The Unexpected Gift of Suffering
All of us, if we dare to look, have at least one defining moment which has altered the trajectory of our lives.
And the deeper we dig through the years at this moment, the more of her treasures will she avail to us.
Mine was subtle and unexpected.
My family had just gone through a veritable Dark Night of the Soul.
Due to a drunk driver, we were involved in a horrific car accident late one night, on a small strip of highway, on the way home from a friend’s birthday party.
I don’t remember much.
I think I remember being pulled out of the car after the accident. I had been asleep, along with my brother, when it occurred.
I remember the ride in the ambulance with my family and then much later that night being released from the hospital.
We had barely escaped death that night, we were told by the paramedics on the scene. Our car looked like a smashed sardine tin can.
And we were all alive and well, thanks to having worn seat belts, or so we thought.
The next morning, however, my life changed.
Like every other morning, I hopped out of bed, but this time I fell to the ground. My knee wasn’t able to support my weight.
Apparently, I wasn’t ok.
I’ll spare you most of the details: The pain of having my knee drained. The shots directly into my knee so the doctors could see the tissue damage. This was the early 1980’s. Technology was just getting going.
Needless to say, I needed surgery to repair my cartilage and ligament that were torn when the seat of the car collapsed on my knee.
In the days before the date of my surgery, I remember asking my mom, Why is God doing this to me? and Why, me?
I don’t remember her answer. I don’t think there was an answer.
They had already given me the shot to induce my drowsiness, preparing me to go under.
The surgeon came into the room. I don’t remember him saying anything. He just reached over to place a mask over my mouth.
I grabbed his wrist to stop him. Too many past lives as a Jew, perhaps.
I was 7 years old.
The next thing I remember was floating over the operating table, about eight feet up. I was looking down as they began the surgery. My first out-of-body experience!
All I remember was waking up with my mouth drier than the Sahara.
I got carted to my hospital room where I would recover over the next week. My parents would try to lift my spirits by sneaking in McDonald’s (hospital food was yucky), but I was definitely pitying myself.
As I lay there, in pain, recovering from my surgery, I still didn’t have an answer to my question.
That’s when, at the height of my self-pity, I got a roommate.
They rolled in Robbie, who took the bed to my right.
Robbie had been run over by an 18-wheeler. Not a toy truck–the real thing. He had to have skin grafted from his butt and other parts of his body to fix up his leg.
And this was to be my defining moment.
At the apex of feeling like life was treating me unfairly, the wails of a boy about my age recovering beside me, led me to a thought:
no matter how bad you got it, somebody, somewhere, has it worse.
It may not seem like much, but it put everything that was happening into perspective for me. What I was going through and had been complaining about was nothing compared to Robbie’s situation.
And I have carried this lesson with me throughout my life.
Now, I can hear some of you grumbling: what you went through deserves to be mourned; to be pitied. Let’s not gloss over the validity of your own pain and suffering.
Yes, this is also true. I went through crazy amounts of pain and suffering.
But I’ll tell you what—I never asked why me? again after this moment.
The realization that other people suffer, and were suffering, more than me was comforting. I think prior to that moment with Robbie, I had felt all alone in my pain and suffering.
And that made it more dreadful.
Feeling alone in my suffering.
Now, these are all the memories and thoughts of a 7 year old.
Obviously, my thoughts have evolved since then.
And that takes me to today—and Miguel de Unamuno.
I’m re-reading his classic work, Tragic Sense of Life.
Reading his work, and in particular, a passage about suffering, has connected dots for me that I had not been aware were needing connection.
Let me do my best to elaborate (and hopefully, as well, to inspire within you a desire to dig for yourself into some of his writings).
I’ll start with the poem I wrote today, inspired by Unamuno:
feeler of all feelings,
sufferer of all sufferings.
I was given a rare gift at an early age.
My suffering, and my subsequent witnessing of the suffering of another.
If you look at the universe as closely and as inwardly as you are able to look—that is to say, if you look within yourself; if you not only contemplate but feel all things in your own consciousness, upon which all things have traced their painful impression—you will arrive at the abyss of the tedium, not merely of life, but of something more: at the tedium of existence, at the bottomless pit of the vanity of vanities. And thus you will come to pity all things; you will arrive at universal love.
In order to love everything, in order to pity everything, human and extra-human, living and non-living, you must feel everything within yourself, you must personalize everything.
If I am moved to pity and love the luckless star that one day will vanish from the face of heaven, it is because love, pity, makes me feel that it has a consciousness, more or less dim, which makes it suffer because it is no more than a star, and a star that is doomed one day to cease to be… For all consciousness is consciousness of death and suffering.
Consciousness is participated knowledge, is co-feeling, and co-feeling is com-passion. Love personalizes all that it loves. Only by personalizing it can we fall in love with an idea. And when love is so great and so vital, so strong and so overflowing, that it loves everything, then it personalizes everything and discovers that the total All, that the Universe, is also a Person possessing a Consciousness, a Consciousness which in turn suffers, pities, and loves, and therefore is consciousness. And this Consciousness of the Universe, which love, personalizing all that it loves, discovers, is what we call God.
And thus the soul pities God and feels itself pitied by Him; loves Him and feels itself loved by Him, sheltering its misery in the bosom of the eternal and infinite misery, which, in eternalizing itself and infinitizing itself, is the supreme happiness itself.
We personalize the All in order to save ourselves from Nothingness; and the only mystery really mysterious is the mystery of suffering.
Suffering is the path of consciousness… And the evolution of organic beings is simply to struggle to realize fullness of consciousness through suffering, a continual aspiration to be others without ceasing to be themselves.
Now, I skipped around some and I know this topic doesn’t lend itself well to short snippets, but here’s what I got out of all this, and how I feel it connects to my defining moment.
Like many of you perhaps reading this, I endured a traumatic experience at an early age. I suffered.
And suffering forced me to feel (though, in truth, it wasn’t until much later in life that I allowed myself to feel again; as the experience was too much for me to bear at the time, I closed off from feeling for a very, very long time).
And in my own suffering, I was opened up to truly feel the suffering of another: Robbie.
And in truly feeling the suffering of one other, in some great way, I was given the gift or ability of being able to feel all people’s suffering by extension.
And that got me today thinking about the idea of the Universe as Consciousness, and Unamuno’s words:
And when love is so great and so vital, so strong and so overflowing, that it loves everything, then it personalizes everything and discovers that the total All, that the Universe, is also a Person possessing a Consciousness, a Consciousness which in its turn suffers, pities, and loves, and therefore is consciousness. And this Consciousness of the Universe, which love, personalizing all that it loves, discovers, is what we call God.
The Universe is alive. The Universe is conscious. The Universe feels.
And that means everything and everyone.
And to feel everything is to love everything;
to become everything.
Which doesn’t mean you stop being you.
It just means that your conception of you expands to include everything—
And who is our teacher for all of this?
What is my suffering in comparison to that which feels everything?
Can you imagine being conscious of—that is, feeling—all suffering?
And, yet, isn’t that what it means to be human?
To be brave enough to allow ourselves to feel that which is difficult, perhaps even seemingly impossible, to feel?
To pity is to feel is to know is to love.
With gratitude to Miguel de Unamuno,
Tragic Sense of Life