Dying Bitter

Robert Frost’s famous poem has been a reference point in my thinking and practice for decades. Considered by many to be a populist poem for the poser, it touched my life in Grade 11. For some reason, and I have no idea why, I almost liked poetry in high school. It wasn’t very cool for a guy who played competitive sports to spend too much time discussing poetry with girls when you could be kissing, so I pretended to think poetry was stupid.  Something stuck.

My grade 11 English teacher seemed 100 years old. She was one of those old-school marms who wore her hair in a bun because she hated fun. We couldn’t stand her, but we were exposed to a ton of poetry, and I learned how to put a sentence together. Thank you, Miss Enns, wherever you are.

My roommate and closest friend at the time once, when asked to compose a ditty of his own, compiled the first lines of a few dozen poems in our textbook and named this epic “As Winter Fought”. He got an A. Glen is still a legend in Grade 11 English.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

I am a believer in the concept of The Journey. My life has been a series of adventures, some amazing, some boring, some hurtful. We all have our lists, our columns of successes and failures, and it seems to me that seemingly small decisions in my life have often had a profound effect, in ways I could never have imagined. One day you turn left instead of right, or you agree to do something, and your life becomes an Owen Wilson movie where you visit Paris and wonder how your life could have gone so sideways. I would have never imagined, when I was 20, that I would be the person I am today.

Here’s where I am headed. So many of us have been hurt, and hurt bad. My slice of the world may not be indicative of the whole pie, but I imagine a strong case could be made that most people find this time in history stressful. Significant numbers of us deal with one or more mental health challenges, or we’ve experienced trauma, or our self-esteem could use a tiny bit of tweaking. Working as a clinician you meet scores of people who have experienced things in their life which threaten to ruin them on the inside, if not the outside. Some of us continue to struggle with processing relational hurts. Divorce or breakup can almost certainly taint our souls. Losing a loved one, or watching what you have worked for, for so long, shrivel up and die, is enough to make people bitter… and that’s the point.

I was speaking with a colleague this morning when it occurred to me – the hardest time in my life is the thing which continues to define my philosophy of life and coping mechanisms, for good or ill. As cliché as I know this to be, the time life broke me has influenced my decisions and outlook far more than any class or conversation or trip. As cheesy as it is to admit, I am thankful for what I have learned in my darkest hours. There were lessons and experiences there which I could never otherwise know.  Still, I wouldn’t wish some of those crazy nights on my second greatest enemy.

I hung out with my parents this summer. My dad and I shared a sailboat in Mexico, then a week in British Columbia with my mom and niece. When I get together with my dad we tend to talk about philosophy or history or life. He plans to finish his Bachelor’s Degree, part-time, by the time he is 87, a few years early. Floating in my Canadian Tire pool he pointed his finger at me and said, “Don’t forget, always have a plan. I have a 10 Year Plan. Always have goals.” That’s my old man.

Not bad.

Dylan metaphorically said it, “you can serve the devil or you can serve the Lord but you’re gonna have to serve somebody”. Some people who come to my office, or meet me for a Dairy Queen Blizzard, have been through hell and back and they are wiser and stronger and more determined than ever. Others have not been able to sustain the relentless attack and they are still chasing bitterness, in spite of best intentions. This is not meant as a negative indictment, far from it. Moving beyond the biggest kick in the face of your life seems impossible for some people. I know that some kicks are also harder than others. You try to tell a parent who has lost a child that “things are going to be ok”. As I have stated on several occasions, you lose a kid and you get a free pass the rest of your life. You can swing gophers in a pillowcase, as Brent Butt says, I’m not sure I could survive some things.

There are people in my life who have chosen to keep fighting, and some of them have begun a journey of self-discovery. They begin to understand the meaning of their life. This is what gets me up in the morning. There are those, whether on purpose or through sheer luck, have come through tragedy and decided that they don’t want to end up like that. I have watched people wade through hellish madness or grief or anxiety on levels which would stagger the uninitiated, and yet somehow are able to dream about graduating from university at 87. We will not diminish this by pretending this is a Hallmark Card and your attitude determines your altitude, staying engaged in a world that has kicked you in the groin is very hard and requires a butt-load of work.

Few of us are going to radically redefine our attitude towards life and stop being pessimistic without taking significant time for you. As we have quipped before, I want to learn enough I want to change, not hurt enough I have to. My clients who move forward drink the Kool-Aid just enough to believe that things will change if they keep trying to give a damn. I can just hear several of my clients saying, “yes but I’ve tried that before, many times, and yet here I am”. I believe you. All I can say is that I have names of people who have a richer life now than during that time we dare not say out loud. At the end of the day that ridiculous greeting card may hold some truth after all, I do have a say in how I choose to look at life.

I had one other thought about this subject this morning: Why do some people tell me that the worst time of their lives has turned out to be the time when they grew the most? While there are certainly circumstances which I would not be qualified to judge, times when a life has become untenable, for many of us our greatest heartbreaks only almost killed us.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I pray I never become a bitter old man who spends all day talking about his medical problems.

9 thoughts on “Dying Bitter

  1. Negative experiences can cause deep stress (without necessarily improving one’s outlook or wisdom). Also, they can ignite chronic conditions, such as bipolar disorder and other illnesses, that can affect the brain permanently. Grief can result from the loss of something hard or impossible to replace. Negative experiences, like all of life’s, can either positively or negatively affect one’s development—or they can have no effect, no benefit. We have this idea that our greatest gains often come from our worst experiences, partly because we are desperate to assign meaning to events that may merely be random. I look at this as one of the ways our society coats many negative experiences with an unfounded optimism.

  2. Those hard times can also cause great emotional duress (without an improved outlook being the necessary result). In some with predispositions, chronic lifelong illnesses such as bipolar disorder can surface–hence changing the brain forever. Some negative experiences result in learning/growth—others can “break” a person and promote negativity. Many negative experiences involve loss that can be difficult or impossible to find substitutes for. Negative experiences, like anything in life, can result in great positive or negative change or little change in a person. Assigning a strong positive to these negative experiences is a desire to assign meaning to things in life that sometimes are merely random.

  3. I agree with you. I don’t want to be a bitter old fart either, but the days are quickly slipping by and the lines on my face are getting deeper. I used to deal with my depression by getting up and getting on with things despite how much they hurt. Eventually I didn’t feel that cloud over my head following me around so much, and then not at all.
    This time has been the worst, because as a gal with FM/ME (among other things) it’s been impossible to work my usual programme. I’ve been trying to do other things to heal but it’s a lot harder than I thought it would be. I’m still quite anxious and depressed, in spite of all the great support I’ve had this time round and the progress I HAVE made (thanks in no small part to you Scott). I just want to wake up and be better. I want to get to the fork in the road and just go ‘That-a-way’ instead of freaking out over having to make a choice. Nuts! Is anyone else having that problem now or recently? I would love to know.

  4. You asked, and I’ve been thinking about this: “Why do some people tell me that the worst time of their lives have turned out to be the time when they grew the most?” I remembered a quote: “Kites only rise against the wind.” Simplistic but I’m learning to stop cursing the wind and fly. I’m not particularly good at it, but I’m off the ground, at last.

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