“Into each life a little rain must fall.” This cliché piece of conventional wisdom makes different sense today in our drought-desiccated and hurricane-drenched world. A little rain would be nice in both cases.
The simple idea here sees life as a sunny affair, with rain a spoiler: we can’t have a cloudless walk through life without getting inconvenienced by a shower or two. Right away that seems wrong or deliberately fanciful. Stormy adversity follows us everywhere at all times and we spend a large part of our lives preparing for it, avoiding it, coping with it, and figuring out how to recover from it.
How do we understand adversity? Is it a bargain the cosmos makes with us as the price of existence? Is it a product of our fallen natures as the Bible would have it? Is it a social problem of people in groups? Do the malign forces of human greed and stupidity afflict us with it? Is it a self-made discouragement that sandbags us into inertia and despair Or, is it something else completely?
My father would take me to the Chambersburg section of Trenton to buy food from genuine Italian sellers, like Zembala-Bastities. They had large woven baskets of live snails, clams, and a barrel of squirming eels. I joined him on these outings just to see these rare comestibles. I’d poke them with my finger. My father would occasionally buy these exotics but would regularly shop ever so carefully in order to find the ripest, most perfect fruits and vegetables. It was hard to match his own garden specimens.
He wouldn’t take tough Seckel pears, he grew them, but pick out three or four glorious Anjous, shaped to perfection though still too green and hard. Then he selected a bruised one. What, I thought, was he getting weak-headed? Had he lost his peasant touch for steadied scrutiny of anything that cost money? He placed it in the bag and offered it up for weighing and said to the proprietor, “You have to take the good with the bad.” “That’s right, Dominick,” the man said handing over the bag, “that bruised one will ripen the others.”
What peasant wisdom was I being allowed to overhear from these two men? You mean bad stuff had a purpose, wasn’t just a blight, a damaged spot, a flaw–on fruit or in me? As a growing boy I already had a sense of my various infamies, those mendacious, larcenous, and yes erotic violations that I was learning to enjoy and fear. What realignment in my pre-adolescent ethics was this new wisdom inviting me to explore?
My father was a lapsed Catholic, with no inbred sense of sin, and like many of his Depression generation was not above a little low-grade law-bending. It was no big deal in those days to take nuts and bolts “from the shop,” or to build and build without permits, and he was recruited to sell lottery tickets by a piccolo mafioso, his childhood friend, getting his pals to plunk down a quarter or two to match the last three numbers of New Jersey’s treasury balance published each day in all the local papers. His reward for this illegal gambling, before there was anything like state legal lotteries, was a gallon of anisette at Christmas time, for making liquor and cookies and other seasonal treats.
On one late night return from college for the holidays, there was that gleaming clear glass gallon of high alcohol goodness on the kitchen table. I spun off the cap and took a giant swig. My God! It was corn oil. I couldn’t swallow right or control my bowels for days. This seemed an early marker of the cost of crime, the false and ill-begotten good here had actually lured me to the bad, the very bad. Is this what it meant? The Good as Tempter, testing the moral restraint of the ethically compromised?
There would be many other kinds of tradeoffs like this in my early days. I disliked the first years of college as an electrical engineer and a ROTC recruit and figured this bad experience would someday pay off in a big good way. I worked in miserable jobs during undergraduate summers, again reasoning this bad, dirty, dangerous work would pave the way to a glorious future. I was accepting the bad with the hope for the good, I thought. But I foresaw Viet Nam on this path to the future and dropped both my major and ROTC and settled into something I liked, but who knew if it would pay off? My father did not think so, but I gave up the dynamic of good and bad as necessary compensatory poles in life’s choices. Make the best choices given what you know.
Clark Gable’s character Gay in The Misfits (1961) tells the despondent Perce (Montgomery Clift), who gets injured in a rodeo, that you have to take the good with the bad, in order to get him to help round up wild mustangs: “let’s go mustangin.’” In other words, forget about your pain: let’s have some fun and make a few dollars. That good turns out a disaster for all involved. Marilyn Monroe’s Roslyn in the middle of the desert yells that the men are dead, empty, for roping, tying and hobbling a last few wild horses for dog food. Writer Arthur Miller then has Gay untie a last horse, a gesture for him to win back respect from Roslyn, but this is a poor example of how the supposed principle should work. Living without restrictions, tethers, while suffering damage and enduring loss, is a hard won but limited wisdom, quite appropriate perhaps for the constraining 1960’s.
What we might need to understand is that the bad is a slightly damaged but helpful version of the good, at least that’s what I gathered from my father’s peasant wisdom. The overripe bruised pear musters forces to speed up the maturation of the unripe one.
The biology of this is well known. The gaseous compound ethylene ripens fruit, with low levels in unripe fruits and higher concentrations in ripe ones. Expensive instruments and specialized labs are needed to measure the level of this gas. Fruit growers need to know when and how to pick fruit in order for it to be at the optimum level of ripeness for shipping and sale–not too green, not too soft. What a better way to control the ripening process than to place a high ethylene pear in the same sack as unripe ones. What peasant farmer would not have noticed this? What clued-in fruit seller would not have encouraged shoppers to take an occasional overripe pear to help ripen green ones? How might this apply to human life?
Failure is a key. A failed romance or betrayal can wise us up, mature us, ripen us. We become more seasoned to engage in love and romance. This enables us to adjust or evolve our courtship process, and we look for a different kind of person, a mate, someone reliable, ask different questions, look at ourselves, look at different qualities in each other. We are then in fact trying to advance our survival prospects. We do this because of the damage, the heart ache we experience, and we must not forget it; it is a treasure. The bruise remains.
Musk says as much in his embrace of failure as the necessary price of success. Accomplishing things requires risk, with failure part of it. It took three failed SpaceX rocket launches before he redesigned the fourth version, which got into orbit and landed him a huge government contract to service the US space station. Those failures weren’t exactly “bad” but rather tested or proved the design, as they say about a proving ground, so they led to the better or good.
This is not exactly how evolution works in nature. As conditions change, plants and animals throw out different models or modifications from ongoing genetic tosses of the dice, and one or two out of myriad failures might survive to reproduce and constitute a survivor. Musk couldn’t be patient with this, since it is a random process and takes oodles of time. And this is unconscious, no learning from mistakes, no memory required to build on and improve previous failures. The survivor just lives on, neither good nor bad, though it’s taken plenty of maladaptations to fess out the winner. Nature uses a harsh calculus.
For us, the bad or bruised must be remembered, not as an ancient scar but as a fresh source of tolerated pain so we do not forget how we got it and its lesson. Our damages inflicted or perpetrated on others serve the purpose of exposing the incorrect interactions between us. What we victims gain from self-damage if it doesn’t kill us is a new caution of how we might re-direct our lives to accommodate such damage and prevent it from happening again. This is not genetic mutation, but rather deep, conscious adjustment, often hard to maintain and needing constant practice and rehearsals.
Those of us with emotional and physical scars over the years know and feel that the mind and even the body remembers. Our bruises bring us to human ripeness. Shakespeare’s Lear says, “Ripeness is all.” He refers to the fullness of life, anticipating death with the knowledge that one has reached a pinnacle of awareness, rich with experience and wisdom from the failures, damages, and adjustments one has made to that life. Lear himself may have missed it.