I am reading The Other Boleyn Girl. The movie might be 115 minutes long, but the book is 661 pages. It's a process. I have, however, learned an important lesson about the Tudor period, and also, probably, about the British. They have mastered subservience and grace under pressure. The courtiers, for example, made it their life's work to know the moods of the king and to respond appropriately. It made no difference if it was a bad hair day or a family member had died or even if war was impending, the courtier's job was to be gracious when the rest of us would have thrown up our middle finger and stomped out in disgust. Americans don't really get that. When we came to the new world, we had Martin Luther and Quakers and a pope who was very, very, very far away. We had a government that did not rest on the merry mood of one half-grown man. And as I'm reading this book, I wonder to myself if I have learned the lesson of grace and subservience and kindness when it's easier not to be.
It is, I think, the greatest understated irony: that when times are most difficult, you are most called upon to be gracious and understanding. You are expected to receive those who are well-meaning, well-intentioned, but inexperienced at your pain. And you are expected to do so with smiles and appreciation. You can not, or at least should not, strike out and shout in martyred tones about how they don't understand..about how this path you've been asked to walk is full of potholes that twist your ankles in the dark. And above all, you are expected to suppress the tears that puddle so close to the surface because that...that is uncomfortable for your guest.
I am thinking on these things today because I received an email from someone who meant well but only made my heart heavy for our son. I read it and then I cried. I cried all the way down Harrodsburg Road. I cried all the way down New Circle Road. And then I sat in the parking lot of Meijer and cried some more. I cried until my head was throbbing and my eyes were bloodshot and all I wanted to do was lie down in the grass and take a nap. But instead I did our grocery shopping.
When I got home and had put away the cheese and the carton of eggs I took home by mistake (the woman in line in front me will be very cranky when she starts to make her breakfast casserole only to find that she is missing a key ingredient. And then she will turn her house and car upside down trying to find the 12 eggs that now sit in my fridge. If I knew who she was, I would bring them to her. But I don't so tomorrow we will have egg sandwiches)...I sat and thought about what I should do. How can I make the bleeding stop when the wound has been re-opened? I poured a hot bath, turned on the jets and opened a beer. I sat in the water, watching the jets jiggle body parts that did not always jiggle (I've always told the participants in my exercise classes: "there is a difference between jiggle and wiggle. You are here because you jiggle). I looked at the bathroom cabinets through the amber glow of a Corona and wondered what it would be like to look at life through golden glasses. Would I be happier or just yearn desperately for technicolor? And I wondered what to say to the person who was trying so hard to make it better but instead made it indescribably worse. And in the end, I decided that if I were a courtier, I would say nothing at all. Being gracious in times of pain is hard. But I think it can make us wiser when faced with another's grief. We may never find the right words, but we can certainly try harder to avoid the wrong ones.
*Post script: I know how some in my circle tend to fear that I'm upset with them when I post what others would consider to be private thoughts. First, if you are reading this then it is probably not you. Second, if it is you, I know that you aren't malicious, simply ignorant of the situation. Don't worry about it - you are not the first to make well-intentioned but instantly disasterous comments.