I keep a small scrap of paper at home on my bedroom dresser with a scribbled quote from a conference speaker whose thoughts impressed me several years ago. Drawing upon her commitment to helping poor women get their lives on track, the speaker emphasized that it was only “being open to the burden of knowing what it takes to survive” that allowed her to keep doing her difficult, demanding work. I never asked her about her own struggles growing up, though I do believe she would have found it difficult to embrace such a profound insight absent some encounters with personal strife.
I say this because of the generally shaky, and sometimes even dire, economic and family circumstances in which I myself grew up. For a good part of my life, I found deeply disturbing even the mere thought that anyone might come to know that situation, such was my shame and embarrassment. Our shabby furniture and the secrets we were told to keep about my parents’ brawls, often ignited by money worries, made certain that I kept my social life well outside the house.
I learned early on that whining about troubles or woes was likely to evoke the classic shut-your-mouth response: “You don’t know how lucky you are.” And I heard that message loudest from parents who struggled to provide adequate household income, who found themselves ill equipped to manage the challenges of their relationship, and who had no inkling of the long-term effects the emotional and physical violence we witnessed would have on me and my three siblings. Then, the death of my older brother, killed while serving as a U.S. Marine in Vietnam when I was 16, clobbered us all into chaos and despair. In the face of losing my childhood hero, the standing household values of the day dictated submerging grief and bearing the unbearable alone. It was in the aftermath of that loss that I began to understand what it takes to survive.
By the time I turned 18, I wanted nothing less than deliverance from a home that felt like a solitary island stranded in a cold and storm-tossed sea. Reflecting over the many intervening years since then, I’ve grasped the personal toll I exacted on myself by sucking it up, burying grievances and pushing on.
This led me to have harsh, uncompromising expectations of others, at times. It also distorted for me – to the point of awkwardness and unfamiliarity – a measure of access to feelings of empathy, lest the loads carried by others overwhelm and swamp me. But what I’ve learned with experience is that it’s possible to lift that tight lid and actually acknowledge troubles and traumas, place them in proper perspective, and recognize especially that “now” is not “then.” Several other options exist, I’ve discovered, beyond cleverly sidestepping or stoically enduring the difficulty or crisis of the moment. I now know that it’s not necessary to expend the extraordinary energy required, like some Harry Houdini of emotional and social illusion, to constantly appear totally together and in the know every minute of the day.
When I think of the social and civic entrepreneurs sponsored by Community Partners, I am filled with awe at how, with their change work, so many of them daily and diligently help whole communities put trauma and trouble in perspective and, eventually, in the past. Ask them about their efforts and they’re likely to invoke care for others as a motivator. Dig a little deeper and you’re also likely to discover a set of circumstances that opened them to knowing and shouldering their own burden of what it takes to survive.
I read that quote nearly every day: “open to the burden of knowing what it takes to survive.” The words mean different things at different times. For today, it reminds me that to survive describes simply the seedling, just the faint potential of a desirable condition not yet achieved. Surviving on its own does not make a fulfilling life or complete community. To grow in awareness, to see and truly be seen by others, to engage joyfully with family, friends and neighbors, now there’s a burden worth thriving for.