Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Tired of life?

A friend recently told me that on one particular Friday recently she was tired of life, and asked if I ever felt likewise. I quickly answered no. I'm not sure whether I lied or not. Well... I didn't lie, but my answer didn't convey the meaning it should. I have felt that way before, but only briefly.

I'm not sure how deeply she had thought about it. It's a question I've pondered for years, and so with much time and considered judgment, the answer is no. If she was asking if I ever had felt the way she did that day, then the answer is surely yes many times over.

To take my philosophy from a rather superficial source, Marrilla in Anne of Green Gables (Don't Laugh), "To despair is to turn one's back on God". I know she wasn't despairing. Perhaps she was just saying sometimes it is hard to find your motivation and purpose, particularly when you don't feel well. Impatience comes very easily to me at those times. Your motivation can be entirely in the opposite direction of that which you know you must do. Sometimes you just need some time to yourself, with no distractions.

When I was in a Biology class, anchored heavily in evolution on the cellular level, I thought briefly of the introduction of the first cell as the genesis of suffering. Without organization, without life, there is no suffering. Would it have been better for life to simply not have ever come into existence? This is a question that has plagued humanity, and one that defines quite a part of my life. I found initially the answer changes depending on whether you are currently suffering, or not.

In Hamlet, the central oratory of the play is this very question. I have it memorized, and recite it to myself when needed.

"To be, or not to be--that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep--
No more--and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. 'Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep--
To sleep--perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprise of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action. -- Soft you now,
The fair Ophelia! -- Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remembered."

Notice how quickly Hamlet is distracted from his solemn thoughts, his mortal considerations by no other than Ophelia, who represents all that is right with his world. She is the promise of life, happiness, and continuation, but whom he would never have. It is a tragedy after all. Hamlets view of the world, and his choices made it a tragedy.

We love that which we sacrifice for. We love those who we sacrifice for. To despair is selfishness, and is a symptom of a deeper issue. There are always those children in the hospital who are be able to be cheerful and loving in the presence of great pain and suffering. Joy is not the opposite of suffering, but can be if we aren't in the right place mentally and spiritually when it occurs.

I am prone to get kidney stones. Kidney stones are all about endurance, because there is no avoiding or ignoring the pain. To me they are near the very definition of suffering. I've experienced worse pain, but not so relentlessly. I remember being left in a room off of the emergency room waiting for a doctor, who didn't show up for an hour. I Looked at the clock 5 minutes into that hour assessing my pain. I was sure I could last 45 minutes but it would take everything I had, but after that who knew? I didn't believe I would die, I knew absolutely that I wouldn't, but still the pain made it seem like a possibility.

I would only focus on the next few minutes and try to get through them. I hadn't memorized the piece from Hamlet then, I would tell myself every now and then "Thou art not yet as Job. The Son of Man has descended below all things, art thou greater than he?" I know that is a silly thing to think to yourself, but when you are in pain it is quite comforting.

We can always put up with much more than we think we are capable of. When the film "Touching the void" was on PBS I recorded it and watched it a few times. It is amazing how a climber with a broken leg, left for dead at the bottom of crevasse, was able to crawl, slide, and stumble his way back to camp over a period of more than four days. It is astounding that he survived, that he found his way out of a glacier, and made the tortuous journey on his own. Even in circumstances that seem insurmountable, we have what it takes to continue.

One of the challenges of life is to be gracious in suffering, to be patient when down, to be loving to others in times of pain because we know what it would mean to us. It is easy to snap, to be impatient, to drag others down. When you're suffering it feels like you deserve to be impatient, that it must be communicated, and that you must somehow push for the space you need in order to deal with it. The demands we make on others can be overwhelming and paralyzing.

Pain expressed can become a meme whose ends we can't foretell. Feelings are easily hurt, days can be ruined. The key is to be more concerned for others that we are for ourselves even when we are in the most difficult circumstances. We have the ability to swallow that suffering so that its negativeness doesn't spill out into the lives of those around us. I'm not saying not to take care of yourself, or that you shouldn't communicate your feelings and needs, but just that it is possible to be gracious, patient, and even loving in those times. It is a choice, no matter what we think our nature is.

I am not an expert on pain and suffering. I haven't experienced a lot of what so many go through. I am in relatively good health, and for that I am _very_ grateful.

It has been said that if suffering alone led to wisdom, then all the world would be wise. If suffering doesn't lead you to learn anything, then it is an opportunity wasted. In the long run good times far outweigh the bad. Even in my darkest moments I know that happiness and joy will once again abound. The depth of suffering attests to our ability to feel just the opposite in an equal amount.

Am I tired of life? On the balance the answer is no. Have I ever been? Maybe in a deep dark moment, but not really, not when all things are considered. Men (& women) are that they might have joy. I now appreciate the good times so much more. I have a good job, 5 kids, a beautiful understanding wife, a home, and my health (mostly).

I'm not tired of life, not even close.

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