Suffering, Mar 2017

You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book?

-Psalm 56:8

The above quote is a reference from the Bible, and also a part of Victor Frankl’s book- Man’s Search for Meaning. He was speaking to a rabbi who was deeply unhappy because he lost his wife and six children to gas chambers in concentration camps, and the rabbi said that as innocent martyrs, they are worthy of the highest honor in heaven. However, he felt that as he was an old man and a sinner, he could not expect to be assigned to the same place. Hence it was unlikely that he would be joining them in heaven.

Frankl’s reply to him was that is it not conceivable that the meaning of his surviving was to be purified through his suffering, so that while not innocent, he could still be deemed worthy of joining his children in heaven? “Is is not written in Psalms that God preserves all your tears? So perhaps none of your sufferings were in vain.” Because of what Frankl said, the rabbi found relief in his suffering. The actual event might not have changed- his children and wife cannot be revived- but he has gained an insight that lifts him from his unhappiness.

In the past I used to dislike some parts of my life- why couldn’t it have been better, why did I react that way. And after 2016 I think I realised that I have been taking a very reactive attitude for most of my life. While I achieved things, those belonged to the external world of achievements and my internal world of experience was very much a stunted and boring place. I was not proactive enough to seek out new opportunities that I really wanted, instead coasting along on things that other people were doing (conforming), or doing what others told me to do (obedient). But even so, all these things are important because ‘having been’ is the surest kind of being.

As human beings we live in a period of transition every day, we are choosing new paths and new experiences at every moment. We grow old every day. But I do not regret my age, nor do I envy younger kids their youth. Because

I have realities in my past, not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of sufferings bravely suffered. These sufferings are even the things of which I am most proud, though these are things which cannot inspire envy.

A few things that causes me to suffer: I struggle with fear a lot, especially periods of anxiety before a test or before a public presentation. General stress responses can vary from the mild- muscle tensions, sleep disturbances, inability to concentrate and increased irritability. The more specific ones are digestive issues and being tearful and prone to bouts of unhappiness for no good reason.

I also struggle with being in crowds, with people I don’t know, although for some strange reason I am perfectly fine with work related groups. I guess at work there is that feeling of detachment that I have, I am rather task-oriented. But in crowds I experience sensory overload and the sounds are too loud- slippers slapping against the ground, people chewing and talking to each other, tapping away on their phones. The lights are too bright and there is no corner I can hide in. And blushing when I am anxious, and overactive sweat glands. I know that my anticipatory anxiety is a weakness that I have to learn to manage.

I have a difficult time controlling my emotions- it is either all or nothing. I am either completely zen and calm or really unhappy. And when I am unhappy, I stop communicating with people, because I see them as additional sources of stress. Looking back at my adolescent years, I could see gaps in communication between me and my parents that even now, I find it hard to resolve. Because our histories are different, our priorities are different, and what we can see in our futures are very different.

But admitting these ‘flaws’, or struggles, or anything that causes me to doubt myself and what I am currently doing, it is a mindset shift from ‘it’s me against the world’ to one that is more accepting, more vulnerable.

Vulnerability: The quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally.

To me, vulnerability is the fear of people seeing me in any light other than the light I engineer. It is the feeling when I tell someone the truth, and I start praying fervently that he won’t take my heart and stamp on it and then tell me, ‘you shouldn’t have offered up your heart, it is a precious object, and you are the fool.’ All of the above are current things that I am learning to be vulnerable about. To show my flaws, and not cover them up with a shell and pretend that it doesn’t exist. All the painful scenarios playing out in my head, and I try very hard to weigh the pros and cons of doing something, so that I can reduce potential suffering.

In my past and in the current things that makes me unhappy because they are not what I want (Buddhists believe that a lot of suffering is self-inflicted), I believe that God records all my tears. For those who are non-religious, I believe that life has a meaning that will only be discovered at the end of life, experiencing a natural death. We are unable to understand the meaning of life until we live it out to the best of our abilities, day after day, year after year, until the very end when we are able to look back and see “these are all the good things, and these are all the memories.” There is no abstract meaning of life that everyone can take and apply to their lives.

Sometimes I do wonder if there is value in a person who is neither pretty nor charismatic, someone who prefers to be alone when she is tired. To which I still have no steadfast answer, and I don’t have a rock solid belief in my own worth as a human being. I do believe in the worth of other human beings, regardless of their looks or accomplishments, because there is human dignity regardless of the function one plays in society. But somehow I just can’t apply the gentle perspective I use on other people, to myself.

As an adult, I know that vulnerability is the bridge that connects people. I am slowly learning to crawl out of the protected dugout that I built on my own, to find my own path in life, bit by bit, while being suitably vulnerable. I can only hope that I will not let my fear be my stumbling block, that I will hold on to the little skills that I have, and that I will keep trying even though I am pretty much a naked hermit crab.