Tyler Ruffin is a first-year master’s student in the Professional Writing program at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. He is interested in rhetorical theory, cinema studies, social media, and has a passion for all things technology.
I recently re-watched Ordinary People for maybe the 20th time in my life. I’ve read the book, too, by Judith Guest. As a novel and a film, the story had one of the most profound effects on my life up to this point. It asks the simple question, “Why do bad things happen to people? You just do one wrong thing…” I’ll leave it to you to finish that last sentence.
The novel concerns an upper middle-class family, the Jarretts. The elder son of the family, Buck, is killed in a boating accident. Conrad, the younger of the two sons who survived the accident, is traumatized by survivor guilt. His mother, Beth, has become emotionally detached, while his father Calvin has a crisis of faith. As Conrad experiences an emotional breakdown and seeks help from his psychologist, Dr. Berger, his parents go about life in their altered states of mind. Beth attempts to keep up appearances despite her inner, silent hatred of Conrad, who only reminds her that Buck has died.
Beth is a stoic representation of the refusal to deal with the tragedies and hardships of life. Conrad, on the other hand, eventually embraces his distress. And despite his post-traumatic stress, he ultimately finds the strength to overcome what he has endured. That’s the message I get from Ordinary People: You have more strength than you think you do. It might take some digging, but all you have to do is look for it.
I would say that I’ve had a relatively tough life…in a privileged white boy sort of way, I guess. I don’t claim to have experienced starvation, homelessness, discrimination, crime, or physical violence, but I can say that I’ve not traveled a perfectly charmed road. I’ve lost a lot of things that I once highly valued, and I’m sure all of us know the feeling of having something or someone suddenly and prematurely yanked out of our lives.
And it hurts, right? It’s like a knife, thrust and twisted in your gut. You can’t control it, as Beth tries to do. You feel like you don’t deserve it, and you lose yourself, as Conrad did. It’s blinding and searing and you’re crippled, just like Calvin is.
But you heal. The scars remind you what you’ve been through, and you grow, you learn. You get strong. I like to think of myself as strong. More tough times are coming in the foreseeable future, and I know it’ll be hard. But I’m ready. I consider what I’ve lost, what I’ve seen, and I feel pretty good.
Getting through life is not hoping everything will be easy, or pretending that bad things won’t happen to you. It’s not about an icy rejection of negative feelings. It’s like Dr. Berger says to Conrad, “Feelings are scary, and sometimes they’re painful. And if you can’t feel pain, then you’re not going to feel anything else either. You’re here and you’re alive, and don’t tell me you can’t feel that.”
I take those words to heart, and when I think of the strength that Conrad found in himself after all he had been through, I am inspired. In a way, I’m glad I’ve gone through this much at such a young age. It’s like an arsenal of firepower against life’s little battles. Be thankful for your hardships. Feel them, then break through them. Do what you have to do. Take care of yourself.
The hardest thing in this world is to live in it. Never let yourself be crushed. Have confidence. Have heart. Be brave. Live.