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The Simple Mark of Suffering

To those who are ill, I have a simple question for you: If you are able to find a cure for your illness, what is your intention with your new healthy life?

I suppose some of you may be stunned by my question. Many of you have given little thought to the possibility of being well again. Most would answer, “I don’t have any idea what I would do.” I wonder often for what purpose am I helping someone to heal; and I fiercely hope whoever is helped has a purpose in mind. Although this subject may sound ridiculous, it is not absurd at all. People suffer for a reason.

Suffering can be viewed from many angles or perspectives. When we boil life down like a delicate reduction sauce, we can appreciate the complexities or layers by which people suffer. It could be viewed in a general sense as an unsatifactoriness of human existence. In this respect, I can safely say that most, if not perhaps almost all of us are suffering in some form or another. Patients often give detailed histories of failed health, failed relationships, failed financial strength, failed love, failed occupational endeavors… The list of “failed” can be of an infinite variety and length. Some people identify exclusively with their failure, which contributes significantly to their personal worldview of a life of misery.

Suffering occurs when our hopes, dreams or expectations are unrealized, or frustrated. In each of our lives, we experience an almost countless number of unsatisfactory outcomes in many situations in which we have invested heavily. What’s even more disappointing is that we seldom learn not to have expectations, or hopes, which are far beyond our capacity to realize, or control. Over and over again, we repeat the pattern only to discover that our expectations fall short of our projected outcomes. We have this innate sense that “just this once, it will be different” and it almost never is. People suffer for a reason.

Discipline without joy is mere suffering. Our lives are filled with the need to be disciplined in our relationships, food choices, exercise habits, work activities, financial investments, educational adventures and spending habits. The idea that less is more has all but been abandoned in modern American culture. Entitlement has eroded the character of our future generations (almost all of whom have received trophies for just showing up) in some mixed-up idea that getting a reward for just being present will somehow create a genuine sense of self-esteem. The value of the rewards for just being present versus the rewards for being engaged and productive is almost the same. Happiness has become something we can shop for or marry into, not something we work at or create. Some people see themselves as suffering because they do not have designer clothes or the newest iPhone. The art of appreciation has been lost. To most people, the idea of discipline belongs only on the sporting field not in everyday life.

I think it is time for all of us to transcend our lives and embrace ourselves in all aspects regardless of our current situation. There is no question that suffering is a part of everyone’s life, and suffering seems to bring a sense of commonness to us all, a kind of connection. Transcendence does not mean that we find a way to mentally and spiritually ignore the reality of suffering; it means that we accept it and do everything possible to help ourselves out of it, not just sit and wallow in it. Suffering ends in one way or another; work hard to find a solution, take steps to free yourself from the pain and agony suffering brings and then don’t look back.

A woman recently told me that she was devoting her life to helping woman who survive d the battle of breast cancer. She was determined to get women to have yearly mammograms; and if their test was positive for cancer, she would help them make the decision to go through breast removal and reconstructive surgery, as well as chemotherapy. She related that she had done it and survived, so every woman should do what she did, because it was life saving. (My wife died of breast cancer, so I am a bit sensitive to the subject.) The woman felt she had a connection to all women who may be given the diagnosis of breast cancer. She felt that she could quiet their fear of suffering since she had firsthand knowledge of what was about to happen to them. She related that women who suffer breast cancer treatment, and make it through, have an almost identical experience to what prospective members feel when they survive a harsh and demeaning initiation process before acceptance into an exclusive club. In no way did she transcend her fate.

I believe that we all have the primitive desire to serve others through difficult times. Difficult times also allow us to receive help from others, no matter how independent we think we are. There are some things that serious illness takes away from us, so we need others to shine the light or carry the load for awhile. The idea of surviving cancer is the same as a soldier surviving a deployment to Afghanistan. Our goal in both cases is to show those afflicted with a traumatizing experience the way back to their pre-morbid condition with a heightened sense of self, and expansive significance of being, in order to cherish the valuable gift of life. Rather than stagger through the rest of their lives in a recurrent reenactment of their ordeal which only leads to isolation and distance from the rest of the world. There are only two outcomes to cancer: Life, which may last for some extended period of time, or death, sometimes extremely prematurely. Those who survive should return to their life with a renewed sense of invigoration and adventure since tomorrow is not guaranteed. What was once thought of as insignificant, like the faint aroma of the blossoms of an almond tree, may be experienced with a new sensitivity to its incredible scent. What each individual experiences on their road to diagnosis recovery is dissimilar to anyone else’s road. To suggest that everyone have the same experience is imperialistic and unnecessary.

Life is by and large sorrowful. To be captive or incarcerated in the pit of sorrow is tantamount to allowing suffering to control or escalate it to the single most feared or experienced dimension of existence. Suffering can infect any of us like a virus and amplify throughout our lives; it can ruin our relationships, steal the light from our souls and create a fear based living strategy that leads us only into the darkest caves of loneliness. If you are suffering, I am sorry. Find a way to limit its grip on you, know that it is impermanent; it has a beginning and an end; live life making every choice to relieve the burdens of daily living in order to focus your will to come out of the despair. Don’t allow others to dictate to you what you should be doing or feeling since every experience of suffering is unique to the person who experiences it. Own your personal worldview and harness its power to transcend every moment of pain; focus on the future without pain and your liberation will arrive sooner than you think. It always does in one way or another.


Posted by Katie Reed at 8:41 AM
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