Mary Oliver wrote a wonderful poem, “The Uses of Sorrow,” in which she says: Someone I loved once gave me/ A box full of darkness./ It took me years to understand/ That this, too, was a gift.
On the bus the other day—and you don’t have to eavesdrop to overhear conversations on a bus—I heard a young man talk about being adopted as an infant. The only thing he knows about his birth parents is that they were unmarried teens. “Yeah, they did something they shouldn’t have,” he said. “But if they hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here. They gave me life and gave me up to a good family. I’m glad they did.”
Teen pregnancy probably meets most people’s definition of a box full of darkness, yet it gave life, a good life, to this boy. Sometimes our own actions bring sorrow to our lives. Sometimes other people’s actions do, and sometimes the universe spins sorrow our direction for no fathomable reason. This overheard conversation made be aware than one person’s box of darkness may be another person’s gift. Hopefully, one or both of the boy’s birth parents found some positives from their experience—perhaps a gaining of maturity, judgment, compassion or some other value they could take forward into their lives.
Bad things happen to good people and smart people do foolish things. How wise if we can learn to love the person, even if it is our self, who gives us a box full of darkness.
When I attended my 50th high school class reunion, I was surprised to find the girl who had gotten pregnant in 9th grade was probably the most successful, certainly the most interesting, woman from our class. She and the husband who “had” to marry her 54 years ago are still together. They are financially successful, and Gretchen has served on the boards of the Utah Symphony and other arts organizations. After raising their three children, Gretchen completed the classes for an art major at the university. She has collected an impressive art collection on their travels to Europe and Africa.
Whenever I’ve mentioned reconnecting with Gretchen, the reaction is always, “Oh. I’m sure she’d had a miserable life.” No one seems willing to believe that Gretchen’s unwise behavior at age 15 hasn’t ruined her life. I wonder—Is it because of a human need to believe that those who avoided youthful temptations are somehow superior to those who succumbed? Or do our notions of conventional morality need reinforcement by wishing lifelong misfortune on those who transgress the code?
Gretchen and her husband would be the first to tell anyone that their path was not easy. Ken gave up his dreams of an engineering career when he dropped out of college at age 18 to support a wife and baby. Her mother cared for the baby so Gretchen could finish high school, but Gretchen spent her out-of-school time being a mom and housewife while her friends were hanging out together, dating, and deciding which college to attend.
Certainly, Gretchen and Ken are the exception to the rule of pregnancy-induced teen marriages. But I find their story uplifting. Missteps make life harder, but they needn’t permanently mar it.