Here's the Bright Side is a wise, moving, and funny book about what people gain from situations of loss. Using examples from others' experiences as well as her own, Rollin inspires with stories that illustrate how the hardest times can lead to happier, richer, more powerful lives.
Rollin writes of lessons learned and happiness gained: about men, friends, power, and more. She tells us about fair- and foul-weather friends, the usefulness of fear, and the positive outcomes of failure, divorce, and widowhood, as well as her own evolving joy as a cancer survivor. Poignant, timely, and universal, Here's the Bright Side is a unique and inspirational view of how people often find surprising light in darkness.
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Betty Rollin is a writer and an award-winning TV journalist. A former correspondent for NBC News, she now contributes reports for PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly. Once a writer and editor for both Vogue and Look magazines, she has written for many national publications, including The New York Times. She is the bestselling author of six previous books, including First, You Cry and Last Wish. She lives in New York City with her husband, a mathematician.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
To defeat despair can not only make you giddy, it can make you proud. It’s the high of being in an athletic event of sorts and you’ve won. You feel more powerful than before. You take more power than before.
I am reminded of a career power story: a friend of my husband’s, a mathematician, failed to get tenure at a college in New York. That’s never good news. Failure to get tenure means not only that you didn’t get what you wanted but that other people—people whose opinions matter to you—didn’t think you were good enough. My husband’s friend took it very hard. He stopped eating. He couldn’t sleep. He could barely speak. Then he did some kind of mental backflip and decided to leave mathematics and enter law school. Today he is a brilliant and successful lawyer and, I think, no one has ever enjoyed being a brilliant and successful (did I forget to say rich?) lawyer more than this guy. His failure in mathematics laid the groundwork for his joy, his sense of renewed power over his life.
By the same token, many people could (and do) learn about the bright side of divorce. When you are enduring the misery of a breakup, you cannot imagine that someone else is out there. (I know of some terrific first marriages, but now that I think about it, I know of more terrific second marriages.) Even less is it possible to imagine that not being married will suit you to a T—sitting on your own front porch at the end of the day, drink (and/or novel) in hand, with no one to hassle you about dinner. For some, that’s loneliness; for others, it’s freedom. Either way, the first-marriage misery, in retrospect, may seem like the best thing that has ever happened to you. Of course, it doesn’t turn out that way for everyone, but it often does.
Sudden aloneness, even when sad—and I think it is almost always sad at first—can ultimately be empowering. I know a widow whose husband was in charge of all financial matters in their household. After he died, she had to take over. To her surprise, she became not only a financial whiz but a thrilled-with-herself financial whiz. There she was, doing something she had dreaded and feared, having fun! Making money! (Okay, sometimes not making money, but still it was fun.) The point is that as she mastered the money matters, the mastery felt good to her. A feeling of new power. This was one of those great marriages, and my friend has never gotten over her husband’s death and probably never will. But here, at least, was a bright side. Only a side, a small side, but bright nevertheless.
A woman I know in Boston, now seventy-six, talks about her parents’ divorce in 1945 as if it were last week. “It was more of a catastrophe than it might be today because divorce was so rare. There was such a stigma. Particularly because my father fell in love with another lady. It was just awful, not only losing a parent but seeing our mother so sad.” Then she adds, “A year or two later, we emerged from the cloud, and I must say that I remember something very pleasant. We began to have such relaxed dinners. We’d talk about anything; my brothers and I had friends over; if the milk carton was on the table, it didn’t matter. My father was so rigid. With him there, dinners had been so formal and tense. It was a wonderful change, really.”
One of my favorite divorce-empowerment stories is about a woman who had a big job as a magazine editor (I’m changing some facts to hide her identity, as she wished me to). She had a marriage that she thought was fine, and two nice children, and a pretty house in the suburbs. When her husband became ill—some kind of heart disease—she quit her job to take care of him. He stayed ill for more than ten years, and still she remained at his side, as nurse, cook, housekeeper, and constant companion, not to mention single parent, in effect, to their children. When he got well, which he did rather suddenly, he upped and left her for another woman. Whom he married as soon as he and his caregiver wife were divorced.
How does one survive that kind of emotional assassination? Where’s the bright side there? Nowhere in sight until a couple of years later, when the woman had a book published—a book she wrote as a way of dealing with her grief, going into debt in order to write it. It became a humongous bestseller, from which she achieved fame and fortune (not to mention great reviews!). Soon after, she remarried, and to hear her tell it, she’s living happily ever after—with no bitterness, by the way, toward her first, rotten husband.
How often does happiness—all the more exalted when it is unexpected— grow directly from misery? Answer: More often than one might think. What is the old saying? A blessing in disguise? Exactly.
Take failure. Failure can feel like a near death, especially if it’s sudden—the sensation of dropping through a trapdoor without so much as a ledge to reach for. Ever been fired? It’s like that. I’ve been through that one. So have a lot of people. I guess there are those who never recover, but my hunch is that most do and then some.
When I was twenty-eight, I was fired from a job as associate features editor (which meant writer) at Vogue magazine. It was my first serious job. I loved it, and I loved and respected, even worshipped, the woman who hired and fired me, which, of course, made the firing worse. She summoned me into her office one day and told me to sit down on the straight-backed chair on the other side of her desk. “I have to let you go, dear,” she said, looking out from her round, red spectacles directly into my eyes. “You’re a good writer, but you don’t know anything.” I have no memory of what I said—if anything—or how I managed to stand and walk out of her office. I remember only that I did not cry until I got home.
Maybe that wasn’t the best turn in my professional life, but it came close. I wouldn’t have left Vogue on my own, and it clearly wasn’t the right place for me. I bounced around for a year or two and wound up at another magazine (Look), where I did not have to notice what the duchess wore to the opening of La Traviata. In the interim, I even managed to learn a few things.
And there was a sweet postscript: Ten years after I was booted out, Vogue ran a warm and laudatory review of my book First, You Cry— written by the editor who had fired me.
Annabelle Gurwitch is an actress who was hired by her idol, Woody Allen, to be in a play of his. After her having obeyed an assistant’s orders never to shake hands with or speak to Woody, “the accepted protocol when in his presence,” she says, one day, during rehearsals, he spoke to her: “What you’re doing is terrible, none of it good, all of it bad, don’t ever do that again.” She reports that she tried to soldier on, but when he later said, “You look retarded,” it was hard. Not that it mattered, because she soon got a call from the director of the theater telling her that Woody needed to rethink the role (showbiz for you’re history) and that Woody would write her a letter (which he never did). But Annabelle is a writer as well as an actress and knew instinctively that certain brick blows to the head might give you emotional concussions but that emotional concussions, to a writer, are Material. She promptly wrote a book about herself and other fellow sufferers called Fired! When I last saw her, she was on the Today show, successfully talking up her book.
A magazine editor friend, Katherine, was fired suddenly after fifteen years on the job, along with another editor who worked in a different department. (“Downsizing,” the managing editor explained.) My friend and the other editor (a gay man) walked out of the building together in a kind of daze. They decided to have a drink. As they talked about what had happened, they both realized that, aside from the insult of being fired, they were mainly relieved. It turned out neither of them liked the magazine or the job or the managing editor or the editor in chief. What started out as a sobfest turned into a celebration. Two days later they took in an afternoon movie and subsequently had early- bird dinners together. They became best friends.
One day, they strolled into a bar they sometimes frequented, and the lady bartender—“a peppy little Brit,” according to my friend—looked at them and said, “You know, I always like it when you two come in here because you always look so bloody happy!”
Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Computer, gave a commencement address at Stanford a couple of years ago and told his favorite firing story about himself—how he started Apple in his parents’ garage when he was twenty, built it into a $2 billion company with four thousand employees, how he hired a partner with whom, it turned out, he didn’t get along and who, with the board’s approval, fired him. “So,” he said to the graduates, “at thirty I was out. And very publicly out. What had been the focus of my entire adult life was gone, and it was devastating.”
What did he do? He started over. “I didn’t see it then,” he said, “but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.” During his exile from Apple, Jobs was far from idle. He bought another couple of companies, one of which, NeXT, was bought by (guess who) Apple, who promptly rehired Jobs, and as the world knows, he wound up back on top at Apple, newly powerful and, to hear him tell it, newly ecstatic.
Sally Fleming was twenty-eight years old when ...
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