Bad things do happen to good people. Sometimes the worst things. Right now, a handful of the best people I know are facing the most difficult things I can imagine—cancer, serious illness of a parent, abandonment and divorce, and the death of a child. I wish I knew what to say to any of them.
My life is easy in comparison, but there have been some low points. One of the lowest was the day I was diagnosed with MS. I couldn’t understand why God let this awful thing happen to me. Hadn’t I tried hard enough? Been “good” enough? What? I couldn’t talk to anyone here on earth about my pain and fear and lack of faith, and I was barely on speaking terms with God. About all I could manage in my prayers was, “What now? How do I get through this?”
God answered me in the words of my favorite poet, Emily Dickinson, who wrote: Read, sweet, how others strove, Till we are stouter; What they renounced, Till we are less afraid. That quatrain became my lifeline. As Emily suggested, I read the words of “brave men” and “celestial women” who “bore the faithful witness” through the ages. As I did I gained perspective and strength.
One woman I met while following Emily's advice was Dame Julian of Norwich. In 1342 she wrote, God allows some of us to fall more heavily and more grievously. And then we, who are not all-wise, think that everything which we have undertaken was all for nothing. But it is not so, for if we did not fall we could not know so completely the wonderful love of our Creator. We shall truly see that we were never hurt in His love, nor were we ever of less value in His sight.
I figured if that was true in the dark ages of the fourteenth century, it was probably still true in the twentieth. I began to look for things I could do instead of mourning everything I couldn’t. I could still sit, for instance—for very long periods of time, in fact—and I had always wanted to write a book. My first novel The Heart Has Its Reasons was published about eighteen months after my diagnosis.
I still search for words of inspiration when I’m afraid. (Frankly, because of CNN that’s pretty much every day.) I also keep a quote from Margery Wilson in my journal. In 1917 the world contemplated the War to End All Wars. Margery wrote: Though life seems to challenge us harshly at times, to make us eat bitter bread with the sweet, nevertheless, if we will stop wailing and look we will see a sustaining arm across our shoulders, the arm of infinite love—and if we listen we can hear a voice whispering, "Deep within you is the strength to bear anything, the nobility to be willing to do so, and the intelligence to create magnificently and beautifully, come what may."
Possibly I should admit that not every piece of writerly advice I cherish is touching and profound. I often empathize with these words by Walter Brooks’ Freddy the Pig (1953):
When life’s at its darkest and everything’s black,
I don’t want my friends to come patting my back.
I scorn consolation, can’t they let me alone?
I just want to snivel, sob, bellow, and groan.
Whether I've chosen to snivel through or survive my challenges, the written words of others have seen me through some of the darkest and scariest days of my life. When I’m most stressed, I reach for an old friend on the bookshelf and things seem better right away. Well, usually.
A couple of years ago, I took my husband to the hospital with chest pains. Knowing he’d be in tests most of the day, and fearing to be left alone to worry, I snatched up a well-worn paperback to help keep me sane. As I sat in Gary’s cubicle in the emergency room, I struggled to keep my eyes on the pages because I was terrified of all the tubes and machines that were connected to the man I love. Nurses and doctors came and went, and each gave me curious looks. Hadn’t they ever seen anybody read before?
Finally, my long-suffering husband sat up and said, “Do you have to read that right now?”
Startled, I closed the book. Looking down at the cover I saw that it was a copy of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.
The point is that William, Emily, Margery, et al, have helped me through the darkest, scariest days of my life. Another of Emily’s poems describes me to a T:
(S)He ate and drank the precious words,
(Her) spirit grew robust;
(S)He knew no more that (s)he was poor,
Nor that (her) frame was dust.
(S)He danced along the dingy days,
And this bequest of wings was but a book.
What liberty A loosened spirit brings!