I needed tulips so I helped myself.
When I was going through my treatment for cancer there was an evening when my spouse told me about an unusual sensation in his right leg. For several days it had felt as though cold water was being poured on his foot and calf. It sounded like some form of neuropathy to me and I told him so.
Unfortunately for him, I chose that moment to climb up on my soapbox and announce, “the one thing I have learned since my cancer diagnosis is that ANYTHING can happen to ANYONE at ANYTIME.”
I then went on to list the possibilities, all of them bad: car accident; stroke; heart attack; cancer; ALS; financial ruin; being caught in a hotel room as a cyclone goes through. You get the picture.
He begged me to stop and added that he thoroughly regretted mentioning his leg to me. And then we laughed.
It is, however, no laughing matter. This is life. In a single moment we can go from this to that. Fortunately, it is not always so dramatic, yet, our life can radically change in one moment. Through no fault of our own.
Part of the shock and the pain we suffer goes beyond the event itself. We simply can’t imagine that this thing is happening to us. We can imagine “these things” happening to others. But in our heart of hearts we can delude ourselves into thinking that we just might be exempt from the unacceptable.
It makes sense. We would be a sorry lot if we spent our days fretting about all the things that might and could go wrong. And we aren’t better off if we think only good things should happen to us. It is easy to believe our lives are normal only when free of any and all misfortune. Of course, if that were the case, it would be the exception.
How easy it is to compare our misfortunes or gains. Yet, as we all know, there will always be those whose suffering is more than ours and those who suffer less.
I have a minor health complaint as measured on the big scale of medical woes, even though I don’t like it. I explained to a friend who is going through an exceptionally rough time that I am not prepared to talk about my minor issue.
“There is no comparison,” I said, “to what you are living with.”
Such a typical and human response. We laughed and I went ahead and said a few words afterall.
It reminded me, however, of something important.
Where I began this piece was where my caregiver and spouse uttered a complaint, really a statement, about his condition. You already know what happened back there. The important point, though, is that caregivers are often reticent to complain about anything because after all they at least don’t have cancer, or heart disease or any other significant health problem. Their job is to grin and bear it, so to speak and support you.
It is a mistake, in my way of thinking, for caregivers not to be able to issue a complaint or get a break or be able to say to someone, “this sucks and I need help.”
It doesn’t stop there. Having worked with many people undergoing treatment for cancer and others with heart disease, I know this tendency to compare shows up everywhere. Shame, even enters into it. More than one person told me that her cancer was not as bad as some others and therefore she shouldn’t take up space in workshops. This kind of judgement is endless.
The truth is, suffering is relative to our experience, including our environment, conditioning, learning and DNA. I agree it is essential to acknowledge how fortunate we are. I also conclude, that it doesn’t help anyone to line up suffering on a scale and plot a graph as to who suffers most. (or even who should be suffering more or less) It is an individual and a multi-factoral experience.
When things go wrong, we can all use a hand.
One type of suffering we can minimize is what Buddhists sometimes call “piggy back suffering,” which means something like suffering on top of suffering.
An example is a diagnosis of a life-threatening illness. Besides the reality of having the illness there is the additional and unnecessary suffering of the “why me,” and “it’s not fair” part. Although it is perfectly natural and human to view it this way, it isn’t helpful.
What we all can do after the shock has subsided and we are fully cognizant of what has happened, we can ask a question. What can I do now?
We help ourselves when we begin to put our energy into the things, we can do something about and not waste our precious time and energy railing against what can’t be changed. Life isn’t fair. I am the first to agree that this isn’t easy. And the first to say it is possible. There is always something that can be done, even if it is only small steps.
I no longer believe that “it won’t happen to me.” This isn’t a depressing thought but rather a realistic call to live fully. We each get to decide what living fully is for us. This is a life koan (a paradoxical anecdote or riddle, used in Zen) for each of us to discover.
Life isn’t necessarily fair but when I am clear-eyed, I see that it mostly, if not always, works in my favour.
Sing while there is voice left.
Note1: The Buddhists have a corner on the market, in my books, with practical advice on how to reduce suffering. Anything by Pema Chodron. I especially like this title When Things Fall Apart. And also Darlene Cohen’s excellent book Turning Suffering Inside Out: A Zen Approach for Living with Physical and Emotional Pain. Remember to check for books at the library. I primarily provide a link to Amazon so you can read more about it.
Note 2: Dr. Itami devoted his life to improve the quality of his patient’s lives, extend longevity, and encourage them to live a meaningful life everyday. His work is based on Morita Therapy. Check out his guidelines, learning elements and other articles on this website, if you are interested.
Note 3: Thanks so much for dropping by to read the Wed post. I hope you find them useful in some way. I enjoy writing them and I wish you all a week with many wonderful moments. Warm greetings, Trudy