Seeing Our Challenges as Connectors

Here’s what happens when you go see a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet read in a packed auditorium and then you find out she will be introduced by none other than Eve Ensler: The room erupts.

That is how it went recently at the 92nd Street Y in New York. A friend and I settled into our seats to hear Mary Oliver read and gasped along with the rest of the crowd when Ensler took the stage. Already my mind was in overdrive, wondering what her connection might be to the poet.

Ensler told a story that had occurred a few years ago; it was about the day before she was to have surgery for uterine cancer. A friend who has memorized many poems told her to pick a card from her deck of poems and this would be the message she would take into surgery. As it turned out, Ensler picked a classic -- “The Journey” by Oliver. The poem is about reaching a point where you know what you have to do despite all outside influences/distractions. Here are the last four lines:

determined to do the only thing you could do -- determined to save the only life you could save. 

It is a beautiful poem about the return to self and the power of looking within for answers. That act, incidentally, makes us stronger and more vibrant, which in turn makes us better spouses, parents, siblings, employees, citizens ... you get the idea. There is a message for all of us there, but how poignant for the ailing, brilliant creator of The Vagina Monologues to randomly select this from a pile of options.

But there was more. Another theme emerged for me and it transcended these two women and everyone in the room.

What I saw and heard was that our greatest challenges in life are also our vital connectors to each other. Our shared experiences, particularly the ones that throw us off balance, give birth to art and movements and volunteerism and simple kind gestures. That’s some really good stuff right there.

Here we see it on a grand scale. Ensler, herself abused as a child, creates The Vagina Monologues -- which spawned the V-Day movement that has raised more than $80 million globally to educate about the issue of violence against women -- and continues to write, perform, produce and advocate. The major challenge that cancer presents sends her to another’s art. Oliver, no stranger to heartache, is there, her words pulsing on the page -- Determined to save the only life you could save.

This isn’t about poetry or violence, though. Not really.

It’s about knowing somewhere deep inside -- as you’re dealing with illness, death, debt, a broken heart, a stinging rejection -- that your experience is shared and getting solace and validation from that. Maybe not in the moment. Not at the height of the pain. But always down the line if you truly stay open to it.

One of the interesting things about Oliver is that people often ‘discover’ her work when they are going through their own challenges. Big ones, too. They find her words and they cling to them like lifelines or let themselves be lulled by her luscious interactions with nature.

Without my own challenges, I would be nothing more than a columnist spouting off bromides on how to live your life. Had I not raised myself out of debt, learned about grief firsthand and – this one is ongoing – recovered from a persistent physical injury, I’d be Susie Sunshine dropping rose petals on your head.

Instead, I’m telling you to seek out others and immerse in their expressions of deep emotion. Maybe you won’t learn, but you’ll feel kinship. Don’t underestimate the feeling of utter peace that sweeps through your body when that kind of connection is made. Your pain may not go away, but eventually, when you’re ready, it could help someone else. The cycle is ongoing. It’s like a swirl of agony and joy and community going around and around and around.

I have recently sent two friends to Pema Chodron’s book When Things Fall Apart because it has given me great comfort at times. Sources abound. Music can soothe or give voice to our emotions. There are friends, even some acquaintances, a phone call away who would be all too willing to share their experience with cancer, with losing a child, with handling debt.

What this requires is that we seek, ask, share. Connect.

Oliver writes:

Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness.  It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.

Without our challenges, we would all be kind of average. With our challenges, we can get to extraordinary.

I saw a shining example in that auditorium.

Nancy Colasurdo is a practicing life coach and freelance writer. Her Web site is and you can follow her on Twitter @nancola. Please direct all questions/comments to