Monday, November 10, 2008
Recently I have been giving some thought to how I relate to suffering.
(My own, that of those close to me, the hurting of people on my social periphery and that of total strangers.)
I have a very, VERY dear friend who is struggling with breast cancer. I have a cousin my age who is facing a mastectomy next week for the same thing. I have a sister-in-law whose sister has ovarian cancer. And tonight at a church function I learned of a fellow parishioner who has cancer.
The big C seems to be where ever I turn.
But cancer certainly is not the only culprit. One of my uncles died a few days ago, leaving my aunt bereft and grieving. My sister's MS is escalating in new ways that are interfering with her life.
My brother's job is highly stressful, at times completely overwhelming him.
My son's lack of a job is overwhelming him.
I know people whose relationships are fractured and furious.
I know people who are feeling deep angst over other things.
There's the crisis in the economy, the casualties in the war.
There's pain of body, pain of mind, deep sorrow of the spirit. Every way I turn it seems there is struggle and hurting.
How much of that do I let seep down into my own heart?
Back when I was working in the mental health world I attended a training about "the helper's pit." The idea was for us to learn to maintain professional boundaries, recognizing that if I jump down in a pit with someone who is hurting then my increase in empathy is directly related to my reduced ability to offer any kind of meaningful support, because now I'm in the very same boat.
In a work setting that made a certain amount of sense. But what about when the one hurting in my neighbor, my sister, my friend? Does the same rule apply?
Whether in working with troubled clients or living in troubled times, how much of other people's pain do I own and how much distance from it do I retreat to? My capacity for compassion matters a lot. But if I completely take in every nuance of sorrow that surrounds me I am not able to function. My heart tumbles and turns with sorrow, dismay, disappointment, outrage. At some point I need to be able to back away from it. Yet how do I know how far to back away?
How much is enough? How do I find that balance? How do I find INTERNAL PEACE when being immersed in this very unpeaceful world??
I do not know the answers. I do not know what criteria to lean on.
All I know is that there is much hurting in this fallen mortal world.
And it is difficult indeed to watch people I love go through such struggle.
I pray long and hard for each of these people, and then for the countless others who are also suffering outside the reach of my understanding.
and I keep asking myself .... When and why does it matter to me what happens to another? What if I don't know them personally, but have SOME sort of connection (same faith, same town, same whatever...) that seems give us common ground.
Or does any of that matter? Can I allow the sorrow of others clear across the world who have nothing in common with me other than our shared humanity be significant?
How much does a total stranger's hurting touch my spirit?
How much does YOUR pain become mine?
Where is the middle ground between too much feeling caring and callousness?
And then I spin it and wonder... how much do I expect another to care about my hurt feelings, my worry, my grief?
What connects us? What stands us apart?
I admit there have been times when I've heard of some terrible thing that happened to someone else I've been grateful and relieved that it had not been anyone in my family that had to endure such a harmful blow. I was not happy the other person had to suffer. But if suffering had to come, I was just glad it was not me or mine.
I know from past experience that some of the painful things that have come my way have taught me a lot, given me new strength, fostered a deeper understanding of others. Still, I do not welcome adversity or thank it for the teaching it will bring. I cringe from it. I sometimes resent it. I flee from it if I can. When forced to stay and face it I grit my teeth and endure it as best I can. But I do not view hard times as blessings that help me grow, even though I know they are.
As I get older I recognize that pain is going to come more and more often...
pain in the form of losing people I love
pain in the form of sickness and physical limitation
pain in the form of heartache for others who are suffering
pain in all its many faces will be my companion in abundance
of that I am sure.
How I choose to respond to those opportunities will in many ways define me...
Will I hide my head in the sand or try to bolt the door when hurting comes calling? Or will I open the door and let it in with equanimity?
And what will that mean for me?