I remember when John Edwards was announced as John Kerry’s running mate for president; part of what I thought was so appealing about him was his wife. His intellectual equal (in fact, I seem to recall he was somewhat in awe of her) who had suffered the loss of a child, and gone on to become a older mother, I felt an instant kinship with her. And I wasn’t alone. Many people came to admire Elizabeth Edwards as the story of her life unfolded before us.
When the news of Edwards’ death came to me last night, via an NPR news update as I drifted off to sleep, I thought of the woman that I didn’t know personally, and only barely followed through the news. Yet it’s undeniable that she had an effect in this world. Through the tragedies she suffered in her life, she became a role model who offered encouragement to those facing similar trials to face them with grace.
What struck me, though, as I listened to more obituary information about her this morning as I got ready for work, was the fact that today we seem to be so taken by surprise people who face tragedy with grace that it must be remarked on with awe. It seems a mark of our modern society that we don’t feel we should have to suffer any kind of inconvenience, much less real grief and tragedy. Those who do can feel isolated in their personal crisis; in this put-on-a-happy-face world, no one wants to hear about loss.
I should know. I’ve experienced it, in spades. And yet, while it does make me who I am, it doesn’t define me. Life is tragic — just look at any great work of world literature and find one theme that in some way doesn’t deal with the trials we all must face. I lost my father when I was only 25 years old; my mother was made a widow before she was 50. I lost my first child due to a heart defect, when she wasn’t strong enough to survive the surgery to repair it. And I endured the end of my first marriage, with the attendant recriminations about the affect such a split would have on my children.
Elizabeth Edwards dealt with similar problems, and some I thankfully have not faced — cancer, the infidelity of a spouse — and has written about her journey. I rarely write about mine, mostly because I have never felt what I’ve been through is of enough interest to others to share.
But what I now see is that it’s not just the hard times that make a strong person — it is the grace we are able to summon to endure what we must that marks our character. My aim is to use the gifts God has given me to not only successfully travel life’s harder roads, but also to extend what help I can to others who might be finding the journey difficult. Elizabeth Edwards’ example to all of us on how to live, and die, with courage, and allowing her life story to comfort others, I think, is what made her so inspirational.