When life steals all your words

There are sorrows in life for which there are no words.  There are griefs that become unspeakable because there aren’t ways out of the pain through words.

There are joys too for which there is no speech.  Inexpressible moments which take you beyond yourself in emotions too powerful to be held down with words.

The months of September and October were full of these moments for me, and it was in these months, but principally in October, that I learned (at long last) the meaning of a couplet I often quoted to myself, and yet struggled to fully understand.

When I turned 14 my parents gave me a volume of poetry inside of which was a poem that altered my understanding of life: If—, by Rudyard Kipling.  After reading the poem, I realized that the words described the human I wanted to become someday “when I grow up”.  So here I am at 33 finally understanding one of the last stanzas that defied my reasoning for all the moments, days, breaths, hours and experiences from that first impression to this past week.

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;

The first two lines of the stanza are fairly straightforward, but for years I would recall these words to heart and take comfort in their familiarity without being fully consoled.  There remained for me the tension of an unresolved entity.  How could one meet with both Triumph (which makes one feel so much joy) and Disaster (which makes one curse one’s very existence at times) and treat them as equals?  For the last few years I thought that the answer had to lie somewhere secreted in the idea that both are illusions in life.  We don’t live our lives in either status completely: life isn’t a series of home runs or a series of setbacks, but all the experiences in between these two polarities.  And still my heart told me there was more to this stanza.

Which is when I remembered (very recently) that Kipling knew what it was to lose a child.  Many who know of Kipling’s life will think I write here of his son, but in reality it’s his daughter, Josephine, who would have taught him this lesson long before the terrible loss of his son in 1915.  He buried his six-year-old girl after losing her to pneumonia.  So it was that 11 years later he sat down and wrote a poem that details all the things a human must learn before they can ‘ascend’ to full humanity in the poet’s eyes, and one hundred and one years later the meaning of these words has brought me a better understanding of so much.

One cannot meet Triumph and Disaster with the same aspect, but you can treat them the same in the end, which is actually that you learn to let them go with the same dignity.  This completion of the cycle of human emotion is the key to having a heart filled with peace rather than emptiness or perpetual pain.  I think about Triumph and Disaster and I realize that, as humans, we can hang on to both these fickle characters rather fiercely.  I have memories in my childhood of listening to various people detail long-ago adventures in which they were the principal and triumphant character.  The only reason for telling the story was to relive the moment of triumph.  Similarly, how many of us know someone who has seen melancholia disperse the meaning of their lives because Disaster was never shown the proverbial door?  Part of my earlier reasoning was correct: these two polar identities of the human experience are illusions of life.  In some ways these are the moments which feel the most real because their intensity fills every gasping instant with emotions beyond the reach of language.  But, in truth, these are the briefest episodes of life.  Do they, therefore, become the moments which decide what the rest of life’s moments should look like?

While October began for me in a sadness that has become a ghastly familiarity to me over the last 9 years it was filled with much more than the disaster of ending a pregnancy.  It was filled with gestures of kindness, solidarity, love, compassion and generosity.  It was filled with family and friendship on both sides of the world.  I was embraced and loved through all of this by my husband, by his family, by my family, and by my friends in two continents.  And, lest I forget to say it, I was shown love and compassion by the people who cared for me in the hospital.  By nurses who wiped my tears and held my hands, by doctors who came to look in on me and who took my hand because they didn’t want me to sit there without knowing they cared.  I experienced compassion and kindness of great depth at our choir retreat.  In pauses between rehearsals no one left me alone.  One would think that would be hell for an introvert like me, but the spontaneous hugs, the conscious efforts of my friends in song to just be there and to demonstrate that presence was of such immense help to me.  I realize, looking back, that it’s not Triumph to be surrounded all the time by people who care about you, to be in a place of stability in our worlds, to have material security, or to have meaningful occupation, but these are the things which help us to let go of both these images which invade our worlds.  The standing ovations after a concert, the races you win, the articles you published that got rave reviews, and so on and on and on… These are the illusions of greatness we’re taught to strive for, and I think that these are the things we spend our time fighting for: hours of rehearsal, thinking ahead, planning, studying, writing, and training.  You do it all in order to triumph, right?  Or are you doing it because you love the doing?

I have learned that it’s both.  You do these things because you love winning, but also because you love the process, otherwise there would never be a victory that felt like victory— just an empty phase in the next part of grinding your way into the reward you hope will feel like a reward.  “The cup that has no bottom.”  But the Triumph of the finished product is another part of the process, and it’s one that is let go in due time in order for the next process to begin.

I have learned that grief and despair, Disaster, by another name is yet another of these who have a time limit in the human experience lest it too becomes all-consuming.  Disasters are not forgotten, but they are let go of.  You let go of the wounds you took, the pain you carried.  You let go of the anguish and the willingness to experience it again and again, and you recommence the process that led you here.

I have learned that true courage is letting go of both these “imposters” who darken the doorsteps of life when they’ve been unmasked.  It’s good to know them both, to see them through the inexpressible hours, take their lessons (joyous and bitter) and return to living with the changes they wrought on your life without letting their lessons convince you to rewrite your life only to keep giving them houseroom in your soul.  While I’m not at a point where October’s grief is gone, I do see the way ahead.  I see it in the everyday, in the love of the people around me, in the calm, steady march of time, and I see it in acceptance that the inexpressible is also ephemeral.  The deepest beauties of life fade and die, the deepest joys can wither, the deepest anguish can heal, and the worst injuries can be overcome.  All that seems to write so deeply upon our lives, in reality, is what is certain to fade away—

Given the chance.


~ by Rebecca Erickson on November 6, 2016.

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