Have you ever wondered what the purpose of suffering is? I know I have many times, and as I reflect on this, one moment in particular comes to mind. I was driving along the back country roads behind my house when the landscape evoked a moment of still wonder. The sun was glowing a brilliant orange as it played peek- a- boo with the mountain peaks and rolling hills. I took a deep breath to marvel at the sheer perfection, wishing to forever imprint the image deep in my heart space. But when I shifted my gaze back to the road, I saw something repulsive. Just a few hundred feet ahead, the decaying body of a groundhog lay lifeless, his insides strewn a foot from his body across the pavement. As I tried to swerve around the carcass, while simultaneously avoiding eye-contact with it, my stomach flipped. Why? I wondered. Why can’t the world just be perfect? Why do we have all this decay darkening an otherwise magnificent heartbeat? No sooner had the question risen in my mind when an insight appeared. The question I asked of the Universe turned my attention inside myself. It seemed as if the Universe were asking me, “Who are you in the face of this decay and suffering?” It struck me in that moment that the answer to that question, “What is the purpose of suffering?” was found in how I answered the question, “What is my response to it?”
Many of us collapse in upon ourselves when we witness the senseless decay of life. Instead of opening our hearts to comfort others, we instead focus on how someone else’s pain makes us feel. We make it about us. We quarantine ourselves from our broken brother, we ignore the isolated elder, we find distraction with our cell phones when stopped at a traffic light next to a man holding a cardboard sign. Contrary to what it may appear, it’s not that we have wilted hearts devoid of compassion. The truth is that we’re just so afraid. We’re frightened that the world isn’t safe, of our lack of control, and the way our very lives may be demanded of us at any moment. We’re just trying to escape the fear that suffering evokes in us, so we distract ourselves from it, and push away the reminders it exists.
I am love, joy, and compassion
This question of “How do I respond to suffering?” is something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit recently. The past month I’ve been witness to an extraordinarily inspiring response to suffering, demonstrated by my friend Adele. She was my roommate at Penn State University while I was in graduate school. Since that year we lived together, she moved to L.A. and I moved to Maryland, but we’ve kept in touch over the years. One thing I learned about Adele early on was how much she loved her family, particularly her quadriplegic brother, Ben. When he was a young boy, Ben had been injured in a gun accident. So it didn’t surprise me when Adele began speaking out to raise awareness and research for spinal cord injuries and was asked to host Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation’s Xmas Gala (In picture: Adele with HOPE award recipient and Christopher Reeve’s son). But just a few short months ago, Adele’s family received saddening news. Her older Brother, Brian, was diagnosed with a very progressive form of ALS. As of today, he has outlived the doctor’s projected life expectancy by two weeks. Every moment could be their last together on this earth.
At first it struck me as a meaningless tragedy, but as I’ve been witness to Adele’s response to this question, “How do you respond to suffering?” I’ve felt a profound sense that something powerfully redemptive is happening. I’ve watched as she selflessly has hit the pause button on her entire life to be with her family and brother during this time. Her entire focus has been to surround her brother with love and laughter until his last breath. She throws him oreo cookie parties, she laughs, she hugs him, she sleeps beside him, she cries with him, she brings JOY into his life just by being with him. Adele has the kind of magnetic heart-wide-open energy that just permeates an entire room (or in my experience of living with her….an entire apartment). She doesn’t hide behind walls of self-preservation. In the face of her own brother’s death, she is choosing LOVE over fear. It struck me that I’ve never known Adele to talk about God or a Higher Power. But in this difficult time, she IS LOVE. She embodies it in her words, her heart, and manifests it in her intentions. She might not even realize it, but through her response she confirms to the rest of us that a Higher Love is real.
Adele’s response to suffering has given me a desire to love more deeply. And that is why for each and every one of us, our response to suffering matters. We’re all connected, and by our response we can lessen the web of fear by choosing to LOVE. By doing so we send a transformative, loving impulse to our collective soul. I want to learn to love just like her. Adele, you are one of the brightest stars in the sky!!
Adele recently posted a beautiful story about her very first audition for a “Brother, pray for me” music video. I’ve included an excerpt below, but you can read the entire post and learn more about her transformative response to suffering here: Adele Rene Facebook Page.
So here we are. Brian. Me. When he moves, I move. When he doesn’t move, I still do. Tonight he said to me “Hey, I love you so much. Thank you SO MUCH for being by my side.” I said, “You’re welcome baby, of course.” He asked me, “Are you going to be with me till my dying day?” I said, “Yes, I promise.”
We’ll dance together until the end, and while we do that, please pray for my brother. So that he has the same peace I did when I was headed down a dusty road to a space, to a place I didn’t know. I had fear, but was given the gift of peace in that moment. In a rumbling car, but with a full tank of gas, and our lights on, we drove towards a silhouette. I’m not allowing any fear to hold a space in my heart, and I don’t want him to have that either. Brian says he knows that when he dies, “There will be a light and God will be there waiting for me.” What he wants for himself is what we all want for him.
And if you didn’t already know, I love my family more than any words can ever say.
“Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that
something else is more important than fear.” ― Ambrose Redmoon
Sunset image credit: Flickr creative commons Vagelis Giannadakis