I was moved by our conversation last night. I understand how you feel the presence of suffering always in the background, juxtaposed against the peaceful times and moments of abundance we chance upon. I’ve felt this too and have come to sense that we all take turns in these places, and that it does no good for everyone to be suffering at once. When blessed to be well, we balance the world by being conduits of light for the time being, as long as we stay touchable.
The ever-present call of compassion is to widen our circle and never close our hearts to those in need. This doesn’t substitute for helping others in real time. But when unable to help, our commitment to feeling blessed when we’re blessed adds light to the dark and distributes the weight of the world, as long as we let in the pain of others. When suffering myself, I’ve felt discarded by those who remain self-enclosed in their happiness, but I’ve also felt uplifted by the happiness of those who don’t forget those who are hurting. Their tenderness arrives like the sun warming me in my painful places.
The plight of the less fortunate is always with me. This awareness led me to write the poem on the facing page.
Still, there are days I forget and days I’m too wrapped in my fear to remember the connection between us all. Then, when finally resting in the smallest inch of beauty, I fear that letting your pain in will sink me back into my darkness. As if we own the beauty and peace that befalls us. When falling back into the kaleidoscope of suffering we’re all a part of, I remember that we’re called to let this borrowed inch of light pass on to someone else. Inevitably, we’re asked to be channels for what we’re given, beyond our collapse into being small and dark.
When we can accept all that we’re capable of, including the ways we can be insensitive and cruel, then we have a felt basis for understanding and accepting the full humanity in everyone. This is the humble threshold to releasing our compassion. In this way, self-acceptance is the gateway to accepting the world—not all that we do to each other, but our inborn capacity, in spite of all we do, to repair what we do to each other.
It’s taken years for me to understand that the wisdom waits in those who suffer. They earn a view that the rest of us need. And yet, we shy away from asking those in pain, “What has your pain opened?” From asking those near death, “From this great height, what do you see of life?” From asking those on the other side of fear, “What has all that trembling revealed?”
What we drop, others pick up. What we lose, others find. What we forget, others remember. What we love spreads like weeds. Our lives and all we go through seed a spring we’ll never see. I was changed by our conversation last night, because we pulled aside our veils and came closer to the truth than ever before. Ultimately, we’re here to suffer when we suffer, and to put down all we carry and accept joy when it comes, so we can balance out the weight of being here. This is the noble anonymity of care.
In the Milky Ocean
As you pour milk on your cereal, I am
grateful for the sound of milk flowing over
dried grain, for the peace that lets us wake
and eat together, to stare at each other in
silence like small animals. I am aware how
safely tumbled through Eternity we are. Not
to be hunted from birth. Or chased into the
forest and forced to part. Or beaten for a
secret some warlord thinks we’re hiding. I
eat my toast and close my eyes. How is it
we’re alive in a place that has running water,
where milk and eggs are plentiful? Atrocities
and wonders flutter through me. They bleed
into each other. I can’t stop it. The milk
tastes good as my twin is somewhere on
the run. It seems impossible to feel so
many fates at once. Impossible not to.
This excerpt is from a book in progress, The Temple Is the World.
Questions to Walk With
In your journal, describe a time you felt alone in your pain or grief because someone you know refused to let your pain or grief mix with their happiness. What did this do to the relationship?
In conversation with a friend or loved one, discuss the challenge of being happy while you know others are suffering. Explore how to make room in your heart for both.