Years ago, my husband and I fixed up a very close friend with another friend. They fell in love; it was great. But within a few years, he got sick. She stood by him through it all. Then he died. It was awful. And it was very, very hard on our friend.
It was a sad situation for many reasons. As the years passed, one thing continued to bother me: I felt we had put a beloved friend in the path to sorrow. It had been inadvertent, and well-intentioned, but still, we had brought all this pain into our good friend’s life.
I mentioned this to my husband, and he said something that completely changed my thinking. He said, “Yes, it was very hard on her. But think how much better it was for him .”
This thought, obvious as it is, had never occurred to me. I realized how often I make this error. I was acting as though my friend were the main character of this story! That she was the one who really mattered. And I saw that I make this mistake all the time. I’m the most main character, of course, and then the people close to me, and so on … with some people just appearing as extras or in walk-on roles.
But that’s not true. Everyone is a main character. And everyone is a minor character. And as I started thinking about this, I realized that many of my favorite happiness passages concerned exactly this shift: someone re-interpreting a situation, by understanding how different circumstances would seem if someone else were placed in the starring role.
Each has haunted me, but only now do I see what theme links them together.
Reading Flannery O’Connor’s letters led me to the extraordinary book, A Memoir of Mary Ann , a memoir about a little girl, Mary Ann, who lived with a gruesome tumor on her face before dying of cancer, written by the nuns with whom she lived for several years in a free cancer-treatment home.
Near the end of Mary Ann’s life, a 5-month-old baby, Stephanie, was brought to the cancer home. Stephanie’s parents were crushed at the thought of leaving their baby there.
The nuns relate that for years, Mary Ann had longed for a baby to take care of. When Stephanie arrived, she said shyly to the baby’s mother, “I didn’t pray for a baby to be sick, but I prayed that if a baby was sick, it would come here.”
Later, the mother wrote the nuns, “I had accepted the hurt [my child’s affliction] brought me, but I had not accepted the fact that I had to give her up. My husband was suffering too and my attitude … was not helping much. Mary Ann’s words opened my understanding. Stephanie was needed … this child [Mary Ann] with the bandaged face and a heart full of love needed her. … God had given me a good husband, six beautiful children. This last child was probably the most special of them all, destined for something I knew nothing about.”
In Viktor Frankl’s masterpiece, Man’s Search for Meaning , he relates a story from his psychiatric practice, when an elderly man, distraught with grief over the death of his wife two years earlier, came to him.
Frankl asked, “What would have happened … if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?”
The man answered, “Oh, for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!”
Frankl responded, “You see … such a suffering has been spared to her, and it was you who have spared her this suffering—to be sure, at the price that now you have to survive and mourn her.”
The man left the office, comforted. Frankl observed, “In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”
Here’s an example from children’s literature. In Rick Riordan’s novel, The Sea of Monsters , the hero of the story, 13-year-old Percy Jackson (who happens to be the son of the sea god Poseidon and a mortal woman), has taken Tyson, a huge, awkward boy who seems to be learning-disabled, with a misshapen face, under his wing. They go to high school together, but Percy isn’t exactly sure why he’s bothering to protect Tyson and drag him along on his Olympian adventures.
He keeps Tyson with him, though, and at the end of the book, Percy learns that Tyson is also a son of Poseidon, and he’s a Cyclops, which is why his face looks wrong. (He has only one eye.)
Tyson says to Percy, “Poseidon did take care for me after all. …I prayed to Daddy for help. …He sent me a brother.”
Ah! Percy thought that Tyson was tagging along with him, but in fact, he was a supporting character in Tyson’s adventure.
It’s a very unsettling and interesting exercise to think about the people in my life and to imagine myself in a minor, supporting role. How do I fit into their fates? Am I helping?
* I always find interesting things at LifeDev , “empowering creative people.” Good stuff.
* I’m trying to figure out the level of interest for a book tour. If I did a book event in your town, and you’d come, it would be very helpful if you’d either post a comment below or drop me an e-mail at grubin[at]gretchenrubin[dot com] . (Sorry about the weird format—trying to thwart spammers). Just write “tour” in the subject line and be sure to include the name of your city. Thanks very much to all the people who already answered; the information is enormously helpful.