A man I know sits beside me, lights a cigarette. “Three weeks ago, my wife confessed that she’s been cheating on me for years,” he says.
My daughter’s friend crosses the room at a party. Exhausted, starving to death. ”I was in the hospital two days ago,” she says. “My weight was too low. My heart was racing really fast. I thought I was going to die.” She tries to look impassive, as if she doesn’t care. But I can see how terrified she is.
Each time I visit my father at the nursing home, he tells me, “Every day, I lose a little more function.” He can’t use one arm at all. Soon, the other will curl up as well. “I can’t feed myself. I can’t walk. I can’t turn the pages in a book,” he says.
How will I meet this?
In my 15 years as a magazine editor and writer, I’ve interviewed women (and men) who’ve been through horrific personal experiences, true dark nights of the soul. They experienced profound loss, battled devastating injuries and life-threatening illness and yet… every single one of them told me, “This experience changed my life for the better.”
Having cancer, they told me, had given them a new lease on life and health, losing a loved one had made them appreciate and hold closer their families and friends. Working through the challenge of rehabilitation – overcoming blindness, loss of a limb, third degree burns, brain tumors, heart attack – had made them stronger, more focused, more alive.
When I say this – or write it – people often ask me: Are you saying that my cancer is a good thing?
No. That is not what I’m saying – at all.
Your catastrophe is not a good thing; nor is it a gift. It sucks. It blows. It hurts.
But I am saying that, if you get through it and manage to come out on the other side, the experience will change you – for the better.
We misunderstand struggle – especially we in the so-called “spiritual” community. We have twisted a spiritual principle into a kind of talisman against suffering – including our own squirmy discomfort with meeting the suffering of another.
Here’s the truth:
Everyone struggles. Everyone suffers.
It’s the first noble truth of Buddhism: Life is suffering. Yet some people manage to transform suffering into strength, to move from fear into courage. Some people can face the suffering of others and sit with it. Without translating it into suffering of their own, without making it a story about fixing or solving or eradicating suffering, they witness it – with compassion and presence.
How do they do this?
When I started exploring this question, I had no answer. I kept asking. Out of that asking, a new question emerged: How will I meet this?
How will I meet this?
When, with my heart open, I asked that question, I learned a few things:
1) Suffering is not a test – but it does test us. We push against suffering as if we were under attack. But we’re not.
2) Our problems are not punishments. They are not imposed on us by the gods nor are they assigned to us “because we can handle them.” Trouble isn’t a judgment against us. What I mean is, our suffering is not our fault.
3) Everyone suffers. But hardship, illness and personal struggle wake us up. They draw a sharp and clear line around what matters. When you are writhing in pain, your priorities line up pretty quickly.
4) Still, our suffering doesn’t earn us extra points in Heaven; just because we had diabetes on Earth doesn’t mean we will have a special seat at the Haagen Dasz counter in Heaven.
The truth, when we really look, is this: struggle (and much of our suffering) is our response to what comes. Struggle is a choice.
No, I did not say that PAIN is a choice. Pain is pain. It hurts. We want it to stop
When I lie on the sofa watching one of my migraines come toward me, I am terrified. But my new question arrived, it freed me a little bit. Now, when a headache arrives, I ask: How will I meet this? and I realize, I have a choice.
I could cry and feel victimized and carry on about how unfair life can be; how much time I’ve lost; how afflicted I feel. (And believe me I have tried each of these options several times) or I could try something new.
I could get curious. I could meet the headache with interest – with fascination. I could rise above the situation and observe myself having a headache.
I’ve tried this – and it helps. I investigate the thoughts that roll by; the feelings that bubble up. I surrender to the pain – and all the other related crap that comes with a headache – and meet the headache the way I want to meet everything that comes, as an engaged, curious person in love with life–even when life hurts.
Struggle is a choice.
From a spiritual perspective our problems are our best teachers, even, our best friends – but not because we’re enrolled in some kind of spiritual university of pain. Bad things happen to everyone. But not everyone meets what happens in the same way.
That’s why two people, handed the same circumstances can have two completely different outcomes. It’s why one person, diagnosed with breast cancer will take to bed and another will take up mountain climbing. It’s why my father, confined to a wheelchair, wakes up every morning at the nursing home looking for something or someone to engage his interest – and finds it!
So, though we may feel we are the victim of a system that is stacked against us; a bad economy; a bad marriage; a weak or broken body – none of that is true until we meet it as if it is true.
When we act as if these ideas are true, we reinforce them, creating the same outcome. Then, we point to the outcome as “evidence”, throwing up our hands and sighing, “See, I knew it!”
But when we meet what comes with interest and courage, we may just get a different outcome.
(Originally posted on my other blog on FRIDAY, APRIL 16, 2010)