Suffering Is Optional

It’s been a tough year for most of us. There have been interruptions to plans and we have learned how much we take some things for granted and many of us have learned a new form of appreciation.

There have been some who have done amazing things and accomplished so much with this time, and some who have celebrated the days they could get out of bed. For many of us there have been a bit of both.

Now after months and months of restrictions and with the seasons changing in the western hemisphere many of us are growing weary of this and asking, “are we done yet?”

We can recognize so many have it far worse than we do and scold ourselves into submission, but I’m not a fan of that. I’m also not a fan of wallowing in what isn’t and can’t be.

I recall a story I heard years ago that has come bubbling back up to the surface for me now. The story recounts a group of people who were captive, they might have been POWs or something like that, I can’t exactly recall. 

The story talks about the fortitude of the men as they waited almost endlessly for their ordeal to end. In the beginning of their time in captivity they were all optimistic that a rescue was certain but from this point they began to diverge in their thinking.

A few believed although rescue was imminent, they didn’t have any idea how long it would take but believed at one point their captivity would end in freedom. The others began to identify a period of time they determined it was reasonable to expect release. 

As the time ticked by and each period of time passed and another “reasonable” date was set. As each passed by with no sign of relief the men who were counting on the dates began to lose hope. They began to doubt they would ever return to the life they loved and the freedom they had. Mentally they began to breakdown and become depressed and despondent, hopeless as each marker passed by.

The few men that had not believed in a particular date but still held the belief that they would be rescued remained steadily hopeful. They were secure in the knowledge that rescue was just a matter of time. 

When the beautiful day of rescue came there were two groups of men, one who had lost weight, become despondent and angry for the length of time passed until rescue. The second group were grateful and ready to celebrate and praise the rescuers.

Years later the bitterness remained with those who felt that time had been stolen from them. Their multitude of unmet expectations scarred them not only in that time as prisoners but because they carried the pain forward, each unmet expectation re-injured the old wound. 

The lesson for me in this story is that the men who were so bitter and disappointed had created the suffering themselves. They had no proof that the times they felt they should have been rescued by were possible. They continued to pick arbitrary dates because from within the confines of the prison camp they had no information upon which to create realistic expectations. 

It’s kind of like where we have been during this entire pandemic. No matter where in the world you have ridden this thing out, many have filled the airwaves with blind commentary of when this would be over.  Arbitrary guesses about future travel, gatherings and expectations of life without fear of human interaction are doing no one any good.

Infectious disease research is usually a years-long process to come up with timelines, vaccines, immunity, safety protocol, etc.  Giving ourselves timelines of holidays or vacation dates is simply an opportunity for disappointment just as the prisoners had.

I encourage you to use this time to focus the things you can celebrate while dreaming for the days ahead like planning for an upcoming trip that hasn’t yet been scheduled.

An Unhappy Monk

While I don’t consider myself an enlightened  Buddhist, I do subscribe to many of the teachings of Buddhism. It seems to be such a no-nonsense, practical way to look at life usually and besides that, I’ve never seen an unhappy monk!

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Often times when I find myself in a state of uneasiness, I look to those who seem to have a process I might follow that will work for me in any given situation. This is where the principles of the Buddha’s teachings showed up for me.

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These philosophies and principles are based on the universal truth that nothing lasts forever.

I used to have a bit of a self-deprecating statement that I had an attachment disorder. Now, I’m not so sure that this is a bad thing, maybe it turns out it is a really good thing.

This does not mean that things, people and places are not important to me, that couldn’t be further from the truth. I absolutely love deeply and those who enter into my life and make any type of impact, regardless of the length of time experienced, are held in my heart for life.

What this does mean is that I allow the place, person or object to be what it is in each moment. Today they may be part of my everyday routine or with me for my morning coffee, tomorrow they may be a text message or video chat once a month or we reconnect at another time and location.

I may return to a place I once called home but I never experience it the same way. Change happens and people and places change, and if they don’t, I have. In this case to hold on to the expectation of what it used to be for me could cause a lot of disappointment.

This relates to the second Noble Truth that the origin of suffering is attachment. For me this does not relate to not being attached to the person or place, but to allow it’s place in my life to move with life itself.

For example, I will love my family eternally, that will surpass all constricts of time and space. I know this because 20+ years after my mother has died I still feel her love in different moments. I feel joy instead of sorrow because I have been able to release the need for the physical experience I used to have with her. I now am able to celebrate a more heartfelt experience of love washing over me as a butterfly flits by me while on a hike in the middle of any country I happen to be in.

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Because of this change in perspective or adapting to what is now and not suffering over what used to be that can’t be any more, I can truly celebrate the feeling. My mother’s love can reach me in places she never would have been with me. Those of you who knew my mother know she would never be on a cliff walk with me no matter how much she loved me!

Life is a constant state of evolution and these days change is happening quicker than ever before.  The more we cling to how things “used to be” or our expectations of how the “should” be, the more pain and suffering we cause ourselves. The more we adapt to how things are and find the celebration opportunities where we can, the more joy and peace we can have in our lives.

I encourage you to think about attachment in your life and how a new perspective might ease suffering, disappointment or sorrow for you and bring you more peace and joy.

In the end, we could all use a bit more peace and joy in our lives, couldn’t we?

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