I’ve spent a lot of time yammering on about the potential benefits of staying awake during hard times, sitting with pain, and letting it do its work. But the question that’s always whispered insistently at me is this: What do you do with suffering when it’s right here upon you, sitting on your chest, tightening your lungs, twisting your stomach, burning your eyes? How do you say to someone “hey, trust me, this’ll seem great after awhile, but only once you go through weeks, maybe months of it. Sorry, but you gotta break eggs to make an omelette, yo.”
It’s no surprise that emotional pain and physical pain share the same brain circuitry. Everyone knows there’s a reason why we speak of emotional hurt in physical terms. We speak of hearts cut out, broken and shattered; we don’t say “I’ve experienced some social rejection.”
I’ve had occasion recently to hear this whispered question again in my own ear: What does one do with tremendous hurt? How do you live with it without withering into a burned out shell?
I’ve only ever come up with one answer: Birds, eating half a roll they found on the ground. Watch them – they’ve found gold. There are two of them, and they are pecking away at the roll with such glee, you can’t help but smile. One of them turns his tiny beak up at you as you walk past. We have a roll! Can you fucking believe it? After that, you look around at the shocking blue of an autumn sky, and feel, really feel, the sting of the chill on your cheeks and suck some of it in through your nose. If you breathe in enough of it, the cool air will uncollapse your tight lungs, and stretch out the lump in your chest.
As you walk, look on the ground at the fallen gingko leaves. They’re gold, and the color reminds you of aspen leaves, but the shape is so different. Nature was taking all kinds of creative risks when she created gingko leaves, but they paid off. Look up at the scrollwork on that building – how often do you notice that as you walk downtown? Where is that woman taking that Edible Arrangement? Who is it for? Those women over there are hugging, as if after a long separation. They look happy.
You walk across the street on a walk signal, and you realize you’re smiling a little. You walk by the two greenish lion statues in front of the Capital Grille, meant to look like weathered copper; you’ve never truly seen them before, even though you vaguely knew, somehow, that they were there. And then there are the sounds and the smells of downtown – the whiff of bus fumes, the sounds of cars, and voices, the clang of machinery. It’s entirely possible to walk through all of this…life wrapped up tightly in the bubble of your own sadness, but it’s also possible to reach out and be alive for these few minutes, to reach through yourself out into the world, where there exist so many things other than what you are feeling.
And if you can do that, you won’t lose the tightness in your chest altogether. But something else will slide into place next to it, a kind of fullness of experience, as the world winnows down into those crystalline moments of experience. And maybe for a moment you can breathe in and touch that heavy place next to it, just for a moment.
Like I said, I have no idea whether this works for anyone but me. But the only thing I’ve ever known to truly alleviate suffering is living, fully, in the moment. That’s it. That’s all.
Two birds, pecking away at a roll.