The first time I read Mary Oliver’s “The Uses of Sorrow,” I was confused. How can you literally give someone a box full of darkness? That makes no sense. And if they gave it to you, wouldn’t it stand to reason it was a gift?
I didn’t understand until years later that what Oliver meant when writing that poem was that bad things happen, but sometimes, when enough time has passed, you can see that good things came of it. The things that hurt us the most are the things that happen to or are done by people we love: We lose a family member or a friend or a love, either to sickness or anger or growth. They give us bad news or they pack up their things or they move away. It hurts worse because we’d invested in them, and they in us. And of all the things they’d given us, we never expected the darkness.
And while the poem advocates for a change in perspective, it doesn’t try to say that things weren’t ugly at the time. On the contrary, it recognizes the bleakness and the desolation for what it is: “a box full of darkness.” It is straightforward in its admission of the pain and the heartache we dealt with, and it implies that admitting the event happened is a step toward understanding and healing.
Oliver recognizes it will take time for us to recover: People spend years, decades even, grieving the loss of someone they care about, especially if it happened unexpectedly. But, as someone told me a long time ago, time can buff the rough edges off of things, and as it passes, things begin to look different. What was once too sharp to handle, too heavy to hold, becomes smoother, lighter, and suddenly it isn’t a burden anymore, but simply a piece of us we carry along.
It’s easy, with distance and a change of light, to see how things that hurt us actually made us better. If we lost someone to an accident or illness, we were given a chance to recollect and remember the good times. If we were hurt by someone who said goodbye before we were ready to let them go, we learned how to both rely on others who cared about us and on ourselves, and we grew stronger from it.
I’ve shared this poem countless times with people who are experiencing loss: I’ve sent it via text and over Gchat, recited it on the phone, written it in emails, and even quoted it walking down a busy street while carrying a corndog. It seems so simple—give yourself enough time and you’ll see the beauty in something painful. But it’s hard to remember when you’re barrelling through a situation that wants to tear you apart.
Knowing there are better times coming might not necessarily relieve any of the stress or the heartache or the ugliness in the moment, but hopefully it will help you, or someone you know who has experienced loss, remember that one day, what looks like darkness will someday look like a gift. It just takes time and a change of perspective to realize it.
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