You know how you sometimes come to a point in life and wonder, “How did I get here? When did my life turn into this?” I am at one of those points.
The Buddha said that life is suffering, and lately that truth has been dominating my days. So many people I know are suffering with things that just aren’t going away. I myself have had four years of fatigue and now have a new symptoms that are driving me nuts. My husband has serious chronic illness that creates a multitude of symptoms, constant pain chief among them; a dear friend deals not only with multiple chronic issues, but also just had spinal surgery that created as much pain as it was intended to resolve and on top of it all has cancer; another acquaintance I ran into last week told me she has chronic illness and pain in her hands that never leaves; a colleague disclosed she has been struggling with Lyme since childhood; another friend has constant, intense headaches, no one knows why. It goes on and on.
It seems everyone I talk to is dealing with something serious and vexing. Maybe it’s life at middle age. Maybe it’s living in a toxic and stressful world. Maybe it’s just the roll of the dice. I don’t know. But I do know that such levels of suffering provoke some serious contemplation.
Physical suffering pushes a person to ask the Big Questions: What’s this all about? Why is this happening? Is there a God? And if so, why would God allow this? Is there meaning in this, or is it meaningless, just so much random awfulness? I’ve been asking myself and the Universe all these questions for some years now. They are good questions to ask; the answers to these questions can provide something to hang on to when the going gets bumpy. But there are other questions that hang around in the shadows, practical and disquieting questions: “What if this never goes away?” And it’s corollary, “What if this gets worse?”
These are very big, very scary questions. No one wants to entertain them. I know that the new-age, spiritual set says that you shouldn’t focus on “negative” thoughts, that you must only and always focus on what you want and not on what you don’t want because energy flows where attention goes, and I believe that’s true, but it’s not the whole story. That’s spirituality devoid of soul. Just focusing on being super happy and healthy doesn’t automatically set you free: life just isn’t that simple. If it were that simple, no one would be suffering. There are boatloads of positive, joyful, faithful, spiritual people who believe and pray and lead good lives and meditate and juice and do yoga and suffer anyway. Being positive and having a sense of your own healing capacities and controlling your thoughts is very important, this I do not deny. But what if you do that and it still goes sideways? Does that mean you did it wrong? That you weren’t positive enough? Didn’t want it enough?
The reasons for suffering are a mystery. They’ve been a mystery for thousands of years and will continue to be until the end of time. Various religious and spiritual paths have ideas about the reasons for suffering (sin, karma, past life resolutions, hexes, ancestral hauntings, choices made before we incarnate for our soul’s growth) but no one really knows. I certainly don’t. But here is what I do know:
- There are things happening in my body (and other peoples bodies) that I don’t love and I want desperately to go away.
- I don’t know if these things can or will go away.
- I do not want to be miserable unless and until they go away, because, what if they don’t?
- I need to find a way to have happiness and serenity in the meantime.
I don’t know how long the meantime will be. Maybe the meantime is a week, or maybe it’s a year, or five, or the rest of my life. I certainly have a strong preference, but I cannot control the if and when. The only thing I can control is how I choose to live right now. What can I do to create peace and some level of wellbeing even in the midst of suffering?
Entertaining this question is not something I ever wanted to do. I still don’t want to do it. I haven’t wanted to think about the possibility of not getting better because historically, that thought has ushered in the dark fog of depression and despair. But exploring this question is essential in the search for healing. It’s part of the healing. I want healing to mean that I feel awesome, but healing might also (or only) mean that I have a good relationship to my life, health issues notwithstanding.
It’s not easy to hold wellness and illness so closely together. I stuggle with it, but I do think it’s the only way through. Acknowledging the spirit of hope and the soul of suffering is the middle way. It is strength combined with humility. It is real and vulnerable and honest. It is saying, “I believe it’s possible to get better AND I acknowledge that I might not AND I choose to be the best version of myself in the meantime. Living in the meantime allows hope and acceptance to co-exist. It acknowledges the soul of suffering and the faith of spirit, something we all need as we navigate this crazy existence.
I freely admit that I’m still a big fat baby. I cry and freak out from time to time. I get angry and scared and I grieve for my friends and myself. And that’s okay. That’s part of it. You gotta get real and feel, as I tell clients. But I also know that life can turn on a dime, and these troubles could very well go away. “Anything can happen and it frequently does,” as Dr. Seuss would say.
So, in the meantime, we can look for the love. We can find the joy wherever we can. We can breathe. We can practice catch and release with all the thoughts and emotions. You can call Grief Girl (that’s me). Whatever shape it’s in, this is your life, right here, right now.
To paraphrase William Saroyan, “In the (mean)time of your life, live—so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it.”