By Laura Garren
The Buddha teaches us that existence is suffering, and the cause of suffering is desire. In other words, we cannot escape suffering because we exist. We cannot escape desire, because we exist. What to do?
The answer for each person is as unique as that person, I think, but we can all learn from experience if we chose. Plenty of people do not. They go through life asleep and unaware, or anxious and unhappy, yet unwilling to do anything about it. I understand why: change is uncomfortable, painful even. However, the fact is that pain is unavoidable, so why not make it work to our advantage?
Pain results from many causes, some unavoidable, such as the loss of a loved one. Loss, of course, can take many forms: death, disablement, divorce. I’ve suffered at least one of each: my father died, at age 56, when I was 19; my first husband and I divorced after 12 years together; and my husband Chuck suffered a massive stroke four years ago, at age 56, that left him unable to speak, move his right arm, or walk normally. I’ve suffered other heartbreaks as well. Southern existentialist Walker Percy once noted that it’s a good thing we don’t know what the future holds; if we did, we might not have the heart to go on.
Looking back on the tragedies of my life, I can see how I struggled against each and how each transformed me. I felt each loss so keenly I didn’t think I could endure the pain; I wanted relief so badly I often wished for death. Somehow, I was able to pull through each time, and even be happy again.
How did I do it? Here’s where desire steps in: I stopped wishing for things to be different. I accepted reality. So easy to type these words, but what a struggle it was! Once I freed up all the energy I had been expending on fighting the problems, I was able to direct it elsewhere, toward positive goals that would increase my well-being and happiness. After my divorce, I went back to school and got a master’s degree in English, met and married Chuck. After Chuck’s stroke, I moved us to Greenville and have started writing again, a source of great satisfaction and achievement. I started taking better care of myself. I quit smoking and cut back on the alcohol, and started practicing yoga.
Through it all, I had the love and support of family and friends to sustain me and, often, enlightenment me. I couldn’t have survived without them, and I learned a lot from them. Also, I am a voracious reader, and I practically inhale books describing the human condition. Not only non-fiction, spiritual or mental-health books, but also novels, which I believe hold the greatest truths about life. They teach us we are not alone in whatever we’re experiencing and feeling; other have experienced and felt the same throughout the ages. Talking to people about their life experiences also taught me many truths.
I gradually stitched together a patchwork philosophy, to which I continually add, that has enabled me to be content with my circumstances. I easily could have gone the other way, and become bitter, had I clung to my desire for life to be different. I envisioned that future and rejected it. I decided to control what I could, which was my reaction to events, and to accept the rest and stop wanting what I can’t have. Chuck will always be disabled and unable to speak, and wishing otherwise will not change that but will only make me unhappy.
I’m not cured, not by any means. I sometimes still fall into the trap of desire. Recently, Chuck and I decided we wanted to move from our present location because of some obnoxious neighbors, and we begun looking for other houses. We couldn’t find anything in our price range as nice as what we have, and as that fact became obvious, I became increasingly anxious and desirous to move. I felt myself losing my hard-won peace of mind. So I took the house off the market and decided to accept our situation. As a result, I have regained my emotional equilibrium.
I know the future will bring challenges to my equanimity. However, I feel better equipped to face them, armed as I am with the lessons of the past. The keys, for me, are to learn from experience, accept what I cannot change, and take positive actions that will increase my happiness. Not as easy as it sounds; but as a wise person once noted, nothing difficult is ever easy. I would add that it also has greater value for having been suffered to achieve.