How do we feel about the people who — too quickly, often inappropriately so — will offer up difficult details of their past, or volunteer too much information about the abuses suffered in childhood? Most of the time we feel sad; we feel a measure of the grief they carry daily. We realize that some wounds are so foul their infection takes decades to drain (and perhaps never fully can), so those made to bear such injury can only give witness to their own lives in terms of survival.
We think, There but for the grace of God go I.
What about the people who, sometimes over a slow night of drinking, can’t resist telling you, once again, about that senior year of high school when everything clicked; the evening when they were given an award and everyone cheered; that brief, shining moment in their lives when they were great, and they felt it. Maybe even believed it.
Do we view them with the same sense of understanding and sympathy as we do the first group? Or do we look at them and think, Oh pathetic. That was years ago, so get over it!
Perhaps we should think, There but for the grace of God …
Maybe no one should “get over” anything but simply put things into the power and keeping of Providence, and walk on.
In Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer prize-winning play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, we are given to understand that the great tension in Brick’s life has to do with his unresolved feelings of love for his best friend, Skipper, a recent suicide. Likely that’s the author’s intention, but I often wonder if a measure of Brick’s angst isn’t also tied up with the fact that he is an aging football hero who, once past the glories of the gridiron, can see nothing before him that holds even a sliver of promise for a similar greatness — certainly not within his grasping, dysfunctional family.
Brick may have had a Big Daddy in his life, but what he needed was a Coach Mack Brown, someone who could tell him, at his summit: “I don’t want this to be the best thing that’s ever happened to you. When you’re 54, I don’t want you to say, ‘Winning a football game was the best thing that ever happened in my life.’”
Coach Brown said that in 2006, when his Texas Longhorns won the Rose Bowl against all expectation. Coming into the locker room post-game, facing his jubilant players, he said:
“You’ll have it. And you’ll be a champion for the rest of your life. You make sure that’s one of the best sports things in your life.” “But you promise me: If you’ve got enough about you to win a national championship, you’ve got enough about you to be a great citizen and a great role model, a great father and a great leader in your family. That’s what we’re looking for when you get out of here. That’s what we want.” Video footage shows the room went quiet for just a beat. The way Brown remembers it, the silence lasted longer.
Coach Mack Brown gave his players many things, but that life lesson, so unexpected in that moment, has lingered:
The wisdom didn’t reach the entire audience right away, however. Center Lyle Sendlein, now a member of the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals, admitted after a practice last week that he has no memory of hearing Brown’s speech that night. “To be honest, I probably was looking forward to a beer,” Sendlein said. But here’s the thing: A few years after the championship, Sendlein saw a video of Brown’s speech. Then he watched it again. And again. And to this day, his appreciation of it keeps growing. “Every time I see it, it hits home,” Sendlein said. “He was exactly right.”
The advice is good; we are none of us Roman candles, decked out by God with just enough sparkle for one flash and flare before we are disposed of. Rather, we are wells of great mystery. We manage a daily sustenance with what we cup from the surface of things, until a crashing, weighty pail of adversity plumbs us, and we are forced to draw from deeper waters.
St. Philip Neri has said, “All of God’s purposes are to the good, although we may not always understand this we can trust in it.” That’s one of those terribly difficult lessons, requiring that we fully examine and revisit an event, sometimes through decades, in order to discover the “good” purpose that has been hidden within the center of something that seems very dark, indeed. Once we discover it, we see by its light, which is God’s light, and the darkness cannot overcome it.
It’s a God-driven paradox: a moment we may think of as full of greatness may actually barely skim a surface in the story of our lives. It is truly only a moment. Meanwhile, the survival of a deep wounding might prove itself to be full of grace, as are all things Providential. Hence our very worst moments may reveal to us, in hindsight, a glimmer of greatness unsurpassed. By the grace of God.
Elizabeth Scalia is Editor-in-Chief of Aleteia’s English edition.