Comfort in Crisis
We had learned that there were pangs too sharp, griefs too deep and ecstasies too high for our finite selves to register. When emotion reached this pitch the mind choked, and memory went white till the circumstances were humdrum once more.
T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom
God…Oh, God…Dear Father in Heaven, I’m not a praying man, but if you’re up there, and you can hear me, show me the way. I’m at the end of my rope. I… Show me the way, God.
It’s a Wonderful Life, screenplay by Frances Goodrich & Albert Hackett and Frank Capra
I’ve been shot in the heart—no—I’ve been shot in the head and all I can come up with are cliches about being shot in the heart.
Nora Ephron, Heartburn
When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this—you haven’t. Thomas Edison
Stop the War
Summer ’95, when the sun dimmed,
When maybe somebody loved somebody.
Still everything didn’t work out for me.
Did you know hope slept on my pillow.
And its light never dimmed.
To whom will my destiny bring me?
Poem by a young Bosnian girl, Ajla
Indeed one’s faith in one’s plans and methods is truly tested when the horizon before one is the blackest.
I get my energy from being afraid.
Paul Taylor, Paul Taylor Dance company, in documentary “Dancemaker”
Tension is nothing more than energy under pressure. It is very strong spiritual food.
Rudi, In His Own Words
There are those who protect you and those who teach you to protect yourself. Merle Shain
…even depression is a meditative state.
You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.
It is a tragedy for a person not to have had difficulties to overcome in his or her childhood.
People are accustomed to considering difficulties as something negative. Adler made difficulties something positive, because the desire to overcome the difficulties develops the striving in the individual. The individual who had no difficulties will lack the disposition to face and overcome other difficulties. “Adler’s Teachings,” lecture by Anthony Bruck, on March 18, 1977, in the AAISF/ATP Archives
Like all who have elected to follow, not the safely marked general highways of the day, but the adventure of the special, dimly audible call that comes to those whose ears are open within as well as without, she has had to make her way alone, through difficulties not commonly encountered, …she has known the dark night of the soul…
Joseph Campbell, Hero with a Thousand Faces
Whither shall I go from they spirit? Or whither shall I flee from they presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there shall thy hand lead me and thy right hand shall hold me. Psalm 139 : 7-10, Bible, King James translation
I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up. I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with that miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead. With the coming of Dean Moriarty began the part of my life you could call my life on the road.
Jack Kerouac, On the Road
You must not be frightened, dear Mr. Kappus, when a sadness arises within you of such magnitude as you have never experienced, or when a restlessness overshadows all you do, like light and the shadow of clouds gliding over your hand. You must believe that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand. It shall not let you fall. Why should you want to exclude any anxiety, any grief, any melancholy from your life, since you do not know what it is that these conditions are accomplishing in you?
Rainer Marie Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
I knew somehow that I had to stay alive—somehow. That I had to keep breathing, even though there was no reason to hope. And all my logic said that I would never see this place again. So that’s what I did—I stayed alive and kept breathing. And one day that logic was proven all wrong, because the tide came in and gave me a sail, and now here I am. I’m back, in Memphis, talking to you. I have ice in my glass. And I’ve lost her all over again. I’m so sad that I don’t have Kelly—but I’m so grateful that she was with me on that island. And I know what I have to do now. I have to keep breathing. Because tomorrow the sun will rise—who knows what the tide could bring?
Castaway, screenplay by William Broyles, Jr.
Joss Whedon: “The Most Important Message”
The times are chaotic. For me, I would hope that people look at [“Angel” (TV series, 1999/I)] and gain strength by it. With everything that I do, I hope that they see people struggling to live decent, moral lives in a completely chaotic world. They see how hard it is, how often they fail, and how they get up and keep trying. That, to me, is the most important message I’m ever going to tell. Joss Whedon, screenwriter, The Vancouver Sun, February 3, 2004, from IMDb.
To Kill a Mockingbird: when hopelessness is rational, but despair is not
Recently I found the out-of-print DVD of a favorite movie of mine, To Kill a Mockingbird, from the Pulitzer prize-winning novel by Harper Lee. [update: the DVD is now back in print.] It included some excellent commentary, including the idea that sometimes our hopelessness is rational, but to despair because of this, or to give up, would be irrational. This intrigued me. I was always trying to talk myself or others out of any sense of hopelessness. I had not considered saying “Yes, it’s hopeless, let’s transcend it.” I mean, if it was hopeless, and that was a rational determination, then it was hopeless, meaning why bother, give up, “abandon all hope, you who enter here!” (inscribed on Dante’s gates of Hell).
It reminded me of the French businessman Pierres-George Latecoere, who pioneered long distance mail routes after WWI in Europe, Africa and South America. On one exploratory flight his pilot lost his glasses due to severe turbulence in the Pyrenees mountains, and didn’t see Barcelona where they were to refuel. They landed on a narrow strip of sand with an empty gas tank, somehow managed to refuel, and headed to Alicante, where they crash landed into the rocks at the end of an impossibly small runway (which had mistakenly been made 600 square meters, instead of 600 meters long). After being helped from the wreckage, Latecoere concluded, “That didn’t go so badly. We’ll have to repair these planes. In a month we’ll go all the way to Morocco.” (Saint-Exupery: a Biography, by Stacy Schiff)
So many people transcend hopeless situations on a daily basis and continue on their path, their highest ideals intact and integrated. Some of the more well known have included Gandhi, Chico Mendes, Thich Nhat Hanh, Helen Keller, Jackie Robinson, the Dalai Lama, Vaclav Havel, Galileo Galilei, Richard Martin (founded the SPCA), and Joan of Arc. I considered people like psychotherapist Viktor Frankl, who survived Auschwitz and wrote about this and transcending difficulties in “Man’s Search for Meaning.” On adversity, he said, “what is to give light must endure the burning.” Most all of Frankl’s family died in concentration camps. Surely for him hopelessness would be rational—but what he made of his life afterwards was amazing.
To Kill a Mockingbird was released in 1962, in the midst of the civil rights movement, but the events take place in even darker times for racism, in the South during the Depression. It’s partly about the small-town repercussions of the trial of a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman, as seen through the eyes of his lawyer’s children. The man wrongly accused is played by Brock Peters, and his performance is deeply moving. I was moved again when he spoke in the commentary on where that performance of more than 30 years ago had come from:
Brock Peters: “My life as an African American or Black American has had a lot of horror, in terms of racism. You know, I’ve been kicked, beaten, I’ve seen the worst of it. I guess I’ve been fortunate in being able to step back from the brink of an anger that would engulf me and cause my life to go in a really downward spiral. The anger, the frustration, the isolation that one could experience and often did experience was an easy place for me to get to, to tap, to use in my performance.”
The producer says Peters emanates nobility. This quality and an amazing grace come perhaps from a lifelong determination or discipline of rising above the horrors that confronted him.
Gregory Peck, who plays his lawyer, Atticus Finch, comments:
“Brock gave me a problem, because when Brock started to tell his story of what really happened, he started to cry, and tears ran right down his face and I found that I couldn’t look him in the eye because I started to choke up. So I resorted to looking past him. It was the only way I could get through it, because you didn’t want to have the witness and the lawyer both crying at the same time. That wouldn’t do.”
(I recently read that Brock Peters gave the eulogy at Gregory Peck’s funeral. Peck was a man who walked his talk. He marched with Martin Luther King, and made movies risky for the times, such as this one and Gentleman’s Agreement, about racism towards Jews.)
Not surprisingly, Peters’ character is found guilty. Peck tells him they have a good chance at an appeal, but that evening, while being transferred to another jail, Peters’ character makes a break and runs. He’s shot and killed.
Cleophus Thomas, Jr., an Alabama Attorney who is also African American, comments:
“… Tom Robinson’s running, as rational as that was, it was an act of hopelessness, and how reason and hopelessness can be synonymous. And we see lurking here this hope that we know is worthy of the risk that he should not have ran, we believe, I believe, that there was reason for this hope. The mistake is to despair when despair is rational… That no matter how bad things are, that there is hope, that there is somebody there for you, and that you can go on if you will believe in the people who are there for you.”
And I would add, there may be times when no person is there for us, but those are the times when we must believe in ourselves—though it seems no one else understands or even cares.
Thomas continues: “I am responsible for my life and the lives of the young ones that I’m given charge of in my household and the certainty of my faith is this: if I don’t waste the opportunities that I am given, the talents that I am given, if I dispense one man’s portion of kindness and decency, then all will be all right, because I’m not so solitary. There’s nothing so wonderful and unique and distinct about me. I know that. And so if I just do my part, the world won’t go to hell in the bucket. What paralyzes you is taking on the responsibility of trying to make the whole world that way. Heavens, I’ll not do that. But we can keep the flame alive. We can keep stoking the fires. And that’s really all we’re obliged to do.”
And then there is Peck’s character, Atticus Finch, whose wife died 4 years previously, leaving him with 2 young children to raise in the midst of the Depression.
Thomas comments: “What Atticus shows us is being a gentleman is all of the good things that are left when all of the money is gone. It is the ability to have had and to have lost, and to realize that all is not lost, and that what is left is perhaps far more significant than what you lost. But his life shows that I am that light that must shine. We have a saying in our church, ‘Some people would rather see a sermon than hear one,’ and in Atticus, we see a sermon, and what an eloquent one it is…
… Atticus is tolerant of all of the people, the poor blacks, the poor whites, the uneducated, and what we see there is this notion of noblesse oblige, and a significant point is that Atticus suffers everybody. He’s peerless, but everyone is his peer, and that, Atticus teaches us, is what it is to be peerless. If you are peerless, if you really are as important and wonderful and bright as you think you are, then the world is your peer. All of it. You can deal with everybody. Every kind, every color, every size.”
Gregory Peck comments: “There is a line from a speech of Churchill, and it contains the words: “Withhold no sacrifice; grudge no toil; seek no sordid gain; fear no foe: all will be well.” Those words seem, in a way, to be a code that Atticus lived by.”
To a Teenager
I celebrate myself, and sing myself.
Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.
Henry David Thoreau, Walden
I won’t say where you were from or how many years it’s been since I spoke with you. There were many calls over the months from others that were so similar. You called a youth crisis hotline and got me, thousands of miles away. I still think of your stories and wonder if all of you made it. I hope you did. I think of you and hold you in my prayers and hope it makes a difference.
You were teenagers, in high school or college, and something or someone had made you feel separate and alone, afraid and hopeless. You thought you weren’t good enough, weren’t worthy of love and acceptance in your life. Some of you had been judged harshly—by family or friends, at school, or even at a counseling session. You all felt so isolated, so miserable and so misunderstood, that you didn’t think life was worth living.
Whatever the challenge you faced, it was a burden so heavy that you felt crushed under the weight of it, and could not even think of carrying it into tomorrow.
For some of you, I remember that burden was about being gay. And your family and friends thought there was something wrong with that. You couldn’t tell anyone, or maybe you tried to tell someone, and that person had nothing but negative judgements to offer you, or they backed away from you. All of you spoke of wanting the same thing with such gut-wrenching earnestness. “I just want to be normal.” The words choked in your throat. I can still hear them. You all defined “normal” in similar ways. You spoke of lives with marriage, picket fences and babies. You spoke of the belonging and acceptance you were sure this would bring with your family and friends. You had no idea how you could ever exist, much less be yourself, in the unaccepting families and towns you lived in.
Whatever the challenge that faced you, that night you were so miserable you did not see how you could get through another day, and you had called an 800-number to speak to a stranger—anyone who might understand, or just listen— anything to fill that aching void of loneliness, hopelessness or grief, or stop that endless tape of self-condemnation that played in your head.
Maybe someone, somewhere had told you that if you do this, and say that, and live this way, then you will be good and worthy. Someone told you that you had to follow their rules, be obedient to their perception of right behavior, in order to be loved and accepted and “normal.” And you believed it. And that belief built a wall around you which made you feel separate, isolated, alone and very, very hurt.
Of course there’s a reality there—that perhaps your family or friends won’t always understand, and you will need to seek family in other people, perhaps in other places—and you will—but in the meantime, especially while you are still living at home, it may take courage and patience and self-love to face each day. I remember one of you had called from a bus station, because you had told your parents you were gay and they had immediately thrown you out of the house on a winter night. For everyone, those negative labels that had been placed on you by someone or a number of people, usually people you trusted—whether friends or family, clergy or counselors—had gotten very heavy, too heavy to bear alone.
So let’s talk, you and I, and get a few things straight. There is no such thing as “normal,” and there will always be people who are willing to judge you as less than, simply because you are not obedient to their rules and expectations. There will always be reasons for you to feel like you just can’t go on, you can’t be who you are, whether you’re hetero or homosexual, black, white or purple with pink polka dots. People may tell you that you’re too young or too old, too tall or too short, too thin or too heavy, underqualified, overqualified, too much of this, too little of that, not educated enough or connected enough or rich enough, etc. People may tell you what you “should” or “shouldn’t” do. Getting to know who you are is a lifelong process, and our teenage years can be very confusing. (Most folks I know, including me, are way beyond that and still confused!) People may throw all kinds of labels at you and put you in some classification or box that tries to limit who you are or what you can and can’t do. But that’s just their movie, and doesn’t have any real reflection on who you are.
It may be frightening at times, and discouraging if not down right depressing, but moving through these challenges can be a force that increases your compassion and humanity tenfold, if you allow it. And yes, that may sound trite and even annoying if you are feeling beaten down by harsh judgements or circumstances, but you have what it takes to rise above it. Joseph Campbell wrote about this in his book, The Power of Myth: “…the more challenging or threatening the situation or context to be assimilated and affirmed, the greater the stature of the person who can achieve it. The demon that you can swallow gives you its power, and the greater life’s pain, the greater life’s reply…”
The psychologist Alfred Adler went even farther—he called it “a tragedy for a person not to have had difficulties to overcome in his or her childhood.” He knew that the difficulties we face early on can teach us coping and problem-solving skills we can draw on for the rest of our lives.
Now I don’t know if that will help you get through this day, but here’s the other thing. You are here for a reason—you are needed, and please don’t ever forget it. Your existence isn’t some cosmic accident, it’s a cosmic miracle. There’s a bigger picture and you’re part of it. If you need help, seek it out—from a website, a class, a book, friends, parents, a school counselor or therapist—whatever works for you.
If you feel overwhelmed, then try to take what seems like one big problem and break it down into specific smaller issues that will be easier to deal with, or get someone to help you with this. Make molehills out of your mountain. For example, you may say it’s school, but write down what is bothering you about school. Think about how you might try to solve each issue and what it can teach you. If you are doing poorly in math and are frustrated and discouraged, what could you do about it—talk to the teacher, ask a parent or student, get a tutor, search the internet, or get a book that explains it better than your textbook? The experience might teach you patience, how to ask for help, and how to face a challenge.
Take stock of your coping skills, and learn new ones. What helps you cope with fear or stress or sadness? Find little things that bring you comfort and get you through the day—music, a book, a movie, a website, a hobby or activity, a talk with a friend. Know that you are not alone, though there may be times when it feels like it. Try not to let the harshness around you close your heart. As much as possible stay open to the value of your life, of how much you’re needed in this world. You are building a life-long foundation. The day will come when you will be out on your own, and you will be so grateful for your bag of tricks—all of these skills you are learning now from current challenges! Perhaps some day the people you love will understand, but until then, you must continue on with your life.
I think there is something deep within most of us that yearns to have the love and approval of others, especially from our family and friends, and when it is not there, we may seek it in some form for the rest of our lives. But sometimes you just have to deal with the reality—your parents and the people around you are who they are, and you are who you are. As Dave Mason sings, “There ain’t no good guys, there ain’t no bad guys. There’s only you and me and we just disagree.”
And that’s okay. JUST DON’T LET THEIR OPINION OR ANYONE ELSE’S WEIGH YOU DOWN AND MAKE YOU THINK YOU ARE LESS THAN OR UNWORTHY. Don’t take it to heart or let it take you down a contracted path that doesn’t honor the light that is in you.
One day you may be able to help someone who is going through a difficult time as you are now—and you will understand, you will get it, and you will be there for them in ways that most people could not, because you have been there. Do you see this? Do you see that the very thing that is causing you pain is also causing your heart to grow with patience and understanding for others?
Right now you may be too hurt to consider this seriously, or even to care, but you can expand beyond the narrow-mindedness that surrounds you. The time will come when you will be able to move into a position of greater understanding and empathy. It can vastly influence your path, your work, your relationships—all for the better. Move through it and start thinking about the life you want to create for yourself—your own movie, out beyond the limiting beliefs that may be discouraging you now. Hang in there, will you? Trust the menu you came here with. It’s part of the gift that is you—and that is exactly what the world needs. You!
Even in that deep misery I felt my energy revive, and I said to myself, in spite of everything I shall rise again—I will take up my pencil, which I have forsaken in my great discouragement, and I will go on with my drawing.
Vincent Van Gogh
Feeling screwed up at a screwed up time in a screwed up place does not necessarily make you screwed up.
Pump Up the Volume, screenplay by Allan Moyle
Be yourself and think for yourself and, while your conclusions may not be infallible, they will be nearer right than the conclusions forced upon you by those who have a personal interest in keeping you in ignorance.
We cannot limit our intake to the qualities that are “easy to take”—we must welcome those that force us to change the patterns we have been able to deal with in the past. We must come to understand that everything is part of perfection and must be taken in a state of surrender; it must be digested and transcended. Life must be consumed whole, with all its tensions, pain and joy. Only by surmounting a situation can we achieve the understanding, the nourishment, that that situation offers.
Rudi, Spiritual Cannibalism
There was that law of life, so cruel and so just, which demanded that one must grow or else pay more for remaining the same.
I no longer attempted to put across my own opinion, but surrendered myself to the current of my thoughts. Thus one problem after the other revealed itself to me and took shape. Something else, too, came to me from my illness. I might formulate it as an affirmation of things as they are: an unconditional “yes” to that which is, without subjective protests—acceptance of the conditions of existence as I see them and understand them, acceptance of my own nature, as I happen to be.
At the beginning of the illness I had the feeling that there was something wrong with my attitude, and that I was to some extent responsible for the mishap. But when one follows the path of individuation, when one lives one’s own life, one must take mistakes into the bargain; life would not be complete without them. There is no guarantee—not for a single moment—that we will not fall into error or stumble into deadly peril. We may think there is a sure road. But that would be the road of death. Then nothing happens any longer—at any rate, not the right things. Anyone who takes the sure road is as good as dead!
It was only that I understood how important it is to affirm one’s own destiny. In this way we forge an ego that does not break down when incomprehensible things happen; an ego that endures, that endures the truth and that is capable of coping in the world and with fate. Then, to experience defeat is also to experience victory. Nothing is disturbed—neither inwardly or outwardly, for one’s own continuity has withstood the current of life and time. But that can come to pass only when one does not meddle inquisitively with the workings of fate…
Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections