When I was a child, a terrible thing happened to me. It wasn’t my fault and I had no control over it, but I was still left to find something to do with it – some way to survive. In my childish wisdom I decided that I could refuse to let it define who I was and that I did not have to let it affect my life. So I set it aside and ignored it, trying to live my life as though it had never happened.
That instinct wasn’t all bad – what happened to me indeed did not define me – but it was like trying to pretend I didn’t have a bad sprain, while the injured tendons and muscles continued to tear and never had the opportunity to heal. I ended up living a life adapted around the injury, designed to ignore the reality that something wasn’t right.
And that worked, until life required more of me than the damaged muscles or my work arounds could handle. I don’t know if my path of healing at that point was harder than it would have been when I was a child, I just know it was necessary, particularly if I was going to live a life that truly isn’t defined or restricted by my traumas.
I thought of that this morning as I listened to an interview on the radio and the woman being interviewed said something: “Life is full of suffering and disappointments; the art of living is to use them to make something that nourishes others.” (Those may not be all her exact words, but that was the gist of it.) She was explaining something she’d learned from her grandmother who, when an egg fell out of her overstuffed refrigerator and broke, would respond by exclaiming, “Ah! Today we will make sponge cake!”
I like the story, and the lesson the granddaughter took from it. It’s a better metaphor than the one I’m more familiar with, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” That one has never worked so well for me, the lifelong lover of pickles and lemons and things tart and sour. Lemons aren’t necessarily bad; lemons keep things interesting. And the downright bad things? The “manure” of life? I realized a long time ago that while it might be useful to help flowers grow better, it’s no less manure for that and it’s only helpful to name it as such.
But broken things, lost things, things I had hopes and plans for? Those I’ve had to work on what to do with.
That egg I’d meant for breakfast, with bacon, now I need to learn how to make sponge cake with it.
And I’ve worked at that – with a good deal of success. There’s little in my life today that looks anything like I dreamed years ago (though I do get to live in a wonderful city, and I always dreamed of that!), but I love my life and the people in it. As my dreams broke or disappointed me, I learned how to make new dreams. They don’t feel like settling, either.
While I don’t have children of my own to invest in and pour my life into, I’ve discovered that gives me a freedom to invest in others and their children, sometimes in ways that are riskier than those with families can afford. And my perspective on what is good for all children doesn’t have a trade-off with what’s “best” for my own, even theoretically.
Is it the same? Of course not. But that’s the point – it’s a different kind of purpose with its own meaning.
There are ways this world expects us to use our lives to nourish others. Mostly, it expects us to nourish those who are our own – our children, spouse, parents, siblings. I don’t have the first two, and the later are doing well without much help from me beyond a listening ear. And so I am free to use my life to try to nourish those who are not already mine. Those who are different from me in all kinds of ways.
The LGBTQ+ community calls this “chosen family,” and that gets at some of it. But it’s something beyond that as well. I can risk what I have for the friend who is working to change the world, and I can risk for the stranger as well. Of course I have chosen family, people I’m close to and share life with, but I am free to give beyond that circle. I actually believe we can all be free to give and risk beyond us and ours.
The lemons and broken eggs of life can either cause us to double down on protecting our own, or they can give us an opportunity to make something nourishing for others.
And lemonade and sponge cake sound like a wonderful offering for company – neighbors, strangers, maybe even new friends.