In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter – bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart.” (Stephen Crane)
I do not know when exactly I first read this poem, but I remember how I instantly loved it, even felt a sense of familiarity with it. I felt understood by it, the way I tend to feel when a work of art offers a glimpse of something deep within myself that I could not have expressed equally well.
I loved the poem enough to want to learn more about its author Stephen Crane and read more about different interpretations of the poem. With some surprise, I discovered that many, or rather most interpretations seem to perceive the creature in this poem as a negative and vile character. That is not what I see at all. To me, this bestial creature had always been an inspiring and comforting figure.
Nothing left to lose
The creature is described as naked and bestial – beast-like, in a desolate desert seeing. I see someone with literally no worldly possessions, likely with little to no ties to the rest of the civilized world. I see someone who, by choice or circumstances, had to truly tread his own path in life and has nothing left to lose outside himself; nothing left to hold on to, to deceive himself of the utter aloneness we humans try so hard to deny or forget about; someone who apparently has been alone long enough to grow distant from the civilized world in manners as well as appearance. I can’t help but wonder what lead to this point. Was he simply a social deviant who did not fit into society and thus chose to tread his own path? A mentally ill person who could not find help in the civilized world? Did a sudden crisis throw him into his current state? Or was he once an average member of society, who became gradually disillusioned through a series of personal tragedies and losses? Did he seek solitude to try and find himself, only to realize that he had withdrawn himself beyond the point of no return, and that in the process he had lost everything?
A bitter heart
We are told this creature has a bitter heart, upon which he is feasting in seeming contentment. Lacking worldly possessions, he apparently has no food either; all he has left for nourishment is his own heart, his own inner world. Whatever lead up to his current circumstances – he is bitter about life and about himself, maybe melancholic, frustrated, disillusioned. Without outside simulation, and likely with an abundance of contributory experiences, he cannot help his bitterness, cannot fully shake himself out of his low emotional state.
Life simple and plainly is hard, and he has no illusions about it. This is where many interpretations seem to conclude he is simply a bitter and disgruntled being who is unwilling to let go of his hurt, but instead clings to it and wallows in self-pity. This is not how I have always seen it. Instead, I see this creature as someone who has no illusions about life and his utterly lost stance in the world, but instead of despairing, embraces his struggles and finds some sort of meaning in them.
Bitterness is all this creature has at this moment, and without shying away from it, he takes time for introspection. Within the hardest and most desolate of circumstances, he still has a sense of healthy self-worth and satisfaction. He likes his heart’s bitter taste, because it is his heart. Reduced to the most basic elements of existence, he appears strangely content and at peace with himself. He is content with who he is. He can hardly be called a happy person, but he has risen beyond happiness, able to find meaning and a mature sense of joy even in his most terrifying of sorrows.
The privacy and universality of pain
I imagine we are all able to think of times in our lives when we felt drained, with parched souls and thirsty hearts, when existence – far from joyful – felt dull and filled only with struggle. An older person might generally be able to glean from a wider variety of experiences, thus fostering a greater ability to see the big picture and put the peaks and valleys of life into perspective. Yet, age does not automatically bestow this sense of wisdom (although this ability may play a role in the increased level of happiness that tends to occur with aging, see for example Chicago University’s Yang Yang, 2008).
Some people seem to more or less dwell in this dark and low state most of their lives, while others bounce back quickly. Some may despair in the face of outward tragedy, easy for everyone to understand, while others are struggling with their inner demons with the same intensity although seemingly leading an outwardly sheltered life. Others yet seem amazingly good at pretending happiness, even while they contemplate ending their life in despair, whereas others’ composure crumbles over apparent banalities. – The point is, joyfulness is an intensely private topic and appearances can and do often deceive.
Our low points in life may not always be as desperate and desolate as this creature’s, leading to total isolation, withdrawal, and social deprivation, although one might be reminded of the paralyzing isolation of the clinically depressed, or even the self-chosen exile of someone trying to find answers to life’s hardships.
Dealing with adversity
We all have those low points; the difference lies in how we deal with them. Despite pain’s universal nature, its experience is highly private and personal. We each need to find our own way through those dark times, and doing so requires a good deal of introspection and honesty with ourselves. Will we be able to bear taking an honest look inside our wounded heart? Will we shy away from the ugliness we are about to be confronted with, and will we instead numb our senses with distractions? Will we try to turn inward in the hope of finding ourselves? And will we only find that maybe in total isolation, we, too, are nothing? If we find bitterness in our heart, will we turn vengeful, angry, and rebellious at whatever we choose to blame: ourselves, strangers, loved ones, fate, bad fortune, or God Himself?
It can be hard and all but impossible to will ourselves to change our mood without any positive outside input. How easy is it to get stuck in a negative mood until we encounter someone or something that speaks to our heart, triggering “something” inside us that enables us to climb out of our abyss towards new heights and new joy. Still, we should try to be prepared for our next dark times that are sure to come, by steadily practicing and strengthening our ability to be content and joyful in the moment. This, of course, in itself, opens up many questions, but I do believe preparation and practice are part of the secret of a joyful life. That, and our relationship with our ultimate rescuer and the source of our salvation – Jesus Christ.
Finally, will we be able to own our pain instead of rejecting it or shielding our eyes from it? Will we be able to savor its bitter sweetness and cherish the growth that comes from it?