Will We Become Bitter or Better?

If you belong to a generation predating Gen X, Audrey Hepburn (1929–1993) swept you off your feet in Roman Holiday, Funny Face, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or My Fair Lady.

You know Audrey. What you may not know is the backstory that seems the polar opposite of her on-screen charm. That story was what prompted her son, Luca, to say after her death, “She resolved never to complain about hardships . . .” (I’ll tell you the rest of Luca’s sentence later.)

Here’s the backstory. Hepburn’s childhood in war-ravaged Europe, where she witnessed hunger, cruelty, and death, profoundly shaped her life. In 1939, four years after her father abandoned the family, Audrey and her mother moved to Holland. In 1940 Holland was brutalized by the German blitzkrieg. The horrors of Nazi savagery deeply impacted Audrey: her favorite uncle was executed, and her half-brother Ian was sent to a German labor camp.

In an interview in 1951, Hepburn recalled Christmas in her hometown of Arnhem seven years earlier. In what became known as the Dutch Famine, the Nazis had blocked the food supply, and people were living on the edge of starvation. “It was the morning of December twenty-fourth when my aunt told us there wasn’t a scrap of food left in the house,” Hepburn said. The next day—in what she called “the Christmas miracle”—members of the resistance movement brought them ten potatoes. Audrey said it was “the most wonderful and most beautiful thing I ever saw.”

When Holland was liberated, Audrey weighed eighty-eight pounds.

Now, for the rest of the sentence spoken by her son Luca: “She resolved never to complain about hardships since nothing could compare to the horror of the war.”

In her late fifties, Audrey Hepburn became a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, motivated in part by gratitude to the organization that once fed her. Charitable work defined her later years. Her values were formed more by pain than by fame.

Catastrophes tend to shape us—individually and collectively.

My friend, author/minister Gene Shelburne, recently posted the observation that the Great Depression, triggered by the stock market crash in 1929, resulted in thousands of people returning to the churches they had abandoned.

In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, World War II disrupted life as America had known it: sugar and tires were rationed, and speed limits were imposed to reduce gasoline usage; death notices of war casualties escalated daily. In the trauma of deprivation and death, thousands resorted to faith, with three out of four Americans becoming active members of some church.

COVID-19 turned our world upside down. It was eerie to cruise nearly empty streets, where bumper-to-bumper traffic had sent blood pressure soaring a few weeks earlier. It was bizarre to see deserted parking lots and shuttered stores that had recently been crammed with customers—and disconcerting to see darkened schools and churches. It was unsettling to wear protective masks and vinyl gloves at the grocery and troubling to see skyrocketing unemployment and a plunging economy.

To be at the mercy of a microscopic viral bug is unnerving.

Facing into fierce headwinds reveals more about us than when favorable winds are at our back. Adversity, more than prosperity, defines us.

The jury is out on whether this pandemic will make us bitter or better. I’m betting on better.

“I waited patiently for the Lord to help me, and he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the pit of despair, out of the mud and the mire. He set my feet on solid ground. He has given me a new song to sing, a hymn of praise to our God. . . . Oh, the joys of those who trust the Lord” (Ps 40:1–4).

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