Do you ever wonder if the pioneers cried? If those men, tough as nails, riding high on their wagons traversing plain and prairie sat over God’s planned paradise beside their wives – children playing under the cover behind with a rag doll or an old wooden toy, as children always do – and wept? Did they become suddenly misty, turning from their partners to look across the empty lands as they recalled the failures that inadvertently drove them into danger? Did they shed a tear for friends lost – for dreams abandoned? Did they mourn their own poverty and misery and discomfort – the humiliation of shepherding their family into so great a tribulation?
I’ve thought a lot about the settlers; their existential decisions leading them to lives lived upon the precipice of calamity. A fire; a bad harvest; an accident – there, vulnerable and alone they would die, and often did. Unsung, unknown. While I’ve respected their role in the forging of our country, I’ve always wondered why they did it – what they felt – how they made that, the toughest of all decisions? And I’ve wondered if they cried.
The trouble with adversity is that we never know if we will endure it, when we are at last called to it. Would you melt away, if your wealth was lost in one tremendous gamble? Would you perish if your children did, following them to the other side in despair? What if you lost your love? Or were cast aside from that job that was yours? If your country were to turn against you viciously and deliberately?
It’s a word best used for others; for other circumstances; for other countries. As a way to admire great strength from afar – antiseptically and without insight. A world without adversity – that’s what we’ve been trying to build, isn’t it? If we’d only admit it. Resilient societies – where nothing is ever that serious, no choices are existential and no problems will ever do that much harm, right? Isn’t that what we all want? And what’s wrong with that, anyway?
I suppose we forget that resilience is made through a hardening process the cement of which is adversity.
Resilience in the making is unpleasant. The wreckage of destroyed companies that fertilize great industry; sure we call it ‘creative destruction’, academic terms meant to take away the bitterness – but it is still bitter to the man standing beside his shuttered store, “Foreclosed” sign plastered in red crookedly taped. Sad little ceremonies of remembrance for a lost land; a love left behind; looking into the eyes of a man – your son – who you have not known, for you did not watch him grow up and wondering who he is, who he has become, and who he would have been – if not for your adversity.
Adversity is a tiny room on the backside of a warehouse in Dubai filled with bunk beds; Pakistani men driving taxis 12 hours a day, 7 days a week to send money home. Adversity is a Syrian man trembling against the cold staring down in silence at the tiny grave beneath packed dirt; a child he could not feed – because there were too many mouths and he had to choose. Adversity is a Congolese woman, nine months pregnant fleeing town when the rebels attack, walking forty miles until night falls, going into the ditch beside the road to give birth, and then turning around the next day to return the forty miles after the war front shifts. Adversity is sitting in a jail – convicted but not guilty – watching prison guards probe your wife and seeing your children grow in two hour chunks every month, every two months. Knowing the damage you are doing to them is something that they did not ask for and that you did not want.
Adversity, it’s fun to commend it in others, isn’t it? It makes us feel good – recognizing their plight; like somehow we can participate in their misery but without the peril. But our own predicament? When we are living the nightmare? That’s another story altogether…
So, let me ask you again, do you think the pioneers cried? I’d like to think that they did – that the milk of human frailty ran through them too; and that they hurt from the wounds of a world that was hard. That makes them flesh and blood and within our grasp. And somehow, that’s important for me – especially when I get scared.