Summer is a season for beginnings, when everything is green and blossoming with potential. In recent weeks, I have attended a number of ceremonies that herald beginnings — graduations, weddings and showers.
Most people start new life chapters with unlimited potential. We cannot yet see far enough around the bend to know who will finish the chapter a hero and who will fall behind as life’s challenges emerge.
For instance, on graduation day, all of the graduates have similar potential to create success, but as the years pass, potential fades in the absence of actions. Some potential may even be lost if the detours take us far enough away. Perhaps we can even glimpse Robert Frost’s proverbial “two roads” emerging clearly, with one path leading to a destination for which we had long hoped, while the other road leads to a place we had only feared.
These divergent roads remind me of my friend Golden. There is likely not a day that has passed in 25 years that I have not recalled what could have been.
Golden was brilliant, handsome, athletic. I remember his excitement when after 18 years of a difficult home life, he received his college acceptance letter. We celebrated and were thankful for this much-deserved opportunity. We all believed that Golden was destined for greatness, but the Fates had something different in mind.
Golden’s path unfolded more off the road than on it. Rather than embracing education, in college he practically staggered from one party to the next, squandering his scholarships, time and potential. We did not give up, though, and for more than two decades, those who loved him most tried to return him to a better path. Eventually, we could not deny what we had long feared. As T.S. Eliot might have put it, “the moment of (his) greatness had flickered.” Nothing is impossible, of course, but there are some detours from which one cannot easily return.
But the Fates do love irony. Life had been harder for Golden’s brother and sister; there had been no scholarships but full-time employment as teenagers. Golden’s brother, Archer, had left home at 17 to work at a mill. Can you imagine paying rent and providing for yourself while still a high school student? Archer saved money and attended community college, ultimately transferring to a university where he received a bachelor’s degree, all the while working to pay for his education and raise a young family.
As the years passed, Archer achieved great success, academically, professionally, personally, as did his sister, Joy. She, too, had been forced to leave home as a teenager, and she had worked her way through community college and then university. Like Archer, Joy achieved great success, and both siblings have realized many of the dreams they envisioned years earlier.
Perhaps what made the greatest difference was how the three siblings used their potential and how they persevered — or did not — during the times of greatest hardship.
Eventually, each of us will encounter challenges that could permanently derail us from the path of our most cherished dream. How we respond to those challenges is the difference of a universe, the difference between achieving or sacrificing our greatest dream.
Ernest Hemingway writes inspirationally of those soul-wrenching challenges, as well as the transformative powers of hardships: “The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”
Perhaps this is why I have always loved scars: They are a sign of one’s ability to persevere through the greatest hardships, an outward sign of an inward courage and rebirth, of the mystery of how some wounds blossom into glory.
Dr. Love is dean of the College of Arts and Humanities at Lander University; contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.