posts, I came across a few engagement announcements. They included photos of young couples, the gent down on one knee; you know, the classic ritual. But I looked at the pictures and became upset. Why would I be upset? What could I possibly find objectionable about pretty white kids having the time of their lives? I talked to my wife about what upset me about the idea of young people getting married and starting a life together, an ostensibly joyous occasion. After a few days of soul-searching, I discovered that the reason is because I am old and crotchety. Actually, I am not old; my grandmother is still alive. But I am not a kid anymore, and I approach situations with a certain amount of cynicism, and I have become more skeptical over time, having seen what people will do to the ones they love. (What the fuck, man?)
My wife and I celebrated our 23rd wedding anniversary over the holidays. We have a good marriage. We still have arguments and disagreements. We are not always at our best. But we are experts at communicating with one another. We invented the Emotional Couch and the Decision Zone as devices for working out life’s challenges. We still hold hands, we have Sunday brunch, we go on adventures together, and we each have our own lives, with our own friends and interests. But life isn’t perfect, and anyone who is thinking about getting married should accept this. When I saw those dudes proposing to their girlfriends, I shook my head and said to myself, “they have no idea what they’re getting into.”
Now, I would never advise against any two people getting married. It’s not my job to counsel them, and I hope they do get some advice from a counselor or a priest. (Many pastors will not perform a marriage until the couple have gone through pre-marriage counselling.) We never had children of our own, but we are supportive mother and father figures to many kids, former exchange students, nieces, and nephews. I imagine as a parent, you want to protect your children from harm. This is a no-brainer. But you can be overprotective (Henry VIII was famous for this). While I take great pride in our marriage and how we have made it work, I know that this success was coupled with a lot of effort, some sacrifice, compromise, faith, and a bit of pain (oh, the pain!) I look at these young people, and I can’t help to wince a little internally, knowing what lies ahead for them. But why do I assume they will have difficulty? I know this because that’s life. Pain is necessary. It makes us stronger. Muscles must be broken down a bit to build up to be stronger. You must acclimate to lower levels of oxygen to climb a mountain. There must be some pain for progress to be made.
“Not all pain is gain”, as the Despair.com poster explains, rather graphically. The poster shows a boxer taking a blow to the face. Sweat and saliva fly as the glove makes a forceful impact. The boxer’s face distorts, looking grotesque and disfigured in the moment. Undoubtedly, there is pain – brutal, senseless pain. One day, while on a routine 6.4-kilometer run, I glanced down the alley to see if any cars were coming when I suddenly tripped. My left foot hit a hole in the pavement, and I fell hard. Some people stopped to see if I was hurt, which I was, but I got up quickly and walked a little on my throbbing ankle. I told the good Samaritans I was fine, and I continued to run. What I didn’t know was that my peroneal tendon was torn, an injury that undoubtedly required immediate medical attention. But the endorphins and the burst of adrenaline coursing through my veins and washing over my brain cells kept the pain away for the most part, and I continued to run the remaining 5 km.
What did I gain from this? Well, nothing physical. But I did gain knowledge. I learned that there was a hole in the sidewalk on Old Celina Road. I learned that ankle injuries should be taken seriously. I learned that I should look where I step. Am I better for the pain and suffering? I suppose in some way I am. But I certainly would rather have not been impaired for six weeks as a result. I am fortunate that it was temporary. We all have someone in our lives who deals with persistent pain. It pains us emotionally to know there is nothing we can do to help them.
Physical and emotional suffering is part of life; like I said – as do the poets – that is inevitable. But so also are joy, happiness, and elation. We modern people feel entitled to joy. We “deserve” some happiness, it is often said. I don’t argue this. In fact, I celebrate it. Why shouldn’t we find joy to offset the sadness? You know there are going to be hard times in your life. So make sure you celebrate the good times. Do not let yourself feel guilt for your own joy simply for the fact that there is known suffering elsewhere. Those who suffer will forgive you, if they know you exist at all. And you are as entitled to your empathy as you are to your own happiness. To these young couples, I say Mazel Tov! Congratulations! Celebrate, because this truly is a joyous occasion. Do not fret at the appearance of storm clouds. Make time to help those in need. Be kind to everyone. Pray for those who hate you and for those who are sick and suffering. Looking back, I accept the good and the bad because I am whole because of them, being the person I am as more than the aggregation of all my experiences and knowledge.
After all, I think it’s going to be a good year.