When I was very small – probably about seven – I read a fairy tale about a princess who was born with a glass heart. In the story, this princess grew into a lovely young woman. Early one day, feeling joy at the sight of the first crocuses or daffodils or tulips in the palace garden below, she leaned too far out the over a window sill. The pressure on her fragile heart proved too much. There was a tiny sound – like glass breaking – and she fell as if dead.
When the confusion settled, the doctor discovered her heart was not broken after all, but she had suffered a long, slender crack in it. The princess had survived this near catastrophe. The princess lived to be very old and continues to find deep pleasure in her life. As a child, I remember thinking and being puzzled about:
How can she run and play? How can she be cheerful and not afraid? How can she live with such a handicap?
At seven, I did not believe it was possible for her to participate wholeheartedly in life and I felt very, very sad for this delicate, fragile human being. However, at age 44 when my marriage (which I had thought indestructible) fell apart, I pictured a long, jagged crack across my heart. I felt as fragile as Venetian glass myself. Surprisingly, I then recalled the princess’s words: “What survives a crack and doesn’t break on the spot will be all the stronger for it.”
I certainly believe and understand those words now. I have learned, the hard way, that none of us is (nor should be) exempt from pain. And so the issue is not how to avoid the pain which sneaks in on cat’s feet but how to deal with the damage. How do we pick ourselves up and move forward? What tools are available to mediate our unease, out uncertainty, our sadness, our imbalance, and our confusion?
Pain comes clothed in a variety of fabrics. These include ill health, divorce, financial reversals, and even the challenge of effective parenting. Milton Ward in his book The Brilliant Function of Pain, instructs us to direct our pain into constructive acts. This, he states, transforms the pain from sad, angry, resentful feelings to acceptance and peace. Here is his advice:
- Pain is a guide; not an enemy. Follow it!
- Pain tells you something. Listen to it!
- Rationalizing your pain will not distort your response to it. Face it!
- Fearing pain, fighting it, avoiding it, or ignoring it only increases it. Flow with it!
- Allow yourself to feel it deeply and respond to those feeling; thus the pain becomes self-limiting. Take time for it!
Each of us needs to find our own individual path to healing, but I found the following helpful:
- Meditation: This provided me with quiet time to face the pain and grieve for the loss of the relationship – without inflicting everyone within my circle of friends and working associates with the blood from my wounds.
- Exercise: I discovered that exercise releases endorphins (enzymes produced by the brain that are the natural analog to morphine) to provide me with a natural tranquilizer and analgesic. These endorphins are released automatically in the presence of pain – and also in response to relaxation exercises, vigorous physical exercise, and (according to research) hot chili peppers. The last I did not test, but the addition of regular exercise to my routine was a real boost. I joined the “Y” and took up jogging as well. If I missed a class because of a scheduling conflict, around the block I went.
- Journal Writing: Several psychologist friends suggested I keep a journal. While I do not consider writing a talent of mine, I followed their advice. I discovered just how therapeutic it was to put down in black and white exactly how I was feeling. I also wrote what I wanted to do about my crisis situation and anticipated some plans (set goals and objectives) for the future. Writing poetry was also recommended, but this turned out to be a new kind of agony for me, so I abandoned this avenue of help. But, for my son, writing poetry was very healing and he wrote volumes. It still makes me cry when I read it.
- Humor: During this period of time I read that children laughed 400-500 times a day, while adults laugh 15 times a day. I decided I needed more laughter in my life, so I took up with Gary Larson (The Far Side) and Cathy Guisewite (Cathy). At this time I was also a school principal, and that year I created an annual theme of laughter. During the academic year, I asked everyone to stop me in the hallway and tell me a joke and I would pay them with a hug. That was a great year; maybe I should do it again.
- Acts of Service: I also read that participating in compassionate service dramatically improves our feelings of self-worth and self-esteem (mine were somewhere in the basement because of my failed marriage) and if performed anonymously, the good feelings are doubled. This turned out to be the most rewarding of all, for I discovered my misery was mild compared to those I was helping. I began to count my blessings: a fun-loving, energetic son who helped me beat those doldrums; and friends who would sustain and nurture me when I needed someone to listen.
Aristotle said our habits make the difference, so I decided to order my soul in the same way I mastered multiplication tables and cooking – through practice and more practice. I’m still actively engaged in all the above activities. They have enriched my life immeasurably. I feel my soul expanding.
In order to encourage our children to persist – to rise above their problems, to improve the conditions in the world – we must stand by them and with them; we must be their coaches and their cheerleaders, and we must set them an example and witness to them that a crisis (and a broken heart) can be survived.
My favorite picture book (sadly out of print) has fourteen words in it. I reread it frequently and share it often with others. It is Sandra Boynton’s story of a tiny mouse whose job it is to move a gigantic purple elephant. He tries pulling, pushing, bribing with peanuts and crying, all to no avail. Finally, he becomes inventive and moves the elephant speedily with the noise from a large golden trumpet. It is a very good thing he is a critical, creative thinker. He discovers he has ten more elephants to move.
And so do you…And so do I…
Oh yes, the fourteen words:
“If at first you don’t succeed, don’t cry, cry, cry – just try, try, try.”