The Outstater

December 26, 2021

Hard Times and Cracked Pots

“We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” — Romans 5:3-4

IS IT POSSIBLE to experience life’s problems and crises without expecting the help of government? I am not being flip; human-interest stories are rare that do not involve some sort of centralized, institutional or statist assistance, where instead someone overcomes pretty much on their own.

I know, I know, it doesn’t fit the media’s victim narrative. But an awareness of what some have nobly or courageously endured might add perspective to the stream of trouble and woe that is the daily news.

That thought occurred last night during my family’s holiday movie excursion to “American Underdog,” the Kurt Warner story* featuring Brett Varvel, son of our friend Gary Varvel.

Later that night, researching the background of a favorite singer, I learned that the only job she could get to start was delivering singing telegraphs. She turned that into her “big break” — without a scholarship, or an equity-boosted SAT score, or a sense of entitlement, or the leverage of a government agency.

This all struck me as amazing by today’s standards, and it started me counting off similar stories, current and historical, from my immediate circle. I remembered another friend, a future ballerina for the New York Metropolitan Opera, who as a girl had raised money for dance lessons by selling fish worms at the side of the road. 

In a short time I came up with an inspiring list of people, rich poor, young and old, who individually had overcome not only challenges but great trouble and strife — tragedy even. I’ll bet you could do the same.

Please know that your list, although perhaps involving the saddest of events, will not be made up of exceptional stories, or at least not considered so by those who lived them. The listed will have done what they had to do to get where they wanted to go and be who they wanted to be. And, again, you will not be able to find where they were given much institutional help. They did it pretty much by themselves and in their own way.

How do we explain this?

There indeed is an explanation . . .  now, stay with me here . . .  which can be understood through the study of Japanese pottery. 

The artisans of the centuries-old Kintsugi school take cracked pots and rejoin the broken pieces with a lacquer mixed with powdered gold, silver or platinum. Broken dinnerware becomes a work of art, more valuable than the whole.

Psychologists as well as pastors tell us that something like that can happen when we face travail. Clinicians call it  “post-traumatic growth,” and it isn’t particularly rare.

Scott Kaufman in Scientific American reports that 61 percent of men and 51 percent of women in the U,.S. say they have been “broken” by at least one traumatic or challenging event in their lifetime. Many not only did not develop the much-publicized post-traumatic-stress disorder but unexpectedly thrived in the aftermath. 

Kaufman does not imply that any of these individuals welcomed the suffering, or that they would not have found success without it. He means only that we have the capacity to overcome, and to do so in multiple and highly personal ways.

He identifies seven areas of growth reported by subjects experiencing trauma and challenge: greater appreciation of life; greater appreciation and strengthening of close relationships; increased compassion and altruism; the identification of new possibilities or a purpose in life; greater awareness and utilization of personal strengths; enhanced spiritual development; creative growth.

The psychiatrist Viktor Frankl has put it all into a sentence:  “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” 

No council ordinance, legislative law, congressional act or presidential order is required. — tcl

* Full disclosure: In the movie, Warner is shown using a few dollars in food stamps before applying for a job stocking shelves at the same store.


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