When We’re Suffering the Most

Whether we are facing a life-threatening illness, a home that has burned to the ground or the disappointment of not getting a promotion, life continues to push us up against our edge.  In the film, Manchester by the Sea, we see a character, Lee Chandler, who is continuously pushed beyond his ability to cope with his circumstances.  Like many of us, he has moments when he rises to the occasion, and, moments when he lashes out in anger or retreats to the deceptive comfort of alcohol.

Regardless of our circumstances, when we are suffering, we are least inclined to step back and reflect on our lives.  Our mind and heart (kokoro in Japanese) is too preoccupied with its own suffering to consider any broader understanding of our situation.  We live with questions that arise from self-pity like steam rising from a hearty stew: Why me?  How could he do this to me? Why is life such a struggle?  Why is life so hard for me?  And we respond as if we were alone: I can’t do this.  I can’t cope anymore.  It’s too hard.  It’s too much.  Nobody understands.  Nobody cares.

In these moments, it’s difficult to notice the care which is being offered, and even more difficult to genuinely appreciate it. Self-reflection is a portal that makes this perspective more accessible.

In traditional Western mental health, there is frequently an underlying assumption that to be “cured” from our past suffering we have to express it, let it out.  It is a kind of exorcism in which the demon (past suffering) who possesses us can, through the proper ritual, be evicted from our mind and heart.  I would like to offer another perspective on what it means to be cured, to be healed:

We are incapable of evicting any of our karma, pleasant or painful, from what we have become.  If we have suffered, we have suffered.  That suffering becomes a part of us.  To be cured is a function of two essential ingredients: Acceptance of ourselves and our karma — not only the suffering we have had to bear, but also the suffering we have imposed on others.   And secondly, the recognition that, despite our transgressions, our selfish acts and the problems we have caused, we are loved.  Our suffering is understood in the context of love.  We are loved not because of how we have lived, but despite how we have lived.  This is nothing less than the recognition of grace in our lives.  And this awareness is, in itself, grace.

Excerpted from Question Your Life: Naikan Self-Reflection and the Transformation of Our Stories by Gregg Krech (editor), 2017.