LAST SPRING I LAY ON MY DOCTOR’S EXAM TABLE, hooked up to an ECG machine. Embarrassed, anxious, even a bit tearful, I rapidly explained to the kind doctor, and then to the nurse, as she affixed a handful of sticky probes to my chest, “I’m writing this book and I interviewed a young woman who had a heart attack. She’s fit, around my age, a marathoner, but she had a heart attack, and her symptoms weren’t typical at all. I know it’s probably just heartburn but I keep thinking I’m having one, too. . . ” My words faded off, uselessly.

I was making a scene, and when my ECG results came back normal, as in “Take some antacid,” instead of feeling relieved I felt even more embarrassed. I blew my nose, thanked the doctor for her time, and slunk out of the clinic, feeling as if I were wearing a scarlet H for hypochondriac.

Turns out, the experience was all in a day’s work.

For most of the last year I’ve been researching and writing a book that tells the stories of people who have lived through significant life challenges, including the loss of a job or home, serious chronic illness, the death of a child, or (see above) a major heart attack. The people I interviewed have been open and forthcoming, exhaustively detailing their traumas, and, most importantly, explaining how they’ve managed to incorporate these losses into their lives and keep going.

Despite having been a journalist long enough to know better, I entered this project blithely, convinced everything would be fine, confident in my ability to play the objective reporter. Yet there were times in the midst of my research when I felt as if I’d been sucked into the vortex of my subjects’ situations, witnessing the crushing pain of the grieving parent or the depressing disorientation of life with a malfunctioning heart.

Then tragedies in my own life and the lives of my loved ones began to add to my stress. Within a span of months my beloved father-in-law and niece both fell ill and died. Thinking about their deaths still makes me feel hollowed out and sad.

In the muddle of my own grief there were days when working on the book left me depleted and exhausted. But as I continued to transcribe interviews and write, a sense of peace began to seep in. My subjects’ honest accounts of how they imperfectly yet bravely faced down life-shifting events were both awe-inspiring and comforting. These were real people who found they could thrive despite major traumas. If they could do it, then so could I.

Even armed with that knowledge, though, there were times—such as during my anxious doctor’s visit—when I stumbled in the face of tough realities. I’m human and fallible, after all. Then, as evidence of my own fallible life continued to build, as I witnessed some of the saddest moments I could imagine, I noticed that I’d begun to develop a different awareness of life’s difficulties. Some of that awareness, I know, comes from my own experiences; the rest comes from empathetically witnessing the pain of others.

Sure, life would be easier if we could just sail through it, free of struggle or sadness. Like most people, that’s the kind of life I once hoped for. And there’s still a part of me that wishes that life for my daughters. But lately I’ve come to believe that an unblemished life is incomplete.

I recently came across a quote from Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, author of On Death and Dying: “The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. Beautiful people do not just happen.” I love that sentiment because it says what I’ve believed for years: The most compassionate people are those who’ve struggled.

Even the most amazing lives have some ugly edges. Back in college, I gave the man who is now my husband a copy of The Velveteen Rabbit, a favorite childhood book in which a once plush stuffed toy becomes real only after having his whiskers loved off. Life wears us down. It’s inevitable. But that’s what makes us beautiful—and real.

ANDY STEINER ’90 is a St. Paul–based writer and editor. Her latest book, How to Survive: The Extraordinary Resilience of Ordinary People, will be published in 2014 by Think Piece Publishing.

October 18 2013

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