Friday, March 02, 2007

The Mill

We've all been through it. The proverbial "mill" tests the tenacity of each of us time and again. The ability to cope, survive, and learn from those tests is, I think, our paramount task on this earth.

Many of my patients have been through more than a mill---it seems as if they've survived a war. Abuse, neglect, violence, incarceration, addiction, disability, oppression, racism, classism, chronic and acute illness---it's sometimes a wonder that some people simply get out of bed in the morning.

As for myself, my own personal mill has also left its teeth-marks on my soul and spirit. As I have recounted in these electronic pages, chronic pain and Multiple Chemical Sensitivity have certainly come to the fore in the last two years. Other chronic physical illnesses---gastroesophageal reflux disease, benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH), hyperlipidemia, Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS)---all inform my understanding of what life is like when the body and brain seem to run amok in a field of apparent dysfunction. I love my body, but its seeming predilection for such instability can certainly give me pause.

A lifelong struggle with depression has provided me with an almost constant companion with whom I tussle and fight. Perhaps my compassion and empathy for many of my patients' psychoemotional and spiritual challenges stem from my intimate acquaintance with the needy and persistent face of depression. New Agey types urge one to "break free" of depression, to disallow its grip, painting depression and mental illness in general as personal flaws to be overcome by the power of the mind and the will. Certainly, the mind is a powerful tool and can be focused towards the positive or the negative, but I believe that there is simply always a light and a dark, a yin and a yang, and one's passage through the clouds---whether brief or long-lived---can also be fodder for growth and self-actualization. When my best friend was murdered in 2001, it was difficult to imagine ever being happy again, and PTSD became more than just an abstraction. But five years later, joy is still possible, although the pain still lingers. Contradictions abound.

Some of us live lives relatively free from tragedy and pain, while others seem to swim in the waters of suffering from early childhood. Eastern philosophies speak of the laws of karma. Other spiritual teachings speak of the choices we make prior to our birth. Still others will say that your life is the manifestation of your thoughts, be they fearful or wondrous. Many will simply admit that the universe is governed by chaos, and we are all unwitting victims of a random and often savage game of chance.

Samuel Beckett once said that the amount of tears in the world is constant. And Nietzsche once went so far as to declare that "God is dead", to which, it is said, God ironically replied, "Nietzsche is dead". The fact is, any argument for or against the necessity and reality of suffering is worthy of discussion, but from my point of view, what one actually does with that experience is the key. The assignment of blame for the source of the suffering (while often entertaining when discussing the suffering of others and not one's self), is at the very least counter-productive, and at worst cruel and unusual.

Are we all responsible for our lives? Of course, but we cannot always be held solely responsible for our life circumstance, our physiology, our social standing, and our genetic imprinting. As much as I would like to "get over" depression and neatly dispose of it in some psychic coffin in my graveyard of personal moral failings, perhaps the best I can do is learn to live with its presence, control its grip on my life, and rise above the alleged limitations which it appears to impose on my life's trajectory. Or perhaps, some how, at some point, I could even defeat it utterly.

The challenges of life are enormous and frequently overwhelming, and I do my best to not envy others their apparently "lighter load". Sure, those enormously successful individuals with multiple PhD's, a trust fund, and four months of vacation abroad each year can certainly engender great envy or jealousy on my part. That grass on the other side of the fence can often look mighty soft and inviting. But my little garden, crabgrass and all, is what's on the proverbial plate, and this body, this mind, and this life are the apparently flawed tools with which I have been granted a very short opportunity for cultivation and contemplation. If the number of tears in the world is actually constant, then the amount of joy in the world must be limitless. And that's where the story begins.
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