Thich Nhat Hanh opens his book No Mud, No Lotus with these words: “In fact, the art of happiness is also the art of suffering well. When we learn to acknowledge, embrace, and understand our suffering, we suffer much less. Not only that, but we’re also able to go further into understanding, compassion, and joy for ourselves and for others.”
If you live with pain or disease Thich Nhat Hanh’s words are the cliff notes version to what you might learn in pain management or MBSR or CBT or even DBT. Life is going to happen and suffering is your choice. In the midst of chronic daily pain or especially in the midst of acute pain, I would want to punch someone for telling me that. I wouldn’t do it but anger might take over how colored my view might be at the moment. I remember saying to someone, in a very hateful manner, “meditation, that $%^ doesn’t work.” And it wasn’t true. It was just I was so deeply frustrated, anxious, in pain, and fearful that I wasn’t even treading water anymore. I was drowning and it didn’t seem to matter to anyone.
The one thing that I have learned in the past six months is that we ask way to much of people who are ill and struggling. What do I mean? I think back to living on my own for my job and having no one around to stop at the grocery store because I was dehydrated or picking up a prescription that a doctor called in after hours of waiting and being in pain for days. I remember sleepless nights because I was afraid I would not wake up for work the next morning, having no sick days and working in an unkind environment that had no flexibility for problems like that. I would get so anxious, I would have 6 alarms set so that I would finally crawl out of bed.
And what about med changes? I worked and got a higher degree and completed half of a second degree while living with chronic daily pain and the subsequent med changes. Has a doctor ever had to get to work on time or “played well with others” after being put on 5 different meds or even adding one or two meds or taking one away? Sometimes, you aren’t sure if the meds, the side effects, or the illness will kill you first? Please hear me, I’m not saying that doctors are wrong in what they do. I’m just not sure they maintain their compassion while doing it. How can they? A patient is going to scream out in pain when you reset their leg, but you still have to do it. You end with a bit of a callous on your soul, in order to save your soul.
And all the things that people have suggested, (similar to things I will say in this blog), are tough to do when you are wondering how you are going to pay a bill, or what you can eat that won’t make you throw up, or losing a document at work, or feeling utterly alone in your misery. They are tough to do when you don’t even have your basic needs met (Think Maslow).
Nhat Hanh says, “If, however, we are preoccupied with the fear and despair in us, we can’t help remove the suffering of others. There is an art to suffering well.” And that is what I am trying to learn how to do. I have a disease that causes me to be in pain; that won’t change but I can live a lot better with it than I had been.
But all that worry and day to day stuff, my friends, all of that is suffering. Well, they are all hassles and my interactions with those hassles (the fear, anxiety, fretting, etc) was suffering. And much of it needless but given our society today, it is very much a real concern for so many people. Why is it so tough for so many people to get disability? Why do sick people have to fight with insurance companies? Why do we have to move away from our communities and our families, are safety nets for things like work? I am thinking back to another time, decades ago, when people who were ill were at home, when family and a community took care of people rather marginalized them?
I think back to when I grew up. We lived in the same house as my land lady and when she was diagnosed with cancer and my family took care of it. It was a labor of love because that’s what you do for others. We helped with getting groceries, giving medication, feeding her, changing her, etc. Her kids came to visit but they lived 45 minutes away and we were right there. There were two adults and a high school senior (my sibling) and they took turns.
But in today’s world with living so far from work or not knowing neighbors or grocery stores in the suburbs and rural areas are so far. And people have so many more medical appointments. Why do we not have a national system for this? You want to help put people to work? You want to take people’s social security away? You want people to work until they are 76? Why not pay retired people to help their parents or church members or neighbors? Why not employ a stay at home mom to check in on a neighbor and make sure they are taking their pills? Or pay their gas milage to pick up a few groceries? Why don’t we think about those who are not active, producing, and healthy?
Thich Nhat Hanh, (or Thay, as his followers call him affectionately – Thay is Vietnamese for teacher) says in No Mud, No Lotus, “The hardest thing to practice is not allowing yourself to be overwhelmed by despair. When you’re overwhelmed by despair, all you see is suffering everywhere you look. You feel as if the worst thing is happening to you.” Can you imagine having some of the pressure taken off, not worrying about how you are going to get to an appointment in the snow or how you are going to drag yourself to the store while you’ve been vomiting all day? Imagine what it might be like to have someone stop by and make sure you had a pitcher of water by your bed and to let you know that you are not alone.
Think about it. You might not be able to sit in an office all day if you are ill or maybe you are retired and don’t want to work all day. You might not be able to go to work every day but what if we took the concept of care teams, like AIDS patients did back in the 80s and applied it more globally? Now, back then, it was friends of the AIDS patient, often times because family had abandoned the patient. But what if we had local hubs where a retired person could work once a week, similar to a hospice volunteer. They could stop by and make a pot of soup or a paraprofessional could make phone calls to an insurance company for a patient. We need to wake up and think about the elderly baby boomers who set trends, changed the world (for better and worse) and think about our new world. We don’t manufacture anymore, let’s face it. And I don’t care if you were a coal miner, a returned vet, or a young person, you could play a part. We could help to end some basic suffering in the world.
The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism state, “There is suffering, there is a course of action that generates suffering; suffering ceases; and there is a course of action leading to the cessation of suffering” (From No Mud, No Lotus). There is a lot of pain and heartache out there in the world. We have to look creatively at how to solve today’s problems. One idea is to come together as a community again. And let’s face it, until our country moves to something like a few countries have just moved to where all citizens are given a stipend to live alleviate basic needs, we have to think of merging old worlds and new worlds. We can be there for each other, even make some money doing it, and help raise each other out of suffering and aloneness.
So, tonight, I ask you these things:
- If you didn’t have to worry about a pay check, what would you honestly be willing to do?
- Would you visit a neighbor? Make a pot of soup?
- Would you take a community member to the doctors or stop by and pick up some cans of soup for an elderly person?
- Why can’t we help people rather than marginalize them? Why can’t we move to a society that is more inclusive, where people don’t have cracks to fall through? What if we made a few extra pb & j sandwiches for the kids who stand outside our door waiting for the bus?
- How do we move from our pain and more importantly our suffering to help others?
- How do we foster a sense of belonging in those who have been told don’t matter?
May all beings be at ease and know an end to their suffering.
May all beings feel whole and know they are cared for.
May all beings be given the time and space to heal as thoroughly as they need.
May you be safe and at peace.