But even though no one can squeeze guarantees out of fate, there is great unevenness in our fortunes. Some people simply seem luckier than others. They enjoy families that provide more resources of love and support. As a consequence, or maybe because of inborn personality factors, they grow into confident, resourceful, and resilient adults.
They suffer little self-doubt and have no sense of self-loathing. Their lives unfold relatively smoothly, and as they enter the later stages of adulthood they can look back with pride at how they built success. They may have achieved career acclaim, raised happy children, and/or simply radiated good cheer as they walked upright through the world.
Unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way for everyone, and we all know of human situations that fall short of such comfort and success. First, there are the large populations across the globe that suffer under extreme poverty, chronic warfare, and oppression. We see the images of shantytowns and war-torn cities in which stunned and dusty children wander wide-eyed and alone. We observe their innocent, wounded faces and wonder: what can these orphans possibly hope for in the future?
And yet, they seem far away and unconnected to our affluent societies. We try to reassure ourselves that these kids don’t suffer like we would in the same situation, because they don’t know what they’re missing. It’s a vain and selfish hope, of course, but sometimes it’s our only defense against feeling overwhelmed by the unfairness in the world.
We naturally think in terms of this culture’s material advantages, but unless poverty and turmoil are so severe that food, clothing, and shelter are compromised, we cannot assume that wealthier populations are happier. I haven’t been to Mexico since the recent outbreaks of violence, but in earlier years the joy among the country’s populace was impressive. Despite much lower living standards than enjoyed in the North, the Mexicans seemed far more contented and jolly than Americans. Why? I suspect because they lived in more stable communities, where friends and family didn’t regularly move away. They knew their neighbors their entire lives, and lived embedded in rich relational webs.
In contrast, many of us in the USA and other Western countries were raised in isolated nuclear families. Relocations were so common that we often didn’t feel close to many neighbors and developed few longterm friendships. If we were unlucky enough to have alcoholic, depressed, and/or violent parents, we had nowhere to turn. We may have suffered severe traumas or bereavements in relative isolation.
We may then have grown up to face the same demons that tormented those who raised us. We may have had to battle addictions, chronic sorrow, and/or festering rage ourselves.
Those of us who endured abusive, bereaved, or neglected upbringings entered adulthood with few useful tools for dealing with life. Many of us require decades to sort out the injuries, the humiliations, the recriminations, and the grief. Sadly, many who come from such homes simply deteriorate and die early, tragically, or alone.
But if we survive, then what? Before long we find ourselves in middle age with lives that look less than idyllic. We often have fewer friends, less stable families, and more fatigue. Childhood trauma translates into adult difficulty, and many of us end up with lives littered by broken relationships and abandoned dreams.
And then what? Ultimately, if we hope to find peace, we learn how to cope. We mature. We forgive the damaged parents who hurt us. We forgive the entire cosmos for failing to meet our childhood needs. We find meaning in all the hardship, setbacks, and breakdowns. We become wiser and more spiritual. We begin to find beauty in every nook and cranny of creation.
But still, we can easily see that our lives could have been better. It is all too obvious that we have not thrived like the more fortunate. We may feel isolated; many of us suffer health problems that resulted from the massive stress and poorly chosen coping strategies of earlier years. We feel damaged and aged in a culture that worships youth, wealth, success, and beauty.
Is there any upside to this realization? Perhaps only this: we are also the ones who are forced to enlarge our hearts the most. Our pain, isolation, grief, and remorse all compel us to learn unconditional acceptance and radical forgiveness. Despite all the mistakes and brokenness, we lovingly embrace ourselves, our families, our communities, and whatever divine forces might be witnessing this mysterious passion play.
There are other paths to growth, but loss, injury, and failure can be potent stimuli to spiritual practice and mystical awakening. Humble but exalted realization becomes the consolation prize for the brokenhearted who persist. At first such gentle wisdom barely tips the scales as we judge our lives, but as cosmic love and insight grow, we begin to feel less and less unfortunate. Until, finally, the day comes when we look back on our fractured histories and see their value, their majesty, and what in retrospect seems like Grace.