Nothing Gold Can Stay … or a Therapist’s Reflections on Grief
If you are around my age (30!) and you attended public school in the southern or midwest United States, there’s a good chance that The Outsiders was a part of your middle school reading curriculum.
The novel by S.E. Hinton tells the story of a group of Oklahoma teenage boys navigating the sacrifices and obstacles inherent to entering adulthood.
There’s an oft-quoted line from the novel, you may have heard it before:
“Stay gold, Ponyboy.”
One of the boys encourages the youngest of the gang, affectionately nicknamed Ponyboy, to hold on to his youthful spirit and lack of cynicism.
He found the words for this desire from the Robert Frost poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” ... And from the poem’s title alone, I’m sure you can understand the tragic irony of this request.
Nothing Gold Can Stay by Robert Frost Nature’s first green is gold, Her hardest hue to hold. Her early leaf’s a flower, But only so an hour. Then leaf subsides to leaf. So Eden sank to grief, So dawn goes down to day. Nothing gold can stay.
As a kid I had to memorize this poem. And though I don’t remember too many details of the novel itself, the poem has stuck with me. It made a home in my head because it efficiently captures the mournful fact that to love something is to someday lose it; that time never slows; and that all things — even and especially ourselves — are temporary.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about grief.
How grieving is the act of both painfully living in the present moment, aware of our sadness and loss, while also time traveling to the past to grasp at memories of who or what is gone.
In graduate school, I went out of my way to avoid taking any classes about grief or loss. I was certainly not afraid of difficult or harrowing course material; I threw myself full on into seminars about the American Opioid Epidemic, intergenerational and racial trauma, substance abuse that destroyed families, the humanitarian crisis at the Southwest U.S. border.
And yet, I struggled to look grief squarely in the eye.
Which is funny, because loss is the universal experience. I can be certain that every one of my therapy clients, and every one of my friends, and every person I love has felt it’s painful blow.
Grief is scary because it’s not just sadness.
Grief can also be regret or shame, disappointment or existential fear. Grief can evoke sadness of the inevitable march of time, and remind us of our human limits. Grief is a rusty gate that comes between you and what’s lost. It’s a “no trespassing sign” on all our alternate lives unlived, words left unsaid, and to-dos left undone.
Perhaps it’s my fear of grief that keeps this poem’s hold on me.
Loss is an inevitable part of loving.
The only way to never feel the pain of losing something is to never feel the joy, the love, the affection we have for the people, places and things that bring us pleasure. Each time we choose something, we are not choosing everything else, which is it’s own kind of pain. And the more we have in life to love, the more we have to lose.
For many, this fact would cause a retreat into pseudo-stoicism, well, fine then, I won’t let myself care about anything.
Can’t be broken up with if we’re never in a romantic relationship.
Can’t drift apart from friends we’ve never had.
Can’t wax nostalgic about good times that never happened.
Can’t mourn the death of a family we never loved.
Pseudo-Stoicism has become more popular lately, especially in circles of very online (mostly) men who value individualism over collectivism and a “bootstraps” theory of emotional wellness. Instead of questioning the classic masculine ideal of not feeling any feelings or needing others, they’ve rebranded their oppression as personal development and “honoring the wisdom of ancient philosophers”.
These would-be YouTube gurus and Twitch life coaches suggest that if we work to discipline our minds, toughen up and not get carried away by those untrustworthy emotions—love, attachment, vulnerability, needing someone else, the desire to connect — we will be able to avoid the inconvenient, and more importantly, unproductive pain that comes from change, adversity, longing and loss.
Which is not stoicism, that’s just being emotionally numb.
Stoicism may be the endurance of suffering without complaint, but where does that suffering coming from?
In Buddhism at least, the idea is that desire is at the heart of suffering. I want, therefore I am. I am, therefore I suffer. And so, to minimize suffering we should practice non-attachment.
But non-attachment doesn’t mean we cut off our emotions and refuse the pull towards love and intimacy. Our human wanting may never go away, so perhaps we can let go of it a bit and do ourselves less harm.
Non-attachment means we don’t get in the way of what’s happening.
We don’t cling to joy nor do we reject our suffering. It’s recognizing that both pain and happiness are both worth feeling, along with the recognition that no feeling will last forever.
It means having that summer fling abroad even though you know you’ll have to come back to the states in autumn. It means showing up to visit your elderly grandmother in hospice even though it’s a reminder of the loss in progress. It means choosing to put your faith in your partner and the future you’re building together, even though it gives one person incredible power over your sense of stability.
Non-attachment means we exist here in the present moment, over and over and over again.
When we recognize that each moment is unique and fleeting —we can whole-heartedly soak up its golden glow while we’re here.
So grab that morning hue, savor the early flower! And don’t run from the inevitable grief when it eventually goes away. We can regard this hurt as a testament to our care for the person, place, thing, opportunity that we have lost.
That pain is part of living and evidence of loving. Because, of course, nothing gold can stay. Take care of yourself, take care of others. I’ll see you in the next post.