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avoiding overwhelm [or how to not get swallowed up with suffering]

“Sometimes I feel overwhelmed. But I try to work one day at a time. If we just worry about the big picture, we are powerless. So my secret is to start right away doing whatever little work I can do. I try to give joy to one person in the morning, and remove the suffering of one person in the afternoon. That’s enough. When you see you can do that, you continue, and you give two little joys, and you remove two little sufferings, then three, and then four. If you and your friends do not despise the small work, a million people will remove a lot of suffering. That is the secret. Start right now.”
~Sister Chân Không (born 1938), Vietnamese pioneer of socially engaged Buddhism

One of my teachers recently posted this on Facebook. It came at the right moment. I recently graduated from a college that has these words from Horace Mann posted and repeats them at commencement: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.” That can be a tall order sometimes. I’ve been terribly sick for about two months with an illness that I was told was “life-threatening” at one point. It was frightening and gave me time to recalibrate and come to terms with my limitations which can be very hard for me.

This time has taught me a lot about self-care as well–about not overloading myself and saying yes when my body is screaming NO! I have often favored giving of myself to my own detriment. This is foolhardy and isn’t an act of love but of wanting or needing to be needed. Love of self and attending to my own needs and suffering is much harder. I suppose because it means facing my vulnerability.

When coming face-to-face with vulnerability during an illness, it becomes harder to ignore. Being told that what I have is autoimmune related and that it is basically my “body attacking itself”, it gave me pause. Is that just a fractal of something else? Are my judgments of or anger towards myself wreaking havoc on my immune system? That seems likely. Does the utter vulnerability of all of that shake me to my core? Yes.

And then there is the vulnerability and suffering of others. My youngest child has been very ill and home from school for four days. As I’ve held her while she cries and coughs, I have had to just relax into the moment. Much like I couldn’t change the fact that I wasn’t able to get out of bed for a while, I can’t make her not be sick so I can move “forward” and get on with the business of winning a “victory for humanity”.

I find myself thinking: What if this is it? What if my greatest victory is raising two daughters who believe in themselves and know to love and be loved? What if the only suffering I can abate is my own or theirs? Is that selfish? I honestly don’t know. I’m just surrendering to the now–to what’s in front of me and bathing it all in love.

At some point during my illness I just surrendered to it. I felt so wracked with pain and so overwhelmed with it all that I just cried out, “Let me understand why this is happening!” A message that came through so clearly is that things aren’t really an emergency unless we make them so. Perspective is everything. I saw this article recently that discusses that we experience things in a more exaggerated way when we have scarcity of some sort.

“People who have fewer social resources, such as friends and family, literally see challenging objects and events in a more exaggerated way than do people who feel emotionally supported, according to research by Kent Harber, associate professor of psychology at Rutgers-Newark.”

That is how I felt when I was ill until I reached out to the many wonderful friends I have. Their offers of help and support made me feel less alone. I got through it. While I’m actually still recovering from this illness, the hard part is over and I’ve come away with that shift in perspective, with a deeper love of life and most especially for myself. I find myself speaking so much more kindly to myself. Not always but often. This begets more kindness towards others.

If my body is a fractal of the whole, I need to love it not judge it, right? If it’s suffering, it’s my sacred (or maybe even profane) responsibility to eliminate that suffering if I can and give it some joys. Life is less overwhelming that way and I end up with more authentic love to give.

Yesterday, I gave my daughter what I call a “love bath” during one of her more tender moments. I closed my eyes and imagined golden, healing light pouring all over her while I said “I love you” over and over and over. I got more specific and said all the things I loved about her. She started smiling and relaxing.

I’m not sure if that’s a victory for humanity. It certainly feels like a victory for love.

I think I’ll give myself a love bath today and see where that takes me. (and some joys too)

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