Comparative Suffering

Dear friends,

I wish I could report that, after my last newsletter, with each passing hour, I felt better until I was finally running on the Corvallis trails, lifting weights, and starting a new book. This was not the case. Healing was a slow and painful process, but I was determined and pushed myself to attend an event in California. Not quite healed, we flew to Sacramento. When the plane landed, a wave of relief swept over me. This very difficult passage of physical misery was behind me.

However, the day after the event, Tim, and I both woke up with body aches, fevers, and coughs. For me, the strangest symptom was an inability to taste or smell anything. We had COVID. We spent ten days in a sad hotel, living via Door Dash. On the long drive home, we thought we had finally recovered, only to rebound for another 10 days when we got home. For the first time in 20 years, I had to cancel my upcoming two weeks at Rancho La Puerta.

Still, “We are not in Ukraine,” I reminded myself. We were so lucky to be able to afford a hotel and have food delivered. What about people who got COVID on trips who were unemployed and lived paycheck to paycheck? “Count your blessings,” I told myself. Three weeks later, when the home test indicated I was still testing positive, I got sick of gratitude, looking on the bright side, and counting my blessings. That’s when the self-judgment kicked in, along with the physical misery.

“I’m hungry,” I said when I was 5 years old and dinner was still a long ways off. “Hungry,” said my mother. “You don’t know what hungry is. Think about all the children starving to death in China. That’s hunger.”

When I was 7, Sister Veronica asked me why I was crying. “My best friend is moving away,” I said, “and I may never see her again.” “What in the world do you have to cry about?” she asked. “Do you know how many children have been paralyzed with polio? Think about them.”

I learned my lesson well. Rolling into 2022, where everywhere I looked is a meme or a message advising me to have “an attitude of gratitude,” telling me “the universe has its reasons,” and reminding me of the horrors of many dying alone in a COVID ward, I struggled not only with disappointment and physical misery but also guilt for not feeling appreciative of all I had. Although I’m not privy to the universe’s “reasons,” I do think gratitude is as important to cultivate as empathy for all the suffering we see around us and experience within us. However, I also believe that we must leave room to feel our own pain without minimizing our suffering as less significant. We need to give ourselves a moment to acknowledge the difficult moments for what they are. I thought of this quote I had pinned up on a wall a long time ago:

Human lives are hard, even those of health and privilege, and don’t make much sense. This is the message of the Book of Job: Any snappy explanation of suffering you come up with will be horseshit.

So I let myself wallow in some good old-fashioned self-pity, and as I sat in my chair feeling how unfair it was to recover from one physical malady just to be nailed with another, I fell even more deeply into my own unhappiness. I allowed it, and something interesting happened. A short time later I saw a way out, and I began following it. As my self-pity naturally became empathy, I realized that some of my feelings were not for my current situation; they were really an acknowledgment of the preciousness of health, of life, and at 78, I couldn’t take that for granted for even a moment. This led to a genuine appreciation for all the decades of health and well-being I had known and most likely would again. This gratitude felt real as did the disappointment in another health challenge.

I am sharing the most wonderful video from Rancho La Puerta. My dear friend, Life Coach Emily Bornstein gives a motivating, true, and brave talk about the struggle of living the mindful life and the natural evolution to appreciating trouble for what it offers without denying our own suffering. Worth your time.

So often, my writings and newsletters are filled with ways to allow our partner and loved ones space to feel all their feelings including disappointment, heartache and sadness, without trying to fix or change; it’s time to include ourselves in that equation.

As always, I welcome your thoughts and feelings, even your protests and complaints about what I write. Everything is welcome!

And as of yesterday, I tested negative (no more covid!) and am back in my life.