The Thing That Cannot Be Changed

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)

I’m going to borrow a little quote from Henry David Thoreau, used in my previous post, to introduce this one. You will perhaps notice a tweak or two:

I went into the wilds of western Massachusetts because I wished to write deliberately, to front only the essential facts of my work-in-progress, and see if I could not get something done away from laundry, appointments, and the flotsam of daily life, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not written …

It’s my way of saying this is a repeat, but I believe it still has merit. I hope you’ll feel the same.

***********

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.

THING fantasy-1275253_960_720And 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.”

chicagotribune.com
chicagotribune.com

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                                                                                       

I run, cried the fox, in circles                                                                THING CROPPED solitude-1148983_960_720
narrower, narrower still,
across the desperate hollow,
skirting the frantic hill

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. 

[My italics]                    

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 w/ Annie Sullivan
Helen w/ Annie Sullivan

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.

THING summer-1458129_960_720

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19 thoughts on “The Thing That Cannot Be Changed

  1. Hi Amy, it’s good to see your very active mind at work! And good to hear about how various famous people overcame (more or less) the terrible obstacles in their lives. It’s good to make your mind up to make lemonade from the lemons that life hands us. It doesn’t always work (you do need some sugar to make lemonade), but it is important not to give up. Just trying hard gives our lives meaning even if we can’t succeed. I can tell that you try very, very hard at everything. Good for you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading and stopping by to comment. To your point that just trying hard (at some chosen endeavor) gives our lives meaning–exactly; I mean as long as there’s life, there’s hope. And really, what else should we be doing? One of the more distressing things I’ve observed as my decades pass, is that lots of people seem to throw in the towel after 40-45, as if it’s written somewhere that dreams only belong to the young. And after that, you’re waiting to do what? Die?

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  2. I like this post and its refrain “The thing that cannot be changed.” It’s true: we cannot change the past. And yet so often we blame ourselves for The thing that cannot be changed, and that can make it even harder to rise up and carry on. Thank you for these words of encouragement.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Tom, for your (always) thoughtful comments. I think there’s a great myth out there that if we just do X or follow Y, we can control everything and live our life unscathed in some sort of happy cloud, but I think that’s (unhappy making) nonsense. Adversity has nothing to do with what we deserve. It just is, and what’s left for us is to survive it.

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  3. Hi there, Amy. Life’s a crapshoot. No getting away from that.
    Wish it were otherwise.

    Taking a detour: You mentioned Thoreau. He loved Cape Cod, as do I. He wrote a book titled Cape Cod. It’s delightful. His bright and bubbly side is in this book.

    Bye till next time —-

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I really like Tennessee Williams´ verses.
    They say that Life tests us once and over again ….until we finally pass the test or make it through.
    Maybe that tendency to “continue this fatal returning to places that failed me (us) before has to do with a sort of karmic situation, or our need to end a cycle or situation … in our own terms.
    Some people are more obstinate than others … and I guess our personal background, personality and attitude towards Life are important elements to consider as well.
    Excellent post!… All the best to you 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Aquileana. I, too, love that Williams’ poem–I first encountered it in college at a time when I was dealing with all the emotional wreckage of my childhood. It helped me to see that though I didn’t get some things, I got others–an outlook that I think is probably true for all of us, and has kept me going through my adult life.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I love this statement that you made, “So when The thing that cannot be changed brings us to our knees, as it sometimes will, we must learn to breathe with it.” Yes. That’s a proactive attitude. It’s not easy, and we may never get over the pain, but we can’t change the past. To stay in victim mode does us no good. Thank you for the inspiration.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read and stop by, Susan. I especially like your comment about a proactive attitude. We only control two things in this world–our actions and our reactions. But with just those, I believe we can face down whatever life serves up.

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  6. Amy your blogs are terrific. You always every time articulate so beautifully and thoughtfully on our human condition. You so have your finger on the pulse of our modern life yet always leave your readers with a Gentle Touch of Hope. I applaud you. I so look forward to your posts because it makes me feel as if you have a window into my brain as you discuss so many things that I think about. But then I think about our world and surmise that many spend time on the thoughts that you examine so well. More! Please keep writing for us!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks so much for taking the time to read and for your kind, supportive comments. When choosing a blog topic, I tend to look at my present struggles–what am I dealing with, what roadblocks am I encountering, what fears/weaknesses/habits of thought are messing with my head? If I find what feels like a connection there to the common experience of a larger portion of humanity, I dive in.

      Hopeful, always hopeful.

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    1. Thanks as always, Lori, for reading and commenting. Williams’s work is luminous and haunting in its own right, but even more so when you know something of his life.

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  7. Of course I have heard of Tennessee Williams, but knew little of his private pain. Your description provided a heartbreaking account of what we all know to be true, and must seek to accept if we are to truly live. Thank you for the post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Angelanoel, for taking the time to read and comment here. I had a prof in college who was passionate about Williams, We read all of his plays, poetry, and other writings. “Cried the Fox” particularly resonated with me. Continues to haunt. Yes, you say it well–“what we all know to be true, and must seek to accept if we are to truly live.”

      Liked by 1 person

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