Friday, April 16, 2010

How Will I Meet This? (Part 1 of 2)

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.

A 20-year-old girl/woman crosses the room at a party. “I was in the hospital two days ago. 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.

A friend writes, “My mother told me that once she hits 75, she is done."

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, What do you mean? They are often outraged, demanding, 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 somehow 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. The first noble truth of Buddhism is, "Life is suffering." But some people, like those that I interviewed, somehow manage to transform suffering into strength, to move from fear into courage. Some, in the face of the suffering of another are able to transform their resistance – and their need to solve or eradicate the suffering – into compassion, into witnessing, into presence.


When I started exploring this question, I had no answer.

But I kept asking and out of that asking, a new question emerged: How will I meet this? (It's important to say here, in case you don't know this about me: When I say that I am asking, I am talking to God. It's not required. You can ask the same question and get the same helpful response without believing in any kind of higher power. I just thought it was important, here, to say that.)

So anyway, with my heart open, I asked my question. These are the things I learned.

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.
3) What I mean is, our suffering is not our fault.
4) Everyone suffers.
5) That said: 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.
6) 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 is our response to what comes. Struggle is a choice.
And no, I did not say that PAIN is a choice. Pain is pain. It hurts. We want it to stop

I know. When I lie on the sofa watching one of my migraines come toward me, I am terrified.
But here's the thing: When I ask: How will I meet this? I get a choice.

I can 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.) But I could try something else: I could get really curious about the headache. I could meet it 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.


Here's another perspective on a similar subject. In the synchronicity that is friendship, my friend and fellow blogger, Lisa Adams posted it today.


Rebecca Elia said...

Well said, Amy. There is so much confusion about suffering, and so many erroneous conclusions are made. You're a brave soul to take this on! Thank you for reminding us of the opportunity and gift of healing that lies within our response to pain and fear.

Sally G. said...

How will I meet this? What a FANTASTIC question.

The more life experience I accumulate, the more fascinated I become with questions. They can be so revealing about the person who asks them.

I read a book called Fire in the Soul by Joan Borysenko many years ago ~ and in it she states that the people who come out the other side of tragedy intact (or better) have within them the capacity to find meaning in the experience.

They've also all had Hope. That seems an important factor too. Hope that things will still be okay as they prepare to 'meet this'.

I love your published reflections. Thank you.

Alice Langholt said...

I'm so glad you wrote this, Amy! I also read the post you linked to and completely get the connection. I'm reading "Eat, Pray, Love" right now and the author sat and meditated outside in India for an hour, allowing herself to be chewed by mosquitoes in order to do that same kind of "observing" that you are talking about with your headache. The bites were stinging and uncomfortable but she detached and observed the discomfort instead of reacting to it the same way she had always done (slapping and scratching). It was empowering and showed her that there's always a choice when it comes to suffering. I'm not comparing a migraine to mosquito bites, but there's a connection in the attitude and the choice aspects.

I also like your question "How Will I Meet This?" and plan to ask myself this question next time I'm faced with one of those challenging moments.

I simply love your post, Amy, and look forward to part 2.

With love and admiration,

mydivabydesign said...

This is so good. In high school youth group we had a guest speaker who told "Choices have consequences." The consequence can be good or bad depending on the choice we make. I have always remembered that ans that I can choose how I face everything that comes my way. Thank you for the reminder!

K. said...

Wonderful post, and so true. It was pointed out to me that after my daughter's diagnosis I started telling people more and more how lucky I was feeling. It sharpened my perspective. Your post also makes me think of karma. Everything that happens to us in life is an opportunity to choose one particular action, path, set of words. With increasing age I am more inclined to observe what happens and consider before I act. I look forward to reading the rest!