Archives for posts with tag: suffering

During one of my recent walks, I was thinking about a conversation I’d had with a friend a few months ago. The friend had broken off a relationship with someone he’d previously known through the community for almost 20 years. He was surprised by how complicated her life was beneath the surface and a number of very unhealthy choices that she’d made, those that people make who have an extraordinary amount of pain and suffering, with which they are not dealing well. I told him, “I see lots of families in my practice who I imagine appear very different to people who have known them for years. You just don’t know what is going on in people’s lives.”

I was thinking about this, about the lives we lead on the inside that don’t match our outsides. We just don’t know what people are going through. Sure, some people wear their pain on the outside because they cannot contain it; some wear it like a badge of honor. But many of us go along with our daily lives carrying heavy burdens. I thought about the interactions I have with people everyday and my own natural tendency to assume that people are similar to me. Given that I am an empathetic person and a trained mental healthcare provider, I can quickly shift this set point but there are many interactions we have in our own lives that are so short that it is difficult to do this.  And even still, sometimes we just don’t know.

In my musings, I reminded myself of how important it is to be kind and to give people the benefit of the doubt. I am also mindful that to do so is also better for my health. Maybe the driver who cut me off really is an asshole? Is it really good for me to hold onto that thought and the anger that accompanies it?

By then I had arrived at my neighborhood coffee shop, Bird on a Wire. Elton John’s, Rocket Man, was playing. Angel, who was making my latte, looked up at me and said quietly, “This song reminds me of my dad.” Angel is a young man, still in his twenties. Nonetheless, I asked, “Is your dad still living?” “No”, he responded, still quietly. I asked a couple of questions and learned that Angel’s father died 6 months ago within a week of being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Angel is a kind and gentle person with a spritely sense of humor. He is one of those people who exudes kindness. He loves community and will go out of his way to not only learn the names of the customers, but to introduce them to one another. Angel has made many lattes for me in the past six months. I had no idea.

He said, “I’m sorry.” “Angel, there’s no need to be sorry. That is something I would want to know.”

“I’m sorry,” he said again.

I grabbed his hand and squeezed it.

“Angel, people care for one another. That’s a very good thing.”

My Wednesday “learning to keep my shit together” class reconvened this week after a holiday break. The topic for the evening was acceptance, a mindfulness practice. The purpose of mindfulness is to reduce suffering. Acceptance is one process by which suffering is reduced.

I am working very hard to accept some hard truths about my life, some about my present and some potential truths in my future. These are truths about my life as an individual, as a wife, and as a parent.  As I was thinking about this, one of the instructors wrote two equations on the white board:

Pain + acceptance = pain

Pain + non-acceptance = suffering

I think of pain and suffering as synonymous.  But this is not a dictionary course or a vocabulary test. And I have to admit that “suffering” sounds worse than “pain”. Suffering sounds like pain with a large side dish of something nasty. Perhaps the space between pain and suffering, within this framework, is filled with a roil of self-inflicted things. Another way to say this is that suffering may result from coping with pain in a way that enhances it and perhaps makes it last for a longer time. Everyone does this from time to time.

There are “hot button” issues for me. There are experiences that I have for which I have an immediate, negative response. They push a fear button, an anger button, or a grief button. And as I am having the response, I often know that it is out of scale. I have gotten upset too quickly and too intensely. There are also times when I feel stress in the back of my mind and it wakes me at night or invades my dreams. I think these are examples of suffering.

Acceptance is a process, a continuum. I am trying to work my way. So far I am learning that there is a cognitive part. In order to accept something I need to acknowledge it. I need to name it. I need to reason with it. That is what I have mostly been working on for the past couple of years. The acceptance that takes place in my mind. On Wednesday, our homework was to think about what acceptance would look like for each of us as behaviors. If we accepted the aspect of life with which we were struggling and suffering, how would our behavior be different?

Changing my behavior, making it consistent with acceptance, is really hard. I have been making a concerted effort on this for the past month or so. I have seen changes. I have experienced shifts to a more positive place. My anger and fear are reduced. My pain and sadness are still there but the suffering is getting less.


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