Unavoidably, we all sometimes face seemingly insurmountable tragedies in our lives that can disassemble us in dreadful ways, such as a death of an only child or a deeply loved mate. So what do we do to pull ourselves back together after such overwhelming loss?

It’s all about the ways that we use outrageous, totally devastating tragedies in their aftermath that can make an overall personal impact on ourselves and, also, on the world around us. So what do we choose to do with our excruciating pain?

Do we go towards metaphorical darkness or into light in response to it? How do we travel forward in life in the deep shock of being emotionally ripped apart? How should we respond as we grieve almost beyond our beings’ physical, mental and emotional endurance? How can we rise above it in such a way that we make the world for ourselves and others whole again?

Do we get bitter, furious, depressed, shut off and self-pitying or do we use the painful or otherwise greatly disturbing situations to create something better, something positive and uplifting? Just how do we move forward?

I remember reading the novel and watching the film, The Pawnbroker as a child. Such a poor reaction as Sol choice compounds tragedy – rides it forward into a bigger, more replete state of tragedy.

Basically “‘The Pawnbroker’ is the dark exploration into the soul of a man who is tortured by the unbearable pain of his past. In order to most effectively reveal his character, rather than relying on a traditional plot sequence, the film carefully extracts the events of a few days in the life of Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger). A man who survived the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps but lost his wife and children, Nazerman is now alone, cold, embittered, and completely without faith in God or humanity. With indifference, he operates a pawnshop in New York’s Spanish Harlem as a front for Rodriguez (Brock Peters), a black pimp and slumlord. Despite the continued efforts of his assistant, Jesus Ortiz (Jaime Sanchez), and a determined social worker, Marilyn Birchfield (Geraldine Fitzgerald), to break through his impenetrable walls, Nazerman remains detached and emotionless. This total noninvolvement extends to his loveless affair with Tessie (Marketa Kimbrell), a woman who lost her husband in the camps and whose father, Mendel (Baruch Lumet) disapproves of their current relationship. Flashbacks triggered by current daily events provide more detail of Nazerman’s past, some which are so quick and disturbing as to be borderline subliminal. The most explicit flashback occurs when Ortiz’s girlfriend, a black prostitute (Thelma Oliver) enters the shop to pawn a gold locket and bare her breasts to him hoping to increase his offered price. For Nazerman this causes pain, as it only reminds him of being forced to watch his wife raped by Nazi officers. Ortiz, the young, exuberant, lovable Puerto Rican assistant, continues to wear away at Nazerman’s defenses, seeking some kind of emotional response. When Nazerman snaps back in thoughtless cruelty, Ortiz retaliates by arranging a robbery of the pawn shop. Nazerman’s refusal to submit to the robbers results in gunfire, with Ortiz selflessly taking the bullet meant for his employer. His dying breath in the arms of Nazerman is at last the only thing the young man has done which breaks the stone barrier around the older man’s heart, and evokes an expression of tenderness. Filmed in stark black-and-white,”The Pawnbroker” is a harshly realistic vision. …’ – From The Pawnbroker (1965) – Rotten Tomatoes

Is Sol’s example of life forward illustrative? Oh indeed yes in an exemplary way, as he shows the way for the rest of us to be through his not being the best after his suffering in fullness. He shows a right path forward not one iota if he is to be the exemplar! He, thus, represents the opposite of honoring life and represents the warning to the rest of us to not succumb to ugliness in the totality of being consumed in a horrific ordeal.

So he shows in stark terms that we must walk a different path then his. Otherwise and if we pick his way to be, we are in peril and put others in that position!

I recall, from the book and the movie, Jesus Ortiz desperately trying to be liked or loved, mentored by and emotionally connected to Sol Nazerman to whom he looked up as a father figure. (Maybe he had no father.)

His total rejection by Sol opened the gateway to just one more tragedy in Sol’s life and this time, Sol – not Nazis – indirectly caused it. He, himself, brought the death of another person.

Like Sol, I do know pain to the point that it has seemed unendurable at times – to the point wherein I feel as if I’m falling apart with nothing else except a sense of massive self-deconstruction and torment, as well as a desire to passively (like Sol in his emotional shut-off) or aggressively in fury lash out in retaliation … and towards everything through rejection of all that is that leads to such abnegation of life as I experienced!

When breakage is faced to this degree, the anguish and grief struck to the bottom of myself and was complete to the point that it was all that I knew. It consumed everything else. All else got washed away in the totality of torture sensed.

Yet, it’s all about discernment, the way that you observe and employ some event or condition that irreparably changes your life and the lives of those outside of yourself. How do you use a torment – to drag down yourself and others or as a difficult and almost impossible struggle to pull upward while taking others in your wake of either direction of your choice, an act which Sol Nazerman could have done with Jesus Ortiz in an upward rise for them both?

Besides, we often get our most insightful and deepest messages from uncomfortable or painful situations, ones unavoidable for whatever the reason. They can teach us great life lessons in the process of subsuming unavoidable torture and taking it into ourselves as something to push us to something better rather than something that drives down the value of life, including our own lives in the process.

Then we pick a deliberate way forward or into shoveling life into decline. What do you want to be becomes the ultimate question in the process of selecting direction. What sort of values do you want to subsume becomes the preeminent underlying question in the process of discernment as one tries to surpass horror and agony in the possibility to  use them for uplift.


National Gallery, Oslo, Norway. Edvard Munch’s The Scream. “

For example, my seeing the Hiroshima Maidens painfully shuffle in their walk and wrapped in gauze like mummies while in NY for reconstructive surgery for missing body parts taught me at age five to be a fighter against war and for social justice. These innocent victims of war pained me too much to simply dismiss their plight. So they taught me to not walk away indifferently as Sol did, but to rise into being a new personhood, someone who would always want to assist harmed others.

Out of that transformative orientation came my getting spit on in the face and sworn at when thirteen year old when working against racism. That in turn taught me that I will NOT be cowed, intimidated, nor stopped by bullying actions and fear of adult bullies.

In the events, I saw the way that hardships can foist us forward rather than force us to cave inwardly as Sol did.  Yes, we, resolved in choice, need to use adversity to strike out away from it ever harder and with all of our might!

So hardship and misery brought me forth in a new way. They redirected me in ways that thrust my whole life in new directions, such as when I sent goods to the Lakota fighting the pipeline or when I sent goods, many of my newly opened childhood Christmas presents to a leper’s colony in another country and used Christmas money received to do so while as a child.

Indeed, I had no choice except to do so. I haven’t ever since I, early as a child, began to understand that we all must to the best of our capabilities support other humans and the life in the natural world that surrounds us.

I’m not the only one who tries to use grave disorienting troubles in constructive ways. For example, I remember when Jorge Luis Borges, an incredibly gifted writer and director of a huge library system, got blind. Then he was lecturing at Columbia University and a student there asked him about the way that he handled being blind in light of his book passions, job and purposes in life.

Borges graciously answered that he didn’t consider blindness to be a loss, but just a changed condition. It was so especially as it strongly heightened his other senses and awareness overall.

He found the adjustment and differences for his new state interesting. It all is about the way that one thinks, not much else in some ways. After all, nothing is neither good, nor bad, except thinking it as such that makes it so (to a certain degree).

I had a friend who had extreme bipolarity — an excessive manic depressive, not mild at all. He once said that he would not be the same — not able to see extremes — without the so-called (labeled as such) disease. He was grateful, despite the difficulties that it posed, for the experience to see everything so thoroughly that is life in it full range.

Meanwhile I can only faintly imagine that which he experienced. After all, my extent was much more limited.

So was his condition a blessing or a curse? It was probably both.

He humbled me. I no longer felt sorry for him since he chose to use something that is commonly viewed as an affliction as a personal gain and a positive, optimistic influence in his life. … We all need to use anything that we label as “bad” to be used to create power, inner strength, resolve and furtherance for ourselves personally and for us all.

The fact is that no matter the pain, loss or suffering — we humans are replete enough to be able to use anything for foisting forward goodness. Doing so surely beats out self-pity, rage and a sense of paucity and diminishment.

If we frame information and events rightly, we can all be like Borges and my bipolar former friend. It’s constant hard work to get to that type of awareness that they have. Yet we CAN do it and need to do so if we are to improve and care for ourselves and the world as well as we can.

In the end, it’s so simple. How can you use your skills, knowledge, understandings and distress combined with all of the rest of which you’re aware to bring betterment to yourself, those you love and the wider realm around yourself? Yes, it’s a hard won struggle, but can be at least partially achieved, especially as one keeps onward in an effort to achieve such a state of benefit for ourselves and so much that exists past our own little individual lives.

I’m fortunate. I had great personal teachers, who didn’t shun me for being a little white blond girl. They didn’t have anger and hatred towards me because white Europeans before me did so much damage to Blacks from Africa, nor Native Americans and others, such as the Chinese who entered the West Coast of the USA and the Latinos south of the border, who were slaughtered in droves, although not as much as the millions of Native Americans.

Some like my now dead Mohawk friend, Ray Fadden, used tragedy, too, to make something else better, such as when Ray is feeding the black bears, birds and other animals. He used everything in his life to serve life. Indeed, he was a relative and elder of several generations of the Mohawk people.

My sense is that his attitude was that he needed to do the action for himself because this is who he wanted to be – a lover and supporter of life. He needed this vision and thrust in life to be whole unto himself. He also needed it to support life around him forward due to his love being all-embracing. So he did it for the now times for himself and other, and for the future so that he could help leave the world intact for others, who he’d never get to know, such as my seven month old granddaughter and those who come after her.

In short, his vision was replete. He knew the way to be his best self.


Ray, otherwise known as Tehanatorens (which has been translated as “He Walks through the Pines.:)  and a friend of mine, until he died, said:

“I’m not afraid of the bears. I’m afraid of the ones that invented germ warfare, chemical warfare,
poison gases, bombs, guns, battleships, dynamite, torpedoes, defoliation, pesticides, and biological warfare. These are the ones you have to be scared of…the only animal that kills their own kind, makes a business out of it.” – From “BEWARE OF MANKIND” features Ray Fadden / Tehanetorens; http …Living with the Adir

You can watch his bears and him here above. It’s a little movie.

“Ray Fadden feeds the birds and the bears because he believes that they are in danger, starving in an environment weakened and depleted by the white man’s destructive behavior. …” – From Living with the Adirondack Forest: Local Perspectives on Land Use … with pp. 45-48 recommended.

So let’s use tragedy (such as environmental or loss of other types) the way that Ray did and so that many others do not face diminishment. There is nothing to lose and much to gain by taking this course!

Instead of just wringing hands and grieving, let’s raise up the commonality, not just our limited selves and the few others closest to us, such as our family members, pets and closest friends. Strike out instead and expand inclusively as Ray did.

We’ll all benefit on account as we spread outward our caring, as did Ray with his animal neighbors! In other words, use losses for creation of gains rather than be the spiritually gutted Sol in The Pawnbroker. Fictional Sol can’t blame the Nazis for his state. He can only blame his own paucity of self for choosing the dark side after it was thrust in his face by Nazis.

Let’s, please, reject that position. Instead, embrace life in the aftermath of atrocious incidents that almost break us. Let’s please shape life forward in positive ways in their aftermath. After all, so much is at stake both personally and from a larger fuller perspective!

It’s a matter of self-identity. Who do you want to be now in yourself or in your future? What purposes do you want to serve? What do you want to be and how will you thrust such a vision forward? Where are you going and who are you taking there with you in your steps forward to the future that you compose?

It gets really easy in the end. You want to be someone like Sol or someone like Ray? Pick.

sacred spirit – Yeha Noha – YouTube

Album: Sacred Spirit: Chants and Dances of the Native Americans

Sally Dugman is a writer in MA, USA

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One Comment

  1. K SHESHU BABU says:

    ” Fortune can take away all your riches …But not your courage ..”
    Many great persons have faced extreme sufferings and yet came out victorious. This is because of their grit and determination . No amount of tragedy could overcome their will to live and defeat the sorrows .
    This courage is present but inactive in eveeryone. .. only if one could tap it …. G. B. Shaw said ‘ no man is great . The one who is great is ninety nine percent yourself’ … A courageous person is great and if every person is courageous, everyone is great!!