Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Pain is the touchstone of all growth.

It has been my experience that almost all people, myself included, have a moment, a thought, a memory, a period of time or an experience in childhood that is painful and fraught with consequences for our later life. Some person, happening, situation, period of life, that we remember with embarrassment, humiliation, horror. Some people are so hurt that they may never, in adulthood overcome it. Or it may take a very long time.

Some people use that experience and memory to grow and fight and blossom. It can manifest itself in a thousand different ways good and bad and often a mix of both.

I was reminded of this last night. I am re-reading David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. It is his most autobiographic work and has some startling revelations about the man. In later years as I studied Dickens closely and became a bit of a scholar on the man and his work I discovered the story from his childhood that marked EVERYTHING he did and wrote later in life.

When he was about 12 years old, he was pulled out of school and sent to work in London. His father had fallen into debt and was sent to the Battersea Debtors prison. Young Charles was sent to work in a shoe polish factory. He was lodged in a stranger's house and was forced to fend completely for himself. A child of 12 making 6 shillings a week all on his own.

He was forever scarred by the experience of losing his childhood and prospects for an education. Having to work with the most common and low creatures of London was a constant torment to him. After about a year he was returned to his family as his father's prospects improved. His mother wanted him to keep working, but his father would have none of it and put him back in school. He never forgave his mother.

In David Copperfield, the title character, at 10 years old is sent to work in a factory in London. Dickens' chapters dealing with the experience are explicitly confessional and autobiographical, although no one knew it at the time. Only in the later years of his life did he tell the tale to his best friend and biographer John Forster and then his family.

These words from the book are chilling once his life and history and personal experience are taken into account:

"No words can express the secret agony of my soul as I sunk into this companionship;compared these henceforth everyday associates with those of my happier childhood...and felt my hopes of growing up to be a learned and distinguished man, crushed in my bosom. The deep remembrance of the sense I had, of being utterly without hope now; of the shame I felt in my position; of the misery it was to my young heart to believe that day by day what I had learned, and thought, and delighted in, and raised my fancy and my emulation up by, would pass away from me, little by little, never to be brought back anymore, cannot be written."

This experience influenced everything he did the rest of his life. His further education, his social work, his writing, his love of children, home and childhood. Everything. He turned it into the driving force of his will.

I think we all have our experience at the shoe polish factory, its what we make of it that counts.