“Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.” – Helen Keller
Sometimes life begs our attention. COVID has done that for me as I’ve struggled to regain my health for almost a year. It has required me to focus on the things I have not, or perhaps did not want to, pay attention to before. Suffering offers a difficult yet unique opportunity to awaken our minds and learn from our experiences. It alters our path and demands change. There is no beauty in suffering, but there is something extraordinarily beautiful about working through it. Growth is born and our assumptions about life change.
Bumping up against the outer edges of pain is grueling. It challenges even the mightiest by threatening our sense of immortality. During periods of emotional pain, it is difficult to resist thinking about our previous defeats, needless quest for wanderlust, and the ever-so-painful feeling of regret. These ideas, however, become obsolete and leave the mind as quickly as they enter. Certainties end, realities begin and suddenly, time becomes the only resource that matters. In the end, we are forced to accept that the here and now is all we have.
Most people would agree that suffering is just part of life. It finds us no matter how hard we try to avoid it. Sometimes it creeps in without warning and overcrowds the already tender spaces we’ve nurtured from the past. Or sometimes it invades the unblemished good we are born with and delicately work to maintain over the span of a lifetime.
Suffering not only impacts the body, but it also hijacks the mind and requires extensive work to restore the balance that is lost. What happens to us when we suffer a loss, feel pain, or grieve? Often times, we find ourselves weaving between darkness and light, wandering along on a path of pain mourning the life we use to know and so foolishly took for granted.
There is often a tremendous amount of fear centered around pain and suffering. Pain has the undeniable ability to weaken our body and dismantle our heart. Or it can put us back together.
I unintentionally spent two seasons at a Kansas park during my ongoing COVID recovery. After months of suffering physically from a disease doctors are still trying to understand, I was routed back to Kansas City in search of adequate medical care and a desperation to heal. While the physical pain inflicted by this illness is fierce, the emotional pain is just as depleting. An incessant battle between hope and fear led me to the Meadowbrook Park trail. I had no idea, at the time, how significant the park would be in my healing and how it would be the backdrop for such a spiritual journey.
Some may describe this park as a restful spot while others might say it is a greenspace full of life that is draped in beauty and filled with soothing sounds to comfort even the weariest of souls. I can still feel the pavement beneath my feet with each turn on the trail. I know which trees are on which corner and which ones bloom the biggest. I know when the pond brings the fishermen in and when the fall breeze quiets the crowd. I know where the geese gather for naps and how to zigzag around them. I can still hear the distant chatter of the children playing, yet I can sense the calm from the silence in the afternoon. Best of all though, when that Kansas sun goes down- it looks like the biggest orange button anyone has ever seen. It looks like a magnificent circle of glowing light layered over a tranquil pink sky. Its warmth pulls you in and you can’t get enough of it. Sadly, it doesn’t last long as it gradually sinks below the horizon. That tugs on you for a moment, knowing you cannot watch it for long. Fortunately, there is comfort in the hope that you might see it again tomorrow— that big orange button of hope and life, always offering a new day to hit reset.
Like a meandering trail in a park, suffering can become an endless loop we travel. During one of my frustratingly countless attempts to walk through the constricting chest pain, I became increasingly agitated. I began focusing on all of the things my body could not do. Additionally, an enormous sense of tension was growing within me as I struggled to hide my symptoms, because as a parent, I often tell myself I am not allowed to get sick. Moreover, I struggled with an uncontrollable, and admittedly self-absorbed worry that my declining health would impose suffering not only on my children, but, also on the other people in my life who counted on me to be well. I could no longer manage their peace while staggering around looking for mine.
It was in that moment that I surrendered to the pain and granted myself permission to stop worrying. I relinquished control of what I could not change and accepted where I was. I hit the reset button. This shift in perspective launched my transformation and began to add meaning to my experience.
I think that surrendering to the things we cannot control does not mean we aren’t committed to the outcome. Rather, it is the opposite. Accepting our current place in life reinstates our unwavering commitment to heal. It helps highlight the strengths we have developed throughout our life and increases the probability that we will implement them.
However, pain is a necessary discomfort. It is the starting point from which our bodies recognize something is wrong. As such, we should not attempt to minimize or mask the suffering we feel.
We have all endured some degree of suffering during the course of this pandemic. When we seek to understand the suffering of others, we become better equipped to handle our own. Doing so, creates a positive feedback loop that inevitably leads to a more compassionate society. More aware of the needs of others and more in tune with effects of pain.
Let go of the constraints you put on yourself and on others. Be mindful of the pain, but do not fear it. Find beauty in the reflection. Engage in the good stuff and be open to the signs when the world offers them. Embrace the big orange button.
Look for it.
Meadowbrook Park photo by Jennifer Larson