- The world does not know that we must all come to an end here; — but those who know it, their quarrels cease at once. ~ The Dhammapada
Every minute of 2015 someone who loved and needed me was dying,
And my experience, for every minute of 2015, was one of consistent, contained, unrelenting terror. I felt joy, gratitude, hope, sorrow and anger as well – but coursing under it all, was a river of pure fear, visceral horror – a kind of adrenal fuel that drove me into extraordinary feats of care taking, as I crawled along the edge of a knife.
And when they left this earth, my very first experience was relief- a relief that continues to expand – even through the early waves of sorrow – a relief that grows and solidifies underneath me as I integrate my losses and the intensity and duration of the waves of grief modulate, and as I return to life changed and grateful for all that they left behind with me.
And in its absence, I have become intensely curious about the specific nature of this terror, its origin, form and function:
Okay, so I was scared shitless. What was it for?
What, if any, good did it do?
- As a fletcher makes straight his arrow, a wise man makes straight his trembling and unsteady thought, which is difficult to guard. Difficult to hold back. . ~ The Dhammapada
I am not afraid of loss, or living with loss, or my own pending sorrows. I have lost many loved ones in my life and know how to take them into me, and keep them with me and draw strength from my evolving internal connections.
But I was and have always been terrified, horrified by the presence and the threat of suffering in those I love, and in others.
And when death came, it meant that suffering, or the threat of suffering, or both, were over, and I was unburdened of my most primal fear.
All of this is fairly straight forward, nothing earth shattering or bone shaking here.
Just basic empathy: We would of course, as empathic people, feel distressed by the suffering of others.
But my primal fear irritated me like a severe allergy, it whispered in my ears all day long and it told me this:
“You must do whatever you can, every single thing you can, to control, eliminate, prevent, head off, or reduce their suffering. Any suffering they experience is your responsibility to respond to with all of the resources at your disposal. You must be available 24 hours, ready in a flash, to take action to do anything, everything, you can to prevent it.”
- “May both the layman and he who has left the world think that this is done by me; may they be subject to me in everything which is to be done or is not to be done,” this is the mind of the fool, and his desire and pride increase. . ~ The Dhammapada
I’m sure my red-alert-readiness, my foolishness, actually bugs the shit out of others in the moments when they are working hard, and maybe even succeeding at withstanding their own emotional and physical suffering.
And of course, I have to consider how this reactive allergy to the discomfort of others led me to this profession, how I am called every single day, to sit in the presence of sufferings that are not mine. I have chosen a life that requires that I sort through- thirty some hours a week for twenty plus years – what sufferings I can help alleviate and what suffering is not mine, is beyond me, is unsoothable.
And to tolerate my own impotence in the face of it.
- Him I call indeed a Brahmana who, even here, knows the end of his suffering, has put down his burden, and is unshackled. . ~ The Dhammapada
As a psychotherapist I am so often powerless – pressed into circumstances where any action I consider or any power I claim only serves to disempower the client I hope to serve. The more powerless I am the more I must acknowledge that the person sitting opposite me on the couch is the only one with the power to make sense of their own anguish.
Sometimes even actions as still as listening, bearing witness or sitting near are worthless in the face of suffering.
Then, I am afraid.
Sometimes fear is all I have to offer.
Because I’ve become curious, I have asked clients who experienced severe suffering in my presence how my fear impacted them.
“It let me knew that you really cared.”
“I could see that you really got what I was going through and understood how horrible it was.”
“It meant a lot to me, it showed me that you loved me.”
Hearing this offered its own relief, but still, I wonder what I might have offered if I had been less afraid.
Fear can create an inflation, an adrenal hubris, which can seduce me into assuming responsibility for distresses and discomforts that I can never soothe or assuage.
And although I have built up the capacity to contain my behavior, the fear rings like a malfunctioning alarm that cannot be turned off once it detects suffering in the air.
- Him I call indeed a Brahmana who has traversed this miry road, the impassable world and its vanity, who has gone through, and reached the other shore, is thoughtful, guileless, free from doubts, free from attachment and content. . ~ The Dhammapada
What if I could accept other people’s suffering as inevitable and unavoidable, as their own property without being afraid? Could I be more present, more connected?
Could I have been more effective if I weren’t so afraid?
Can I “hold” fear differently?
If this fear is a kind of empathy in itself – and I suspect it is – if I am holding and absorbing fears that others cannot hold alone, is there a way for me to withstand them differently or better?
Is it a human necessity for the alarm bell to be activated ?
Is it possible or desirable to remain committed to ameliorating what suffering we can and still stay peaceful in the presence of intractable suffering?
Is it even “right” by my own values to “stay peaceful” or detached in the presence of intractable suffering?
Is that healthy detachment? Or indifference? Self-preserving? Or self-centric?
Or just cold?
- Him I call indeed a Brahmana who has left what gives pleasure, what gives pain, who is cold and free from all germs of renewed life, the hero who has conquered all the worlds. . ~ The Dhammapada
These are questions that, consciously or unconsciously, psychotherapists and care providers wrestle with every single day. Psychotherapists need to build defenses and force-fields, finding ways to detach, to self preserve and allow others to claim ownership of their intractable sufferings.
And let’s be frank: I suck at detachment.
I wonder if it is possible not to defend, or distance – but to remain authentically attached, compassionate and peaceful when others suffer near us.
Isn’t the capacity to maintain some internal peace intrinsic to our ideas of mature compassion?
Can we allow ourselves to be empathically affected by the intractable suffering of others and not tremble in its presence?
I just wonder if it’s mandatory.
It might be.
If it isn’t mandatory it might still be unavoidable. I am no Buddha, and no one I know thinks I’m on the road to Nirvana.
Yet, I also wonder what life might look like, what consolations I might have to offer if I could accept my right and limited place in the world, to love with all my heart, to do all I can and should do, to be able to recognize clearly and preceisely when I should do no more, and then to calmly instill confidence in others that I believe they have the power and capacity to contend with, withstand or come to terms with their own suffering.
And then, at that point, allow myself to rest, still and present, peaceful and unafraid.
May all sentient beings have happiness and its causes,
May all sentient beings be free of suffering and its causes,
May all sentient beings never be separated from bliss without suffering,
May all sentient beings be in equanimity, free of bias, attachment and anger.
(The Dhammapada translated by F. Max Muller)