Suffering and unhappiness are normal parts of the human condition; we shouldn’t be surprised when they show up. They accompany tragedy and calamity, which are also normal parts of our condition. No one knows why. It is true that we bring some tragedies and calamities upon ourselves. Some, however, are random; some are evil; some are perhaps heaven-sent (but I don’t necessarily believe it) and many are indisputably beyond understanding or explaining. Tragedy and calamity are not particularly rare, let alone unique.
Individually, my own suffering usually seems worse than yours, especially if your response to my suffering is to tell me that all I have to do is change my attitude, my diet, my habits, my mind, my relationship to God, or where and what and how I breathe. Or when you say, "Oh, I have that," and proceed to tell me how difficult your 5K runs are these days while I can’t get to the supermarket without assistance.
If I think about it, the how-to-fix-it response probably stems from a desire to remove suffering. The minimizing response probably is an attempt to make it smaller, less painful. Another response we sometimes bring to another’s suffering is silence. Perhaps this silence also speaks a kind of mutant compassion: Your suffering touches me so deeply that I cannot bear it. It frightens me. I must not let it into my consciousness or it will be added to my own suffering and that of others I care about and it will overwhelm and defeat me.
Then there is the suffering that elicits no response, not even silence, because it is not revealed. We are ashamed. We are afraid others won’t care. We are afraid we will be judged harshly. We don’t want to be a burden. Your problems are more important, more real than are mine. We don’t trust that our suffering will be handled gently.
We all suffer. Not today, perhaps, but suffering touches every life at some time. Illness, incapacity, earthquakes, pestilence, loss of love and loss of loved ones, fear of these. In this New Age, which reveals many truths, a lie has crept in: the lie that the control is ours. We want to believe that we can control suffering, and if I cannot control mine (because I am inadequate, a failure, not worthy, or haven’t yet figured it out perfectly), then at least I can give you the means to control yours (change your . . . ). This is our transmuted, misconceived compassion: when I see your suffering, I want to take it away, so I tell you the great wisdom, "change your. . . ."
But this wisdom, containing a seed of truth, cannot speak to our suffering. And certainly silence does not speak to it. The only language our suffering can hear says, "Oh, no! How sad! I wish it weren’t so. Let me give you a hug. I am so sorry; tell me all about it." This permission to suffer unlocks the gate and—surprise!—lets the suffering out. A miracle! And when the suffering is released, then there is room for gratitude, love, compassion, acceptance, peace: "the peace that passes understanding."
There is another lie, I think: the lie that God can control these causes of our suffering and is withholding that control for some divine purpose—this is a trial; we are being tested, taught, led into the fire that we might be tempered, like steel. This doesn’t make sense to me. Nor does the notion that God is powerless to prevent these tragedies. Neither of these theologies helps me survive and be my best self in the face of calamity. How can I worship, love, believe in a God who withholds the means of release? Or a God who shapes a mother’s life by crippling her child, or who teaches some immutable lesson by striking down whole cities and regions with terrible "acts of God"?
So I am led back to First-day school and vacation Bible school to find a simple, accessible answer: God is love. We are created in the image and likeness of God. Our essence is love. Love is all there is, all that matters. This notion gets romanticized, trivialized, buried under the burdens of making a living and getting ahead. But is this not indeed the great Truth? God is love, I am love, you are love. We have always been and will always be love. And if we are love, does it not follow that we are lovable and loved? Perhaps my difficulty finding the love coming to me is because I have forgotten the love that is already there.
Be still and know that I am God, that I am Love. Be still and know that we are all of God and Love. Be still: the heart of Quakerism. Be still.
The above was written in November 1999, the 41st month of the illness that had disabled me, destroyed my career, threatened my marriage, and reduced my world to the confines of my house with an occasional outing, on a good day, to meeting. Others (usually hired others) cleaned my house, did my laundry, shopped for groceries. I had been on a mission those 41 months to discover what was wrong with me and to fix it. I had been given several diagnoses. "A virus, it will pass," said my regular, soon to be replaced, doctor.
The next diagnosis was giardiasis, and when that was treated and relieved and I was still ill, the next verdict was major depression. When that was treated and relieved and I was still ill, another doctor said chronic fatigue syndrome. And that was where I was in November 1999. I couldn’t read for more than 20 minutes at a time; I could barely concentrate enough to write a check; I had a funny, disconcerting gait called "foot drop"; I had to hold on to walls to keep my balance and would fall over with distressing frequency. It was at this time that I finally bought an electric wheelchair so I could go out to the store, to a museum, or on a "walk." In December 1999 I underwent an MRI of the brain that revealed seven lesions suggesting multiple sclerosis— and therein lies the germ of the end of my suffering.
"Multiple sclerosis spells permanent," I remember thinking. I was distraught at this news. I approached MS with the same determination I did every other challenge I had faced. I studied it voraciously, as best I could with my limited ability to read. Happily, much MS material is published in large print; that made it easier for me. What I learned, though, was that MS was pretty mysterious, and that I could expect exacerbations and, with luck, remissions, but that recovery probably wouldn’t happen.
So in January 2000 I made a decision that I was going to have the richest, fullest life possible, MS or no MS. We bought a minivan with a lift for my wheelchair so I could go out on my own. I made a rule that I would invite someone to lunch each week—a way to reenter the land of the living. I started to seek out things I could do—things I wanted to do—and do them.
Instead of using my limited reading ability to study my illness, I started reading short stories, Friends Journal, Utne Reader, Bark (a literary magazine for dog lovers whose subtitle is "Dog Is My Co-pilot.")
Spring came. I had a dog trainer help me train my 135-pound Anatolian Shepherd Dog (looks like a cross between a St. Bernard and a pony) to heel with me in the wheelchair, and I took long "walks" with him at a local park with five miles of paved bike paths. I bought a rolling stool and would spend time (just 20 minutes at first) in my garden, pulling weeds and contemplating what might bloom there. I took my wheelchair to the local garden center and bought perennials and vegetables and hired others to dig the holes and then happily sat in the dirt and planted them.
I got stronger. My ability to read improved. God put a book on my bookshelf called Around the Year with Emmett Fox. (Does that ever happen to you—a book appears that you have no idea where it came from?) This is one of those page-a-day books so I didn’t need a lot of cognitive capacity to capture an idea. On a good day I might read four or five pages, more often one or two.
Emmett Fox’s writings helped me change the way I think about God. I tried his "Golden Key," which says, "No matter what your problem is, the solution is to stop thinking about it and think about God instead." He suggests that God created humans so that God would have a way to express God’s self, so I started thinking about myself as an expression of the Divine. I made a decision to maintain my awareness that God was the source of everything I might want or need (and the source of everything everyone else might want or need—thereby relieving me of the responsibility to provide such to my loved ones). I made a decision to love and honor myself as an expression of the Divine.
By now it was July 2000. I was in Denver attending a weekend seminar called "Unleash the Power Within" led by Tony Robbins, the motivational speaker and personal coach. In the course of the seminar we were asked to identify our five most limiting beliefs and then to examine what those beliefs had cost us—and would continue to cost us if we held on to them. The challenge was to decide to believe something different. Tony said, "A belief is just a decision to be certain about something." What a concept!
The beliefs I identified were the following:
- I am fundamentally, existentially broken.
- If I don’t please you (Mom, Dad, husband, boss, friend, or whoever happens to be in the room with me), you will abandon me and I will be lost.
- God doesn’t care about me because I am fundamentally, existentially broken.
- I was born sick, I have always been sick, I will always be sick; the only thing that changes is the diagnosis.
- If I am not in control I am vulnerable.
(I had reason to believe # 4: I had my first pneumonia at six months, half of my left lung removed at 22 years, more than 25 pneumonias, 3 malignant melinomas, 2 life-threatening infections, asthma, fibromyalgia, hypoglycemia, what you might call "a lot.")
Through this "Dickens process," as it is called, I decided to change those beliefs to these:
- I am fundamentally, existentially an expression of the Divine.
- To enjoy life is a holy obligation; failure to enjoy life is a sacrilege against God.
- God loves me unconditionally because I am fundamentally, existentially an expression of the Divine.
- I have access to perfect health. Regularly and normally, every cell in my body dies and is replaced by brand new, perfectly healthy, robust, vigorous cells. Over a period of more or less two years, every single cell in my body is replaced, so no matter what the injury or illness, as every cell is replaced, I have access to perfect health.
- I am only vulnerable when I am trying to be in control.
That evening, I refused to bring my wheelchair back to New Jersey, seeing it as an encumbrance, and gave it away. By spring 2001 I was able to work as much as five hours in my garden. I had lost all the weight I gained during my illness (50 pounds) and had started working with chronically ill folks, helping them choose to have the richest, fullest lives possible. I am happier than I have ever been, and more optimistic.
So, what, after all, did I do? I changed my attitude, my diet, my habits, my mind, my relationship to God, where and what and how I breathe—all those things I had been told but could not hear when I was suffering. I changed my focus. What we focus on grows. I had been focusing on my illness. When told I had MS, I focused on having a rich, full, rewarding life.
And now, working with folks who have been suffering, I remember that I had been told about all the means I eventually used to end my suffering, but I could not hear them then. I am careful not to tell those who are suffering what to do. I listen to hear their suffering so that it is released, and "then there is room for gratitude, love, compassion, acceptance, and peace." I tell them what happened to me and what decisions I made that have brought me to happiness. I do not tell them that they will get well if they do what I have done. I do tell them that what we focus on grows and that we can decide to focus on having a rich, full, rewarding life. I am finding that this approach brings people hope and a willingness to try something different. This is my purpose in life—one I could not achieve had I not suffered illness and despair.
I have experienced a miracle indeed. I am grateful every day for my recovery and for my illness. In my remarks on suffering (above) I had written that some tragedies are "perhaps heaven-sent (but I don’t necessarily believe it)." Today I believe that some tragedies are indeed heaven-sent. My fantasy is that in the summer of 1996, God hit me upside the head with the proverbial two-by-four and said "I’ve been trying to get your attention for at least 20 years and now you are going to sit down and shut up until you get it." After four years of disabling illness, this is what I finally got:
- Love is the most important thing, maybe the only important thing.
- Self-love and self-care are prerequisites to loving and caring for others and therefore of the highest priority.
- What we focus on grows.
- My beliefs create my experience.
- The power of a decision is unlimited.
In view of the events of September 11, when evil and destruction descended on thousands of people, it’s hard for me to put it all into perspective—sort of like everything else in my life. But the truths I discovered in my journey of suffering and miracles remain true for me.
I submit to you that love is not just the only satisfactory answer; it is the only answer. It is the one great truth. When I choose to stand in love today, I refuse to stand in fear. When I love my neighbor— whether that neighbor is bereaved, afraid, or full of vengeful wrath—I am part of the solution, not part of the problem. When I love my God, my child, my enemy, or myself, I am being all whom I am called to be. When I focus on how to manifest love in the world today instead of how I can be safe or get revenge, I help tip the scales of love and fear in the world.
Love is a choice—a daily, in the moment, this-instant choice—and sometimes one that comes with a high price. But the price of fear is higher. God is love. I am love. It is only my ego that fears, my self is invulnerable. So the answer to suffering is Love. Maybe the purpose of suffering is to elicit our love.
The only language our suffering hears says, "Tell me all about it; I will suffer with you."
Love is the most important thing, the only important thing.
The power of a decision is unlimited.
So please, share your sorrow when it’s your turn, and listen to others when it’s theirs. (Remember the old saw, "A sorrow shared is halved, a joy shared is doubled"?) And decide today to stand in love.