Excerpt from the book More Beautiful Than Before: How Suffering Transforms Us.
I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
milk, ripe, ﬂawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.
Jane Kenyon wrote this poem in 1993, upon hearing her husband’s cancer diagnosis. Ironically, it was Kenyon, not her husband, who died a year later from a ﬁerce and swift onslaught of leukemia. The “otherwise” she foresaw came unexpectedly one day, with no regard for the silver candlesticks, the paintings, the birch wood, or the ﬂawless peach. Pain diminishes us, and it is so important to remember, in the midst of pain and everything that pain takes from you, that still … you are enough. You are enough just as you are. You are worthy of love and kindness. You are enough. And you have enough.
Whether in our own pain or in witness to another’s suffering, life is a miracle for which we ought to be grateful every day, because it could be otherwise.
The Polish psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik proved that when you show people a picture of a circle with a small wedge cut out of it, their eyes first go to the missing piece and miss the much larger whole every time. In the midst of pain and loss, it’s hard to recognize how much remains. If you want to change your life—really change—wake up to the blessed life you already have despite your pain.
“Rabbi, in just two more weeks he would have been 90,” a son tells me as we prepare for the funeral. “In another year they would have reached their 65th anniversary,” says the daughter. I understand their disappointment, but I also remind them that 89 years and 50 weeks of life and 64 years of marriage are full, whole, beautiful, blessings.
Often, when I start to feel sorry for myself because I think life has dealt me some unfair decree, I think about a conversation I had with a friend who is a famous comedy writer. “Whoever said there’s no justice is right,” he said to me. “Thank God there is no justice. If there was justice, I would be a slave in a factory or bent over in a field someplace like most of the world instead of getting hit over the head with a bag of dimes every time I say something funny.”
I know what many people think when I encourage them to count their blessings. “Okay. We get it. We’re lucky. We’re not starving. We’re not living in a hovel. But things go wrong in our lives— terribly, painfully wrong.” Believe me, I know. I know because it’s my phone that rings when a family needs to find a treatment program for an addicted teenager, or wonders if I know of a good family law attorney or a job opening somewhere, anywhere. And I know because I’ve stood in my closet at the end of so many long days, reaching for a hanger, pondering the tear stains on my suit coat from holding someone earlier that day in front of an open grave.
“Imagine, if you will—a gift,” says Stacey Kramer in her TED Talk. “It’s not too big—about the size of a golf ball. … It’s going to do incredible things for you. It will bring all of your family together. You will feel loved and appreciated like never before and reconnect with friends and acquaintances you haven’t heard from in years. Adoration and admiration will overwhelm you. It will recalibrate what’s most important in your life.
“It will redefine your sense of spirituality and faith. You’ll have a new understanding and trust in your body. You’ll have unsurpassed vitality and energy. You’ll expand your vocabulary, meet new people, and you’ll have a healthier lifestyle. And get this—you’ll have an eight-week vacation of doing absolutely nothing. You’ll eat countless gourmet meals. Flowers will arrive by the truckload. People will say to you, ‘You look great. Have you had any work done?’ And you’ll have a lifetime supply of good drugs.
“You’ll be challenged, inspired, motivated, and humbled,” Stacey continues. “Your life will have new meaning. Peace, health, serenity, happiness, nirvana. The price? Fifty-five-thousand dollars, and that’s an incredible deal. … This gift came to me about five months ago. … It was a rare gem—a brain tumor, hemangioblastoma—the gift that keeps on giving.
“And while I’m okay now, I wouldn’t wish this gift for you. I’m not sure you’d want it. But I wouldn’t change my experience. It profoundly altered my life in ways I didn’t expect. … So the next time you’re faced with something that’s unexpected, unwanted, and uncertain, consider that it just may be a gift.”
Ironically, it’s easier to count your blessings when you have cancer or some other terrible challenge than it is when things are fine. Most of us lead pretty ordinary lives most of the time, and that’s a challenge in itself, because it’s hard to appreciate just how extraordinary ordinary really is.
While having breakfast at my hotel the morning after I delivered a speech in Austin, Texas, I happened to sit next to a Texas state assemblyman who had attended the prior evening’s presentation. We chatted about this and that and then I asked him what I thought was a common and appropriate question posed to most politicians, which was, “What’s the next office you plan to run for?”
“Why do you ask?” he challenged. “Isn’t what I’m doing now important enough?”
His response stopped me short. He was so right.
If you ask me to define what it means to be a spiritual person in one sentence, I would say, “It is the sanctification of the ordinary.” All religious and folk traditions I know of have some sort of prayer, blessing, or ceremony related to the most mundane aspects of daily life: sharing a meal, seeing the sun- rise or the new moon appear, waking up in the morning, eating bread or some other very simple food. Why? Why a blessing over something as ordinary as bread? It’s simple of course … if we can be grateful for bread, then we can be grateful for the other, greater blessings of life as well. Ideally, we are at our best when we take no small thing for granted. It is a wiser person, a happier person, a more successful person, a better person, who even in pain, or especially in pain, can affirm the enoughness, the beauty, the miracle of bread.