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A few years ago, I watched the movie Collateral Beauty. In one poignant scene, a mother’s memory re-visited her daughter’s last days in the hospital with a rare and fatal form of brain cancer.
The mother, struggling to accept that her daughter wasn’t going to make it, cried in the hall outside of her daughter’s room. An elderly woman asked her, “Who are you losing?”
“My daughter,” she replied.
To her surprise, the older woman said, “Just make sure you notice the collateral beauty.”
I thought that comment was strange and a bit ridiculous when I first heard it. I wondered, “How can such a traumatic experience produce anything of beauty, and what does ‘collateral beauty’ even mean?” But the more I humble myself to tests and learn from the lessons they give, the more I notice their potential for creating some repercussions of beauty – if we let them.
O Son of Man! My calamity is My providence, outwardly it is fire and vengeance, but inwardly it is light and mercy. Hasten thereunto that thou mayest become an eternal light and an immortal spirit. This is My command unto thee, do thou observe it. – Baha'u'llah, The Hidden Words, p. 15.
My cousin died from a motorcycle accident nine years ago. We were so close – he was like a brother to me and the rest of my siblings. Losing him felt incredibly painful for all of us, and it took a really long time for us to heal. I used to wonder if there would ever be a day when I wouldn’t burst into tears the minute he came to mind.
But looking back, I see that in the midst of such pain and heartache, my family and I became closer. I watched my family gain a new sister – my cousin’s longtime girlfriend – who stayed with us for a month after he died. I watched two of my brothers, who were not on good terms, finally speak to each other after many years of silence. I watched my sister, who often puts up emotional walls, feel comfortable enough to be vulnerable and cry alongside me. I felt my heart become more connected to my cousin, after many dreams that showed me he was in a better place.
When I sank deeper into a depression the following year, after attending a school with a racist and toxic climate, I started writing songs and poems after a several-year-long hiatus to heal and to honor my cousin’s memory. If he didn’t know how loved he was before, he definitely did then. With every poem I wrote about each painful experience, the lighter the weight felt on my heart.
Writing poetry gave me a voice and became a source of healing. I am so grateful for that gift of light in the darkness. Now I know that whenever I feel sad, I just need to write until the feeling is gone. I needed to learn how to create beauty from pain.
I realized that collateral beauty creates that silver lining behind every cloud, the strengthening of our souls, and that divine light within us that shines even brighter in the darkness. Outwardly, tests often feel like “fire and vengeance.” Calamity is difficult, traumatic, and painful, but we need it to grow and strengthen our souls. The Baha'i teachings say:
The more one is severed from the world, from desires, from human affairs, and conditions, the more impervious does one become to the tests of God. – Abdu’l-Baha, as told to Edward Getsinger, Star of the West, Volume 4, p. 45.
Like any academic or physical test, we can also pass or fail our spiritual tests. We fail these tests when we increase our attachment to this world and become more angry, depressed, and hopeless as a result.
Often, people let difficult emotions justify feeling or doing things that lead to their abasement, such as backbiting, promiscuity, drugs or alcohol. But this only intensifies pain and multiplies it to varying degrees, because you then feel pain from multiple sources as opposed to just the original one. All of this creates collateral damage.
I believe that God gives us tests to create collateral beauty. So, in every test that we receive, what if we asked ourselves, “Why did God put me in this position, and how can I make the most of it? What can I learn from this difficulty in my life?”
In the film Collateral Beauty, the mother in the story ended up leading a grief support group to help others cope with tremendous losses like hers. She didn’t just make sure she noticed the collateral beauty: she actively sought ways to create it, and we all can, too.