Some years ago I attended an Easter brunch at some friends of my parents. It was a warm, wonderful occasion filled with people I’d known all my life, and who, through their example, had somehow always managed to make a better person out of me.
I was seated next to a young man named Tim, who I hadn’t seen since he was yay-high – cute and rambunctious, covered in some form of dirt from head to toe like most little boys. But by the time this Easter brunch rolled around, Tim was a man in every sense of the word – a U.S. Marine, in fact, who had recently returned from a tour in Iraq. A husband.
It is the tradition in Tim’s family to do military service before embarking on a career in law or medicine. In Tim’s case, he’d been planning to start law school in the fall, and a family with his wife, Kelly, right away.
But soon after his return, Kelly, who had been complaining of headaches and blurred vision, was diagnosed with an inoperable, terminal brain tumor. Lovely, bright twenty-four year old Kelly.
“It’s downright un-American,” a friend had told me just a couple of months earlier, after our baby was diagnosed with a tumor in utero. She was being ironic, but her point was made to me days later by a doctor who said with a completely straight face, “I can only imagine how you must be feeling. You must be asking yourself, ‘how could this happen to someone like me, who is educated and…” He searched for the right word, but failed to find it, letting his sentence taper off.
I knew the word, though. The word was entitled.
Entitlement is something with which I’ve always had a complicated relationship. I most certainly feel a great sense of entitlement – no doubt about that – but what complicates things is that I know what the other side is like, too. I did, after all, grow up in a family whose problems began with capital letters: Communism, Russians, Germans, Nazis.
The women in my family smoked their 120 cigarettes and drank their tar-black coffee while they talked about Stalin as if they’d known him personally. The men talked very little unless you asked. Their pain was exhibited in their complete absence of self-pity, their sense of duty, and their wry smile. To this day, due to my family’s influence, I cannot bear a whiner.
So, that doctor was wrong about me. Sort of.
But he probably wasn’t wrong about most of the folks he has to break bad news to. Many of us Americans, regardless of race, gender and socio-economic background, feel a considerable sense of outrage when it comes to hard luck. If you have any doubt, just try to explain to a mother from a famine-ravaged nation that the poor in our country are overweight and often have televisions, cell phones, and designer sneakers. We Americans have always had a different definition of what constitutes quality of life than much of the outside world – and thank God for that. It has raised the standard for the world at large.
But there is a dark side to the way we flinch from pain and tend to scream “It’s not fair!” like an adolescent when things go tragically wrong. If you spend your life running from pain, you never get to experience the elegant beauty in grief, the myriad of blessings you can receive if you open your heart to whatever gut-wrenching experience has been visited upon you.
Let me be clear, I’ve hated every morsel of pain that I’ve ever had to choke down. And if I think I can avoid pain, I don’t just do a side-step, I RUN LIKE HELL. I hate that my daughter was born anything less than perfect. I hate that Tim had to lose Kelly and all the dreams they’d planned for their life together.
I can’t speak for Tim, but I know the pain I’ve had to endure has given every bit as much as it has taken away.
I now understand why, despite the political oppression my mother experienced in communist Czechoslovakia, despite being orphaned and left in the hands of cruel and resentful relatives, despite being thrown in prison for trying to escape to America, despite the death of her son – she continues to believe in the good of human kind, and often with more passion and faith than someone who has led a much easier life. It is because part of what comes with pain is the sweet knowledge that there are people you hardly know who come to your aid and save your life, that you have been dragged kicking and screaming into being a better person, and that whatever peace of mind you lost has been replaced by a gracious acceptance of whatever life has to offer.
It is why the slum-dwellers in India smile. It is why the Jews are famous for their sense of humor and the Slavs for their unbearable lightness.
It is perhaps why Tim approached me as I was leaving Easter brunch, took my hand and said, “We are so sorry for you and your baby. Kelly and I pray for you every day.”
I was speechless. “Thank you,” was practically all I could utter. We, at least, had hope. He and Kelly had none. I did manage to tell him he and Kelly were in our prayers, too, and he smiled and thanked me as well. “We’re just so grateful for every day we have together,” he said.
Part of me would welcome a world where great people like Tim and Kelly didn’t have to experience such a living nightmare. A world where only the sons of b*****s got it in the neck.
But then I’d have to ask myself what kind of world that would be. A world lacking inspiration, perhaps, resilience, growth.
Pain – aggressive, circumstantial pain (not to be confused with ennui) forces an answer to one of life’s most fundamental questions: What would you do if the worst thing you could possibly imagine happened to you?
It can be a horror to contemplate – no doubt.
But the truth is, in pain there is a purposefulness in every waking hour.
Without pain, the world would be a single-celled organism. It would be the vacuous smile of a beauty contestant, the tiresome political rants of a news junkie, the pretentious ramblings of an artiste.
All day all the time.
So, ask yourself this: could you even bear it? And wouldn’t you, in a world without pain, just want to kill yourself?
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