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my favorite poem

After my mother died, I found this typewritten poem stashed in a book that had belonged to her. Reading it, so deep in my grief, I felt equal blows of tough-love and compassion. My mother’s parenting style was steeped in that dichotomy: She loved me so fiercely, so unconditionally, she’d sooner let me fail than rescue me. I’d learn best, she might have said, if I understood life as a case study in cause and effect. Reading the poem that day, attributed to Elsie Robinson, it was my mother’s voice that filled my ears. And that felt welcome, needed, and healing.

But who was Elsie Robinson? I had never heard the name before and have spent much of the last 20 years finding out. In my research for my forthcoming book, the first biography of Robinson (1883-1956), I’ve learned she was once the highest paid nationally syndicated female columnist at Hearst. She was a writer who gave a voice to a generation of women and launched a movement that decades later included Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Dorothy Pitman Hughes. Researching and writing this biography has created a new, living connection to my mother, as if she’s sitting next to me as I type. 

Below is the poem I found more than 25 years ago. I’ve written it out for you, in its entirety. I hope it brings you as much comfort as it’s brought me. To learn more about Robinson and keep up to date on the book’s progress, please join my newsletter list. I promise not to bombard you; I send notes only once a month.

 

PAIN by Elsie Robinson

Why must I be hurt?
Suffering and despair,
Cowardice and cruelty,
Envy and injustice,
All of these hurt.
Grief and terror,
Loneliness and betrayal
And the agony of loss or death –
All these things hurt.
Why? Why must life hurt?
Why must those who love generously,
Live honorably, feel deeply
All that is good – and beautiful
Be so hurt,
While selfish creatures
Go unscathed?
That is why—
Because they can feel.
Hurt is the price to pay for feeling.
Pain is not accident,
Nor punishment, nor mockery
By some savage god.
Pain is part of growth.
The more we grow
The more we feel –
The more we feel – the more we suffer,
For if we are able to feel beauty,
We must also feel the lack of it –
Those who glimpse heaven
Are bound to sight hell.
To have felt deeply is worth
Anything it cost.
To have felt Love and Honor,
Courage and Ecstasy
Is worth – any price.
And so – since hurt is the price
Of Larger living, I will not
Hate pain, nor try to escape it.
Instead I will try to meet it
Bravely, bear it proudly:
Not as a cross, or a misfortune, but an
Opportunity, a privilege, a challenge – to the God that
gropes within me.