|Joy to the whirl
By Hugh Mackay
Over lunch last week, a friend told me his mother was killed when he was a boy, he had never known his father and, apart from his children, he had no living relatives at all. Needless to say, he's hoping for grandchildren. Divorced long ago, he is, nevertheless, one of the most vital, vibrant men I know.
In the course of the conversation he mentioned having met a young woman whose father killed himself in the aftermath of a family scandal involving the murder of a priest and the jailing of another family member. These days, the young woman apparently leads a perfectly normal life and is running a successful business.
She and my friend carry burdens of personal tragedy whose weight is incalculable. Yet both of them are not merely coping; they appear to be thriving.
The more I listen to other people's stories, the more I’m driven to ask: who isn't carrying a burden of personal tragedy? Whose life is as simple or as chirpy as it seems? What family has not had to come to terms with grief, dysfunction, disability, unwanted complexity disappointment? Whose history doesn't include some dark secrets?
Yet those questions need to be coupled with this one: how can people who have borne so much pain find such deep reserves of optimism, courage, faith, or simple cheerfulness? The human spirit is not just a wondrous thing; it's frankly amazing.
Another friend, the father of two young children, recently lost his wife. He faces all the practical and emotional difficulties of single parenthood plus the lonely challenge of bereavement. (Grieving, he has found, is like a series of time bombs whose moment of detonation is unpredictable.)Yet he smiles easily, and runs his family with an impressively light touch.
A woman who has, almost unimaginably lost two of her adult offspring -- one to suicide and one to cancer - manages to maintain an infectious good humour, keeping up her friends' spirits when they complain about things like a daughter who missed out on a place in the university course she wanted, or a son who's acquired a nose-ring.
1 also know a family of which three sisters have each endured the anguish of losing a child. You’d be tempted to ask: how do they cope? But that's not the real mystery. The mystery is how they continue to smile, to love, to respond to people who lie beyond the horizon of their grief. Where did they locate the resources that have enabled them to live in the shadows of shrines they've constructed from precious remnants of memory?
My tentative conclusion, for what it's worth, is that the tragedies, the crises, the traumas force us to confront questions whose answers can enrich the meaning and purpose of our lives. Without the shock of such dramatic episodes, we might never engage with the great mysteries of human existence. We might even be tempted to settle for the idea that life is no more demanding or significant than pulp fiction.
The English poet Philip Larkin once remarked that if we became too fully focused on our mortality we wouldn't bother getting out of bed in the morning. Luckily, there are other dimensions of our existence, apart from mortality that encourage us not merely to press on in a dreary, plodding way, but to grab opportunities, to strike out in new directions, and to take control of our lives.
That's what amazes me about the poignant stories of people in my circle. The underlying themes are remarkably similar, as they must be for your friends' stories. Even though the grief has different calibrations, different rates of absorption, different consequences in each case, the stories are mostly about endurance and ultimate triumph.
One of my friends has been pursued by a stalker for 20 years, yet shines in the media; another struggles with depression while raising a teenage family, a client confides that his wife left him shortly after their son survived a suicide attempt now lie's gamely rebuilding his life.
Are you finding this all a bit heavy? It's not meant to be; it's intended as a tribute to the spirit that keeps us going, in spite of the hard knocks. It is also meant to encourage greater frankness in our dealings with each other. We are rather inclined to put a spin on the stories of our lives, making things seem neater, cheerier and more successful than they really are. We deceive each other by perpetuating the fiction that all's well. It rarely is, and we'd be doing each other a favour if, just occasionally, we admitted it.
If you're suffering, tell someone - friend, counsellor, neighbour, colleague. Connections with fellow travellers can be an invaluable resource for coping with this inherently unstable and uncertain process called 1ife.
You can't escape the pain, or the tedium. But you'd have to be extraordinarily unlucky not to feel occasional stabs of joy as well. 0ur resilience and our optimism testify to the fact that, although life isn't always beautiful, most of us, without hesitation, regard it as precious.
Spectrum Saturday 5th August 2000 The Sydney Morning Herald