“Furious. In-frigging-sane. I want to punish somebody; I want to make somebody feel as bad as felt, hurt as much as I hurt.”
“Well, of course you feel that way,” my mentor replied. “You want to take it out on someone. So take it out on them, go ahead. Call up their offices. Tell them what really happened.”
She’d lost me. “Take it out on who?”
“The doctors. The massage therapists. The physical therapists. The specialists. The ones who screwed this up. Let ‘em all have it. It’ll feel good.” She grew animated. There was no love lost between her and the medical community.
“Why? I’m not angry at them,” I asked. And I actually meant it. I’m not. Perhaps it’s because I’ve read enough research to know how inexact a science clinical medicine is, or maybe it’s just a built-in, jaded outlook on life in general, but whatever the reason, I do not go in to a doctor’s office with the expectation that he or she will possess superhuman powers of diagnosis and repair. True, I’d kept hoping that the next physician might be able to fix me, but after the first one, I stopped expecting it. That I had managed to present with a rare injury that confounded doctor after doctor was not terribly surprising; I didn’t blame them for missing it. The surprise, in fact, was that one of them had been able to figure it out.
“So who are you angry at?” my mentor asked.
I had no good answer.
And there’s the problem. There’s no-one to be angry at. I can’t blame God any more, since my injury and pain have long since overwhelmed my ability to invest wholeheartedly in a belief therein. A younger, more self-centered version of me would have been happy to take my litany of medical practitioners and drag them over the coals, but right now, the idea doesn’t appeal. I could certainly rub a lot of fur the wrong way, and make a whole host of administrative staff people miserable in the process, but to what end? I’d probably only get angrier.
The only person left to punish is myself. And while I am highly skilled in that arena, and gave it some serious thought, that, too, offers little besides the consequences that would certainly outlive the short-term masochistic thrill. No, I’m stuck with this big, heaping, stinking pile of fury that I can’t even see over, never mind climb up or start shoveling through, and I don’t know what to do with it, and the fact that it’s even there is only making me madder.
Because what the hell? I mean really, what the hell? Was there no other way to get to this point B (more like point Y) from the point A where I started? Was this supposed to be some kind of twisted, personal growth shortcut? Oh, but wouldn’t that have been just like me. I’m the queen of quicker and more efficient. It’s like a drug, the satisfaction I get from figuring out the absolute fastest way to do something or get somewhere. I think nothing of inserting a workaround into a route in order to shave twenty seconds seconds off of a ten minute drive.
I can just see me hanging out in the psychic limbo showroom, browsing potential life paths, worried that they all looked so, well, ordinary, and then someone takes my elbow and leads me through a beaded curtain to small back area, and pulls this rather unusual model down from the shelf. A little rough, sure, but once you get to this spot here, you can clear years of personal growth in fifteen short months, he says. And I reply, yep, that’s the one for me, sign me up.
So what, then? Of course I’m angry. I mean, anyone would be. We apes, we know life is unfair, and it doesn’t bother us much generally speaking, but every once in a while we wind up with an extra-large helping of unfounded crap and next thing you know, we’re in full-on whine mode. We want to know why. We want to know what the purpose was. We can handle pain, sure, lots of it even, as long as there’s a good reason for it.
But life doesn’t give you good reasons for things. Of course you can retrofit them after the fact, and it pleases many of us (myself included) to do just that, but it’s an illusion, a feel-good exercise, a crutch. Studies have shown that even our clearest memories are subject to editing after filing; we streamline them into more logical versions that are a better fit for what happened afterwards.
For months, I’ve been holding at arm’s length the belief that there is no ultimate purpose. It seemed the only logical conclusion, but I couldn’t bring myself to fully embrace it. But a couple of mornings ago, I stumbled on a web page about Buddhism, and one particular thing struck me. Buddhists believe that there is no God to speak of, just life, tumbling about, happening constantly. They posit that the source of our unhappiness is the expectations we inevitably take up after each one of those happenings.
If it’s good, then we expect more good things to come, and are disappointed when they don’t. If it’s bad, we become angry, or despondent. We ascribe a human consciousness to life itself, and interact with it as such. And it drives us crazy.
And right then, everything I’d been feeling about my condition, particularly this simmering fury I keep running up against, made perfect and complete sense. I am alive. I am real. I think and feel and act. But life doesn’t. It is utterly without forethought or endeavor or hindsight. In fact, it doesn’t have any sense of itself at all.
It’s not that my anger is incompatible with the Buddhists’ insight. It’s just the opposite. It is because I have treated these events as the product of a sentient being that can thereby be accused of treating me awfully that I am so furious. I’ve been consumed by my inability to come up with a suitable explanation for all of this. It seems too consequential, too severe for there not to be one. To be honest, it hurt too damn much for there not to be one.
But I’m never going to find that explanation. It wasn’t life that did this to me, that hurt me, that yanked me around from this emotion to that, that built up this insurmountable mountain of bile and anger. Life doesn’t do that. Life doesn’t “do” anything. I do. It was me. It’s been me, all along.
When I was well, I thought there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do, and when I was abruptly disabused of that a year and a half ago, I took it hard. Slowly, after much protest, I came to accept limitations and pain as part of my existence. It was challenging, and I wasn’t anywhere near successful despite good progress, but it was a goal I could work towards. I built a new self around my disablement, and learned to shape my thoughts and behaviors in such a way as to have as much grace (however little or much that was at any given time) about it as I could.
Now, the cause of my diminishment is gone, and I’m unmoored again. The driving force behind the person I had become has disappeared, and even though I want to keep being her, I don’t know how in this utter reversal of circumstances. But asking how to be her without my pain might be the wrong question. Or perhaps not the wrong one, but the long one; as in, the long way around to figuring it out.
What if it were possible to stop assuming everything that happens to me is infused with long-term significance? What if my search for a higher power was doomed from the start because I kept looking for it in the wrong places, in the things that happened to me, the random leaves that fate blew into my spiritual yard? After all, it’s far more likely that such events are just unorchestrated collisions among an enormous, disparate set of beings, each acting on their own, only constrained by the loose set of rules that accompany this particular physical plane.
Trying to find meaning in that is like trying to find meaning in a box of crayons. You can drive yourself batty trying to understand why there is a yellow-orange but no orange-yellow, and perhaps you’ll eventually ascribe it to some great unknown, but the truth of it, and the truth that underlies much of what we see and experience, is that it just worked out that way. It’s not a touchstone of destiny, or a life-lesson clue along some spiritual scavenger hunt. Just the result of a directionless fumbling about until it worked.
That isn’t to say that there isn’t power, great power, beyond the mere fact of our being. But that power can’t be found in our trappings and settings. It is in us, in our capacity for love, for strength, for selflessness. We tap into it when we sign on to be a part of something bigger than ourselves for no other reason than we love it and believe it is worth striving for. And to some people, that something is God, and faith, and it imbues their lives with purpose, and becomes a source of strength in the face of pain and adversity.
But for me, I found that something not in a vast unknowable consciousness, but in the people who chose, time and again, to sacrifice a part of their lives to spend an hour or three helping me through mine. I look back and I am awed by how much I was so freely given, of time, of patience, of chores and favors and rides, of hugs and squeezed hands and listening to my relentlessly mordant diatribes. Applying a God construct to that is useful for some, but I don’t need it. Not any more.
I used to think I did. The idea that there is no Architect of Life used to be too terrifying for me to deal with face-on. Despite the suspicions thereof that hovered just outside my view, for a long time I personally encountered nothing that couldn’t be assimilated into a greater consciousness. But once I smacked into this injury, I had no choice but to accept that if there is some Spirit of the Universe out there, it is either unwilling or unable to exert any further influence upon the ball it kicked into motion however-so-many millennia ago.
I can’t explain why this happened to me. I can point to many good things that came out of it, but I can’t draw a straight line from here back to there. I can’t say it was all worth it because I got this or that. I don’t know what I would or wouldn’t have gotten without it. I don’t know if those things would have been better or worse or just different, or even exactly the same.
There’s still a longing to make my ordeal mean something profound, something with enough weight and significance to balance the pain and suffering I endured. But it just doesn’t, and I’m only making myself feel worse trying to force it to. All I know is that through all of it, there was some small flame deep in my soul that would not be quenched. No matter what was happening, a tiny part of me steadfastly refused to give up on the idea that I could find fulfillment and contentment in my life, however that life turned out to be.
I was headed down into a subway station yesterday afternoon (I can ride the subway again!) and I had this sudden vision of myself and all the people around me as bright, independent satellites. It may have been the first time I was aware of all of us as we are, uncharacterized by the usual mental hierarchy I unthinkingly impose, placing some above me, others below. Instead, each one seemed to be a small universe unto itself, a mass of events and contexts orbiting and swirling about, the complexity of which I couldn’t even begin to imagine. It was fascinating, even heady. It made me glad to be alive, any kind of alive, pain or no pain, busted up or whole. And for the first time in a long time – maybe forever – I thought, I’m going to be OK.
And it didn’t scare me, or anger me, or make me want to cry. It was a simple fact. I’m going to be ok. Not because I got better; not because my pain is finally subsiding, but because I’m alive and I haven’t given up. I exist, in this crazy random place. And I have been, and will no doubt continue to be knocked around. I am crooked as an old clothes hanger, bent every which way by this game of full-contact life, having had to re-straighten myself time and again, never being able to perfectly straighten those places to like they were before.
But I am not broken.
And anyone who hasn’t broken is still OK. Maybe in so much pain she wishes someone would come along and run her over with a truck because it would be a nice change, but not ready to punch her ticket just yet. And so there’s no point in messing with the rest of it, because it’s all just fumbling about, us and everything else, until we find a way that works.