On my 23rd birthday, when I was in my final year of university and halfway through six months of chemotherapy, my father gave me the book “When Things Fall Apart” by Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön.
I would describe it as a philosophical guide to navigating life’s inevitable hardships. Its simple prose helped me survive what would be the first of many deeply painful experiences in my life. Since then, I have endured much more, including the death of my mother, cancer for a second time, heartbreak, failed treatments, a bone marrow transplant, and now, a global pandemic.
Yet while the last few years of my life have been stained with difficulty, I’ve found reliable solace in Chödrön’s words:
“We think that by protecting ourselves from suffering, we are being kind to ourselves. The truth is we only become more fearful, more hardened and more alienated. We experience ourselves as being separate from the whole. This separateness becomes like a prison for us – a prison that restricts us to our personal hopes and fears, and to caring only for the people nearest to us. Curiously enough, if we primarily try to shield ourselves from discomfort, we suffer. Yet, when we don’t close off, when we let our hearts break, we discover our kinship with all beings.”
I reread this quote the other day and it struck me how poignantly relevant it is for these turbulent times. During this period of social unrest and global suffering, I have come to see the way in which the loss and pain I’ve had to face, both emotionally and physically, has equipped me to deal with the uncertainty of life. It’s shown me how to step into these tough moments and how to feel, acknowledge, and accept them until they no longer possess so much power over me.
That’s not to say I haven’t suffered over the last few months, because of course I have. I’ve felt immense sadness that after facing so much illness, my life has been disrupted again. I’ve felt fear about my health, then anger that I have to feel this fear at the age of 27, when I should be in my prime. I, like everyone, have had to deal with many emotions.
And yet, interestingly, I’ve not found myself being overcome by the sudden uncertainty others are grappling with. Anyone who’s survived a chronic illness like cancer has undoubtedly gotten to know suffering on an intimate level. And there’s something profound that happens when you’re forced to face your pain.
Sure, in the beginning you cry, you resist, you ache, and you call out for someone to take it away. But then, quietly and tenaciously, you endure. When I think of all the needles I’ve had stuck in my body, all the times I’ve watched strands of hair fall from my head, all the times I’ve sobbed after phone calls in which I was told I relapsed, I was infertile, or that my mother had died — when I think of everything that’s happened, I see that I got through it because I didn’t resist what was, but looked it in the eye and surrendered.
Collectively and globally, we are being asked to step into this moment of suffering. By doing so, we are as Chödrön says, “discovering our kinship with all beings.”
Despite living on my own during this pandemic, I feel closer to people than I have in years. I’ve befriended neighbors, and I’ve exchanged meaningful words with my mailman and shopkeepers. I have forged new connections with friends, family, and even strangers that feel deeper and more important than before. It’s as if the infinite options and the endless distractions of life have been dissolved, and what’s left in that space is, quite simply, a lot of love.
Everything I went through over the past few years had already taught me how to cherish people and experiences and not things, and how to surrender to suffering and see it as a gift that opens our eyes to the impermanence and precious beauty of life. Yet this year and all that has unfolded have been an even deeper reminder to myself and to everyone around me that we can’t control anything. And we certainly can’t go through this life without facing suffering. And sometimes, that suffering becomes the alchemy, the gift that transforms us into better, kinder, happier, and more open and loving people.
“To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again.” –Pema Chödrön
Note: Lymphoma News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Lymphoma News Today or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to lymphoma.
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