Learning in the Worst of Times

September 22, 2016
I’ve been thinking about pinch points lately, those intervals in a story when you realize how difficult the hero’s task is.  They occur (optimally) at the 3/8th and 5/8th point in a story and structurally, they serve a two-fold purpose: to show how vulnerable the hero(ine) is and what will happen if he/she loses.  But structure never interests me as much as character and pinch points teach and clarify these better than anything else. The same thing is true about people. Pinch points are what we learn in the worst of times.
The axiom says failure teaches more than success and the essence of a pinch point is failure.  For example, the first pinch point of LOTR’s The Fellowship of the Ring happens at Weathertop, when Frodo succumbs to temptation and puts on the Ring.  He becomes vulnerable to Sauron’s most powerful agents, the Nazgul, and the resulting injury nearly destroys our hero.  Frodo never fully recovers from the experience but both the reader and he learn from it. Frodo shows a resilience and physical fortitude after the injury that most other beings don’t possess. And his character is strengthened after the failure. Strong as they are, the Nazgul never successfully distract Frodo from his destiny again. None of this is apparent until Frodo fails and his failure at the first Pinch Point strengthens him for the second, when his company loses their leader, Gandalf. Grieved as they are, Frodo and his companions continue with their journey knowing their likelihood of success fell with Gandalf into the abyss.  Their reliance on each other increases and the remaining story turns on both those redoubled and fractured alliances.

Frodo at Weathertop in Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring

The fact is people, like books, have pinch points, but ours aren’t conveniently scheduled at the 3/8th and 5/8th points of our lives.  Instead we face instances when we’re overwhelmed by pain and events. That’s how I felt eleven years ago when my father died.

Losing a parent, for many of us, isn’t just overwhelming emotional grief, it’s an existential crisis.  No longer are we junior citizens in some family corporation; in an instant, we become senior members, the next in line to go, and the sole custodian of some childhood memories.  That’s an incredible amount to assimilate all at once and more than most people can handle. Luckily, as Frodo found, catastrophes can be met, especially if we don’t meet them alone.

The Fall of Gandalf – same film

Led by my incredible sister, people who loved my Dad pulled together through the despair that followed his passing.  They listened to us, laughed and cried with us, fed and boarded us, fetched, carried, and above all, showed us we were still loved even if we’d lost the man who’d loved us first. I learned a lot about the strength and love of old friends eleven years ago.

I also learned a lot about my sis and myself in those days. Her strength of will has been apparent since infancy; seldom has a more focused person walked this earth.  But dad’s death taught me more about the nature and limits of my sibling’s strength, that it can become over-stressed, and when she can use my help. I found out I could help her.  In my own way, I dealt with disaster and found I could tolerate pain and help others with theirs. I found out many things I feared were worse in anticipation than reality. Sis and I both learned a lot in that time and that knowledge served us well when Mom’s death followed Dad’s. If their passing turned us irrevocably into grownups, those events also made us into something new: a team.

That’s the nature of learning in the worst of times.  We’re under so much stress, we don’t even know we’re learning, much less learning what really matters.  Only afterwards, will we recognize it as a pinch point.  And we’re better beings for surviving its lessons.

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