Saturday, March 26, 2005

Life and Suffering

Thinking about the Buddhist refrain that "life is suffering", I reflect on the suffering which I witness so regularly, and gain perspective on my own:

The caring and compassionate wife with AIDS whose eyes fill with tears as we discuss her sweet and gentle husband who has worsening AIDS dementia which we just cannot explain since his virus has been completely suppressed for more than five years. He lies in bed moaning as we review his medications and discuss diapers, a shower seat, and visiting nurse services.

The very nice fifty-year-old man who recently entered my caseload---Hep C, HIV, alcohol abuse, heroin addiction, a history of multiple incarcerations, homelessness. Very earnest and recently detoxed. Really a pleasure to talk with, his childhood history and family constellation is still an unknown to me. What brought him to this place?

A woman with a history of such psychic and physical trauma that her life is consumed by pain, both real and imagined. Her level of personal insight and psychic resonance is negligible---a true train wreck from a clinical perspective. She, more than any other, invites "compassion fatigue" to develop, from neediness and consistent demonstration of powerlessness.

As I've written before, I know that I could easily be in the same developmental and life situation as these individuals if I had been less blessed in life, less priviledged, less loved. Children do not ask for trauma and poverty. Children do not invite such suffering. Entering as a clean slate upon which parents and the world can choose to inflict horror or beauty, the veneer of innocence and openness can be eroded away as the vicissitudes of life intrude. Who's to say why some are more resilient than others. It is not our place to bestow blame, for none of us are blameless, and none of us are wise enough to ascertain the true failings of another.

How much does my "Body Mass Index" matter in the face of what others experience? How important is it that I suffered ridicule as a less-than-physically-perfect child? No one can really judge how much those experiences affected me. My young mind and heart were vulnerable at the time, and the wounds still resonate today. My suffering was astronomically less than that of millions of other children, and my current state demonstrates that it did not preclude my growing to be a reasonably competent adult. This is my path, my own suffering, and while I should not judge it as unworthy of attention, I also remind myself of the relative ease with which I have moved through life.

Thinking again about my childhood obesity, I remember an aunt of mine, actually the partner of my eldest aunt. My clear childhood memories are very few and far between but I remember this one. We were at their home on Long Island for a family gathering. The adults were congregated in the kitchen or dining room. I came in to get something, and my aunt made a remark that I was an "L.A.". Everyone laughed uproariously and refused to respond to my questions as to the meaning of these initials. The event must have imprinted deeply in my brain, for about five years ago, for some reason, I remembered the event as if it had happened just yesterday, some long-dormant synapse sparking to life for a brief moment and bringing that memory flooding back. I realized that she had meant "Lard Ass" by that comment, I'm sure, and the bewilderment of that long-ago moment became mine again. Trusted adults laughed at my expense and refused to explain the source of their merriment, and thirty years later I clearly remember the moment. Such power of the brain to block out---and then recall---trauma (if I can call it that), regardless of its relative significance.

I use this illustration to elicit in my own mind the notion that, if that remark had been more abusive, more hurtful, if remarks of a derogatory nature had been made towards me daily throughout my childhood, perhaps accompanied by physical abuse, who would I be now? What would I be now? What other choices would I have made in life? This seemingly random assignment of each individual to a family constellation and series of life events bestows upon each person their own unique experience, and reactions to said experience.

These illustrations and memories are food for thought, written more as fodder for my own growth than for any reader who peruses these virtual pages. If this missive touches something for you, I'm glad for that, and invite you to comment, or just to reflect privately on that which is elicited. My suffering is my own, as is my recovery, a lifelong process to which I'm forever dedicated. This writing is powerful medicine, and my prescription of self-reflection will never expire.

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