The State of Things
The day broke like many others. The sky was azure blue with wispy cirrus clouds high above full of shimmering ice crystals. We had driven into Cadiz, Kentucky, in the middle of the night after having been awakened by the news that Jenny’s mother was being taken to the hospital.
My father-in-law had found her unresponsive in her recliner. Her health had been failing for many years due mostly to her having smoked for many, many years. She had stopped about 10 years or so before, but the damage was done. Congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and the various medical problems that accompany medical treatments for such diseases was her lot.
At this stage, the side effects of one medication created problems that other medications were placed on board to remedy. The doctors were doing a delicate balancing act.”
As we drove, we heard a number of conflicting messages from family members — she would be ok, she would not survive — keeping us emotionally off balance. As usual, I slipped into my expecting the worst because eventually, well, you know … .
She died during the night — a quiet, peaceful death — as her heart simply stopped. It was a great loss to all of us, but it was tinged with a sigh of relief. The roller coaster ride was over for her, for us, for now.
That morning, we alerted my family and several would come. I am fortunate to have family on both sides that actually very much like each other. Two of my cousins came! But rather surprisingly, my father would be unable to attend due to illness. Odd indeed. My father was a strong bull of a man with the gentlest spirit imaginable. He would not miss this unless it was absolutely necessary. But miss it he did.
My Father’s Determination: The Most Beautiful, Tragic Thing I Have Ever Been Witness To
One month later my father developed the voice of one who had breathed helium without benefit of that element. It was funny, briefly, but soon would not be. Finally he went to the doctor, underwent several tests, and then we received the dread news. He was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and not the usual, easily treatable, kind either; it was an anaplastic carcinoma, aggressive and almost always fatal. Only about 4 percent survive but he was determined to try to be in that number.
He suffered through radiation which burnt his throat and swelled his esophagus so badly that he could not swallow. He did not eat again except for a little custard now and then. Finally, they inserted a feeding tube into his side so he did not have to starve to death. (The doctor apologized with tears in his eyes for not having done this sooner.)
He suffered intensely. I could tell from the expressions and his eyes but it didn’t take much to see it. He learned mindfulness, practiced assiduously, often in the Christian modes and never complained, as far as I either heard or heard about. He was able to attend his granddaughter’s wedding in late July, but he was weak and in pain.
They began chemotherapy in early August. He was dead by the 12th in the year 2007. The most beautiful, tragic thing I have ever been witness to … and sad — poignantly but meaningfully sad.
On Pain, Death and Transience
He had written on a tablet during this time. No one saw it until his death, but it was full of sentences and phrases about approaching his pain as his spiritual adventure using his Christian framework; like the Christ’s ascension of the cross. He opened up to everything that occurred as best he could, offering compassion and kindness and a ready smile to whoever visited him.
“I’m hungry,” he wrote in one brief sentence. “Help me to see this as hunger for Your righteousness.”
Live long enough, say to age 8, and then tell me life is Disney World. There will be something that hurts. Disappointments, even catastrophic ones happen early — deaths, disease, rejection, failure, natural disasters and losses of all kinds happen to everyone. Life is painful and transient but fortunately, as Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “… that is not all there is.”
Life is full of beauty as well.
Mindfulness allows us to open to the transient before us, even our eventual illnesses and deaths because they are inevitable. They will happen but they still are transient. It also allows us to open to the beautiful and pleasant as well, even at the same time, diminishing our suffering and bringing us some peace and joy. I didn’t say happiness (which is a topic for another day).
There is no way to happiness. Happiness is (itself) the way.” — Thich Nhat Hanh
This is the state of things, like it or not and there is no reason to like the painful. Live with it nobly, yes, if one knows how. But there is a vital difference between pain and suffering that must be explained. They are not the same, for if they were there would be nothing we could do. A Zen saying is:
Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”
I agree. Here is the difference.
While pain is what we cannot avoid — like illness, storms, lightening, flood, death, etc. — suffering arises from how we approach our pain, how we react psychologically to it. Suffering, however, is not “in your head.” The brain doesn’t feel a thing. Suffering affects us physiologically and piles more pain high on top of what was already there.
It is one thing to experience losses such as I wrote above. It is quite another to then approach them with thoughts like:
- “Such things should not happen.”
- “I can’t live without my father. I’ll never enjoy another day.”
- “I should have seen his symptoms earlier and insisted he go to the doctor.”
- “I should have done more.”
- “I didn’t love him like I should have.”
- “I was just a disappointment to him.”
- “I could get cancer too! That would be horrible! I couldn’t do that!”
Just as Pain is Inevitable, So is Beauty
Pain arises from the facts of existence. Suffering arises from opinions about the painful events. The former cannot be avoided and, while the latter may happen automatically, they are only opinions and are therefore subject to change.
How helpful is it to believe that bad things cannot and should not happen to me? How unrealistic. Of course they will. It hurts to think otherwise. But beauty and its benefits are ever-present, too, in innumerable ways. We can become receptive to the beauty that streams all around—in sunlight, rain drops, clouds, the ground under our feet, the wagging of a dog’s tail, the smile on a child’s face — if we know how.
Look around with your senses! Beauty is there. Just as pain is inevitable, so is beauty — and the one great advantage that beauty has over pain is that if we look around us at nature, inside of us and toward others, beauty is always there … if we know how to see it.
This is the state of things.