All my adult life I’ve struggled to understand the purpose of suffering in the world, for people, for animals, for everything and anything in between. Sounds gloomy, I know. But it’s become a kind of personal quest, due in part to trying to understand myself and the world around me. I totally get what Mary Oliver meant by these words.
There are so many kinds of suffering– physical, spiritual, emotional, mental, and others more particular. At each point in my life when I’ve seen or experienced one or another (or sometimes more than one at once), it never seems to make any sense at the time.
Until after. I can only speak to the events of my own life, or those of people I know. Things are often so hard, and solutions to the great and even small tragedies of life are rarely simple, never easy.
The Buddhists (who I’m a big fan of) will tell you suffering – at least human, existential suffering – is caused by either fear or desire, by our grasping at something or running from it, be that a person, an event, a job, a thought, a feeling, or anything else. I’m not sure if or how this concept applies to physical suffering. But in most circumstances, I tend to agree.
Although some suffering, I think, I will never understand. Maybe I don’t want to. There is enough of that kind, both in the past and the present, to try and make peace with.
I often turn to the quote above when challenges come. It hangs over my desk where I write, and I keep it stored, ever at the ready, in my mental file box. I will miss Mary Oliver’s presence in the world, her poetry, words that have opened deep canyons and scaled mountains inside me. Fortunately her books are still around to remember and inspire.
Particularly over the past few years I’ve made a point of sorting through my own boxes of darkness. I’ve deliberately unpacked them, examined their contents, and tried (am still trying) to make sense of where it all goes.
This is a task of a lifetime, I think, to sort our shit out.
From early memories of my alcoholic father and my parents’ troubled marriage, to my rough and lonely young adulthood (who doesn’t have one of those, however), through the loss of my mother, into a brief marriage and abrupt divorce, then the loss of my father, and on and on– through other relationships, events, and experiences. More boxes came, filled up.
I think for awhile I had an attic and basement full of them, maybe an entire house. Plus a garage, and a storage shed– a lot of territory to cover.
And I’m still working my way through. The process is not pleasant, or fun, but it is healing. It takes time and intent, and a willingness to look where I don’t really want to, or never thought I could. It’s about taking responsibility, too, for the choices I made in those moments, for my actions, and not just about blaming others for what I feel was done to me. And it’s about seeing that other people are always flawed and struggling, too.
Really, I’m not sure it will ever end, or if it’s even supposed to. That is life, I think, getting things we want and things we don’t, then learning to deal with or accept what life offers.
But it doesn’t have to be all bad. Mary Oliver called them “gifts” for a reason.
The point is to just do it, open the box, and feel better afterward, freer and unburdened – but not get stuck there in it however, forever championing our pain – for our own sake, or to lend a hand to someone else who’s doing the same. I think the Buddhists and Mary Oliver would both agree that if there is any point to our suffering, it is to learn from it, and go on to help alleviate it in someone or something else, to make it serve.
Whether that includes ourselves, the world, a friend, a pet, a stranger – it doesn’t matter who it goes to. It matters what we do with what we find.
Sometimes I think it happens quickly, seeing the reason for some sadness, a loss; other times it takes years, long years, before the lesson comes through. Sometimes it reveals itself seemingly out of the blue, an epiphany over a cup of morning coffee; while at other times the revelation must be searched out and fought for, a battle hard-won, and hopefully made permanent for all the struggle involved.
That is what I think, that is what I’ve learned, am still learning. And what I am trying to give back to others.
With almost every word I write here, either in a lengthy post like this or in one of my poems, I am hoping that my experiences will somehow serve. Not just the hard things, like I’m talking about now; but also the good ones, the joys. They are there in life aplenty. All to me are valuable, if someone reads or sees them and is somehow touched, feels connected, even for just a moment.
That is something – the only thing – that makes it all worthwhile. And I am actually grateful to be the sort of person who can say that.
So the only conclusion I have come to (so far) about dealing with these strange and initially unwanted gifts, is that they must become something else, something better. And that is often a choice, albeit a hard one, to look past or down or through our own pain, or what was done to us, into what good we can make of it for others. That’s the tiny flicker of light I’m following, and I’ll keep on.