I recently reconnected with a friend from High School. No big surprise there really in this age of Facebook, LinkedIn and zillions of other social networking websites. Sometimes you roll your eyes and add them out of the desire to be polite, sometimes you try to remember who they are and then every once in while you smile and remember, then add them… excited to know they are well and living life to the fullest. Then there are the ones whose lives have been very difficult and you listen with empathy as they recount their suffering, remembering them young, healthy and filled with promise. Time waits for no man and this was one of those instances.
As I look back over my life with spinal cord injury and how sharing its experiences here has developed, I have seen a theme taking shape. How do we deal with hardship and suffering? The real suffering for anyone who has been injured, abused or exposed to trauma of any kind is not really the physical injury. It is the mental and emotional framework within which the trauma took place. Let’s look at an example… let’s say you walk into the kitchen in your home where a family member is standing at the counter preparing a cup of coffee. They do not see you coming, and as you walk right into them the boiling hot coffee splashes all over you, burning your skin. You rush to the sink and the relief of cold water as your loved one profusely apologies and feels responsible for hurting you. In a matter of days, maybe weeks, the burn is healed and in time you both forget the accident ever happened. Now revisit the scenario, and this is a true story, I know a woman who, at the age of six had prepared a cup of hot chocolate for breakfast when her alcoholic, abusive mother proceeded to snatch the drink from the table and angrily poor it into the screaming child’s lap. The visual alone makes one shake with anger. Now imagine the scars on her body that remind her every day of that moment, of the terror, the hurt, the confusion and shock that someone she lovingly trusted could willingly hurt her in such a way. That is the framework, the matrix of suffering. The circumstances under which the pain occurred.
People hurt… plain and simple. Suffering is no respecter of persons. The rich, the poor, young and old. Everyone has something. If they haven’t, they will. If you consider the Buddhist view of life even those with happy and fulfilled lives are suffering because their life of security and comfort is an illusion that will fade in death. Wow, Caleb… that’s a bit dark! Is it? True freedom within our minds is the ability to recognize the transitory nature of life and knowing when to let go of the part of ourselves that desperately holds on to that matrix. For when we understand that the only real difference between the peaks and valleys in our lives is our own perspective we can build a new matrix through which both pleasure and pain become valuable, creative experiences that propel us forward to become better… higher… more caring, balanced and powerful human beings.
So as I listened to my friend I waited. I waited for the indicators that show how they view their suffering. Sometimes you have to listen through the tears and the words catching in their throat. Crying is not weakness, sorrow and anger are not the indicators of one’s total acquiescence to defeat. They are living emotional moments of recognition and the acknowledgment that the challenge is real. This is a period of emotional chaos through which the human will rises to that challenge to establish a new order in the mind and heart. If you know what to listen and look for there is a subtle undercurrent of determination, the kind the separates the champions from the maddening mob. When you find it, when you hear that note it resonates deeply and inspires in amazing ways.
Last month I declared war on spinal cord injury and some people reading this may ask, “But Caleb, if we are to accept that suffering is a part if life should we not just let thing remain as they are and make the best of it?” No, no, no… a million times no. There is a difference between taking charge of your suffering and letting the suffering take charge of you. It is the same mentality that subjects itself to suffering as a slave that celebrates pleasure, comfort and success as a badge of personal evolutionary merit. We can ease suffering when we recognize it for what it is. We can live in comfort when we draw that comfort from our right action in the face of discomfort instead of the deceptive world of modern easy street.
If we do this, then we put ourselves in the position to relieve the suffering of others, and that is the greatest comfort of all.
Thanks for reading… and thanks to my good friend Catherine P. for inspiring this month’s post. You have certainly risen to the challenge.