Illness. Heartache. Fear. Sadness. Disappointment.
The words dangle before my eyes, suspended in midair as if to taunt me. They hang in the balance as constant reminders of what is now. I close my eyes tightly, hoping they'll disappear. But when I open them they dance wildly as if to mock me for the hope that went unanswered.
I don't have the corner on pain and suffering. It's our misfortune that no one escapes this life without experiencing it. But this year I've had more than my share of disappointments, my own illness and illness of loved ones, and a great deal of sadness, in ways that I never imagined.
After speaking with my closest friends they agreed on one thing: Write about it.
So I'll try, in my own way, to explain my thoughts without being too maudlin. I know people mean well when they offer trite platitudes like "When one window closes another one opens" or "We all get as much as the Lord thinks we can handle" but honestly, I don't agree that our problems will be solved by those phrases.
I believe we are helped by the important lessons we learn from others' examples, and the brilliance we absorb from stories we read by the Masters.
That is what lifts our spirits to be able to face whatever comes our way.
When I graduated from elementary school my oldest brother gave me a book that I cherish to this day. It was "The Prophet" by Kahlil Gibran, and I quickly devoured it. As I allowed the words to wash over me something powerful began to happen. It was as if an inner silence suddenly sprung to life. Looking back I realize that feeling was the beginning of my lifelong love (and need) of philosophy and spirituality.
What Kahlil Gibran offers us is a way to look at our life from a different perspective.
The words of great philosophers and poets (including songwriters like Dylan and Springsteen), literary figures, world leaders and men and women of peace can give us comfort during troubled times. There are also not-so-famous people, ordinary folks who live their lives with integrity and compassion. They also provide us with the tools we need to live in an imperfect world.
Kahlil Gibran wrote:
"Your living is determined not so much by what life brings to you as by the attitude you bring to life; not so much by what happens to you as by the way your mind looks at what happens."
Powerful stuff, isn't it? Gibran taught me at a young age that my attitude would be the key to a life of joy and wholeness. Of course at the time my problems were more about boyfriends and getting good grades. But today his ideas ease my way through the greatest of life's burdens, and it's been helpful to have them emblazoned on my heart to use when I needed them.
I was recently introduced to Pema Chodron, a notable figure in Tibetan Buddhism whose words I've been listening to on my daily walks. She's provided me with many "aha" moments. On one walk I listened to her speak about what to do when things fall apart, and how to deal with the fear that's in your life. To paraphrase she tells us:
When things fall apart or you feel fear, rather than feel you're getting the short end of the stick, feel lucky. Only when you feel fear will you feel the opportunity to have the courage to grow. Being courageous and having a great life is all about being intimate with fear in a wise and graceful way. Feel the fear, and then do what needs to get done. Rather than being depressed about fear, lean into it, and see it as an opportunity to learn and grow.
Facing our fears about failure, loss or illness is important to acknowledge. We must work through them, and then we move on. It's not as easy as it sounds. I should know. I'm still working on it.
Life can also hand us bushels of lemons that can't be made into lemonade. These are the ones that are difficult to face and overcome. They hurt us deeply and we feel as if we'll never recover.
This could be from the loss of a friendship, the injustice of society, or some misfortune at the hand of circumstance. Instead of crying out, "Why me?" we can lean on the words of Wayne Dyer:
"With everything that has happened to you, you can either feel sorry for yourself or treat what has happened as a gift. Everything is either an opportunity to grow or an obstacle to keep you from growing. You get to choose."
Every day I am grateful to open my eyes. Get out of bed. Dress myself. Bathe myself. Feed myself. Hug my husband and son. Pet my cats. Drive myself. And be a part of the nature that I love and the world around me.
But every day is also a battle. There's not a day that goes by when my chronic illness doesn't cause me fatigue, pain, weakness or anxiety. Add to that the lemons outside of myself that are being hurled at me by Life, and there is my complete war zone that's going on in my battlefield.
There's a choice we all have to make, and that is whether we want to live or die inside our hearts. At one point or another we all must stand on the precipice of fear and choose which direction we want to go.
I choose to live in gratitude, no matter how many lemons are thrown my way. I count my blessings, turn toward fear and keep my head in the direction of the sun to face another challenge. Because, as my new favorite quote says:
"The wound is the place where the Light enters you." ~Rumi
This post was previously published on Cathy's blog, An Empowered Spirit.
Cathy Chester is an award-winning writer and health advocate who has lived with Multiple Sclerosis for 28 years. In her blog, An Empowered Spirit, she writes about finding the joy in life despite disability. But MS does not define her, so she also writes about living a quality life in midlife, social good causes, animal rights, book and movie reviews, and the importance of using compassion and kindness as a way of making the world a better place. Her work has been published in numerous online magazines and she takes pride in helping others manage the difficulties of living with a chronic illness.
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