Questions of Comfort

IMG_0392“But if you don’t believe in God or some greater purpose to the universe, how do you find comfort in times of trouble?”

That was the question from a congregant on a recent Sunday morning after a sermon on knowledge and belief at my Unitarian Universalist church. Palpable concern tinged with emotion filled the asker’s voice as she spoke: How could one manage the pain and suffering that goes with life without something greater than oneself along for the ride? Or at least how could one see one’s way through travesty without a sense of it being part of a greater purpose?

After the speaker worked away at his answer, I turned to my pew mate who had lost her husband to cancer not too long ago. Before I could form the question, she answered, her eyes wide: “If there had been a purpose, that would have been worse!”

I agree. I cannot reconcile a greater purpose in the traumas and suffering of this world, a purpose that requires, for instance, someone young to die to do what? Teach patience? Persistence? True love? Endurance? A tolerance for suffering? Can’t most of those be learned in our more ordinary moments, such as while in line at the post office or during a bout of the flu? Questions about the source of a greater force or divinity aside, the thought that a greater source or being would have a purpose to putting a father through cancer, a mother through the suicide of a child, whole countries through famine or war is just, well, unfathomable and, frankly cruel.

But back to the asker’s question: Where do you find comfort in times of suffering if you don’t believe the suffering has a greater purpose? My comfort comes from three sources. First, I ascribe to this Buddhist view: Life is suffering. That’s not a miserable thought designed to depress and defeat but rather a reminder that feeling unsatisfied — suffering — is reality. We all feel pain and distress, making the Buddhist view a realistic look at the world. We come into the imperfect world with our imperfect selves and, to no surprise, live imperfect lives. The Buddhist answer to this suffering is to embrace impermanence and to avoid attachment to what is and to what we wish could be.

Am I good at this? Not really, but remembering that life happens — that suffering and discomfort are part of life — help me out when I’m uncomfortable with a twist life’s thrown me. Sure, I try to control what I can. I get my flu shots, wear my seat belt, know where my kids are, save for a rainy day, and otherwise take the precautions I can against the ways of the universe and the wiles of human nature. But in the end, I work hard to remember that control only gets me so far and so safe and that I can’t protect everyone within my reach. There is comfort in knowing my limits, differentiating what is my responsibility from what is beyond my grasp.

My second source of solace in calamity is knowledge. Comfort in fact, in science, in knowing brings me to peace about some of the suffering life passes my way. Comprehending more about the way the world works helps me ascribe cause where there is cause and ponder where there isn’t. Understanding probability and what randomness truly is removes a good deal of finger-pointing at what is fair and what is not. Storms and sickness know no “fair.” Sure, where you live and your behaviors may move you closer to hurricanes or further from heart disease, but “fairness” suggests an outside arbiter, making decisions about where to place that maelstrom or blood clot. That would be unfair. And cruel. I’ll take comfort in the equanimity of randomness, thank you.

There are, of course, events that are unfair and not random. War. Famine. Terrorist attacks. I’ve been spared these traumas, and I’m grateful. They do confound and pain me, but I don’t question their purpose in the greater scheme of things. They have causes, certainly, but that is quite different from purpose. And how to find comfort through them? As someone who has only observed these through the newspaper, radio, and TV, I simply don’t know, but I’m fairly certain searching for purpose of the purposeless wouldn’t help me.

My fellow travelers provide my third source of comfort in a world of suffering. I am not alone in my suffering. The travelers I know by name comfort me most often, with willing ears and caring words when I’m most troubled. Sharing suffering lightens me a bit, and when commiseration follows a sharing, I’m reminded that very few if any of our pains are unique. We all get sick, become disappointed, lose heart, lose love, lose sleep, lose hope, ponder the place we have in the world, and worry about those closest to us as well as those nameless ones thousands of miles away. So we don’t suffer alone even when we are alone. I’ve many times taken comfort in that reality. With seven billion other humans on the planet, I’m likely not the only one experiencing anything. And somehow that helps.

Years ago, when my beliefs included a God, I prayed when suffering or upon seeing another in distress. And about a decade ago, I started questioning that process. My questions started with source and purpose: How could a relevant force in the world, greater than ourselves, omnipotent and omniscient, exist in the face of suffering? How could a god desire — even demand — praise, petition, and thanksgiving while letting horrific happenings occur despite that praise, petition, and thanksgiving? And if God did none of that — if free will reigned and all hands are off — then what was the point of all that praying?

And thus the comfort of prayer and context of purpose gradually left. Losing that easy comfort in just the conversation with a source was initially both unnerving and liberating. It took time to find that a touch of Buddhist thought, knowledge, and companions could relieve some of the inevitable suffering of life. Truth is that I still find myself starting to pray at odd moments, stopping after the invocation of the divine. “Dear God,” I begin. And end. There just is no more comfort there.

So I sit, without a sense of a greater purpose to the rain that falls other than that rain falls. I’ve not been faced with the truly horrific, so one could say I’ve not been truly tested by suffering, but I’ve had my own traumas in my forty-four years. In the past decade or so, I’ve met with greater adversity than in the previous three combined, and yet, finding comfort has been far easier. I don’t ask the question of the greater purpose to suffering anymore. I suffer. I will continue to suffer. So will all others. With knowledge of this, a thirst for knowledge and appreciation of fact, and the community of 7 billion with whom I hurl through space, I am comforted.

Advertisements

Grief Without a Timetable

DSCN0669“Every childhood has its trauma. This will just be theirs,” said my therapist who helped me through the separation that led to my divorce some five years back. I nodded, holding back the tears. What had transpired in the previous two to three years seemed too traumatic for me to bear in my last thirties. How were my boys, only 10 and 6 at the time — babies, for goodness sake–supposed to weather this trauma? Shouldn’t their greatest traumas at these ages be skinned knees and dropped ice cream cones?

My greatest trauma prior to the slow, agonizing end of my own marriage was my parents’ separation when I was 15. The divorce, a year later, and subsequent remarriages were brief showers of grief compared to the devastating hurricane of my 15th year that followed the (to me) shocking announcement of their separation.

Around that time, I took a religion class in my Catholic high school about death and dying, and Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief were a focal point of the class. Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance. Presented as a linear progression of grieving for the dying and bereaved, I don’t recall relating those stages to the depressive fury that filled that next year of my life. Acceptance actually came quickly after a brief period of denial I kept to myself. I was to live with my dad for the rest of high school, visiting my mom a few times a week. That wasn’t going to change, and I had not one fantasy about parents reunited and family restored. But mine wasn’t a peaceful acceptance, but rather a resigned one punctuated with an anger so deep I couldn’t speak it or even acknowledge its existence, and depression that, while not incapacitating me, sucked a light out that had burned brightly before. At once I was accepting, angry, sad, and, come each holiday and all its dilemmas, incredulous that I was in balancing act forever. Over the years, after I could touch more of the anger without retreating in pain, all of those feelings softened, but they’ve never remained entirely away. It’s grief without a timetable.

Our human condition and resulting emotions are messy and chaotic, but our human brains prefer organization. We like logical progression, moving from A to B to C over days or weeks or years. We like to categorize people and feelings and ways of being in the world. Consider Erikson’s stages of development, the DSM’s divisions of mental illness, the Enneagram and Myers Briggs personality categories, and even astrology’s assignments of traits and fates. We sort and order our belongings and ourselves, desperate for the comfort of order. So ordering grief? Why not?

Because it doesn’t work. Mark Epstein, psychiatrist and author of “The Trauma of Being Alive” (New York Times, August 3, 2013) says it well:

Mourning, however, has no timetable. Grief is not the same for everyone. And it does not always go away. The closest one can find to a consensus about it among today’s therapists is the conviction that the healthiest way to deal with trauma is to lean into it, rather than try to keep it at bay.

Dr. Epstein goes on to describe his mother’s grieving of her first husband’s death, a long process never entirely resolving. His mother goes on to marry again and live a full life, albeit with the occasional nagging doubt, “Shouldn’t I be over this by now?” His answer? Trauma never goes away completely.

While my trauma from my parents’ divorce nearly three decades ago has largely receded from my thoughts, the unwinding of my own marriage, a long and messy process, brought fresh grief that has yet to mellow to an occasional wistful sigh. Far wiser at 38 than at 15, I knew from the start I had to acknowledge those feelings that churned up without bidding and with little respect to time or place rather than deny them, as I had done as a teen.  As the separation morphed into divorce, I could usually tuck the tears of fear and anger and resentment away at least until I made it up to my room and shut the door. There, alone or with a friend on the other end of the phone line, I could let the feelings rise then ebb, like some unpredictable and cruel tide.

But grief wasn’t always that neat and manageable. Grief resists containment, corroding the container if bottled up and exploding out when the lid is just slightly loosened. But sometimes I shoved a particularly painful emotion inside, finding it ugly or just inconvenient. Sometimes it spilled out at church or in the car or while cleaning the garage or when talking to my then husband turning ex-husband or parenting my children. I know at points I have deepened their trauma by poorly managing my own grief.

After a few years, the grief surfaced less often and with far less intensity. Too many times I’ve asked myself what Dr. Epstein’s mother asked: Shouldn’t this be over by now? Recent events and revelations have again brought me back too often to a place of deep sadness and hot anger. They come so fast and hit so hard they threaten to knock me out of the tenuous equilibrium I thought I’d reached. I’m floored by their ability to render me incapable of right speech, right action, right view, or any other peaceful way of being in the world. It is, in one sense, a new trauma to add onto the pain of five years back. It is also far more manageable, since it is really just another chapter of the old trauma. I know this pain, and I know that my best response is to do as Epstein says: Lean in. It works. And the pain passes, whatever expression of emotion it has taken, at least for the time being.

The first Buddhist truth says it well: Life is suffering. That’s not too far from my therapist’s wise words about every childhood having its trauma. We will experience trauma. We will suffer. It’s inevitable. And grieving? That’s what inevitably follows trauma, or at least the traumas that aren’t our own deaths. Everything ends. That’s the promise of life, after all.

So is it depressing that grief with no timetable will follow inevitable trauma? A bit, but it’s a truth worth accepting. Perhaps that’s the acceptance we should really strive to find: Not an acceptance that ends to our disbelief, anger, sadness, and pain but rather an acceptance that these feelings may just not ever evaporate entirely and that it’s okay that our minds and hearts work that way. It’s still unsettling, and grief brought to one’s own children is a trauma all its own. It’s life, though, so I’ll lean in, wait out each round, and watch their tides and ride my own.

Peace.