And while the future’s there for anyone to change, still you know it seems
It would be easier sometimes to change the past. . .
(“Fountain of Sorrow” Jackson Browne)
Sometimes, it’s something we truly earned—and didn’t get. The career-making job that would have launched our dreams. Sometimes, it’s something we never had, but always craved. Parents who could love us. And sometimes it’s just one terrible moment: The car we failed to see in time. Whatever it is, in most of our lives there lurks The thing that cannot be changed. It’s the moment, the decision, the situation that all our effort and talent and endurance cannot alter or undo.
Successful writers and actors, business people and ballplayers, if they’re honest, often mention the role luck played in their achievement. Along with the hard work and long hours, they confess to being in the right place at the right time. No one mentions the opportunities that went to someone else, the love that never materialized, the awful accident of standing in the wrong place at the wrong time.
And that’s the hardest part about The thing that cannot be changed. It’s almost never the result of our own doing. Perhaps that’s why it looms so large. It lies outside our control, and people like to control their own lives. When someone else denies us our most basic needs, tramples our dreams, we experience it as an injustice, and injustice bites deep. Its grip is tenacious.
Yet, we must learn to live with The thing that cannot be changed. Thrive in spite of it. Not let it swamp us internally or accept it as a judgment of our own worth. There’s a myth that only losers suffer from The thing that cannot be changed. That successful people simply leave adversity in the dust. Would that it were it so easy.
“The Places That Failed Us Before”
Tennessee Williams was a two-time Pulitzer prize winner and hailed as one of the greatest dramatists in 20th-century American theater. Decidedly a brilliant writer and a great success. But he was never able to stare down The thing that cannot be changed.
For Williams, The thing was twofold: The abusive, alcoholic father who disdained and bullied a son he considered weak; and the controlling, puritanical mother horrified by all things sexual. Williams heard their message loud and clear: “You are wrong as you are.”
In one particularly harrowing incident, his father hauled him out of the University of Missouri after he failed a military training course in his junior year, and put him to work in the factory of the International Shoe Company where the senior Williams was an executive. Tennessee hated the daily grind and eventually suffered a nervous breakdown.
After he recovered, Williams enrolled in another college, and later studied at the Dramatic Workshop of The New School in New York City. Speaking of his early days as a dramatist, collaborating with others on a play for an amateur summer theater group, Williams wrote, “The laughter … enchanted me. Then and there the theatre and I found each other for better and for worse. I know it’s the only thing that saved my life.”
The hope in that last sentence is moving; its subtext, haunting: If I just work hard enough, long enough, I can write my way free of my pain. But he never did. Despite using that pain to create some of the most memorable characters on the stage (Big Daddy, Amanda Wingfield), he remained trapped within The thing that cannot be changed. Elia Kazan, who directed many of Williams’s plays said, “Everything in his life is in his plays, and everything in his plays is in his life.”
In 1939, with the assistance of his agent, he received a $1,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation for a play he was writing, Battle of Angels. The play foundered when it opened, but Williams was on his way. And yet, a poem he penned that same year reveals how badly The thing that cannot be changed dogged him:
CRIED THE FOX
and shall till my brush hangs burning
flame at the hunter’s door
continue this fatal returning
to places that failed me before!
Then, with his heart breaking nearly,
the lonely, passionate bark
of the fugitive fox rang out clearly
as bells in the frosty dark,
across the desperate hollow,
skirting the frantic hill,
calling the pack to follow
a prey that escaped them still.
Williams once remarked that “A high station in life is earned by the gallantry with which appalling experiences are survived with grace.” But the undertow of those experiences finally claimed him. He died of asphyxia, an accident related to the quantity of alcohol and drugs he consumed over the last 30 years of his life. His obituary in The New York Times (February 27, 1983) paid homage to him as “a master of dramatic moments who created lost, tortured characters struggling for dignity and hope in a world that often denied both.”
Beyond Her Own Pain and Anger
Helen Keller became acquainted with The thing that cannot be changed at 19 months, when a severe illness left her blind and deaf. Imagine the terror of that. Your world goes dark and silent, and you are too young to even grasp why. By all accounts, Helen spent the next five years in a rage, rejecting every attempt to reach her. It was only when the young teacher, Annie Sullivan, at last broke through that dark silence and communicated with her, that Helen understood there might be something beyond her own pain and anger.
As an adult, she used that discovery to help other people afflicted with blindness. She joined the American Foundation for the Blind. For 40 years, this organization served as her global platform to advocate for people with vision loss. She saw to it that state commissions for the blind were established, rehabilitation centers were built, and education was made accessible to children without sight. She also championed the rights of working people and women’s suffrage.
It is a hard thing for us humans to accept, but the bottom line is this: We cannot control other people and we cannot change the past. We can only control our own actions and responses. So when The thing that cannot be changed brings us to our knees, as it sometimes will, we must learn to breathe with it. As Helen Keller discovered, it is one aspect of our personal story, but it is not our whole story. So we own it, and then we rise up. And carry on.