Category Archives: St. Thérèse

It Raineth

painting1As I write, it’s rainy—no downpour, but the sky hangs heavy, prematurely as dim as dusk… and deep gray. I have no reason to go out, thankfully.

On days like today, if anyone complained about the weather, a former colleague said, “Into each life, some rain must fall.” He taught English, and at first I assumed the quotation came from Shakespeare, but it’s actually from a poem by Longfellow that, like the weather outside (possibly), seems headed for gloom before it turns toward sunshine instead.

Here’s the last stanza:

Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.

The poem’s consolation—that “the common fate of all” dictates we suffer a day of rain here or there—balances against that “still shining sun” above the clouds or elsewhere. The last line, “Some days must be dark and dreary,” suggests the necessity of variation, not the prominence of rain or “dark and dreary” days. The metaphoric lesson behind the poem is that, when things look bad, you do well to remember they’re not always so and not for everyone. So “cease repining,” stop complaining, and get going.

That’s harder than it appears. Misfortune isn’t always so rationally and easily explained away. The notions “this too shall pass” and “others have it worse” may make absolute intellectual sense, but suffering people don’t excel at abstraction any more than someone concussed excels at math. Minds are much easier to change than emotions, and rarely does reprimanding someone for being unhappy—no, I’d say never—works.

In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the fool Feste sings a song about life, and its reprised line, “For the rain it raineth every day” offers an alternative perspective. Recognizing rain’s frequency adjusts expectations. You would be wise, he implies, to expect rain, to keep it in mind rather than explain it away as variation because, well, it’s going to happen. His last stanza is:

A great while ago the world begun,

With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,

But that’s all one, our play is done,

And we’ll strive to please you every day.

Compensation becomes the focus. “That’s all one,” Feste sings. It is what it is, and so perhaps it’s better to battle what’s inevitable than to live in expectation of relief or in the celebration that other people have sunshine. “We’ll strive to please you every day,” puts emphasis squarely on verbs, striving to please, efforts to answer vicissitudes, not erase them with phony affirmations or life-coaching.

As in most matters, I’m more Shakespearian than Longfellowian. Though it may seem grim to live with daily rain, I prefer an alternative acknowledging humanity and empathy. That the sun shines elsewhere promises statistical solace—well, a lot of other people are doing fine—whereas Feste speaks a blues truth, “it be’s like that sometimes.”

And not just sometimes. Someone somewhere is getting wet. Right now.

I have no reason to go out but don’t rejoice. Many people will be making their way home without umbrellas. I’ve been where they are and wouldn’t presume to remind them of those who checked the forecast or stowed a rain coat. I’d never preach, as many do, that though they are the unfortunate today, if they try harder next time, they may not possibly, if they are lucky, always be.

I’m thankful I’m dry but recall my miseries. It rains. It rains every day.

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Filed under Brave New World, Chicago, Doubt, Empathy, Essays, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Metaphor, Modern Life, Rationalizations, Shakespeare, St. Thérèse, Thoughts, Worry

The Little Way

Strange how the sting of a statement can persist.  Lately, my memory keeps replaying an encounter with a college classmate in 1985.  She appeared in Tewligan’s, a bar in Louisville where my friends and I danced on Friday nights.  I hadn’t seen her in two years and, in that time, I’d received my masters and taken a job teaching sixth and seventh grade English. We exchanged what-are-you-doing-nows, and she said the only important part of this story.

“Sort of underemployed, aren’t you?”

I haven’t seen her since—I can’t recall her name—but she provided one of those moments when everything seems shaken into place—the DVD seated and swallowed, each bottle slotted into its proper square in a lattice, all the b-bs settling into the dimples of a clown’s face.

Her question stuck with me because high school and college classmates expected more of me. The usual scrawled good wishes fill my high school yearbook but so do many assertions I’d someday be president, a movie actor, a general all-around famous and accomplished person. Many students probably have yearbooks like mine, but in college my ambitions ran unchecked.  They rose to Parnassian heights.  My senior roommate and many of our friends fully expected us to be renowned writers reviewed regularly in the NY Times.  He is.  I’m not.

My son is a high school senior.  Right now, his applications fly in a holding pattern over his head, and he waits to see which acceptances will land and which jet elsewhere.  I wonder if he has such ambitions for himself and hope he doesn’t. His impressive talents, nurtured well, might take him far, but I’d like him to live by the standard of satisfaction, not accomplishment.

I’ve measured my own life by what I might have done. 25 years later, I hear my college classmate echoed in questions about why I’m here and not elsewhere, why I’m not doing something different or something more.  People are no longer asking really, but I hear it. I ask myself.  So short of my early dreams, I resist recognizing I’ve found my level.  Satisfaction feels like rationalizing, trying to bury an ambition that pounds like a heart long separated from its body.

In Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer, on the way back from an blissful day on the coast with a new love, the main character Binx Bolling realizes the small joys of his life and says, “It is not a bad thing to settle for the Little Way, not the big search for the big happiness but the sad little happiness of drinks and kisses, a good little car and a warm deep thigh.”

As the great Catholic novelist, Percy has Bolling express the sentiment of St. Thérèse of Lisieux who espoused the Little Way as a devotion to everyday people and everyday tasks—in her view, the right way to worship.  Salvation was daunting in her day, a question of how near perfection believers came.  She expressed the welcome idea people might love God less through Acts and more through simple, day-in, day-out goodness.

And I wish I could believe her.  I’ve nothing to be dissatisfied about.  I’m good at teaching, or at least earnest about doing my best, and have always sought to exercise my talents, such as they are.  In my best moments, I’m happy in Thérèse’s little way.  I want to be because there’s agony in comparison.

When my son was small, he told me he was “good at a lot of things, but not the best at anything.”  He’s attended schools where even bright, creative, and diligent students stand in the shadow of brilliant and dazzling talent.  It’s hard not to compare, but I want him to be satisfied with making the most of what he has and form no ambition beyond devoting full effort to building on his considerable gifts.

Like every father, I want him to have what I lack.  I want him to find his way.

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Filed under Aging, Doubt, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Home Life, Hope, Laments, life, Meditations, Parenting, Recollection, St. Thérèse, Sturm und Drang, Teaching, Thoughts, Walker Percy, Work, Writing