First, two true stories.
One is about my great-grandmother, my father’s paternal grandmother, who lived with my father and his parents throughout my dad’s childhood. Although she died about eight years before I was born, I know a lot about her through family recollections and documents as well as her own writings.
When she was 9 years old, her father died of peritonitis. Among her siblings she had two sisters with whom she was close; both sisters died in their 20s, one of typhoid. She married and gave birth to a son, a daughter, and a younger son (my grandfather). On a winter night in 1922 her oldest son, then 17, went to the movies with a friend at the Knickerbocker Theatre in Washington, D.C. Just before the movie began, the roof of the theatre collapsed under the weight of heavy snow, killing him, his friend, and 96 other people (click here for an article about the Knickerbocker tragedy and this great-uncle I never knew). The following year, her husband died of tuberculosis at the age of 42. This prompted her to take my grandfather, now the man of the household at age 12, out of school so that he could work to support the family. As time went on she lost two granddaughters to illness – one at age 2, and one at age 5. Despite all of this tragedy and loss, she lived many years and was an integral part of the everyday life of my father’s family, a gracious and loving presence. She died at the age of 82.
The second story is from my mother’s family. My mother has a first cousin who married and had four children. She lost her daughter who died suddenly at age 17. Her husband died suddenly at age 60. One of her sons experienced a major psychotic breakdown in his early twenties and has been hospitalized since that time. Now nearly 80 years of age and with two other sons, one of whom has children, she is healthy and enjoying life in the warm climate where she lives. In her words, “It is what it is, and we deal with it as best we can.”
These two women have each navigated an exceptionally loaded minefield of life’s challenges. Each tapped into her own unique sources of strength, and each found ways to keep going. I turn to their stories again and again in my mind as I look for ideas for how to keep going myself.
Now here is my confession: I am not always inspired by inspirational stories. In fact, I have a love-hate relationship with them.
In this era of information overload we are surrounded by personal motivational stories. Blogs, TV and radio talk shows, and articles tell remarkable tales of people who have overcome every possible adversity. The story crafters show us how their subjects have made lemonade out of lemons, perhaps intending for us to feel motivated to work through our own challenges as well as hopeful that we too may find success, happiness, peace.
Sometimes, I do feel motivated after reading an amazing story. I experienced a surge of determination reading about Sonali Deraniyagala, for example, who lost her husband, parents, and children in the tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004 (more here about her story and her book, Wave). If she can keep going after losing her entire family, I thought, somehow I can manage my own loss. And I am inspired by the dedication of Mary Ann Wasil, who has transformed her battle with cancer into a personal mission to bring breast health initiatives to young people (to learn more about her Get In Touch Foundation, click here).
On the other hand, there are times when I feel diminished rather than inspired by a tale of fortitude in the face of woe. If my problems seem less tragic by comparison, I might think I should feel less horrible than I do, more able to get on with life. It's draining, living in the space between the expectation of happiness and the reality of what I'm feeling. It drains valuable energy that could be spent on that getting-on-with-life thing.
Some stories focus heavily on the extraordinary success and happiness that a person has achieved in the wake of adversity. Such stories seem incomplete to me, and the story subjects not fully human. I don’t want to feel like pain and darkness can and should be left behind. I want to see that these people have good days and challenging days, and want to know how they navigate through both toward acceptance and peace. I suppose I am drawn to stories of people I know because I understand them as complex human beings. I can envision a timeline of their lives, dark and light both present and visible in a chain of days. I can see the steps they took, one foot in front of the other, which carried them from one day to the next. Seeing how their steps led to change helps me take my own steps and keep going.
Perhaps when I encounter stories in the media I can approach them in a more productive way. I can resist comparing another experience with mine, and set no potentially unrealistic expectations of myself based on what another person is able to accomplish. I can avoid assumptions about how a person kept going each day or how easy or hard it was. I can take in the story with an eye toward what serves me, and set the rest aside.
No matter what I read or hear about, though, I believe I will continue to find my greatest inspiration in the stories of family members and friends. Many of you have shared stories with me. As I come to know each story with its swirl of dark and light and steps taken one by one, I gain strength. As I come to understand your humanity, I gain comfort.
Comfort and strength – sounds like a recipe for getting through a day.