Faced with his son's suicide, a well-loved professor of mine took several weeks off during my last year of university. When he returned after Christmas to our small class, he talked not about the event itself but what he'd learned. "As a young person, you probably assume that by the time you get to be my age you'll have things figured out," he said sadly. "But you know, you never really get there."
Kristin Armstrong writes about running and friendship, and in her recent post, Bonded by Burden, she relates the story of her running friend who is grappling with her father's battle with cancer. Armstrong wishes she could alleviate the pain, but says doing so would "eliminate the growth divinely appointed by the challenge."
With all due respect to Ms. Armstrong's faith, I just can't buy that. There are gifts in many difficult and painful experiences, but there are things people just don't grow from. They endure them, often with great courage, but when major loss occurs, I don't believe there are subsequent epiphanies where the sufferer says, oh, I lost my child/spouse/sibling/best friend/major limb so I would gain this marvelous insight. Maybe that's not what Armstrong meant, though, because she followed those words by describing how talking wouldn't help--all she could really do in support was run beside her friend.
Last week, I got knocked on my ass in a way I never expected. It was certainly nothing on par with a major loss, but was an unpleasant and painful surprise. All I got from this experience was the same lesson I seem to need to go through periodically: no matter how well I think I've planned and covered all the bases, life can still hit me in ways I never see coming. And typically these things are just really hard and have no intrinsic teachable moments. As my professor would remind me, being a middle-aged adult is no guarantee against getting blind-sided. As Communicatrix would say, this is a moment to work on mastering the art of surrender. This means I am not in charge. By now you understand I don't like this at all, but there you have it.
We can't attribute cosmic or divine reasons to the hardest times in life; all we can do is make the best sense of them that we can. When people know of our experience, most will hand us platitudes, which are worse than nothing at all. But others--sometimes our dearest friends and family, sometimes acquaintances we barely know--will hand us a kindness that will mean something to us as long as we live. Over twelve years ago, a woman whose name I don't remember and who I've never seen since held my hand during a medical procedure. I was scared, in a new country, and knew almost no one. My husband at the time was tending to our toddler, and I was on my own. To the end of my life, I will be grateful to this person, who had a real job, one she did not only capably but with incredible kindness.
The lesson that we don't travel alone, that no matter what life throws at us, that there are people who are sent to help us, if we are open to it, is the only gift in some experiences. Spiritual people call it grace, and others call it the human experience. As Margo Timmins sings (and Townes Van Zandt wrote): Where you've been is good and gone. All you keep's the gettin' there.