Hanging On  

 

Pain, depression, despair - the kind that makes you want to take your life - are rarely constant. Very often, they come and go. A person goes down, but after a time, something inside or outside will usually bring him back up, to a place where living again seems possible. The night comes, but even at its darkest, the day is on the way. One of the keys to survival, therefore - besides trying to work on the long-term attitudes, conditions, and situations which contribute to the darkness - is learning how to be patient with the pain, how to bear it, and live in it, long enough to get through it. In plain language: hanging on.

If I were to seek a metaphor for hanging on, an example which reaches to the very soul of what "hanging on" is all about, I could find few more powerful than the example of the "siege of Leningrad."

It happens that for about 900 days, between the years of 1941 and 1943, the Russian city of Leningrad (St. Petersburg) was surrounded by the Nazi army of Hitler, besieged, blockaded, cut off from supplies and reinforcements. It was a terrible ordeal, as that city of 3 million people, encircled and alone, struggled to hang on, to survive. If it fell, of course, it would be a crucial Nazi victory, greatly increasing Hitlerís chance to win the war, and so the city did not surrender, even as it bore the awful cost of its courage.

For 6 months, between October 1941 and April 1942, the situation was especially desperate. Temperatures dropped frequently to 30 degrees below zero, as the fierce Russian winter set in. Streetcars were left silent on the streets, covered with snow. Plumbing froze, and many people had to drink melted snow. Firemen, trying to extinguish conflagrations set by German artillery shells and bombs, had to try to put out the fires with snow. As the city ground to a standstill, people began to go out with their childrenís sleds, using them to haul anything from supplies, to the sick and wounded, to pregnant women, to corpses. Hunger, starvation, weakness, and exhaustion began to set in. While the soldiers held on at the front, the civilians, underfed, began to collapse and die. Many people also froze to death. Soon, Leningrad became a city of ghosts. Once beautiful and vigorous people now walked about like emaciated shadows of themselves. Furniture was broken up for kindling, to light fires to keep away the cold. People were forced to begin eating their pets. That or to die. Bread, and bread rations, became a kind of currency, more valuable than almost anything else.

And as the ordeal went on, the death toll mounted. The living, weak and exhausted, carried or dragged the dead to cemeteries, often dying from the exertion right beside those they had come to bury. And the ground was so hard, so frozen solid, that, very often, graves could not be dug at all. One group of intellectuals, determined to continue with their business, to keep their spirit and passion from being defeated by the mindless cruelty of war, went ahead with a function they had planned. But one of the principal speakers was so weak that he had to be carried to the event; and once he had begun to speak, there was so little strength left in his voice, that only those spectators sitting right in front of him could hear a word he said. This same exhaustion finally led to many citizens leaving the doors to their houses unlocked, so that they would not have to use up any more energy to answer the door, in case somebody knocked. Sometimes robbers came in, looking for bread. And bodies began to be left everywhere, in the street, even in houses.

The siege of Leningrad was a mighty human drama, a tragedy of enormous dimensions, a rare epic of suffering, courage, and survival. Of hanging on. For in 1943, after months of darkness, months of unbearable pain, the blockade was finally broken, help arrived, the Nazi army was driven back, and life began to put itself back together. Quite a feat for a city where the flame of hope had shrunk to just a tiny trace of light, sputtering in the darkness. And yet, with that little trace of hope, a city lived.

Many times, in the course of our own lives, we come to feel alone, "surrounded", besieged by a world that does not care. We feel as though we have been denied understanding, denied love, denied friendship, denied fairness, denied economic resources, denied health, denied happiness. We seem to be cut off from our dreams, our needs, our life. Truly, we seem like a blockaded city, starving and freezing in the solitude.

And that is why I have recounted the story of the city of Leningrad, and its pain. For that cityís history shows us the power of not giving up; the power of the human soul; the power of going on living, even when all hope seems gone, even when one seems to be utterly alone, even when oneís cause seems to be lost, even when it seems there is nothing waiting for us on the other side of darkness, except for more darkness.

The power of hanging on. Never underestimate it. Feeling down, feeling the awful pain and the terrible loneliness inside, hang on; have faith that there will be relief. Whether that relief comes spontaneously and mysteriously, like a natural rhythm bound to happen, or as a miraculous, unexpected gift; whether it comes in the form of another person, or outside help, or in the form of an insight or outcome born from inside your own grieving heart, hang on. You are a cause worth surviving for, even if you are still an undiscovered cause. Maybe discovering who you really are will be the daybreak that your soul is waiting for.

Hang on. Believe in time. Believe in the magic of hanging on, which has turned many a night of sorrow into a day of life.

 

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