"Hunger can change everything you ever thought you knew about yourself." - Suraj Sharma as Pi Patel, Life of Pi

Jan 06 2014

This quote is part of Pi's narration, as he finds himself shipwrecked, out of supplies, and has to break his lifelong habit of vegetarianism in order to survive.

Most of us watch movies and imagine ourselves as the protagonist. We sit in the dark and judge the character just as much as we become them. When our hero hesitates, we imagine we would take action without hesitation. When the heroine shows fear, we think we would show courage. When our protagonist buckles under pressure, we believe we would withstand any amount of abuse.

In reality, you won't know what you're made of until the moment of crisis itself.

The easy part of sitting in the theater and making those judgement calls is that we're blessed with time - time to weigh our options, time to plan our next move, information the characters may not be aware of, and best of all, a way to see how one of those choices plays out without actually having to suffer through the consequences. Once you leave the theater, those luxuries disappear and you find yourself having to take action swiftly, without the benefit of a reset button.

My great-grandmother, Pearl, was a single mother during the Great Depression. Her husband was one of those men who was too busy drinking and carousing with other women to bother supporting his own family. My great-grandma Pearl used to tell us stories about the friendly man with the vegetable cart whose pity for her plight moved him to hand over, free of charge, any fruit or vegetables too soft to sell the next day. That was their dinner. On the days there was no produce close to rotting, she would give her kids a cup of hot water to drink, to fill them enough to sleep, and she would tell them the next day would be better.

Sometimes it was a lie.

They eventually left upstate New York, where the cost of heating their tiny apartment during the winter was too dear to bear. They moved down to Florida, and she met a man who loved her kids almost as much as she did. They married, ran a goat dairy together, and when he passed away decades later, she traveled the world. She rode camels in Egypt and saw plays performed at Stratford-on-Avon. She lived well into her nineties, but she never forgot what she'd been willing to do to feed her children. She never forgot what hunger felt like.

And she never stopped being proud of getting her family through it.

One act of cowardice does not define us any more than one act of strength. Courage is looking deprivation dead in the face and refusing to let it break you. It is rising from a warm bed, cold morning after cold morning, and doing what has to be done in order to survive. When things are at their worst, to be brave is to develop the habit of refusing to dwell on the harshest parts of your life. 

Pearl could have had a bitter heart towards men after her first husband abandoned their family, but I've never known anyone so full of love. She laughed through her stories about the Great Depression, because she was grateful it was far behind her. She sang as she performed the common drudgery of housework, because she was grateful to have a house to clean. She even smiled her way through a cold, claiming she was grateful to have an excuse to stay in her pajamas all day. 

I've been hungry. I've lost jobs, been too sick to rise up, and had a disastrous marriage. I've had friends for years that disappear at the first sign of trouble, as if I'm only worthy of their friendship when I don't actually need it. I've worked menial jobs I hated in order to pay the bills.

I rarely tell my own stories about the hard times I've faced, but when I do, I try to make my listeners laugh. I don't sing when I clean house, mostly because the neighbors complain, but I do play music. I embrace any opportunity to be in my pajamas. I'm nowhere near as full of joy as Pearl was, but I try to hear her voice in my head as often as I can, now that she's gone.

Even when it's making me feel guilty for throwing away a carton of yogurt that's spoiled. Sorry, grandma.

If you're lucky enough to experience misfortune, try to see it as a way to find out who you really are, and if you don't like who you find, change. Smile. Play music. Wait for the tide to turn as patiently as you can.

If you're lucky enough to never experience misfortune, try not to judge those of us who have, and try not to brag about how easy you've had it. You might find the only person willing to sit with you at lunch is Donald Trump.

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