The Strength That Comes from Acknowledging Frailty

Watercolor on paper by Laura Grey
Watercolor on paper by Laura Grey

I have a deep fascination with history and historical objects that make the past more accessible and understandable to us today. I often incorporate them into my art, writing and home environment. Not a day goes by that I don’t consider how the past (either my own or the time before my existence) has shaped me. I’m always asking myself how I can bring the things and the knowledge of the past into the light and share its importance and meaning with those around me who may not know how many wonders have been created, shared, discovered and often lost. I incorporate bits of history into my world wherever I can. I fear the idea of people losing what has gone before, or failing to notice connections and patterns that could help them avoid repeating the same errors others have already made. I’m also saddened when people live without context, unaware of their place on the continuum of history.

I think each day of the people and relationships I have lost, and of the sadness I feel about the fact that part of my history died with them, too. But I also feel grateful that I have given my own child a context for her life and mine so that I can continue to enjoy my relationships with those who have gone before us by relating their stories to my daughter and letting them become touchstones and stories and elements that bind my past to her future.

Something I’m so glad to have learned along the way is that one’s relationship with people who have died (or who have simply disappeared from our lives, if not from the world) doesn’t end with their death; we can still learn from and about them, change the way we feel about them, and grow in our understanding and acceptance of (or sometimes anger toward) them long after they’re gone. My relationships with my own very difficult parents have changed a lot in the 13 and 20 years since their respective deaths. I’m grateful that despite the finite nature of their own histories, they are still a part of my ongoing history. They live on through me. People can even have meaningful relationships with those who died before we were born. Yes, those are one-way relationships, but they can still teach and inspire and help to form us, and I find that so comforting. I love that both my mother and my long-dead grandmother are living presences in my daughter’s life through the stories that I share about them. Their history becomes part of my daughter’s own life.

I suppose studying history also reminds me of how fragile and temporal we and all of our creations are, and how even the greatest among us is or was human and flawed, scared and mortal, too. Perhaps that’s why I so love cemeteries and memento mori paintings and mourning jewelry. That fascination sounds morbid, but it’s not, really. It’s not a love of death that I feel when I see such things; it’s a love of the touching human reminders people build to those who have moved them and shaped them. These are reminders to be grateful, to make the most of what exists now, to share and expand on love, to express what should be expressed, to recognize how fleeting it all is, and to acknowledge just how much power each of us has to affect others, power that we don’t like to admit that we hold because it’s scary to think of wasting such a precious thing the way we all do every day.

In the 1970 film Patton starring George C. Scott, General George S. Patton shares the following, haunting thought, which has always stuck with me: “For over a thousand years, Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honor of a triumph — a tumultuous parade. In the procession came trumpeters and musicians and strange animals from the conquered territories, together with carts laden with treasure and captured armaments. The conqueror rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. Sometimes his children, robed in white, stood with him in the chariot, or rode the trace horses. A slave stood behind the conqueror, holding a golden crown, and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.”

I think one of the great discoveries that has come with time for me has been learning what tender little people we all are inside, and that even the most assertive and confident-seeming among us has doubts and failures and awkward unguarded spots that the armor doesn’t fully cover. There is comfort in that, not just because it humanizes great characters, but because their successes actually seem greater when I consider that they were accomplished by life-sized people who had to navigate the world just as I do, yet they found ways to do great things despite their very human limitations. They weren’t giants walking the earth, they were humans stuck in failing bodies challenging themselves to think in fresh ways and act where others only pondered. Knowing that the people I most admire are not immune from human frailty helps me to feel more compassion for them, and sometimes for myself.

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