Cheryll's Writing Journal

Musings, rants and ravings, plus gems of insight nobody wants to hear now that I've finally got them. Also neat stuff I found on the 'Net when I should have been updating this blog....

Friday, October 27, 2006

What's a Calamity?

One of my current goals is to complete my photo albums...that is, at least label all those pictures! It is taking way longer than I expected, because I get drawn into the memories, and then I write them down, too.

Adding text to the photo albums is time consuming, but lots more fun than doing housekeeping chores! However, it in turn has led to musing about ways to convey to somebody else (principally you guys, dearest children and grandchildren) some of the things I have learned in living this long.

Not that I for one minute think those pearls of wisdom are unique to me. Every generation has its favorite thinkers and philosophers, which any reading across generations will show are all saying about the same things.

Perhaps we each have to learn on our own (and some of us are more recalcitrant that others), so our 'discoveries' are only new personally. Don't worry; I don't expect you all to be any more impressed than I was at your age!

(Well, actually, since I think you are all pretty great stuff, maybe I do expect a bit more from you than I ever produced!)

You really can't look at over 100 years of family pictures without noticing how they seem to record a long list of calamities, large and small. From crying toddlers who have just had the dog eat their ice cream cone, to dates of death on the backs of old baby pictures. Uncles/cousins/fathers/fiances who went to war, and those didn't come back. Whole decades of pictures that stop too soon with notes like: motorcycle accident, cholera, and mule kicked, not to mention fire, flood and earthquake.

It's just one thing after another -- the epitome of the old saw, "Life is what happens while you were busy planning something else."

But how did these people keep going, some of them, no matter what? If every family history is a litany of troubles along with the triumphs, what made the difference? Why do some folks crumble under the burden of life's ills, and others can't be stopped by anything?

When the stock market crashed in 1929 and the United States was thrust into what became known as the Great Depression, some people who lost money jumped out of windows and killed themselves. Others hunkered down and dug in and kept going -- and kept their families and friends going -- until things got better.

I have an uncle, born just before 1900, who worked and slaved to build a house for his bride and a little garage next door to repair those newfangled automobiles that everyone was talking about. Took him years of hard work, and one of the first mortgages ever issued in his small town. Going into debt was frowned upon in his family -- a man shouldn't buy anything he couldn't afford to pay cash for -- so he had a doubly heavy burden.

He openned for business in 1929, just before the depression, and he lost everything before it was even paid for. Never tried again, lived the next 50 years doing odd jobs and working for others, steadfastly refusing ever to try again. Perhaps, having lost hope, he could never go against his family rules and borrow again -- and he never saved for a new project because the Depression had wiped out everyone's trust in savings banks.

And then there was my mother, his younger sister. She married the fellow she'd grown up with, the son of her father's best friend. It was expected, never mind that she really wanted to go further in school, and she did everything she could trying to be a good wife and mother.

Her first baby died at only a few weeks old, not an uncommon tragedy early in the 20th century. While pregnant with her second, her husband left her for another woman; and two months after my half-sister was born, the stock market crashed and began the Great Depression. Divorce was just about unheard of, and in that tiny town, Mother's was the first.

My mother paid for the divorce, gave her baby to her sister to foster for a few years, fought her way into nursing school against her mother's wishes, and succeeded against family, society and day to day events. She wanted to be a doctor, but nursing was the closest to medicine that women were allowed in those days.

So how do we define catastrophe? These two people were both dealt terrible blows by the same calamity that turned a generation of people's lives upside down. Both of them lost everything they had worked for, and suffered emotionally and financially. Their own family disapproved of their choices, their mother was unforgiving and unsympathetic of goals so far outside the cultural norm. Uncle Cecil capitulated, in his way; Mother kept fighting for what she wanted.

How is it that two people visited by the same calamity will fair differently -- disaster for one and momentary inconvenience for the other?

It is apparently not a new question, seeing as religion has spent a great deal of time addressing the issue of calamity, and how the faithful should respond to the changes and chances of life. And religion has been around a lot longer than I have!

I may have mentioned that I don't listen to advice well?? And that I could be just a little -- um -- hardheaded, too??

So, okay, I'm finally getting a handle on this, so bear with me. Feel free to roll your eyes if you already know it...

I'm a Bahá'í, which means I 'got religion,' and have been for more than 40 years. But, no matter how many times I have heard the message, it only now that the import is making it into my consciousness:

The purpose of this material creation, and our life in it, is to develope character. To learn who we are and grow skilled in the virtues -- stuff like honesty, truthfulness, trustworthiness, compassion, kindness, purity and love.

One needs these virtues, this character, because we are immortal beings, associated for a short time with a material body, and we need them for the rest of eternity, for the rest of our lives. Even as a fetus in the womb must develope limbs and senses he doesn't need there, in order to be able to function effectively after birth -- so do we need to grow spiritually in this life to prepare for the next.

And here's where calamity comes in: it's semantics. Catastrophe is what happens, calamity is how we define it. And we decide how we are going to define it and how we intend to respond to it. Thus, obstacles for some are stepping stones for others.

We decide. We assign meaning to events. We are in control.

Looked at in this way, tests and difficulties become milestones in our development. Even as we take examinations in school, endure qualifying trials in sports, and collect awards and degrees to mark progress towards those goals, we can use life's less attractive surprises in the same way.

And just like those calculus tests, character tests just keep coming back, over and over, until we master the virtues inherent in passing them.

(Guess how I know that patience is one virtue I need to work on more???)


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