I’ve been meditating on suffering a lot this week. While I would prefer to reserve that word for what I think of as “real” suffering, such as malnourished children and painful diseases, Buddhists use the term broadly to refer to many unpleasant experiences we have in life. I will adopt that for the time being.
I’ve also been thinking about perception and perspective, which frame life into a story with a running narrative. The narrative can be anything from joyful to persecuted and the story will fit accordingly. My perception of inclement weather can ruin my day if I choose. I can take a longer perspective, though, and remember that it doesn’t matter because 10 years from now I certainly won’t remember a particular rainy day as being terrible simply by virtue of its rain. My perception of a tough superior or teacher can be one of persecution and mistreatment, only to later understand that I learned more from that person than anyone else.
So it is that the careful balancing act of living in the moment with the awareness of the big picture is often the best place to be.
It bears saying that this is not a free pass for mistreatment of others. There is no excuse for wrongdoing and harming another, especially willfully. I have been hurt by others who willfully chose to hurt me but I can nevertheless choose how I frame that treatment and reclaim my story. I can take my power back by choosing my narrative and not letting someone else write it for me.
I taught a workshop last weekend in which I referenced the hidden gifts that suffering can bring. I referenced the death of my Grandma, three days before my wedding. There are certainly many other examples in my life but this one is very powerful. I find that many people relate to it and can feel the emotions along with me when I tell the story. It took me a year to write about it but I did eventually manage and you can read it here. While I was lucky enough to gain some perspective immediately, the passage of time is the only thing that has helped me to grow in my appreciation of the WHY. Truly, I will never know every detail until I am on the other side, but I am learning that the story grows richer with each telling. When I wrote that blog entry, I hadn’t told the story framed in that way until just then. Now I tell the story as an illustration of a lesson and I find that others are benefitted by it. This has deepened my perspective yet again to one of gratitude, a place I never imagined in the first days and months after she died.
On Sunday of this week at 12:17 pm, my nephew was born, thereby ending months of anticipation of two families and becoming the first grandchild on my side of the family. If there is ever any example of suffering with a purpose and prize, childbirth is certainly one! My sister suffered through the ups and downs of pregnancy as her body changed and she made sacrifices for the good of the child she wouldn’t meet for months more. As he grew, eventually things got crowded and the last weeks of pregnancy discomfort were enough to rob her of sleep and sanity. Labor itself can’t even be described by someone like myself who has yet to go through it. I can rest assured it was intense, painful, and exhausting. And yet, there at the end? When the entire family rushed into the room to greet this new life? She was positively aglow in joy and contentment. Her son was finally here and everything else that had happened was unimportant compared to his tiny features and perfect face. She had suffered to bring him into the world but the end result was there to frame all the struggle into a success story. Instant, forever perspective.
I don’t have all the answers. None of us do. I don’t know the reasons WHY for everything that happens. I do know this: Suffering, whatever the scale, is a necessary part of the human experience in order for growth to happen. We should still eliminate poverty and hunger and find the cure to cancer. Don’t get me wrong. Those are causes I support! But even with those problems solved, suffering would still exist. We would still hurt each other, sometimes on purpose, and people would still die and leave voids in hearts. The greatest growth comes from challenges and suffering when we rise to meet the occasion and then gain wisdom and newfound perspective.
Whatever I’ve suffered in my life, I can choose to see as part of my story that created growth or I can choose to see myself as ruined by the circumstances and people involved. I can choose to be a victim forever or I can choose to draw strength, wisdom, and move forward. I can unshackle myself with perspective since I and I alone hold the keys. I can even find gratitude for the lesson, later on. My soul is powerful and fearless, my body is made of stardust, and my life is an adventure. Suffering is just part of the journey.