Sorrow comes when one least expects it, and sometimes it’s hard to know how to hold it.
If it’s my own sorrow, I can feel very “busy,” in a sense, coping with it, or trying to fix its apparent causes, or ultimately just concluding: there it is. I must accept it.
What about learning and hearing of other people’s sorrows? I know less what to do about that.
I’m not referring here to the daily barrage of news events that are inherently sad, even outrageous.
I’m referring to the helpless feeling when hearing bad news from and about people I know, some well, and some not so well.
A was a neighbor I knew near my previous home, and we got to know each other well. She’s more than a decade older than me and from another country and a much different culture. Her English is sometimes not that great, and she doesn’t use email. When I went through cancer treatment, I lost track of her and then couldn’t even find her unlisted phone number.
I’d been thinking of her a lot lately, thought I might just show up at her house unannounced, when I finally found her phone number on a page of an old notebook. I called her up last week.
And what a tale she had to tell. She had lived a healthy lifestyle and took her yearly mammograms. About six months after her last one, which was fine, she had unexplained pain in her ribs. Many doctor appointments later, tests determined that she had a very aggressive, fast acting cancer not only in one breast but in her ribs.
This is Stage 4, metastatic cancer, already in her bones. It is uncurable. She has now had a year’s worth of it: a mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy drugs so hard she could hardly take it, and she now takes ongoing infusions of a drug to arrest or delay the march of cancer spreading further. She will never be disease free. She is 70 years old now, and she’s going to die of this. Maybe not next month or next year but sometime not too far off.
There is a myth that early detection saves lives. No. Many cancers are diagnosed as stage 4 right from the start.
I was astounded by A’s news, and I went to see her.
One year into her nightmare, she looks like she’s just seen a ghost.
What am I to do with this grief about what is happening to my friend?
I can hang out with her, I can do some errands and favors. I can’t do anything to make what is happening to her stop. It is better to know and to be present than to run away, as most of her long-time friends have now done. That is a familiar pattern.
I often check in with old clients to see how they’re doing. I’m both interested, and I’d like their return business.
G wrote back to tell me that since we last met, his wife died, and now he’s got an incurable brain tumor.
The doctors predict he has one or two years to live. He wrote that the next I may hear of him may be from his daughter, Executor of his Will.
I wrote back offering any help I can give by way of estate planning. I can do nothing else.
There is no point making up stories, like: Well, at least he had a good life. Or, at least she gets to see her grandkids. Or, it could be worse. Anything could be worse. Devastating is not really better than a hypothetical about what could be more devastating.
As I hear these stories — and more will come — I ponder the inefficacy of “doing” anything. I won’t turn away, pretend it’s not happening just because, this time, it’s not happening to me.
I want to know what to make of this sorrow.
Years ago, at a daylong meditation retreat with Jack Kornfield, there was a question-and-answer period. Someone asked the ultimate question: What is the purpose of suffering?
Jack paused for a moment, as meditation teachers often do, and then he replied, not with an answer, but with another question: What did it teach you?
There is the glib notion that suffering, whether it’s your own, or being present in the face of another’s suffering, is somehow noble, makes you a better person. Like eating your vegetables or keeping up with your exercise routine.
I don’t think that’s what Jack meant when he replied to the question about the purpose of suffering with another question: What did it teach you?
I can’t say I know the answer to what suffering teaches.
I get only glimmers.
Perhaps when suffering is faced, without gloss, it silently reveals something true.
I recall the well-known passage from the Diamond Sutra in which the Buddha reminds us:
Thus shall you think of this fleeting world: a star at dawn, a bubble on a stream,
a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, a flickering lamp, a phantom and a dream.
The Buddha, here, points not only to impermanence but to the inherent, shimmering beauty of impermanence.
I look at A now. Amidst the horror of what is happening to her, I see the precious, fleeting beauty of her soul, as it came here and took this particular form for what will be – what is for any of us – just a short while. What can we learn during this short while? That is a great imponderable.