It can be scary to think about how precarious life really is.
So scary, in fact, that many of us build entire existences around our desire to avoid this truth: We develop patterns and routines that numb us to the very depth and mystery that make life so unique. We start taking the world around us for granted. We get caught up in the rat race. And before we know it, our existence feels like nothing more than a rudimentary rendering of a precious gift we only vaguely remember receiving.
Then, as if on cue, along comes one of those unmistakable moments of tragedy or suffering that demands we once again take notice of our life. Real notice. That we acknowledge its fragility. That we bear witness to its mystery. That we recognize it for the fleeting miracle that it is.
“That’s the paradox,” Ted Hughes wrote. “The only time most people feel alive is when they’re suffering, when something overwhelms their ordinary, careful armour, and the naked child is flung out onto the world. That’s why the things that are worst to undergo are best to remember. But when that child gets buried away under their adaptive and protective shells—he becomes one of the walking dead…”
We cling so desperately to these protective shells and yet— looking back on our own suffering can often evoke feelings of profound fondness, even appreciation for the pain we’ve endured.
Because it’s the periods of struggle that make us who we really are.
Not the successes. Not the victory laps. Not the countless times we somehow managed to speak the right words to the right person at the right time.
It’s the failed marriage that most shapes us, or the business that goes under or the unexpected loss of someone we love. It’s the illness that wakes us up. It’s the rejection that finally brings into clearer focus what it is we really want. It’s the hot shame of failure that opens our eyes to our true gifts and talents.
“Suffering,” Paul Tillich wrote, “takes us below the everydayness of life.” It cuts through our protective armor. It connects us once again to that vibrant, pulsing, mysterious energy bubbling beneath the surface of our daily grind.
Which means that often, it’s actually the slow and painful death of the life we planned, that finally awakens us to the life we’ve been waiting for.