Photo by Katie Priest

In his bestselling book, The Secrets of the Happy Family(2013), Bruce Feller described how happy families tend to carve out time to tell their stories.  In particular, they tell the signature stories of resilience.  They don’t shy away from recounting the times of someone tracing a course through one of life’s dark valleys, and what they had to do to emerge.  Feller asserts that these stories provide the psychological and spiritual scaffolding upon which current family members can construct their own resilient lives.  Stories like these communicate two important unconscious messages:  (1) in our family it is not the end of the world when you find yourself in painful circumstances; (2) in our family, we tend to get through hard times.  On a smaller scale, something similar happens when a parent is willing to own up to a mistake and apologize to a child.  Two powerful unspoken messages are sent.  (1) “In our family, mistakes are repairable!”  (2) “In our family, relationships are resilient!”      

Fans confer “royalty” status on an athlete when he or she has overcome some sort of adversity.  You didn’t have to be a Boston Red Sox fan to respect Kurt Schilling’s 2004 AL Pennant “bloody sock” performance. In 2006, even a Detroit Tiger’s fan had to respect how David Eckstein, Scott Rolen, and Jim Edmonds battled through their grimacing pain on their quest for a world title.  To this day, New York Knicks fans consider Willis Reed’s 1970, game 7 of the NBA championship to be the greatest sports moment in the history of Madison Square Gardens.  He played on a severely injured leg against basketball’s most prolific scorer, (i.e. Wilt Chamberlain), and prevailed. What makes a man or woman “royalty” in sports, tends to make them royalty in families.  In most peoples’ family stories, the protagonists are those aunts, uncles, grandmas and grandpas who stood up to life’s challenges, and somehow made it through.

My own son, John Harry, is named after his great-grandfather, whom I have described many times in this space.  As you might recall, my grandpa’s dad left the family when he was small.  His young mother died of tuberculosis.  He worked in the local coal mine at twelve years of age to support his two younger brothers who had been farmed out to other households.  Family stories recount his heroics at braving horrible working conditions of chest-high, ice-cold water.  Indeed, the story goes, he sacrificed his life during those early years because many decades later, he would die of “Black Lung Disease.”  In my family, he is royalty.

Recall the words of Winston Churchill when England toiled against a foe who threatened her status as a free nation.  He said that future generations would look back on that particular generation whose homes were being bombed, whose men, women and children were being killed.  He told that beleaguered people that, “This was their finest hour.”  The real royalty of that time did not so much live in Buckingham Palace as in the bombed-out neighborhoods of Manchester, Liverpool, and London.

Many years ago, I sat in a large crowded banquet hall, and heard the great philosopher, author, Elie Wiesel, respond to a comment made by an audience member.  “When I think of all that you have been through (i.e. surviving the Nazi death camp that took his family’s lives), I am ashamed of worrying about the things in my life that I call, “problems.”  Doctor Wiesel immediately stopped her and said, “Do not make light of your own sufferings like that!  Your problems, your pain are the things out of which you have to make meaning!  Your suffering, truly acknowledged,connects you with the rest of humanity.”

The truth of what Wiesel said is not black and white.  Truths exists in a universe of other truths that balance one another, often in a creative tension.  Yesterday, a healthcare worker gave me advice on how to handle the pain of a COVID test’s swizzle stick jammed up into my nasal cavaty.  She laughed when I said my method will include “thinking of people in the world who have real problems!”   Frequently, there is relief in scaling one’s suffering by placing it into context.  On the other hand, Wiesel was correct.  When up againt capital “S” Suffering, it is important to honor it and hold it with self-compassion.  Honoring one’s suffering in this way, has the power to connect oneself with the human community in a much deeper way.  Acknowledging and respecting your Suffering is the royal road to making deeper meaning in your life, and finding a greater sense of purpose. It is an important passageway to Transcendence.  Paradoxically, it also diminishes some of the pain inherent in that suffering.  

This Thanksgiving, could you consider looking back with gratitude on the textures of meaning that have been knit into you by the sufferings in your own Hero’s Journey?  Can you take a moment to honor the suffering that, on the one hand, has softened you to the pain of others, and revealed something beyond you that lives within you? Consider for a moment, how your suffering has confered a kind of royalty upon you.  

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