A Crucible of Character
A Crucible of Character
There is a fountain of youth, it is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of the people who love you. When you learn to tap this source, you will have truly defeated age.
- Sophia Loren
On September 20th, 1934 a small, illegitimate child was born in a charity ward for unwed mothers in Rome. The newborn, inculpable and helpless, entered an inhospitable world which might have inevitably consumed her virtue. However, against all odds, this child went on to become one of the most famous, dazzling, youthful and powerful women in entertainment.
Sofia Villani Scicolone was born.
During an interview with Vanity Fair, Sophia describes her childhood:
I was Raised in Pozzuoli, a small town of fishermen and munitions workers outside of Naples. I experienced some of the worst privations of the Second World War—terror, bombing, starvation, and I was taunted throughout my childhood for being illegitimate. My mother and I returned to her family home in Pozzuoli to live down the shame of my birth; in Catholic Italy then, being an unwed mother was not just a scandal, but a sin. We moved in with my mother's parents, aunt, and two uncles; Eight people shared the tiny apartment. Until I left Pozzuoli, I never slept in a bed with fewer than three family members.
By 1942 we were starving, living on rationed bread, hiding from the air raids at night in a dark, rat-infested train tunnel, full of sickness, laughter, drunkenness, death, and childbirth. My mother foraged for food, but I was so skinny my school-mates called me “Sofia Stuzzicadenti”—toothpick.
How does someone find hope, happiness, power, and liberation after such heartache? How did she see the beauty in building a fearless life, after so much darkness? Where does greatness comes from, and what ingredients burn brightest in our crucible of character?
The renowned Viktor Frankel, Holocaust survivor and author, would challenge us to look inward:
When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.
Earlier on Sophia cleverly pointed out how time is not the master of age, and that our perceptions of reality can influence not only the quality of our lives, but also enable us to maintain youthful minds within aging bodies; She is on to something. It becomes less about what one knows or the pain one has endured, and further about how one uses these inevitable experiences to become wise through changes that are permanent and essential.
A crucible is a vessel for intense transmogrification, that must not only be able to withstand ferocious chemical reactions, but also the chaos of unpredictable elements. These tender cauldrons, molded from soft clay, metaphorically represent our compelling minds, and hearts. We are the crucible, the container, the holding space for every test and trial of our lives.
Sophia, like many of us, suffered through painful emotions and experiences, nonetheless, she chose to discover significant value and worth from her hardships:
I've never tried to block out the memories of the past, even though some are painful. I don't understand people who hide from their past. Everything you live through helps to make you the person you are now.
Banishing our painful experiences denies homage to the brilliant nuggets of character born from overcoming our fear, shame, anger, depression, sadness, and anxiety. Even though hiding away from all that hurts is very tempting! While pain and suffering are both inevitable realities of the human condition, we do have a choice in how we utilize these discomforts; we can either choose to rise above them, or slip into decay.
WHAT MAKES A GOOD CRUCIBLE
We all experience life differently, and in turn utilize various filters to process the conflicts which confront us. While some of us build our crucibles out of love, and compassion in order to accept our difficult emotions and experiences, others lean towards anger or avoidance in attempts to escape conflict altogether. We learn these specific molding strategies from our earliest caregivers. How we build our crucibles though is as much as important as what ingredients goes into them. How we build our crucibles is as much as important as what ingredients goes into them.
The elements which are cast into our crucible come from three arenas: emotions, relationships and experiences. These ingredients are the key building blocks of our character.
There is quote by Buddhist Pema Chodron: You are the sky, everything else, it's just the weather. Emotions brew inside our crucible. They come and go, but are ever so important to the makeup of our life experience. They are happiness, anxiety, loneliness, elation and grief. Emotions give fervor to our cause to live, agitating our resolution to accept problems we might otherwise not find solutions in. Helen Keller knew this intimately as anyone could:
The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.
We also move too quickly to judge our emotions, feel we might have done something wrong to deserve them, rather than perhaps seeing their human quality, and necessity in life. As Erich Fromm mentions in earnest: One cannot be deeply responsive to the world without being saddened very often.
relationships & Experiences
The brain is a social organ and will whither in isolation, just as every healthy person on this planet has some form of relationship outside themselves. Just think back to the last time you went to a movie or had a drink with a friend, perhaps you felt not only a bit more relaxed, but also relieved for getting out and doing something fun. These two principles, of relationships and experiences, often work in tandem, but can also operate apart. Experiences are a massive guiding force within our crucible, enabling us to learn valuable lessons, and feel connected with the formal reality which exists outside ourselves. Sophia learned about the realities of life at an early age:
The two big advantages I had at birth were to have been born wise and to have been born in poverty.
As illuminated in this quote, we are often too quick to judge who we know (or don't know), and what experiences are currently effecting to us. Most often we react to situations in a negative or anxious way, forgetting that all situations eventually work themselves out in the end. Looking back upon our life’s history, and problems of five years ago, we rarely are still dealing with those problems today, and if so, we have found a solution or way toward acceptance. Nothing lasts forever.
Mortar and Pestle
As Victor Frankel mentioned earlier, we rarely can change the situations which we are thrust into, we can however attempt to adjust our place and experience within those circumstances. In this metaphor, the Mortar and Pestle represent the tools we use to navigate the ingredients which swelter within our crucible. By implementing effective coping skills, virtuous character is born from the ashes of struggle and conflict.
Solitude, Mindfulness & Acceptance
As young children, we lack the accumulated patterns which can dull ones vivid experiences of the world. Later in life these patterns and habits lead to fewer new experiences, but do aid us in survival. In many ways, this consistency is our greatest ally, especially when attempting to utilize effectiveness and security. However, by introducing more spontaneity into our lives, we come to connect in deeper ways with a younger reality, and come to connect, and accept what ails us.
As the Buddha says:
All things appear and disappear because of the concurrence of causes and conditions. Nothing ever exists entirely alone; everything is in relation to everything else.
In that regard, we are only ready to step out into the world and explore others once we have fully inspected our emotions and ambitions, unadulterated from the distractions of invasive relationships, experiences and ailments. Solitude amplifies these broken parts, which often masks or bars creativity, compassion, and insight. Through acceptance and mindfulness we may come to let go of our deep pains and gain loving access to our most authentic selves.
Erich Fromm states this perfectly:
Love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence.
He is right, love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence.
The problem to every deep pain is never in its emotion, but in our own judgments. Being born human we are destined for great pain, there is no escaping this fact. Painful emotions in-and-of-themselves are neither good nor bad. They simply are. How we react though, and choose to interpret these emotions, defines not only the shame we feel, but also the amount of ongoing trauma experienced from normal emotions. Finally, what we most often see to be treacherous in life, soon turns out to be our greatest gifts to others and ourselves.
C.S. Lewis cleverly closes what Sophia started:
Hardship often prepares an ordinary person for an extraordinary destiny.