Saturday, January 29, 2011

Mountains and Valleys

"I have descended from a planet called grief," says the Count of Monte Cristo, explaining the source of his almost superhuman wisdom. "He who has felt the deepest grief is best able to experience supreme happiness. We must have felt what it is to die. . . that we may appreciate the enjoyment of living."

While some view the count as almost godlike, this man who dares to manipulate fate falls into the oh so human error of prescribing his own medicine to others. The grief that Edmond Dantes suffered for 14 years in prison, the grief that took away everything dear to him and brought him to the point of suicide, finally ennobled him until he emerged as the supernally wise and unfathomably wealthy Count of Monte Cristo. He plays God--or perhaps the antithesis thereof--arranging the lives of those he hates and those he loves so that they, too, can experience the destructive or ennobling power of grief.

While I cannot bring myself to complete agreement with the count's philosophy and the liberties he takes in applying it in the lives of others, I do recognize the power of pain in my own life. Just as I relish the energizing feeling of completing a taxing workout, I love the empowerment of having passed through adversity. When I finish a good run, the blood pumps through my veins. My skin tingles, I breathe more deeply, and even my mind feels cleansed and sharpened. Similarly, looking back on a time of trial I sense a new strength, unforeseen insights, more faith in the possibilities of the future. I feel alive.

In college, after a year of grappling with the frustrating fallout of silly teenage highs and lows, I decided to teach myself to shut off those annoying emotional reactions. Who really needs to ache over boys, anyway? I succeeded frighteningly well, and for a few months I enjoyed a respite from tears and heart hiccups. After a time, however, I began to miss the chance to cry my soul clean. I needed a searing ache to wipe away the sludge of leftover worries and nagging doubts. In locking tight the fear and the sorrow, I had also stifled the belly laughs and the astonishing awe of simple bliss. I craved the heights and depths and longed to explore my own boundaries again.

Over time, life reminded me how to double over in pain and gasp in delight. At first I borrowed from the experiences of others: imagining the depths of a mother's sorrow in losing her son to cancer or marveling at a friend's willingness to give herself over to the joyful awkwardness of falling in love. I even determined, with some reluctance, that God gave women hormones for the very purpose of regularly reminding us how to feel.

I love the ability to abandon myself to laughter or tears, knowing from experience that I will eventually regain even ground. I love the cleansing and strengthening power that comes from enduring the depths and pushing the heavy weight. I cherish the gift of empathy that comes only with experience. I cannot say that I crave pain or ask for trials, but I fear them a little less now than I used to. In the words of our dear Count of Monte Cristo, "All human wisdom is summed up in these two words, 'Wait and hope.'"


  1. So true, so true...I absolutely love your writing my dear! This spoke to my soul this morning.