I was taught by my mother and grandmother to be a martyr to the cause of the family. They had to constantly worry, fuss, struggle and work to make sure everyone else was happy. Their own happiness was just a shy smile to see others enjoying life, and then it was back to the grindstone. They’ve been shining examples of selflessness, which is a difficult act to follow.
So when I read passages like the following by Thich Nhat Hanh in his book “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching,” it is like a total release of all the anguish built up over the years of believing that suffering is a sign that you are caring enough, doing enough, loving enough:
The ocean of suffering is immense, but if you turn around, you can see the land. The seed of suffering in you may be strong, but don’t wait until you have no more suffering before allowing yourself to be happy.
Being allowed and even encouraged to have happiness as one part of your reality is a dream come true. Not just my own happiness, of course, but the happiness of all beings.
And we don’t have to get rid of suffering entirely to be happy! What a concept. How many of us are waiting until conditions are perfect before we can be happy, whether it’s getting the bathroom sink fixed or having our child cured of his cold, we feel we must not allow ourselves happiness while there is still something amiss.
When one tree in the garden is sick, you have to care for it. But don’t overlook all the healthy trees. Even while you have pain in your heart, you can enjoy the many wonders of life — the beautiful sunset, the smile of a child, the many flowers and trees. To suffer is not enough. Please don’t be imprisoned by your suffering.
“To suffer is not enough!” I will suffer, and I will feel that pain, and things will be amiss, and I can work towards eliminating that suffering, but while I’m traveling that road — I am allowed to be happy! I am allowed to appreciate what beauty and pleasure still exists!
I am reminded of the story of the man chased by a tiger. He falls over a cliff, and realizes that he is hanging by a root which is slowly pulling out of the dirt, with a snarling tiger waiting on the cliff above, and sharp rocks far below ready to make pulp of his flesh. In the midst of this, he sees a little plant growing right beside his cheek, smells the perfume of the plump, perfectly ripe strawberry, plucks it and savors its juicy sweetness. Who among us has the courage to find and appreciate joy under such pressure? How do we cultivate that kind of awareness and focus?
Do you suffer from a martyr complex? Have you found any ways to overcome your tendency to color the whole world with the pain of the worst thing that’s happening in your life right now? Can you care for the sick tree while drawing inspiration from the healthy ones? Are you waiting for an end to all suffering before you experience joy?