Last week, I went to the hospital for some minor tests, and as I sat waiting for the doctor, I started feeling a bit sorry for myself. For recent events and for the dreaded impending blood samples about to be extracted from my plump, juicy vein via a most hated hoojie––a needle.
I watched an older woman hobble into the hospital room alone and sit on the bed next to me, which was partitioned by a thin blue curtain. I listened in on her dialogue with the nurse, which went like this:
“Please don’t take from that arm, all the hospitals try and they never get anything and they jab that needle in over and over and it hurts me.”
The nurse: “I try first, please.” The woman resisted and repeated her plea. The nurse did too. Back and forth it went for a minute or two before they finally settled in favour of the woman.
Then the woman asked how long the needle would have to stay in for.
The nurse gave a most horrid reply: “We leave in for one hour.”
The woman let forth an animal-like wail unlike anything I’ve heard outside of movies. It started small, with a tone of disbelief, like she was bargaining with whatever force had placed her in such a predicament. And then it grew to something one would expect to hear from a parent standing over their dead child. It was heart-wrenching, and before I knew it, tears coursed down my cheeks.
All I wanted to do at that moment was take that woman’s hand in mine and be present with her while she experienced a type of suffering I know nothing about. I didn’t get the chance as she was quickly ushered into a different room. But it struck me with how deeply personal suffering is, yet it’s as universal as the sun.
Upon leaving the hospital, I felt jilted by my inability to help that woman. It seemed unfair that she should have to suffer like that, probably on a regular basis too, and all alone. The thing is, we can’t always help. People all over the world are suffering in far worse situations every moment, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Some yes, all, no. So we have to choose, and sometimes, the most loving act starts with a pause and continues with a choice.
How much of what you do matters?
I say it depends on how you do it. What relieves our suffering? Oftentimes, it’s the thing that’s hardest to do, that goes against our usual MO. For many of us, feeling bad is an excuse to make ourselves feel worse with behaviours that temporarily make us feel better. I think anyone who’s familiar with addiction understands that. But even outside addictions there is a strange social encouragement to “speak one’s mind” or “put so-and-so in her place” or to simply mutter out a breathy curse, to spread the bad news or commiserate with a friend. We all do it. It feels a relief to call someone an asshole or to assign blame, conveniently making us right. Creating these polarities helps us feel like we’re in control––if you don’t fit into Column A, you must a resident of Column B where the assholes live. But I don’t think any of that has long-term benefits for our individual or collective well-being.
In the moment the word asshole leaves my lips, I feel better, and then that gratification quickly dissolves, barely in time for me to enjoy it. That’s because it wasn’t real satisfaction. Putting aside whether that person deserved the status of Asshole, a thought inspired by self-righteousness, that utterance has no value. All it does is contribute to a disconnection between me and others. It upholds my values only because, for a moment, they were threatened, which is actually not a bad thing.
The world challenges our values regularly. Life places our beliefs, our truths, and our vulnerable heart in a certain kind of predicament every day. Sometimes we notice them, sometimes we don’t. I know I notice far less than what’s actually happening in my immediate experience. We’re too busy protecting, defending, consoling, medicating, and so on.
It’s hard to feel the stuff we haven’t invited in. Stuff that we knowingly or unknowingly committed to locking out of our lives. Disappointment is a good one. No one enjoys it. No one gets up in the morning and hopes for a day filled with disappointment. Yet, we go on expecting. So we think perhaps we should live with no expectations, or at the least, lower them. But the results don’t really help us. Removing both, which is what we would have to do to remove one, eliminates a very big and tender slice of life. So does removing heartache, loss, pain, anger, and jealousy. The way to remove those very stinging and difficult feelings is to remove their causes, which is near impossible, if not completely undesirable because their causes are the stuff of life. The stuff that makes life worth living.
Imagine we never experienced loss. It would mean that we didn’t experience the intimacy of a loving relationship. It would mean we never cared because loss isn’t a loss unless it involves something we care deeply about. We can have it all. We’re supposed to have it all. The same way that the sun must set for it to rise again. If it stayed perched up high in the sky forevermore, we’d burn to death. It is possible to feel the overwhelming ache of too much joy just the same as we experience the sweet cleansing wash of sadness. The suffering for it happens when we don’t trust the balance that is inherent in all things in this world. This is why our response is so important, and it doesn’t have to be this huge, pressing obligation to fix the world or ourselves, immerse ourselves in busywork, or get fitter, healthier, smarter, and so on. I believe there are two simple things that make our day-to-day experience better: A pause at key moments, and tiny mindful contributions to the collective well-being, like this:
The guy sees me coming but cuts me off anyway. Instead of “indulging” my very natural pissed-off self that wants to call him or merely think him an asshole, I pause, for the briefest of moments. Because what I do right then matters, for me and the world. In the heat of that moment is a choice. I can either perpetuate unhelpful, habitual reactions to events that will continue to happen for the rest of my life or, I can practice a different script and write a better story.
So I check in with that tender, watery part of my heart that wants to acknowledge that, like everyone else, this guy has a history, a culture, a human body, and a natural disposition, and they all influence his experience and behaviour. I don’t have to know his life history to understand him. I also don’t need to heap my judgements upon him. I simply need to rest in that quiet space that says maybe, just maybe, this guy is suffering too. He surely is because we all are. To live is to suffer and that’s okay. It only takes us by force when we identify with it, become victims of it, allow it to wound us so deeply that we can no longer recognize that it’s a choice because its shadow is too big.
And then there are times that those challenging feelings aren’t there to be recognized. Everything is seemingly hunky-dory, but there’s a deadened space, one that could welcome simple acts of kindness and love. Smiling at a stranger (especially a grouchy one!) because maybe it might, just as it would for me, make her day. Mentally acknowledging someone’s plight even when there’s nothing you can do about it. Filling in all those blanks with loving-kindness, known as metta in the Buddhist tradition.
Every single person in the world is capable of making these tiny personal contributions to the collective well-being. They’re choices about who we want to be and how we want to live. It’s not always easy to recognize the choice; we’re not all born with a sunny, lighthearted disposition. It sounds easy enough talking about it, and it feels easy in theory and in the anticipation of the next opportunity to “try out” this contemplative way of being. But it’s really not easy in practice because our natural default is to react habitually, without awareness of the power of our thoughts. But like everything, it begins somewhere, and every moment is an opportunity to start again.
We can start by being mindful of our power, the power we have to influence another person, whether through harsh words or a warm hug. We don’t have to exile all bad words from our vocabulary either. It’s a simple noticing of ourselves as we respond to the world around us. And then taking another’s hand in our own, and sharing their moment, whether it’s one of sadness, pain, joy, or ignorance. They’re all allowed, and they all matter.