Every now and then we learn a lesson. For some of us it’s an old lesson, repackaged and presented in a new way, forcing us to admit that the changes we thought we’d made weren’t permanent. Hopefully we manage to avoid hurting ourselves or others while we’re figuring out exactly what needs changing.
It won’t be a surprise to most people reading this, but I grew up an Austen daughter – I was the “Marianne” and my sister the “Elinor.” (If you haven’t read Sense & Sensibility, there is a remarkably good film adaptation of it starring Kate Winslet & Emma Thompson. And you know if I’ve recommended an Austen film it’s probably good, since I have rather high standards.) I, like Marianne Dashwood, had a hard time controlling the intensity of my emotions1.
Part of it was the product of being the younger child, feeling compelled to do more to gain the attention of parents & caregivers simply by the nature of my station in life. But part of it was just the way I was made. I’ve only recently started to feel comfortable with myself and able to control the way I react to overwhelming situations. This has yielded astonishingly large benefits, and I finally feel as if I am on the same social footing with my friends & family who have always been able to maintain their composure even in the most challenging situations.
Achieving this emotional well-being has involved a lot of hard work and self-examination, but it’s also a direct result of the help, advice, and mentoring of the amazingly wonderful group of friends and family I’ve been lucky enough to end up with. And when I read (or watch) Sense & Sensibility I’m always struck with Marianne’s good fortune at having ended up with a husband who will not only be her friend, but her mentor. Colonel Brandon is the perfect companion to help her learn, and re-learn, the difficult life lessons of grief and powerlessness against fate.
My most recent lesson of this nature was delivered in the midst of one of the hardest chapters of my life. A frightening family health experience left me bewildered, angry, and scared for months. In the deepest hours of the crisis, I sent updates from the hospital to a small group of friends. They were all constantly supportive, making me feel as though my concerns were theirs as well, and that they’d support me in my darkest hours of fear and loneliness. I was crying out for their support and guidance and they, like Elinor, held me (if only in their hearts) as my soul exploded in agony, striking out against my own heart and mind in senseless fear.
It wasn’t until months later that I learned one of these friends was going through a crisis much more terrifying than mine. The moment I understood the magnitude of what she was facing was a revelation for me. It was like Marianne’s realization that Elinor had also suffered greatly, only Elinor had suffered in silence. In one of the most poignant passages in the novel, Marianne responds to Elinor’s question about the conduct of the man who had so thoroughly broken Marianne’s heart:
“Do you compare your conduct with his?”
“No. I compare it with what it ought to have been; I compare it with yours.”
Although Marianne may be giving her sister undue credit – burying emotional responses as deeply as Elinor does can be just as damaging as uncontrollably letting them loose – this moment is an incredible admission on Marianne’s part that she has been abusing not only the people around her, but herself. By allowing her emotional reactions to take over her life, Marianne has spent the greatest part of the novel in a state of depression and regression. For pages and pages (in her world, months and months) she doesn’t allow her life to move forward, she isn’t able to find any joy either in solitude or in the company of those she loves.
I must also give myself as much credit as I’ve extended to Marianne; I was not wandering through rainstorms in a thin dress, or refusing sleep and food. My emotional reactions were entirely reasonable for the situation I was facing. But “reasonable” is a spectrum, and for the greater part of my life I teetered on the very edge of it. I was just, in fact, beginning to get a pretty good handle on it when my own crisis hit, and I felt my control slipping away into a deep, shattering grief. But unlike Marianne, I had the self-reflection to wonder whether my grief was justified, which only added a layer of guilt and shame to my fear and sadness.
This is the reason I don’t usually believe in comparing levels of grieving – some things hit people harder than others, and when I’m in a clear frame of mind I can see that I’ve got no need to justify my own suffering through comparison with someone else’s. That lesson was one I learned in high school, from a boyfriend who was “bad news” in almost every other way. I was moving from the school district I’d spent my life in to one in which I’d be a stranger and an outcast. I was devastated, and my devastation was compounded by my guilt for being upset over what, in the grand scheme of things, was nothing compared to the suffering of my friend whose father had just passed away, or the friends of a much-beloved teacher who had died of a brief & sudden illness. I was in a spiral of guilt, fear, shame, and anger, but he said to me (seriously, the only moment of that relationship worth remembering) “it doesn’t matter what someone else is going through. This is very hard for you, and you are allowed to be very upset by it.”
But you see, there are grief events which are immune to comparison. The loss of a child, parent, sibling, spouse, partner – these events are on their own grief scale. And when I was faced with the possibility of such an event (which **thankfully** didn’t happen), I was bewildered, terrified, desperate for help and assurances that everything would be okay. So how is it that my friends and family members who have faced these incomparably horrible losses have done so with such composure? These admirable Elinors of mine – I surround myself with the unflappable types – they are my strength even in their suffering. It is through them I have learned so much about myself. I have learned the humility that comes with the realization that my life is not over, my sun still rises. Because unbelievably, they are still living. They are still strong and in control. And even if they have moments where they are neither, they are still able to continue living in a way that honors those they’ve lost. I only hope I have learned enough from these friends and loved ones to be able to do the same if I’m ever faced with such a terrible, senseless loss.
I compare it with what it ought to have been; I compare it with yours.
As momentous as her moment of clarity is, Marianne’s lesson isn’t just learned in that moment. It will be learned again and again over her lifetime. Some Austen scholars theorize that with the extreme age difference and his deep melancholy, her marriage to Colonel Brandon is more penance than prize. While there are reasons to argue in favor of that theory, I also take great comfort in the idea that Marianne will end up with a man who has suffered so much more than she has with such greater dignity, and who can guide her through the self-discovery that becomes necessary as we age. I like to imagine that Marianne will discover, like I have, that it is not only possible but necessary to maintain at least enough composure to prevent injuring oneself & others. Sensibility of the kind Marianne and I share needs to be tempered with the Sense we are magnetically attracted to in others. Senseless indulgence in emotions – even positive emotions – can be destabilizing and counter-productive for those of us who are already intensely tuned in to our own feelings.
There are, however, some benefits to being a “Marianne.” I, like Marianne, am not afraid to speak my mind. Because I, like Marianne, am so eager to share my love and friendship with others, I have built up a lifetime of amazing friends. And since, like Marianne, I have caused myself to suffer more intensely than necessary, I have learned to value the strength of those around me who have been so willing to share their calming presences.
I would love to finish this by saying “I hope nothing bad ever happens again to me or any of my friends, so that I won’t have to test my emotional strength.” But that seems like tempting fate, doesn’t it? As I’ve written this I’ve started to understand one more thing about life, death, loss, and grieving – terribly sad things will happen, and we will all keep going. We will surround ourselves with the people who bring us back to who we want to be. And as for us Mariannes, if we are fortunate we will find Elinors to remind us that we can’t move forward if we are intent on suffering in senseless sensibility.
1. Austen describes her young heroine thus: “She was sensible and clever, but eager in everything; her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation.” This, for modern readers, is what the title is getting at when it identifies “sensibility” as a trait that will be explored during the novel. Although the word’s meaning has evolved a bit into a description of rational thought as opposed to emotional reaction, when we identify Marianne’s emotional displays as her overindulgence of her “sensibilities,” the concept is more easily tied to the word than if we simply apply a modern definition.