Transforming Sorrow into Beauty

Last week, we mentioned the story, The Wizard of Oz. It illustrates how the longing for understanding (scarecrow), love (tin man), and courage (lion), are to be discovered and developed within oneself. In the story, they first expect that someone, the wizard, will confer these qualities magically from outside. The searchers discover that this is a false hope. The seeds of these qualities are already present within them. They just need to be developed in response to their experiences.

I think that this story illustrates a common mistake. We tend to look for magical answers and solutions. In part, this is related to the thought that there should be no pain or sorrow in life, and that we can escape them. A profound change can occur if we recognize that every life is a blend both of joy and sorrow, in varying degrees. We can then expect times of sadness or pain as an inevitable part of life. We can also recognize that quick fixes or running from ourselves will not work. Any short-term relief will be quickly followed by a letdown.

The challenge is to acknowledge the pain. We can, in a safe place, even allow ourselves to feel it.
Then we can, at least over time, transform our sorrow. Author, Susan Cain, in her book, Bittersweet, has commented that the most beautiful music contains or even springs from an experience of sadness. It is also out of her loneliness that Rapunzel sings beautifully and her voice may ring throughout the forest of our hearts, as it does for the young prince. Medieval mystic, Mechtilde of Magdeburg, says that when her loneliness becomes too great, she takes it to her friends.

In The Wizard of Oz, a storm and tornado breaks out on the farm where Dorothy lives. It carries her away to a strange new land. The theme song of the film is Over the Rainbow. (I find the most haunting version to be that of Eva Cassidy.) The storms of life can be followed by rainbows. It is often on the other side of the sorrows of life that its meaning and beauty can be discovered. This transition is wonderfully illustrated by the transition in the film from black and white to colour.

In life, as in The Wizard of Oz, the challenge is to go through and beyond the storm, and find new life. It is to find life even in the midst of the many deaths in the midst of life – the times of darkness, unknown forces, confusion, upset. Yet within them dwell the longing and hope that sense there is something beyond these storms.

Susan Cain’s book brings out that joy and sorrow, light and darkness, bitter and sweet, life and death are inseparably bound up with one another, and are an integral part of life. We have often cited Richard Rohr’s words that suffering that is not transformed is transmitted. Cain says similarly that if we don’t acknowledge our own heartache, we can end up inflicting it on others through abuse, domination, or neglect. But if we realize that every person experiences loss and suffering, we can become kind and compassionate to one another.

In the story, The Secret Garden, and its film version, the outer garden parallels the inner garden of the heart. Archie’s wife has died in the garden and so he locks it up and at the same time locks up the garden of his heart. His niece, Mary, who has been orphaned, arrives to live at his house, Through her vitality and love, she gradually opens up both the outer garden and the garden of his heart. The love that results in loss and sadness that become a prison is also the love that is the path out of that prison.

Our life journey, over the rainbow, involves the journey inward and the journey outward. These are inseparable and while they involve our unique self, they are not merely solitary. They also involve others, community, earth, and the universe. This journey, especially in its inward dimension, is beautifully expressed by Dag Hammarskjold, former UN Secretary General, in his book, Markings. His outer journey and its tragic ending in an airplane crash are quite evident. Only with his journal does his inner journey appear and shed light on our inner journey as well. He writes:

“The longest journey is the journey inwards, of him who has chosen his destiny, who has started upon the quest for the source of his being.” “I don’t know who or what put the question, I don’t know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone – or Something – and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life in self-sacrifice had a goal.”

Our yes to life is an expression of a meaning deeper than tragedy. It is an expression of hope beyond all sorrow. When she was three years old, my daughter had a pillow and sheet with the theme of Noah and the ark. More than anything else, it featured a rainbow. One time, when Lorraine and I were away for a day, we had a young nurse stay with the children. As it turned out, while we were en route with a friend to the Shaw Playhouse at Niagara on the Lake, a fierce storm broke out. Some trees on our street were toppled, including one that fell on our car and a branch that crashed through our dining room window. It was a really frightening experience for the children. Afterwards, for a bedtime story, I told a revised version of Noah and the ark, with a storm rather than a flood. For several evenings, Mary asked for this story and it always ended with the same routine. I would have to ask her if there would ever be another storm like that. She would reply, “No.” I would then ask her how she knew, And she would answer, “The sign is the rainbow.”

She was, in fact, using the story to interpret her storm experience and to reassure herself that this frightening experience would not happen again. It was an example of how we do see our life as a story and use the stories to which we are exposed to interpret our own story. In a slightly wider framework, I would say that, while there may be many storms in our life, there may remain the underlying hope that these be followed by rainbows. A marvellous illustration is found in the original film, Fantasia. The drawings that accompany Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony show the dark storm giving way to a radiant sunshine.

The subtitle of Susan Cain’s book is “how sorrow and longing make us whole.” She says in the introduction as well that the heart of her book is”transforming pain into creativity, transcendence, and love.”

Many all the storms in your life be followed by rainbows. May you always find the keys to the garden of your heart. May all your sorrows be transformed into meaning and beauty that give worth and purpose to your life.

Norman King, September 11, 2022
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