The constraints I place on my blogging make it difficult for me to post regularly. When our children were young, I freely shared the many challenges my husband and I faced. I used to write extensively about the difficulties of parenting kids with behaviors and issues typical of post-institutionalized international adoptees. Now that our children are older and members of an internet-savvy peer group, I guard their privacy by posting almost nothing about them. I also cannot write about challenges I face at work. Since these two areas are the sources of most of my stresses, I’m self-censored, with little left to discuss except books I’ve read and my spiritual practice, often devoid of the context necessary to explain my motivations.
These constraints remind me of my email tagline: Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle. Everyone faces challenges that they don’t speak about, whether due to privacy concerns, social mores, embarrassment, or fear. I am constantly surprised by how many people who appear through regular social interaction to be “perfectly happy” are actually combating illness, anxiety, death of a loved one, or family crisis. Often I don’t learn about what they’re dealing with until I talk about my own difficulties and see their faces flush with relief. I know exactly what you mean! someone will say then, completely unexpectedly. I’ve dealt with that too and I didn’t know you who had. It’s so hard to go through alone but you can’t talk about these things with most people.
I suspect that we’d all be a lot happier and healthier if we did talk about these things more openly. Just like there’s still social stigma related to talking about mental health issues, I think there’s significant social stigma related to talking about suffering. From my own experience, I know there are myriad reasons for this beyond the ones I’ve already mentioned. Sometimes I’m worried about being seen as the person whose whining everyone else tries to avoid; we’ve all experienced a person who traps others in endless negative conversations. I want people to think well of me, to see me as someone who’s resolutely positive and who’s got things under control. I also have fear of being misunderstood, worrying that no one else could comprehend what I’m going through unless they’ve gone through it themselves. Many times I’m sick of thinking about my problems, many of which have repeated in seemingly perpetual cycles for more than a decade. The last thing I want to do is to spend even more time explaining all of that to someone else. And if I’m honest with myself, there is also a shame aspect: how can someone with as long of a spiritual practice as I have still struggle so much with suffering? Shouldn’t I have it all worked out by now – especially considering that the challenges I face are so small compared to those faced by so many other people?
The truth is, when I look back over my life, I do see an upward trend in my own ability to manage what life throws at me. A couple weeks ago was Mother’s Day, a holiday that has always been a difficult one in our household. I suspect it is difficult for a great many people: adoptive families, blended families, those whose mothers have died, those who have suffered miscarriage or death of a child, those who have estranged relationships with their mothers or children – but there are such sacrosanct social expectations about this day that very few people are willing to discuss any of that. This year Mother’s Day weekend arrived while I was in a place of great inner peace, a sort of spontaneous equanimity, that carried me through the whole weekend with unexpected humor and grace. I was tempted to trumpet this as evidence that I’d reached some new plateau of mindful virtue, but of course it’s never a good idea to get attached to anything in a world where impermanence is truth. By the following week, I’d been swallowed up by stress and worry again; now the equanimity of a few days ago feels like a distant memory. Still, it is a memory of something I’ve personally experienced, which means that I carry within me the seeds necessary for me to experience it again. And as I begin anew, as I am constantly beginning anew, I begin from a more solid place, not least because I have in my life trusted people with whom I can share my challenges as well as my successes.
To end where I began, it’s hard to talk about the problems we face, whether because of self-imposed constraints or because sometimes it’s difficult to find anyone able to listen deeply and respond gracefully, without turning away from our suffering or handing us placations that feel like dismissal. I maintain that it’s still important to try. Yes, you may need to choose your venue and listener carefully to honor the confidences you keep. But sharing our suffering allows others to share theirs in turn, reminding both of us that we are not alone in facing challenges. It gives us the opportunity to practice humility (we aren’t as perfect as we may hope people think), gratitude (for the person taking the time to hear us), and deep listening (as we listen to their suffering in turn). And for anyone who has ever been overwhelmed and uncertain when someone else shares their suffering, I suggest that simple acknowledgement is often the best response: I’m so sorry. That’s really hard. Most importantly, the next time you see the person, be fearless and ask them: How are you doing? That alone helps to lessen the social stigma of talking about suffering. That alone shows that you care.
Because no one could ever praise me enough,
because I don’t mean these poems only
but the unseen
unbelievable effort it takes to live
the life that goes on between them,
I think all the time about invisible work.
About the young mother on Welfare
I interviewed years ago,
who said, “It’s hard.
You bring him to the park,
run rings around yourself keeping him safe,
cut hot dogs into bite-sized pieces for dinner,
and there’s no one
to say what a good job you’re doing,
how you were patient and loving
for the thousandth time even though you had a headache.”
And I, who am used to feeling sorry for myself
because I am lonely,
when all the while,
as the Chippewa poem says, I am being carried
by great winds across the sky,
thought of the invisible work that stitches up the world day and night,
the slow, unglamorous work of healing,
the way worms in the garden
tunnel ceaselessly so the earth can breathe
and bees ransack this world into being,
while owls and poets stalk shadows,
our loneliest labors under the moon.
There are mothers
for everything, and the sea
is a mother too,
whispering and whispering to us
long after we have stopped listening.
I stopped and let myself lean
a moment, against the blue
shoulder of the air. The work
of my heart
is the work of the world’s heart.
There is no other art.
by Alison Luterman, The Largest Possible Life