The Glory of Misery

I have strange childhood memories.    

We were on the membership roster of a swimming pool that was open the day school let out for the summer and closed a few days before it started back up in the fall.   It was private,  which in the South Central Texas parlance of the time (it was the early 1960′s) meant whites only.

The founding fathers of this aquatic club decided that for safety’s sake and insurance liability, children under a certain age had to be accompanied by a parent.   If and when they passed a swimming test administered by a certified lifeguard (usually a High School coach needing extra cash during the summer or some acne riddled jock who needed to work but the area’s only other employment option for teenage boys–hauling hay–simply wasn’t an option.

For you urbanites, that mean physically moving large bails of hay from either one side of the farm or ranch to the other side…or….taking it to market.   Either way it was grueling work.   Hot, exhausting and thankless, but it kept the jocks in shape and well-tempered for the dreadful pre-season two-a days (football practice) that invariably came with playing  high school football.    Being a lifeguard and sitting in a chair under an oversize beach umbrella, smelling of Coppertone to high heaven and occasionally blowing  a punitive whistle at  young hellions like little Kenny Whozits for dunking little Cindy Whatzits near the deep end, was a glorious alternative.

I can remember taking a break from swimming and sitting in this covered alcove where the parents would sit.  It was composed of moms mostly.  Some came to the pool to sit and watch their kids; others turned it into a social hour and smoked, drank Tab and gossiped.  Others would come for a little quiet reading.    Back then, the books that fashionable literates brought with them to the pool  were “I’m OK; You’re OK” and “Jonathon Livingston Seagull”.   There might have been an occasional “Love Story” or “Gone With The Wind” in the line-up, but I remember the two a fore mentioned titles the most.

One of the books had what my grandfather would have called “one of damned them hippie peace signs” in the letter “O” of the OK in the title.    Decades later, I Googled the book to find out what was offering so many moms a literary reprieve from mothering.

Interesting.

As best I can tell, “I’m OK; You’re OK” was really,one of the very the first widely accepted books about a subject that now seems so ridiculously cliché and panel guest-like on the  Dick Cavett Show:  getting in touch with your inner child.  

I don’t mean to be condescending.  It’s just that the term is–or rather was– so hackneyed.   To be fair, I have NO DOUBT  at all that what we learn as children, be it good or bad, has a definite impact on adulthood–as long as it doesn’t become a panacea for every issue once we put away the dolls and Tonka trucks  and sprout pubes.   We can blame some things ( in some case, many things) on what we experienced as kids, but to make  a bad childhood a blanket excuse for every adult problem is conveniently irresponsible.

I’m not saying this is what author, Dr. Thomas Harris implied in his pages.   In all honesty, I’ve only skimmed the book.  I’m merely talking about the nonsense left by the others who took  the transactional therapy ball and ran with it,  all the way to the bank.

As for the other book?  Well, as a kid I had no idea why any adult would want to read about the antics of a seagull.  I’d spent time on the Texas Gulf Coast.  I knew what these birds were all about.  Seagulls were nothing more than airborne shit dispensers.     I also noticed that it was written by someone named Bach.   That stood out to me.  At the time, I was taking piano lessons and learning to play a few minuets that perhaps a distant relative might have composed.

In a nutshell, the  book is about growth.   Jonathan is a gull who’s passionate about flying.

Okay.

He goes to great lengths to learn the math of the talent nature gave him but apparently, his fellow birds don’t appreciate his zeal for the craft.   He’s deemed an outcast and heads out on his own, only to two other gulls who teach him a bunch of existential stuff and flight basically, becomes this homily for change and personal growth without the guilt.    Wow, a self-help book with anthropomorphic whimsy.

Man, you gotta love the 60′s.

Bach’s follow-up to the avian  tome, is Illusions: Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah.  It’s also about change and learning and the teachers in our lives who help us accomplish this feat.   In this book,  Bach writes a great line:

Trouble is inevitable; misery is optional

I’ll take it one step further.  Misery  is a state of suffering to be sure, but it’s also a very attractive one.  No, not in the way like a pleasing personality  or a great sense of humor is.  It’s  attractive in a negative way. It draws attention.    I mean, think about it,  when we’re miserable, two things happen.  We’re abandoned because misery requires an emotional investment with which to contend…

OR….

The sympathetic people in our realm with go all Florence Nightingale and  feel sorry for us; take care of us.  They’ll bombard us with welfare calls, texts and emails.    We’re treated with kindness because no one wants to add insult to injury.  And this emotional gravy train runs along quite smoothly—-for a while anyway.    Some sad sacks will milk this for all its worth, buy eventually, that has to change.   He/she will have no choice . Misery might love company, but if a miserable person  makes the company miserable, the sources of all that attention, will go away and stay away.   Like the plague.  Dealing with/coping with a miserable person on a continuing basis takes an investment few people are willing to make.   Hell, even the guy  or gal in abject misery eventually has a tough time stomaching himself.

While growing up with had a devoted Cocker Spaniel mix named Frisky.   Wonderful dog who in late 1972, developed renal failure.  While my sisters and I were at school, my father decided that was the best time to “put Frisky out of her misery”.   She was buried in a far corner of the yard.     I can still get misty eyed at the thought at that sweet four-legged soul despite the fact that she’s been gone almost 42 years.

I had a cousin who had a genetic ailment. She died recently after years of dealing with so much pain.   She was a sweetheart of a girl, but she suffered terrifically.   Many have said that her death puts her in a better place; she too is  ‘out of her misery”.

I’m in complete agreement.   Especially where physical maladies are concerned.  Towards the end, my dog…..my cousin had no life.  Spiritually speaking, a beating heart  and respirating lungs don’t  constitute living.    Life is in the details; details  that go beyond oxygenated blood flow and brain waves.

By their deaths, are these loved ones  in a better place?   I don’t know.   Medical science and logic make every effort to assure me it means  they;re definitely not in pain.   That’s comfort for the living.

But there are aspects of mental/emotional suffering that I feel can be a positive experience.    Heartache is a game changer.     It can, if you let it, be a portal to some rock solid changes.  It can make you more self-aware;  it can break down barriers that have kept negative things internalized.    It can make us more empathetic;  hone our emotional  survival skills and can be one helluva wisdom inducer.   Reformed miserables (please re-read with a French accent) are some of the wisest people I know.

The results derives from bouts with human suffering, especially from heartache, is a lot like disaster science.   For example, we learn invaluable information about airplane safety after plane crashes.   Granted, it’s often at human expense, but well, that’s the circle of life.    We live, we die and somewhere in between that very stark beginning and end, we learn a few things along the way.   Life really is this metaphorical little red school-house.   We’re born (we get up in the morning).   We go to school (we start to grow). We matriculate 12 grades (we learn).  We graduate  (we die)

Some go on to advanced studies.    (Heaven)

Some opt for marriage (Hell)

Come on…I kid, I kid.  No emails or unsavory comments, please.   It was a joke.

Seriously,  my heart aches for all whose hearts ache, but trust me when I tell you that this too shall pass.   Bach, Lakewood megachurch  Pastor Joel Osteen and all the others who’ve made thematic variations  on the “troubles are inevitable/choosing misery or not” bandwagon, are quite right.  The power to decide is yours.

All yours.

But it’s just so goddamn ironic that more often than not, it takes being miserable and ultimately, surviving it to understand that it IS an option.

Live and learn, I guess.