Thoughts on a Snowy Evening

I know something of emotional distress. It has been my companion over the years more often than I would have chosen myself. Each person experiences life from a unique vantage point, but as human beings, we experience many similar circumstances. Our common experiences, however closely related in a general sense, are frequently colored by our individual interpretations of them, and often barely recognizable as shared for that reason. While each person’s life is not repeatable in precisely the same way as ours, there are a few universal truths which can be appreciated by anyone who has had a broad enough range of experience.

One snowy, winter night, some years ago, as I thought of the turbulence that had come to define my life at that time, I looked up at the frozen mist, and lost myself momentarily in the echoes of memory, trying to connect to my heart’s rhythms and to my truest self. I realized at that moment, just how important our thoughts, memories and emotions could be.

Photo by Roderick Chen

I stepped out into the night and took a walk in the falling snow. I had been struggling with an inner pain that seemed to be eating away at me a little at a time, and I couldn’t seem to shake it. I always stepped into the light of each new day with the hope that somehow I would find a way to put it behind me, but no matter how hard I tried, it seemed to linger deep within the forest of consciousness, and sometimes, the stillness of the night quieted my mind to the point where the echoes of my traumatic past came vividly alive.

In the dim light from above my head, I looked up at the frozen mist, and recalled a moment so painful, and so deeply rooted, that I lost myself momentarily in those echoes, and could not hold my passions at bay. They spilled forth with a vengeance, and I wept bitterly for just a moment or two in the silence and the snow. There was no remedy for my affliction. No gentle caress to ease the burden I carried along that snowy path.

The quiet beauty and elegant whisper of the snowflakes as they descended on that particular evening, far from being a welcomed respite from the emotional pain, actually felt like little stones striking my flesh. I stood trembling under the canopy of night, breathing deeply in an attempt to gather my strength for my next leg of the journey, in what I felt was a vain attempt to resume the trek past the pain.

Nothing in your life, PRIOR to this moment, can prepare you fully for life AT this moment. That is the nature of life. We live each moment as it arrives, and respond to the many twists and turns, with only as much wisdom as we have been able to accumulate by the time each moment arrives. It isn’t hard to lose our way, or to abandon hope for finding a safe place to begin again.

The way to gain a true picture of our place within the currents of time is to consider what the world would be like without us. The missing joys of our early childhood for our loved ones—the lives of our young friends unaltered by our friendship—the lost comfort of those whom WE consoled in times of pain—the feelings of love and completeness undiscovered by our mate and children—the uncertainty of the outcome of EVERY event lacking our involvement, as well as all the things that are yet to unfold due to our previous intervention—each of these considerations amounts to years of significant contributions that only WE could have made.

The world moves with or without us, and will continue to rotate on its axis as long as conditions in our solar system remain constant. Barring some catastrophic galactic event, we can, within reasonable limits, expect that the events of our lives will not alter greatly the chaos of the universe. However, as we step into the light of each new day, the endless realm of possibility, borne upon the tides of our sometimes unfathomable longings, awaits our contributions.

16 thoughts on “Thoughts on a Snowy Evening

  1. A wonderful post.

    “Nothing in your life, PRIOR to this moment, can prepare you fully for life AT this moment. That is the nature of life. We live each moment as it arrives, and respond to the many twists and turns, with only as much wisdom as we have been able to accumulate by the time each moment arrives.” Such a true statement and so beautifully put.

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful and considered response. Life, as we know it on Earth, is a manifestation of something far greater and expansive than the physical universe, and although the materialists and reductionists would prefer not to look beyond the temporal and finite realm of pure science, there is a value to examining our world utilizing our cognitive capacities as human beings, while remaining mindful of the mystery and wonder it reveals as well.

  3. Such a beautiful post. I am not a fan of pain – my joke about myself is that I am short-suffering -but nevertheless I believe it has a purpose. It must have because it is impossible to eliminate it.

    Viktor Frankl speaks very beautifully about the purpose of suffering (not self-inflicted suffering but the inevitable suffering visited on everyone as we go through life) and it’s connection with the search for meaning. I think he was right but recently I have also come to believe that suffering is most definitely a type of ‘test’.

    I know lots of people who have suffered immensely and never caused suffering to others. I also know others who have suffered and who want to have others feel the same pain they felt and will happily dole it out. I imagine that it’s as if the pain twists us and if we don’t twist ourselves back we stay out of shape. Fail the test. Become corrupted by the pain.

    I know there is a school of thought that believes that all our pain is our own doing – cancer, rape, murder, disability, famine – everything. I don’t agree. I think it is a view that too simplistic, punitive and controlling – though I have no doubt the people who hold this view aren’t any of those things. It gives us an illusion of control that we really don’t have. But that doesn’t mean we have no control. We may be actual ‘victims’ of pain and suffering at times in our lives. The things that happen to us can be unjust and unwarranted and even unbearable and we may not have any control over any of it – be we have complete control over how we act, even after the pain. That is control – total and complete control – we may not be able to control everything that happens to us but we most definitely can control everything we do. Hard going but fair.

    To me your post is describing one of those testing moments of exquisite pain. A forging and purifying and transformative process.

    1. It was a transformative experience in a couple of ways to face the pain and to struggle to overcome the power that the suffering seemed to hold on me. It was enormously difficult to find a way through it, but something important happened that made me realize if I couldn’t find a way, I might not be able to fully engage in my life or be of much use to the people I love, particularly as a parent to my children. Whatever loss I suffered could not compare to a failure to nurture and care for them.

      Beyond these temporal concerns, enumerated so well in your response, my intense inner turmoil and profound sense of connection to something larger than myself forced me to explore and investigate further in my research, which was already underway, to unravel the tangled knots of my inner life from years of struggling.

      I’m still a work in progress, but I feel like there is still hope for the world and for me.

      Thanks for your generosity in sharing your thoughts……John H.

  4. oh John, what a great discussion you have going here. I’m glad I reread this again this morning before posting. So many thoughts inside this head, each one jockeying to be heard, but I will need to choose just a one. I often find myself wondering why some of us are able to pick ourselves up after a fall and yet others seem insistent, from my limited vantage point, in throwing themselves down upon the ground. It’s all so mysterious. What you say in the end about what saves us from pain, that ability to believe our impact upon the lives of others, is true. We are truly blessed if we can perceive this. I can say that there have been times in my life where I did know I mattered and times when I didn’t know. To me finding myself necessary to others in any small way has been a true paradigm shift, inward shift for me.

    There is a psychological phrase or concept called, “object permanence or constancy” , it is a stage in a young child’s development when they can hold a missing object, a parent, in their mind and being able to do this, they can imagine being held in that object’s mind. This is a critical bit of development. The idea is that in holding the object in her mind, the child can live the strength of that object when she is separated from it. If she cannot do this, she will live life with an aching sense of being too separate, too alone and lost. If we feel so bereft when we are out of site of our love objects, if we can not remember them and feel they cannot remember us, this is a difficult way to live. Difficult in and of itself, but also difficult in that the joys of realizing our importance to others, these joys that sustain us through life’s ups and downs are simply not there.

    Yesterday my 15 year old daughter was sitting at the kitchen table writing a short paper on Proust. She was listening to one of our favorite singer/song writers, Elliot Smith. She was talking about how she just loves listening to him, and feels he is like a friend to her. I agreed he has this this very special quality, this ability to mine his depth and share it so sweetly with others, like my daughter and myself, in song. A friend, to you and to me and so many. I felt tears welling in my eyes, as I realized this young artist probably could not feel the way he was living in the hearts of his fans, could not be fed by the way in which he was feeding them. I felt angry that all the love we felt for him could not prevent him from taking his own life.

    About a year ago I realized something in me was starting to feel the love others had been directing at me for sometime. I remember it was like a curtain being pulled back and I could see that there was something in me that felt so deeply unworthy, I hadn’t even realized how frustrating my refusal of that love, so automatic for me, had been to others. I remember thinking, oh my god, you love me? I couldn’t believe it. The thing is when we don’t think others truly love us, when some part of us just knows they are only doing us a favor, only showing us mercy, it can be hard to go on living. I feel so grateful to have seen the curtain of my own hidden self-loathing being pulled back. Honestly, I hadn’t been able to put my finger on it. When I realized my life mattered to others, which I could only believe if I wasn’s simply a burden, it made getting up each day to face the reality of living a lot easier. It even brought me moments of joy.

    1. There are generally not many moments in our daily lives as significant as those which contain the kind of recognition you spoke of in your reply to my post, and one of the reasons I am so hopeful about the future is because I know that there are people in the world who, like you, recognize that we are connected to other human spirits in ways that allow you to share in their experiences in such a visceral way, as in the example of you and your daughter sharing such a clearly perceived connection to Elliot Smith. Whatever circumstances led to his decision to abandon hope, or caused him to be unable to find a way of coping, there can be little doubt that he did not know how to connect to the joy and sweetness embodied in your sharing with your daughter of his enormous talent.

      Your own explorations and descriptions of your discoveries, as the comment by “years stricken” pointed out, serve as a vivid reminder of the value of doing this work, and I feel fortunate to be on the receiving end of your sharing which is clearly “passionate, articulate, and (shows that you are not afraid to be) vulnerable,” in the pursuit of an examined life.

      Realizing we matter to others is perhaps the single most effective way to overcome the suffering and struggling in our lives, and you are definitely someone who matters to me.

      1. You know what’s funny…how I learned my lesson that I mattered? I was feeling heartbroken about my niece’s death, I kept reaching out to my brother and his family, and I just felt like they could not see how much I loved them and it tore at me. I was telling a friend, a good friend, about this feeling of being so unnecessary to them and she said, I hope you’re not offended, but that’s how I feel with you. And I was like, what? I had felt my inner recoil at the good things people gave me, their care, was a polite thing to do. I had felt deeply embarressed to recieve kindness as I felt on some level it was a bit of a charade, like the love wasn’t real. And my friend said this hurt her. Only when I could see that it was my fear that kept my friend from feeling loved by me (by recieving her gift) could I see how my brother’s lack of sense of his own worth was what was making me feel my love was useless to him. It was a great moment and I thanked my friend for exploring that with me.

        To recieve the love of others as pure would put me in a position of great vulnerability. But then I thought of how my brother and his children had not been able to show me they recieved my gifts of love to them. I would send these little love packages to, like with small gifts and letters just for them, as I couldn’t be with this as much as I wanted, and they didn’t respond at all when I sent them. They wouldn’t call or send a text. I took it to mean they didn’t recieve my love. At some point they would say thank you, like at some gathering in which I would see them. They didn’t understand I wasn’t looking for gratitude, I was looking for them to know how much I loved them, I was desperate for them to feel that love. I needed to connect with them because of the loss they had suffered and I had suffered as well.

        I realized from that experience that I could actually be giving someone something by recieving their gift of love. Sorry to go on. But I think what I went through might be a common experience. People thinking they are doing others a favor by not wanting anything from them. That’s been me. I thought I was doing right be living like that. But I made my friend feel small and impotent, like she was unnecessary.

      2. This is a wonderful description, Patrice, and I think may well be something I have also done in various places in my life. For me the vulnerability is not so much about receiving love but more about being let down when in need and deciding it was too dangerous to ask and thereby building up a habit of giving (because – cheesy as it sounds – I am actually always very happy when I am able to give anything to someone in need). I am not as good at asking (probably not good at receiving either) – as I couldn’t – maybe still can’t – take the refusal if I am in need. So, I make sure I don’t want anything back – not thanks, not anything – and that makes me look invulnerable and sometimes I probably look as if you can’t give me anything, I do admit. In general I just muster all my resources to solve my problems alone. Not completely alone, thankfully. My husband has always been able to ‘see’ me somehow which makes me feel very lucky and I have maybe two friends who also fit into this category – but the rest of the world? Not so much.
        Many years ago (when I was 28) I had a baby who died – she was still-born – and while she was being buried by my husband (I couldn’t go to the funeral because I was injured and in hospital) – someone who loved me (and this person really did love me) asked me how she would tell my sister the news as she was also pregnant and would be upset and she didn’t want to upset her. I didn’t freak out. Just said, “I don’t know.”
        Even then I could see that whatever it is about me, somehow my obvious excruciating pain was less significant than another’s discomfort – but I didn’t care about that at the time – it was truly a very small pain in comparison to the rest of what was happening. It does however describe how I am seen even by many of the people who love me. I am seen as capable and smart and able to drag my sorry-self back up off the ground – and all of those things are true. But none of them mean I am invulnerable and need-less – because that is simply impossible.
        When I am in a good mood I say that these people don’t think they are important to me or that what they have to ‘give’ me matters to me. When I am in a bad mood I say that they just want to take and not give and so they tell themselves that I don’t need it anyway. I’m pretty sure the truth is variable and not connected to my moods.
        Thanks for letting us chat in your ‘kitchen’, John!

      3. Patrice,

        Please don’t ever be sorry about sharing at length in your responses here. Not only are your thoughts and feelings welcome, but when they contain such important ideas and heartfelt, hard-won wisdom, everyone benefits. You guys can come and talk in my kitchen anytime.

        In some ways, I feel right at home conversing about emotional and psychological struggles, particularly when it comes to suffering a deeply personal loss, since I have first hand knowledge of such things. As you so aptly pointed out, loss can sometimes happen to others, especially to those we love, and while the specific pain isn’t necessarily directly our own, we can feel the urgency and the potency of that loss, because it is being endured by someone who matters to us.

        For each of us, suffering loss in our lives is a very personal, subjective experience, but it speaks to a much larger and universal connection that we share with every other human being. We cannot know every human being personally, and we only know each of those in our immediate circle to the degree that we have been open to knowing them, and according to the level of intimacy we have shared between each of them. It is in suffering a close, personal loss that the universal connection is made aware to us so vividly.

        There is a big difference between being humble in our response to the generosity of others, and simply refusing to accept or acknowledge our need for that generosity. We are vulnerable anytime we accept the kindness of others, no matter what form it takes, and it is in permitting this momentary vulnerability that we bestow our own gift in return. Reciprocity in the spirit of giving is a gift in itself, and we have that in abundance here. Expressing gratitude for generosity is appropriate, but the way we express it can take so many different forms, that we sometimes have to step back in order to see the larger picture.

        While my son was serving as a soldier in combat overseas, we bombarded him with care packages and letters and every manner of loving attention that we could think of. He was enduring suffering of the sort that none of us could even imagine fully, but we were determined that he would not lose sight of how many people loved him and needed him and wanted him to come home safe and sound. We knew that there were others in his unit that were not so fortunate to have such a family, and so we sent five times more than anyone could possibly use so that he would be able to share with everyone around him. He endured a total of 36 months in a combat zone over five years, and that adds up to a whole lot of love flying across the ocean. When he was leaving the military, on his last day, the two of us, father and son, went to the headquarters building at the request of his military leader, which I assumed was simply to speak to my son. When we got there, this burly Sgt. Major came around his desk and handed ME a medal. As it turns out, HE was one of the guys who shared in the bounty of love from overseas, along with many of the other soldiers in the unit, and he wanted to express his gratitude. No medal could possibly replace the spirit of generosity that this man was bestowing by his acknowledgement, and if he had simply said the words he spoke, I would have felt the same.

        Your friend is a really good friend to be courageous and forthright with you about something so important, and I feel really fortunate to be the cook in this kitchen, and to have such caring people to share it with….John H.

  5. Everything that we experience contributes to the person we are always becoming as we move through the world, and difficult circumstances can either knock us down or be a catalyst for change in our lives. The unexamined life is much harder to live. I hope to contribute to the world by examining my life and writing about what I find.

    1. I am just glad that you thought enough about my writing to comment in the first place. This wonderful conversation is the icing on the cake. Trish is right. The truth can be variable when it comes to people’s motives for being generous, but mine is unambiguously my feelings about those who matter to me.

  6. I just read through the comments here…I need to run out and buy my lunch now, but I just wanted to say how wonderful it is that you are the host here…really, John, without the host there would be no guests. I really like be a guest here 😉

  7. I’m still mulling over this beautiful conversation. Just so you all know. Trisha I am sorry about your baby. Your memory of the time in the hospital and the response you gave to the woman who was concerned about what to tell another pregnant friend seems so clear and alive. We remember those moments. My own skin is remembering similar moments as I type, it is shivering and alert, about face.

    Sometimes I think about how we keep the souls of others alive; we sense their energy leaving them and we send our spirits their way, like warm blankets intended to trap in their fleeting heat. Care packages for which some earn a medal! I like that story of your son, John. It’s wonderful how you all understood the importance of keeping him and so many others near him tethered to life.

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