I’ll start this essay with a quotation from “Illusions” by Richard Bach. It reads: “There is no such thing as a problem without a gift for you in its hands. You seek problems because you need their gifts.”
I know, I know – I can just hear it now. “You want my problems? You can have them all!” We see our problems, and they are awful. Money. Sick children. Older parents. Illness. Hateful job. Abusive relatives. Believe me, I am neither ignorant nor impervious to the kinds of problems that exist in daily life for almost everyone at one time or another.
But to me, the second part of the quote is the important part, for I have come to realize that at a certain point, if I stop drowning in the problem, let go of the sorrow, the fury, the confusion, the petty, roiling thoughts that enter in one door, leave for a minute, only to show up a minute later with two friends, then there is a chance I will see something besides the problem.
It takes a while to find the gift. First the problem swallows you up; you are filled with sorrow, guilt, remorse, fear, fury. The mind babbles; you feel as if you could scream at someone for days. Maybe scream at God.
Death, sudden accident, illness – loss, overwhelming sorrow and confusion. We are brought to our knees by these things, and sometimes we cannot imagine getting up again. We don’t even want to, unless things can go back to the way they were.
Where’s the gift there? How does one let go of the suffering, and say, “Oh, I’ll just look for a gift here?” Sorry, Pollyanna, but that’s just not happening right now. Mostly because you really have to at least begin to let go of the problem, the sense of nothingness, in order to be free enough to find the gift. But eventually, if we are brave and hardy enough to work through the problem, the gift begins to filter its way into our lives.
And once you start to see the gift, the problem has already begun to shift, to mean a little less. Then the clouds part, and you see a little clearing, and something finds you – or you find something – and life seems a teensy bit brighter.
I can think of two examples, which will demonstrate in a very clear way what Bach’s quotation means.
The first is a young woman who was a public figure at one time, and lost pretty much her entire planned future.
Jill Kinmont (Boothe) was an American downhill skier. She was the reigning national champion in slalom in 1955, and was expected to win a medal in the 1956 Olympics. She had a bright future, until, while competing in the Snow Cup in Utah, she suffered a near-fatal accident, and was left paralyzed from the shoulders down. That same week she’d been featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Now how does someone pick up the pieces from something like that? The body she had was left without almost any power; the life and future she’d planned was gone. And, to top it off, her fiancé, internationally known “daredevil” skier Dick Buek, was killed in an airplane crash in 1957, on his way to see her for her birthday.
So – a bright future, a stellar career in skiing, and suddenly the body is “useless” and your future husband is dead. Gifts? What gifts? Are you kidding me? Forget gifts – how does one ever dig oneself out from that?
Jill went into rehabilitation, and then on to graduate from UCLA with a B.A. in German. She earned a teaching credential from the University of Washington in Seattle, and had a long career as an educator, first in Washington and then in Beverly Hills, California. In the latter part of her career she taught special education at Bishop Union Elementary School from 1975 to 1996 in her hometown of Bishop. She married John Boothe in 1976.
Jill also became an accomplished painter who had many exhibitions of her artwork. She wrote an autobiography, which became the subject of two movies – The Other Side of the Mountain and The Other Side of the Mountain II.
So yes, there were gifts – inner resources and strengths she discovered and developed, which helped her to become a beloved teacher and an accomplished artist. It did not come easily, and she did not do it alone. Friends she met along the way – some of them in similar physical situations to hers – encouraged her and were by her side. But most of all were the gifts that came from within, in the form of gifts to others. Teaching. Giving of herself to others, and being the example that says, “You are not just your body. You have gifts you can share.” And then, of course, there were the paintings, which didn’t come until later.
I have more than one dear friend who has lost a child to suicide. It would be difficult to imagine anyone actually recovering from such a loss, which is always compounded by a sense of guilt, remorse, constant questioning as to what could have, should have been done, but wasn’t.
One of these friends was tangled in years of depression, sorrow, and a self-isolated state so profound that I never actually met her during that time, though I knew of her for years through mutual friends. When I finally did meet her, she had been working on a magnificent project called “Grief Cards” – glorious pieces of art which spoke to the person using them of redemption, and of future, and of more than just loss.
These cards are a gift to others, those who had lost a child, those who felt that there was no longer a world worth living in. Into these cards my friend poured so much love and empathy and understanding that she created a pool of light around her, and it has shone upon her, and brought her out of darkness. I know at some point those cards will be published more broadly, and they will have such positive response, because others will be healed from her gift.
Like Jill Kinmont Boothe, this friend learned that the gift she needed was already there – it just had to be dug out from behind all the tragedy and loss she endured for years. She is now happy again, with a new life, a forward looking attitude, and an opportunity to share her gifts with others.
So Jill Kinmont Boothe, a life pretty much over if she had allowed herself to wallow in her sense of loss, became a beacon for many, and a friend to many, despite hitting a large bump in the road which sent her over the mountain she was skiing on, to the other side. She was brought down to her lowest place, found and used her inner gifts, and she gave them to others.
My friend who lost her child did the same – she came to the deepest dark place, and from there brought herself back by following her own light. And that light will shine on others. The gift is first given to others, but it redeems the giver.
And that, I believe, is the truth of the quotation.
May you all be blessed, in difficult times, with the gift of your inner light, which will bring you back from dark places.