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The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” – Charles Dickens, Tale of Two Cities

Good AND bad

Part of what makes a line as memorable as this one so memorable is the deep truth it contains. When I think back over my life, I am hard-pressed to find a time – a week, a day, or even a moment – that did not contain, as Dickens describes, elements of both good and bad.

Some of my sweetest memories are of when my children were little. One in particular stands out – a weekday afternoon when we should have been doing a dozen other things, but instead the kids and I decided to watch Christmas movies. My husband came home and snapped the above picture of the four of us piled in one chair.

Was this “the best of times?”

For sure, it is one of my favorite memories – helped to become so, in large part, by the photo. But I also have a vague, niggling memory of how we wound up in that chair – pure and total exhausted collapse from days of nagging, reminding, and hounding three youngsters to practice the piano, do their homework, clean their rooms, brush their teeth, etc. My lord! I am so glad that I am longer the drill sergeant that motherhood required me to be for almost two decades.

So, was this also “the worst of times?”

Hard times elicit the best in us

It is an interesting thing that the worst of times tend to elicit the best in us. Think about those first weeks after 9/11. Or the wave of care and support for first responders in the darkest early days of the pandemic. I can say the same of the darkest days of my own life. I look back a little awed at the gentleness and tenderness my family showed one another in the first few days after my brother’s death. Even though the best in us tends to slip back under the radar after a crisis, the fact that we witnessed it remains – and it is comforting even as things return to their less-than-best normal.

Is it possible that what makes “the best of times” is the way we handle “the worst of times?”

Be willing to do something

It is my experience that what draws a “best of times” from the “worst of times” is my willingness to step into what is happening and do something – even something as seemingly “nothing” as an afternoon vegging in front of the television. When we step off the sidelines (which is a logical safe place to retreat when the going gets tough) and join in just a bit to do one little thing to make one small moment a teensy bit better, we start to feel a sense of agency.

This sense of agency is the beginning of hope. Even in the midst of something so awful that you can’t imagine hoping things will ever get better, doing a miniscule “something” to make life a little more bearable for someone can be the gasp of air that keeps hope from dying in the face of all the awfulness.

For my kids and me, that afternoon squished in the armchair was a pause from patterns we’d fallen into that week – patterns of being together that were wearing us down. While I might have collapsed into that chair because of exhaustion – overwhelmed by the weight of “the worst of times,” I gave us all a much-needed break. Quite unintentionally, this break provided us with a sweet reminder of how much we loved one another – a memory that still glimmers as one of my own “best of times.”

Allow what has worked before (even accidentally) to inform your actions now

It is often said that hindsight is 20/20. While this is true, it is also true that what we learn from hindsight shapes how we navigate our lives. The fact that we can look back on “the worst of times” and catch glimpses of “the best of times” can give us hope during our next challenge or loss. This hope can spur us into action in the face of overwhelming YUCK.

To answer my own question, this is exactly how the “best of times” can spring from how we handle “the worst of times.” This type of action is rarely an attempt to fix what is wrong. That intention actually keeps us a little separate from the struggle.

The magic happens when we step into what is happening to make a small gesture that makes a tough moment a little sweeter for someone who is suffering. When we show up and say, “I see you struggling, and I love you,” our generous spirits create the alchemy that draws forth a “best of times” from “the worst of times.”

Contemplative practices like yoga and meditation quietly create the space where we can see glimmers of hope in hard times that allow us to step into tough moments with the intention to help – even if it’s just a little. Reach out to learn more.