Worst Life Ever

by Jennifer Paros

There is no such thing as darkness, only a failure to see.

                                                      -- Malcolm Muggeridge

Recently, my son was curious about Mike Tyson - the fact that Tyson had once bitten off part of someone’s ear.  He started researching and was soon filled with details of a life story packed with dark and challenging moments.  In reviewing what he’d learned with us, he announced that Mike Tyson had had “the worst life ever!”  We agreed, in part, but also shared examples of others who had experienced beatings, rape, being sold into prostitution, concentration camps, schizophrenic breaks, and so on.  And as he listened, following each description, he felt compelled to re-award The Worst Life Ever title time and again. 

My son often follows the trail of gritty life stories, harsh conditions, and troubled behavior, striving to understand and put them into context.  He looks for the “darkest” or “worst” in hopes of facing reality so he won’t feel frightened any more, proving to himself once and for all that he “can handle it” (his phrase).  But life is creative, and life stories are constructed from billions of moving parts and pieces.  So there is no end to the possibilities of how a life might play out and no way to face every potential for suffering.  But there is one certainty: each story is always accompanied by the opportunity to turn the page.   And this is what can make for a great life or a great book – if we write it. 

My grandfather died when I was seven.  At the funeral, I sat with my mother by my side, watching as the service proceeded.  My grandmother came forward and let out a cry the likes of which I had never before heard.  The sound seemed to begin before time and carry suffering that went beyond her personal story. She was just over five feet, but her guttural cry was so loud and resonant it filled the room.  She wept hard and started to collapse.  I took my mother’s hand. 

My Grandmother was a kid person – easy for a child to feel wanted, safe, and loved around.  Witnessing her nightmare meant, at least for that moment, she was gone to me. The way her reaction overtook her was both sorrowful and violent, for she seemed at its mercy. The usual flow of love I felt from her was no longer present; her light was concealed. 

This is what is so compelling to my son: the darkness that results when our light becomes concealed.  It is, in essence, what he is titling The Worst Life Ever.  Though he is certain he is witnessing only a configuration of cruel circumstances and conditions, in truth the worst of it is made of the moments in which we lose track of who we really are – our light – and are overcome by reaction.  

If my son wanted to look in-house he might have given the (uncoveted) Worst Life title to my grandmother. Born a Russian Jew in the early 1900s, she witnessed the Pogroms firsthand, physical and emotional atrocities, and the repeated burning of her family’s business until they were impoverished and the family divided.  But the truth was, at core, the life she wasremained separate from the life story she led.  For that life went on to find expression through many other stories in the course of her 87 years. And one of those stories was falling in love with my grandfather. 

To send light into the darkness of men’s hearts – such is the duty of the artist. 

                                                             -- Robert Schumann

As writers we have an opportunity, through our work, to recognize the experience of darkness not as a byproduct of conditions, but as an expression of state of mind and perception. It is reality that some life stories have a nightmare quality – a dense brutality.  But to create a character able to transform his story is to recognize that the light within can only truly be concealed by the character himself. This revelation is emotionally powerful and liberating for the writer and the reader. 

This is the liberation for which my son is looking, the fearlessness he seeks.  It is known when we remember there is no such thing as The Worst Life Ever.  Each Life remains forever greater than the components of any life story.  And every story can be transformed and transformative - with the recognition that no external condition is capable of being worse than our own denial of the power and light within. 

Jennifer Paros is a writer, illustrator, and author of Violet Bing and the Grand House (Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle. Please visit her website at www.jenniferparos.com.

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