Originally published May 28, 2014.
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” –Viktor Frankel
Tonight I am sick with the flu, sitting near my sleeping daughter, who has been asking questions all evening about the MRI she will get tomorrow. “Will it hurt? Will I be scared? Can I take Shaky Bear with me? Will you sing to me, Mommy, while I’m in the machine?”
I am looking at my online calendar, rife with deadlines on complicated feature articles, thinking how this is the worst possible time to be sick, the worst possible time for me to successfully navigate the waters of motherhood when my little girl is frightened.
But a couple hundred miles away, the step-sister of my childhood best friend lies in a hospital bed, much of her body riddled with cancer. Tomorrow she will undergo a long and frightening surgery. She is younger than I—a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister.
And I wonder if she is scared, scared her happy young life will be cut short by life’s cruel unfairness?
Is she asking questions? Did I take enough risks? Did I live hard enough? Did I tell everyone who is important to me I love them in a thousand ways a thousand times and then some? What if this is all, and tomorrow I am no more?
These are questions we should all be asking every day. My father taught me to ask them, to live by them, and I have tried.
But who does not have regrets? Dreams not yet lived? Because life is not a Norman Rockwell painting, much though I often wish it was and wish I had a place in it. As my friend Sarah says, “Life is relentless.”
And there is no time for waffling on the big stuff. There is no time not to take a risk, not to bare your soul, not to embrace it all, pain and joy, and live it with wild abandon.
Sometimes we err in living too much for joy, forgetting that pain provides, as Viktor Frankel so eloquently noted in Man’s Search for Meaning, “no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.”
Because that suffering makes the perfect days more perfect. Like the afternoon I spent sipping wine in a vineyard with the man to whom I had not yet spoken my love, watching two small boys play catch with their father, a small white church with delicate steeple rising softly in the distance beyond green hills. Or the day I curled up on the floor under sunny windows with my daughter, snuggled under blankets reading books by Richard Scarry and Jan Brett.
I would not have experienced the full bliss of these moments had I not walked through fire for love and failed, had I not wept rivers over death, had I not known abandonment and fear.
As that sweet young mother drifts off to sleep tonight, may her mind be filled with the “soothing thoughts that spring out of human suffering, in the faith that looks through death,” as William Wordsworth noted in one of his most famous poems.
He also said, “Thanks to the human heart by which we live, / Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears, / To me the meanest flower that blows can give / Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”
For that is the only way to live—fully, openly, courageously, vulnerably.