Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Dealing With Hurt

Ernest Hemingway writing in Kenya, from a photo in the Library of Congress.

Probably the most famous quote in the English language on the subject of life's hurts--outside the Bible--comes from writer Ernest Hemingway and he knew quite a lot about such things, having hurt a lot of people in his life who often returned the same to him. In A Farewell to Arms (1929) he penned the lines we've all heard so often:

"The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places."

I often think about that phrase: " ... and many are strong at the broken places." Because, as ones lives on beyond the dreams and illusions of one's youth, one begins to wonder how many more broken places will there be? And how many more can one survive? Is life like the stock market, and after things have been down long enough will the uptick begin and all kinds of wonderful dividends accrue? Seven years of plenty after seven years of lean?

The answer is, of course, that we never know. My father was--in general--an optimist. He set aside bad events and worked, instead, with the goal of good things happening always before him. My mother was a pessimist and believed that life doled out only evil, sorrow, and pain. One must always be prepared for it, she believed, because no matter how good things might be at the moment, something bad was always bound to be just around the corner. And it was odd she felt that way, because her life was filled on the whole with the least amount of bad luck I've ever known any person to have. And my father--on the other hand--who lost his father when he was fairly young--had had to face much more in the way of life's sorrows. The difference in their cases was not in what happened to them--but in how they looked at what happened to them.

And yet, there is the absolute of painful events. Like Ronald Reagan's character in the 1942 film King's Row, we awake from our anesthesia one morning to find our legs gone and in a panic call out: "Where's the rest of me?" When I lost my husband, it was something like that. In retrospect and with the benefit of many years of perspective, I realize now it was not the loss of the person himself that caused the terrible wound, but the loss of the illusion of security I held, which has never entirely returned.

Robin in Washington D.C. where a piece of her life was excised but is still partially visible.

The loss of both my parents this year was not like that loss at all. Both of them had lived long, productive, and relatively happy lives. My mother was pessimistic until the day she died--a pessimism that was her own form of happiness. Since her earthbound life--filled with the gifts of beauty, money, a loyal family, and a devoted husband--had to her been such an incredible drag--she looked to heaven as a release from her vale of tears. My father was happy until the very day he died--looking at this world as the home of ice cream, pancakes with hot syrup, loving grandchildren who worshipped him, and fairly tolerable children who would have been somewhat better if they had been sons, but oh well. Days before he died he was still imagining himself building a steam engine and taking a trip to Goodwater, Alabama to visit his Uncle Ashley's grave.

My father, William Ashley Chapman, and his sister Helen Chapman Parkinson, when he came home on leave to Homewood, Alabama in 1944.

His sister, my Aunt Helen, was very much like him. For the last two decades of her life, she lived with MS, but she never complained about it, continued to travel, visit relatives, play bridge, go to church, call me, remember the birthdays of family members, and make dinner for her husband--until some of those things became impossible. At that point, stuck in a wheelchair, she did all the work of arranging to sell their house, pack, and move the two of them into assisted living--so her husband who had a PhD but was unable to boil water--wouldn't starve. Once securely there, she made friends with everyone, continued playing bridge and going to Bible readings, helped everyone fill out their tax forms, which she and my father both loved to do for no reason anyone on this earth can understand: and then one day about a year later, got sick and died, as efficiently and without complaint as she had lived. Just like my Dad. They were both practical and cheerful and if they had wounds they carried around they did not discuss them nor expose them.

For myself, I sometimes think I was built with overly sensitive nerve endings. An advantage for a creative person. A disadvantage in interpersonal relations. I inherited my father's genuine optimism and am always devastated when people behave insensitively towards me--no matter that people the world over behave this way all the time.

Thus, when I was hurt by a friend this week, it caught me off guard, as it always does. Like my father and his sister--whom I suspect simply chose not to expose their hurt, and also chose to go forward with optimism--I've always been good at appearing not to mind. But it doesn't mean it is true. People have the astonishing idea that I'm self-sufficient, happy, and immensely successful. Aren't they silly.

But, that is my best--and only--defense. For the rest of the Hemingway passage I quoted above is as true as the first part and reads like this:

"But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry."
Ernest Hemingway
A Farewell to Arms (1929)

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