There are things that happen to us, and when they happen, they give us two options. Either way, we will never be the same, and we shouldn’t. These things can either strip us down to the bone and allow us to become strong and honest, or they can be the reasons we use to behave poorly indefinitely, the justification for all manner of broken relationships and broken ideals. It could be the thing that allows everything else to turn, that allows the lock of our lives to finally spring open and our pent-up selves to blossom like preening flowers. Or it can be the reason we use to justify our anger and the sharp tones in our voices for the rest of our lives.
One of my dearest and oldest friends, Jon, married a girl I grew up with. In the middle of the night two years later, Jon called me because he had just found emails that made it clear to him that his wife was cheating on him. Soon after, she left and never came back. Less than a year later, they were divorced, and the day they went to court, we threw a party for Jon, not to celebrate the fact of the divorce, but because it didn’t seem right that he would go home to their empty apartment after the courthouse. We grilled out and drank icy margaritas with salty rims, and sat on the back steps of our townhouse, watching the bugs circle the porch light.
Jon had every right, you could say, to let his life be defined by that day, by that year, by that woman, by that betrayal. But what he did instead was a marvelous thing to watch. He laid himself open and vulnerable to life and God and therapy and close friends, and began the breathtaking process of becoming more than what he had been in a thousand different ways. He is softer, in the best possible way, and when you talk to him, you know that he’s been down to the bottom and fought his way back up. He listens more closely and prays like he’s talking to a best friend. I knew him well for years before she left, and although I would never wish upon anyone the searing pain I saw written on his face during that season, what God did in his life through that event makes me believe in God’s goodness even more than I did before.
In May, three years ago, I stood at the back of a church and cried great big happy tears as he married Christina, a beautiful and smart woman who loves him with a steadiness that feels like a sailboat’s keel. There’s something immovable in her, and it feels like just the right thing for the zig-zag path of his life. Their sons, Gabe and Will, are darling gray-eyed miracles, and when I see Jon with them, I know that it seemed like God was being cruel that year, that middle of the night when he called me. But he was not. What I know now is that his kindness burns through even the deepest betrayals and invites life from death every chance we let him. There are things that explode into our lives and we call them curses, and then one day, a year later or ten years later, we realize that they are actually something else. They are the very most precious kinds of blessings.
It’s dark today, almost like night and cool and rainy. It always seems in the dead of summer that it will be summer forever, that it couldn’t possibly ever get cold again. And then there are days like today that remind you that it will. The leaves are starting to change, and the clouds have a decidedly different presence than the one they had all summer. They are brighter, more aggressive, fighting the sun more directly than the summer clouds who seemed more content to let the sun lead the way. These clouds mean business.
The slight turn of seasons reminds me of last fall, and it strikes me that my life has changed almost beyond recognition since then. In the process of breaking my heart, life or God or something—not that I don’t believe God moves in these ways, I just don’t want to immediately blame Him for a crime He didn’t commit—also delivered me to the life I’ve been wanting. And I can spend all my soul and all my words on the pain of what happened to me, or I can take this glimmering gift and run.
The day I left my job at the church was the darkest day of my life so far. It felt like a curse, a punch in the face, a slice to the core. It made me feel like my luck had run out cosmically, and from then on, all I could expect was rain.
But the only person who decided my life had turned to dust was me. The only person who is still deeply troubled about what I’ve lost, even in the face of what I’ve gained, is me. I would never have wanted it that way, but something bright and beautiful has been given to me, and I‘m in grave danger of losing it, squandering it, becoming a person who cannot find the goodness that’s right in front of her because of the sadness she chooses to let obscure it.
Now we’re talking about celebration. Celebration when you think you’re calling the shots? Easy. Celebration when your plan is working? Anyone can do that.
But when you realize that the story of your life could be told a thousand different ways, that you could tell it over and over as a tragedy, but you choose to call it an epic, that’s when you start to learn what celebration is. When what you see in front of you is so far outside of what you dreamed, but you have the belief, the boldness, the courage to call it beautiful instead of calling it wrong, that’s celebration.
When you can invest yourself deeply and unremittingly in the life that surrounds you instead of declaring yourself out of the game once and for all, because what’s happened to you is too bad, too deep, too ugly for anyone to expect you to move on from, that’s that good, rich place. That’s the place where the things that looked for all intents and purposes like curses start to stand up and shimmer and dance, and you realize with a gasp that they may have been blessings all along. Or maybe not. Maybe they were curses, in fact, but the force of your belief and your hope and your desperate love for life as it is actually unfolding, has brought a blessing from a curse, like water from a stone, like life from a tomb, like the actual story of God over and over.
I would never try to tell you that every bad thing is really a good thing, just waiting to be gazed at with pretty new eyes, just waiting to be shined up and–ta da!–discovered as fantastic. But what I know is that for me, and for my friend Jon, and for a lot of the people I love, we’re discovering that lots of times, not every time, maybe, but more often than not, there is something just past the heartbreak, just past the curse, just past the despair, and that thing is beautiful. You don’t want it to be beautiful, at first. You want to stay in the pain and the blackness because it feels familiar, and because you’re not done feeling victimized and smashed up. But one day you’ll wake up surprised and humbled, staring at something you thought for sure was a curse and has revealed itself to be a blessing–a beautiful, delicate blessing.
There have been a thousand moments when I have felt the weight and the sadness of this season, appropriately. But then there have been some moments where I have felt the blessing and beauty of it, too. Seeing our baby’s face on the ultrasound, eating ice cream with Aaron, having breakfast at Annette’s and taking Spence for a walk, walking on the pier by myself today after lunch at the Phoenix Street Café. There is a particular beauty to this season, not the obvious everything-is-perfect beauty, but a strange slanted pleasantness that surprises me and catches in my throat like a sob or a song.
Nothing good comes easily. You have to lose things you thought you loved, give up things you thought you needed. You have to get over yourself, beyond your past, out from under the weight of your future. The good stuff never comes when things are easy. It comes when things are all heavily weighted down like moving trucks. It comes just when you think it never will, like a shimmering Las Vegas trip rising up out of the dry desert, sparkling and humming with energy, a blessing that rose up out of a bone-dry, dusty curse.
When I lived in Santa Barbara, every time I drove to Las Vegas, I always got scared that I was lost, that I would die in the desert, eaten by a coyote. The road was desolate and the truck stops eerie and silent, and I always began to lose hope—there was no Vegas, no city in this bleak desert. We were sure to die, right on the side of the Pearblossom Freeway. And then, every time, there it was, like a mirage, like a happy ending.
We become who we are in these moments. I have a friend who falls back, whenever things are too hard, to an event in her life that happened over a decade ago. It’s the thing she uses to justify cruel behavior, wrecked relationships, terrifying swings of emotion. But wouldn’t it be great, wouldn’t it be just like God, if that terrible thing could be the thing that lifts her up and delivers her to her best, truest self? I know it can, because it happens all the time, because it happened to my friend Jon, and because it happened to me.
**This excerpt originally appeared in Shauna Niequist’s best-selling book, Cold Tangerines.