Tag Archives: suffering

Dark Days of the Soul

I’m passing through the shadows. It’s really damn dark and lonely in here.

This isn’t how my life was supposed to be. If I’d known, when I decided to throw myself body and soul into mothering five children, that I would fail so often and so profoundly to help them find joy in life, that they would all be so frequently miserable, full of conflict, anger, disgust, resistance to any good thing, would I have carried on?

Nothing else I’ve ever done has even come close to being as rewarding as being a Mama. So if that vocation is such a pit of misery for everyone involved, then nothing else would be worth it either.

The only logical alternative is oblivion.

I open the book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh. In it he writes:

Even if we are in pain, if we can see meaning in our life, we will have energy and joy. Energy is not the result of good health alone or the wish to achieve some goal — material or spiritual. It is a result of feeling some meaning to our life.

But what does it all mean?

I’ve always identified too well with the existentialists. I’ve always been able to see much too clearly how none of this has any rhyme or reason. All the explanations of some jealous, angry higher power torturing us into being so afraid that we will do anything to avoid even more torment in hell’s eternity… I’m certainly not going with that brilliant philosophy.

What does it mean?

Does it mean we prove how tough we are to just plod along, even when everyone around us hates everything and wishes we were dead, out loud, several times a day?

Is it worth all the misery for those couple of minutes a day when the kids get along and share a giggle?

Cuz here’s what it seems to boil down to: It sucks being alive. It’s hard, frustrating, at times agonizing, frightening, a constant, relentless struggle with someone or something. Even the richest, most spoiled brats in the world are still heavy with misery over some kind of drama, lacking, addiction, pain, sorrow. None of us escapes it.

What does that mean? What significance could it possibly have for people to carry on, slashing and smashing as best they can through the jungle of every day life?

I feel like if I could just get the point, I could be a better person, and relieve the suffering of those around me just a bit.

But instead of relieving suffering, I have actually created five new people with the infinite capacity to experience horrific misery.

I remember when my first was born, the thought occurred to me, I’ve given birth, and I’ve given death. I’ve just condemned an innocent soul to death. Hopefully not soon, hopefully not painful, hopefully in her sleep after many years of blissful existence. But nevertheless, however it happens, it was because of my choices.

No wonder people want to put off the responsibility on some higher power, who has the “Plan,” and they are just hopeless pawns in “his” game, trying desperately to follow “his” rules in order to escape punishment for the terrible shortcomings that “he” bestowed upon them.

Is that what it means? I have demonstrated my awesome ability to confer life and death, and now what? I’ve tried to be an example of enjoying good food, nature, books, ideas, enjoying the company of loving, creative people, and it works for a little while. But then they get bigger and their attitude becomes, screw you old lady, and the horse you rode in on. Get your lameness and cluelessness the hell away from me!

Ah, good times.

I want to be a beacon of light. My name, “Elena,” is a form of “Helen,” which means “torch.” The whole purpose of a torch is to be a tool to light the way. You don’t lead someone, and I don’t feel like a leader, you just keep burning and allow them to use you to lead themselves, shining your light as best you can.

But in this dark time, when all the air has been sucked out of my atmosphere, my little flame struggles and flickers and gasps for some kind of fuel to consume. Some kind of meaning to allow me to burn on.

Don’t Stab Your Children!

Doesn’t this seem obvious? Does it even need to be said?

No? Then why in the name of all that’s holy do people still pierce a baby’s ears?

Is it for medical reasons? Is it a religious pact with their personal deity? Is it a superstition to ward off evil spirits that lurk around every street corner?

No, it’s so their baby will look pretty.

I honestly, seriously am NOT trying to offend anyone, but I am terribly offended when people cause children unnecessary pain.

Nor do I want to violate a parent’s sacred right to do whatever they want to their child, which is apparently the latest trend. “It’s my choice! I’m choosing!” they shout from the rooftops.

Well could you take your almighty parenting powers and choose to NOT stab your child?

They’re too little to remember! They barely cried at all! Don’t it look pur-tee!”

I am offended by the outright cruel absurdity of this practice, and I’m just done.

I try desperately to hold my tongue and let people perpetuate the asinine status quo, but really, c’mon, which part of “gratuitous torture in the name of beautification of the already perfect” do people not understand?

Would this face be more adorable with shiny bits in her ears?

Would this face melt your heart even more with a cold piece of metal stabbed through her earlobe?

Could her joy be any greater if she was sporting bling?

She’s got herself a little purse to play with, so she’s getting the idea of accessorizing, but what additional adornment could possibly complete this picture? Lipstick? Eye shadow? A fancily coiffed do with hairspray and highlights? EARRINGS???

Or are these children not absolutely perfect just as they are?

You and your choice. LET THE CHILDREN CHOOSE. There is enough pain we have to endure in this world to be accepted, to survive illness, to withstand heartbreak. Don’t add to it by stabbing your little one because she isn’t pretty enough. What a message to give to a brand new being.

“Beauty hurts!”

“People are going to force you to submit to their idea of attractiveness and you may as well get used to it now!”

“I love you but damn, you’re homely. Let’s spruce you up some with this here stabby bit.”

I’m appalled and I can’t keep it to myself anymore.

Why is the Buddha Smiling?

Why, if there is so much suffering going on, is Buddha smiling?

Sculpture by Jen Brom

And how are we supposed to ever be truly happy and joyful when, as soon as we move beyond our own suffering, we are immediately assaulted with the huge amount of suffering going on in the world all around us?

My Son, Suffering Terribly from a Pitched Fit

In his book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching Thich Nhat Hanh discusses real love, one aspect of which is “karuna,” which means “the intention and capacity to relieve and transform suffering and lighten sorrows,” and could loosely be translated as “compassion,” but without the meaning of having to actually participate in the other’s feeling.

Hanh then explains how it is possible for the Buddha, and for us, to smile and be happy despite the suffering of others:

When I was a novice, I could not understand why, if the world is filled with suffering, the Buddha has such a beautiful smile. Why isn’t he disturbed by all the suffering? Later I discovered that the Buddha has enough understanding, calmness and strength; that is why the suffering does not overwhelm him. He is able to smile to suffering because he knows how to take care of it and to help transform it. We need to be aware of suffering, but retain our clarity, calmness, and strength so we can help transform the situation. The ocean of tears cannot drown us if karuna is there. That is why the Buddha’s smile is possible.

My first impulse is to feel rotten if I happen to be happy when I become aware that others are in pain. It feels wrong, selfish and uncaring to even consider dwelling in joy when others dwell in misery.

But if it’s true that we can only help from a position of strength? And if that strength comes from being tapped into a good place where we understand joy, love and wisdom? Perhaps that is the only chance we have to help pull someone over to the other side. Perhaps our smile of contentment and calm is the thing that can reassure the other person that there is something else in this world besides their suffering, and that as we are sharing our smile with them, the world will also share its joy.

Pure Joy, Freely Shared

What do you think? It is selfish to be happy while others suffer (as long as you are working, as Hanh says, to “transform the situation” with them)? Or is the only way to be helpful to keep one’s head above the ocean of tears so we don’t drown and become useless?

I Quit!

I want to quit caring if my kids are happy.

Can a person do this?

I will always care if they are genuinely suffering. I will always respond to that.

But the whining because they don’t want beans for dinner?

The whining because they feel too lazy to find something to play?

The whining because it’s too cold for a trip to the park?

The whining! The whining! THE GOD-AWFUL WHINING!!!

I can’t be held responsible for it anymore. I don’t believe it’s genuine suffering. It might FEEL like genuine suffering. But it’s a choice. An unfortunate, soul-crushing, peaceful-home-atmosphere-destroying choice.

I can’t care anymore. I’ve cared for almost 20 years. I’ve tried to respect their feelings, understand where they’re coming from, be responsive and supportive.

But I have to take responsibility for my own happiness. No one gives a thought to what I’m feeling.

So guess what? I will continue to do my very best as a homemaker and parent, providing what my family needs and some of what they want, making good meals, keeping the house a place for creativity, fun, relaxation and joy, but whether a child takes advantage of any of the good stuff I’ve done or not is THEIR problem. Starting NOW.

I am committed to sitting at the table and enjoying every bite of whatever I’ve cooked, even if there are people wailing in agony because they don’t FEEL like having rice for dinner.

Tough! Yesterday I cared, but then I quit. Good luck!

“To Suffer Is Not Enough”

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.

Hanh continues:

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?