I remember the place, the moment, the book, and the transformation that happened within me when I read: Pain in life is inevitable. Suffering is optional.
I was reading a book on Buddhism and trying to find a way forward in the months following my Dad’s suicide – 17 years ago today. His birthday is tomorrow. He would be 79.
When I read these words all those years ago, my heart and my mind and my consciousness and even my body were being consumed with questions, ravaged by noise:
How could it have been different?
Could it have been different?
Did I say what I needed to say?
Where did he buy the gun?
Who sold it to him? What did he tell them?
I wonder what they'd think now?
How long ago did he buy it?
When had he made the decision to finally do it?
What was going through his mind?
What was he thinking about me?
Was he thinking about me?
Who am I now?
What about Mom? My Sister? Brother? Their kids?
How do I process that I’ll never get another hug?
How do I hold on knowing I will never here “I love you, son” again?
What about everyone else? The ones who didn’t know he struggled with Depression? Who didn’t know about his childhood sexual abuse?
Why don’t I want to see anyone? Talk to anyone?
Why does a crowded place give me anxiety?
Why does the world seem so noisy?
I could write 100 more easy, but you get the point. When I read those words - that suffering is optional - it clicked. My mind slowed. The questions quietly faded. They were still there, just not so loud, so dominant, so consuming. They had been manifesting my suffering and my struggle. The more I struggled, the more questions, the more I suffered. And, the more I fed that suffering, the less I had within me to invest in healing, in reconstituting myself in a new reality. Stuck. Not living.
Those words started my life over.
There was only one undeniable set of facts, without question, that I needed to accept: he was gone. I was here. It hurt like hell. And, it’s inevitable, and it’s life, and it continues.
If I couldn’t own the pain, the pain would own me.
These simple words also offered insight into my Dad’s suffering with Depression and the harsh and confounding reality of mental illness for those of us who do not struggle with it ourselves. For my Dad, pain was definitely inevitable. But, for him, suffering was not optional. Given his Depression and trauma, it too was a fact. Inevitable. Life. He made the choice to seek help, to go to therapy, to change his diet (sometimes), to take his medication. While these at varying times and in varying ways offered him some reprieve, his suffering was still there. It was as persistent as the beat of his heart and as pervasive as the blood it circulated throughout his body.
As I look around at the world today, I find myself coming back to these words again. I find myself suffering. I tense with anger at the chosen-state of gun violence. Of murdered children in schools. I feel despair at the self-centeredness that drives our society and distorts our democracy, which, after all, is built on a premise of we – we the people. I mourn the world my daughters live in and will have to manage when I’m gone. I cry for them. And, I don’t know what to do. I do know I’m suffering. I am very aware that I’m still feeding that suffering. I know it is optional, and I must make a different choice. I just have to figure out how.