I emerge from this conversation dumbfounded. I've seen this a million times before, but it still gets me every time.
I’m listening to a man tell a story. A woman he knows was in a devastating car accident; her life shattered in an instant. She now lives in a state of near-permanent pain; a paraplegic; many of her hopes stolen.
He tells of how she had been a mess before the accident, but that the tragedy had engendered positive changes in her life. That she was, as a result of this devastation, living a wonderful life.
And then he utters the words. The words that are responsible for nothing less than emotional, spiritual and psychological violence:
Everything happens for a reason. That this was something that had to happen in order for her to grow.
That's the kind of bullshit that destroys lives. And it is categorically untrue.
It is amazing to me that so many of these myths persist—and that is why I share actionable tools and strategies to work with your pain in my free newsletter. These myths are nothing more than platitudes cloaked as sophistication, and they preclude us from doing the one and only thing we must do when our lives are turned upside down: grieve.
You know exactly what I'm talking about. You've heard these countless times. You've probably even uttered them a few times yourself. And every single one of them needs to be annihilated.
Let me be crystal clear: if you've faced a tragedy and someone tells you in any way, shape or form that your tragedy was meant to be, that it happened for a reason, that it will make you a better person, or that taking responsibility for it will fix it, you have every right to remove them from your life.
Grief is brutally painful. Grief does not only occur when someone dies. When relationships fall apart, you grieve. When opportunities are shattered, you grieve. When dreams die, you grieve. When illnesses wreck you, you grieve.
So I’m going to repeat a few words I’ve uttered countless times; words so powerful and honest they tear at the hubris of every jackass who participates in the debasing of the grieving:
Some things in life cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.
These words come from my dear friend Megan Devine, one of the only writers in the field of loss and trauma I endorse. These words are so poignant because they aim right at the pathetic platitudes our culture has come to embody on an increasingly hopeless level. Losing a child cannot be fixed. Being diagnosed with a debilitating illness cannot be fixed. Facing the betrayal of your closest confidante cannot be fixed.
They can only be carried.
I hate to break it to you, but although devastation can lead to growth, it often doesn't. The reality is that it often destroys lives. And the real calamity is that this happens precisely because we've replaced grieving with advice. With platitudes. With our absence.
I now live an extraordinary life. I've been deeply blessed by the opportunities I've had and the radically unconventional life I've built for myself. Yet even with that said, I'm hardly being facetious when I say that loss has not in and of itself made me a better person. In fact, in some ways it's hardened me.
While so much loss has made me acutely aware and empathetic of the pains of others, it has made me more insular and predisposed to hide. I have a more cynical view of human nature, and a greater impatience with those who are unfamiliar with what loss does to people.
Above all, I've been left with a pervasive survivor’s guilt that has haunted me all my life. This guilt is really the genesis of my hiding, self-sabotage and brokenness.
In short, my pain has never been eradicated, I've just learned to channel it into my work with others. I consider it a great privilege to work with others in pain, but to say that my losses somehow had to happen in order for my gifts to grow would be to trample on the memories of all those I lost too young; all those who suffered needlessly, and all those who faced the same trials I did early in life, but who did not make it.
I'm simply not going to do that. I'm not going to construct some delusional narrative fallacy for myself so that I can feel better about being alive. I'm not going to assume that God ordained me for life instead of all the others so that I could do what I do now. And I'm certainly not going to pretend that I've made it through simply because I was strong enough; that I became "successful" because I "took responsibility."
There’s a lot of “take responsibility” platitudes in the personal development space, and they are largely nonsense. People tell others to take responsibility when they don’t want to understand.
Because understanding is harder than posturing. Telling someone to “take responsibility” for their loss is a form of benevolent masturbation. It’s the inverse of inspirational porn: it’s sanctimonious porn.
Personal responsibility implies that there’s something to take responsibility for. You don’t take responsibility for being raped or losing your child. You take responsibility for how you choose to live in the wake of the horrors that confront you, but you don't choose whether you grieve. We're not that smart or powerful. When hell visits us, we don't get to escape grieving.
This is why all the platitudes and fixes and posturing are so dangerous: in unleashing them upon those we claim to love, we deny them the right to grieve.
In so doing, we deny them the right to be human. We steal a bit of their freedom precisely when they're standing at the intersection of their greatest fragility and despair.
No one—and I mean no one—has that authority. Though we claim it all the time.
The irony is that the only thing that even can be "responsible" amid loss is grieving.
So if anyone tells you some form of get over it, move on, or rise above, you can let them go.
If anyone avoids you amidst loss, or pretends like it didn’t happen, or disappears from your life, you can let them go.
If anyone tells you that all is not lost, that it happened for a reason, that you’ll become better as a result of your grief, you can let them go.
Let me reiterate: all of those platitudes are bullshit.
You are not responsible to those who try to shove them down your throat. You can let them go.
I’m not saying you should. That is up to you, and only up to you. It isn't an easy decision to make and should be made carefully. But I want you to understand that you can.
I've grieved many times in my life. I've been overwhelmed with shame and self-hatred so strong it’s nearly killed me.
The ones who helped—the only ones who helped—were those who were there. And said nothing.
In that nothingness, they did everything.
I am here—I have lived—because they chose to love me. They loved me in their silence, in their willingness to suffer with me, alongside me, and through me. They loved me in their desire to be as uncomfortable, as destroyed, as I was, if only for a week, an hour, even just a few minutes.
Most people have no idea how utterly powerful this is.
Are there ways to find "healing" amid devastation? Yes. Can one be "transformed" by the hell life thrusts upon them? Absolutely. But it does not happen if one is not permitted to grieve. Because grief itself is not an obstacle.
The obstacles come later. The choices as to how to live; how to carry what we have lost; how to weave a new mosaic for ourselves? Those come in the wake of grief. It cannot be any other way.
Grief is woven into the fabric of the human experience. If it is not permitted to occur, its absence pillages everything that remains: the fragile, vulnerable shell you might become in the face of catastrophe.
Yet our culture has treated grief as a problem to be solved, an illness to be healed, or both. In the process, we've done everything we can to avoid, ignore, or transform grief. As a result, when you're faced with tragedy you usually find that you're no longer surrounded by people, you're surrounded by platitudes.
What to Offer Instead
When a person is devastated by grief, the last thing they need is advice. Their world has been shattered. This means that the act of inviting someone—anyone—into their world is an act of great risk. To try and fix or rationalize or wash away their pain only deepens their terror.
Instead, the most powerful thing you can do is acknowledge. Literally say the words:
I acknowledge your pain. I am here with you.
Note that I said with you, not for you. For implies that you're going to do something. That is not for you to enact. But to stand with your loved one, to suffer with them, to listen to them, to do everything but something is incredibly powerful.
There is no greater act than acknowledgment. And acknowledgment requires no training, no special skills, no expertise. It only requires the willingness to be present with a wounded soul, and to stay present, as long as is necessary.
Be there. Only be there. Do not leave when you feel uncomfortable or when you feel like you're not doing anything. In fact, it is when you feel uncomfortable and like you're not doing anything that you must stay.
Because it is in those places—in the shadows of horror we rarely allow ourselves to enter—where the beginnings of healing are found. This healing is found when we have others who are willing to enter that space alongside us. Every grieving person on earth needs these people.
Thus I beg you, I plead with you, to be one of these people.
You are more needed than you will ever know.
And when you find yourself in need of those people, find them. I guarantee they are there.
Everyone else can go.
I'm Tim, and The Adversity Within is a blog dedicated to examining the topic of resilience in the face of adversity, while inspiring readers to stand headstrong in their grief and fight for their own evolution. Living with cerebral palsy and epilepsy, I explore topics like post-traumatic growth, survival, and self-reliance. No one should face adversity alone. Subscribe to my mailing list below for free weekly writings delivered to your inbox, and follow me along on Facebook and Twitter.
This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.
This passage is the epigraph to the novel, telling the reader what the book is intended to be and mapping out some of its basic stylistic and thematic ground. The statement that the book is not “an adventure” separates it from most war novels in that it will dispense with elements of romance and excitement in favor of a stark, unsentimental presentation. The clarification that “death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it” suggests that books that tell stories of war as though they were exciting adventures do not do justice to the actual experience of soldiers. Death may be an adventure to the reader, sitting comfortably at home, but it is anything but that to the soldier who is actually confronted with the possibility of being blown to pieces at any moment. The epigraph also declares that the book will be the story of an entire generation, one “destroyed by the war” even if not actually killed off by it. The epigraph thus opens the novel’s exploration of the effect of the war on those who fought it; war is a transforming force that not only injures and traumatizes but also annihilates selfhood.
There is friction, however, between the claim that the book will attempt “simply” to depict this annihilation and the claim that the book is not an accusation. All Quiet on the Western Front certainly takes a strong critical position against the war and against nationalist and ignorant figures like Kantorek and Himmelstoss. Perhaps the meaning of the epigraph is that the book will let events speak for themselves since they have not been embellished for the sake of some political goal. Still, it is hard to see the one-dimensional Kantorek as anything other than the object of accusation. The friction between realism and antiwar fervor found in the epigraph parallels an aesthetic tension in the novel, as Remarque tries to reconcile his hatred of the war with a need to create realistic characters who are more than mere punching bags.
For us lads of eighteen they ought to have been mediators and guides to the world of maturity . . . to the future . . . in our hearts we trusted them. The idea of authority, which they represented, was associated in our minds with a greater insight and a more humane wisdom. But the first death we saw shattered this belief. We had to recognize that our generation was more to be trusted than theirs. . . . The first bombardment showed us our mistake, and under it the world as they had taught it to us broke in pieces.
This quotation from Chapter One constitutes Paul’s first and most direct exploration of how the older generation betrays the younger generation by convincing them to sacrifice their lives for the empty ideals of patriotism and honor. Paul says that authority figures from the older generation—parents, leaders, teachers such as Kantorek—should have been wise guides to the future and that, as boys, the young soldiers all assumed that they would be. But after the war began, the soldiers realized that the older generation had failed them, and Paul reacts to this failure with anger and disdain. He emphasizes that the older generation, which is constantly ready to criticize and ostracize young men for signs of cowardice or unpatriotic behavior but has not itself experienced the war, has no understanding of what the fighting is actually like. The younger generation must look to themselves to determine what is true and right because the older generation has proved itself incapable of teaching them.
At the sound of the first droning of the shells we rush back, in one part of our being, a thousand years. By the animal instinct that is awakened in us we are led and protected. It is not conscious; it is far quicker, much more sure, less fallible, than consciousness. . . . It is this other, this second sight in us, that has thrown us to the ground and saved us, without our knowing how. . . . We march up, moody or good-tempered soldiers—we reach the zone where the front begins and become on the instant human animals.
With these words, Paul describes, in Chapter Four, the psychological transformation that soldiers undergo when heading into battle. Paul observes this phenomenon as he and his comrades near the front on their mission to lay barbed wire. They cease to become men (“moody or good-tempered soldiers”) and instead become beasts (“human animals”). To survive, it is necessary for the soldiers to sacrifice the thoughtful and analytical parts of their minds and rely instead wholly on animal instinct. Paul describes men who have been walking thoughtlessly along and suddenly thrown themselves to the ground just in time to avoid a shell, without having been consciously aware that a shell was approaching and without having intended to leap to avoid it. Paul calls this instinct a “second sight” and says that it is the only thing that enables soldiers to survive a battle. In this way, Paul implies that battles are animalistic and even subhuman, a large aspect of the devastation that the war wreaks on a soldier’s humanity.
Just as we turn into animals when we go up to the line . . . so we turn into wags and loafers when we are resting. . . . We want to live at any price; so we cannot burden ourselves with feelings which, though they may be ornamental enough in peacetime, would be out of place here. Kemmerich is dead, Haie Westhus is dying . . . Martens has no legs anymore, Meyer is dead, Max is dead, Beyer is dead, Hammerling is dead . . . it is a damnable business, but what has it to do with us now—we live.
In this grim passage from Chapter Seven, Paul discusses the psychological process of how a soldier disconnects himself from his feelings in order to survive the terror of the war. After the bloody fighting, Paul and his friends are lying about enjoying a moment of relaxation and leisure, and have pushed their recent horrific experiences out of their minds. Paul says that terror can be survived only if one avoids thinking about it; otherwise, feelings of grief, fear, and despair would drive a man mad. Paul even looks upon those feelings with contempt, calling them “ornamental enough during peacetime” and implying that they are superfluous luxuries rather than essential components of the human experience. To help the reader understand the pressure that is always upon the soldier, Paul presents his appalling list of recent casualties, friends, and comrades who were either killed or badly injured in recent fighting. There is even a grotesque poetry to the list with the alliteration and rhyme of the names Martens, Meyer, Max, and Beyer, demonstrating the stoic attitude that Paul claims is necessary for survival.
Comrade, I did not want to kill you. . . . But you were only an idea to me before, an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forth its appropriate response. . . . I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony—Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy?
Paul utters these words in Chapter Nine to the corpse of Gérard Duval, the French soldier whom he has just killed. Paul realizes for the first time that, despite the dictates of nationalism, Duval is fundamentally no different from him. As Duval becomes a fully realized person in Paul’s mind, as he thinks beyond the man’s weapons to “your wife and your face and our fellowship,” Paul observes, as he does in Chapter Eight among the Russian prisoners, that the war has forced men who are not enemies to fight each other. The propaganda campaigns waged by the opposing governments have convinced many men that their opponents are evil; as such, Paul initially conceives of the French soldier as “an abstraction”—the enemy. Once he understands Duval as a human being, the artificial divisions between the two men become irrelevant. Paul’s sympathy for Duval’s suffering is evident in his address of him as “comrade” and his reference to himself and Duval as “we” and “us,” in opposition to the “they”—those in power, who attempt to deny the essential sameness of men such as Paul and Duval.