The other day I read an essay by Buddhist writer Sumi Loundon. Because I am four years deep in a writing project about personal loss, her opening words practically leapt off the page at me: “I have news for you young people: something bad will happen to you in your lifetime. It could be anything—a breakup, a loved one dying, a car accident—but for sure, something really awful will come your way, if it hasn’t already. That much is known. What is unknown is how you will handle it: whether you will be someone incapacitated by tragedy who inflicts suffering on those around you and makes things worse or whether you will come out on the other side a stronger, wiser, better person who helps others grow, too.”
Almost 14 years ago I experienced the worst “something bad” I could ever have imagined: the death of my first daughter. When I spoke to my Grandma on the phone after Kachina’s death, she was very kind and gentle, not in a soft, sweet, grandmotherly way, but in her own, very real way. She made sympathetic noises, mentioned The Lord a few times, and then, surprisingly, quoted Nietzsche. “That which does not kill us makes us stronger,” she said.
Now, although it didn’t feel helpful at the time…I mean, could I really be expected to think, “Oh, wonderful, a new learning opportunity!”…?…she was right. Think on the Parable of the Butterfly. If the butterfly had been allowed to struggle its way out of the cocoon, it would have been healthier, stronger, and able to fly.
I have witnessed this metamorphosis repeatedly in my recent years working with the cancer community. My friend Liz was a perfect example: she and her husband ran a thriving real estate business, they were living in a mansion on Sebago Lake, they had a vacation home in Costa Rica, she wore an amazingly large diamond on her finger and drove a luxury SUV. They were unapologetically jet-setting Mainers, enjoying the materialistic life with gusto.
Then she got diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of cancer. She endured surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation, lost most of her digestive system and all of her hair, and sank into a deep, seemingly bottomless depression. She said the loss of control was unbearable…that the life seemed chaotic and lacked sense and meaning. She withdrew from much of her life, but still managed to drag herself to our weekly meditation group. One day we were taking turns closing our eyes and drawing inspirational quotes from a batch of cards being passed around the group. Liz turned her card over and read the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “When it is darkest, men see the stars.” And so began her powerful transformation.
A week later, Liz showed up for our group positively glowing. She had a blissful smile on her face and such a calm serenity surrounded her that we were in awe of her presence. “I’m selling my diamond after class,” she announced. “All of a sudden, it seems so…silly to wear such a thing.”
A week later, Liz looked even more beautiful. She announced that she and her husband had decided to sell their large home and move to a smaller, less ostentatious one. They were also selling their Costa Rican home, and were truly enjoying giving away the money to various charities and people in need. Even the way she spoke was radically transformed. The only words that passed her lips were kind and loving. She listened deeply when people spoke, and offered support and unconditional love to everyone she encountered.
The last time I saw Liz before she died, she spoke of the cancer as her most powerful teacher. She said that her life had lacked deep meaning before becoming ill…not that she had even missed it. But, although her prosperous life may have appeared blessed, it was not until she became so gravely ill and experienced the transformation—the spiritual awakening—and shed all the exterior…and completely unnecessary…trappings she had distracted herself with, that she realized how precious life was, and began to cultivate deep love and intentionality. This brought her closer to her true nature, she felt, and helped her discover Spirit.
Evolutionary biologist Elisabet Sahtouris has written that stress (struggle) is what creates evolution (transformation) in nature: Plants grow through pruning, and we humans grow the same way. When we’re faced with a situation that we can’t control or change, evolutionary stress arises. The stress impels us to eliminate (prune) what no longer serves us. We dig deep to tap into our Source, and often this results in a leap to a higher level of consciousness. We stand strong in the face of chaos and evolve.
Sometimes this evolutionary leap occurs with the realization that we still have a greater purpose to serve. In his book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Austrian psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor, Victor Frankl, describes the pivotal moment in the camp when he experienced his spiritual transformation. He was on his way to work one day, trying to decide if he should trade his last cigarette for a bowl of soup. He worried how he was going to work with a new foreman who was particularly sadistic. Suddenly, he was disgusted by just how trivial and meaningless his life had become. He realized that, in order to survive the senseless chaos and lack of control, he had to find some purpose. He became inspired to survive so he could share his story with the world. He pictured himself giving a lecture after the war on the psychology of the concentration camp, to help outsiders understand what the prisoners had gone through. Although he wasn’t even sure he would survive, he succeeded in rising above his current suffering. He later wrote, “We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed.”
Sometimes our transformation begins with the realization that we are not alone in our pain…that others have experienced the very same thing and have still managed to continue on. Let me tell you a story: In the time of the Buddha, a woman suffered the death of her only child. Unable to accept it, she ran from person to person, seeking a medicine to restore her child to life. The Buddha was said to have such a medicine.
She went to the Buddha, paid homage, and asked, “Can you make a medicine that will restore my child?”
“I know of such a medicine,” the Buddha replied. “But in order to make it, I must have certain ingredients.”
Relieved, the woman asked, “What ingredients do you require?”
“Bring me a handful of mustard seed,” said the Buddha.
The woman promised to procure it for him, but as she was leaving, he added, “I require the mustard seed to be taken from a household where no child, spouse, parent, or servant has died.”
The woman agreed and began going from house to house in search of the mustard seed. At each house the people agreed to give her the seed, but when she asked them if anyone had died in that household, she could find no home where death had not visited—in one house a daughter, in another a servant, in others a husband or parent had died. The woman was not able to find a home free from the suffering of death. Seeing she was not alone in her grief, the mother let go of her child’s lifeless body and returned to the Buddha, who said with great compassion, “You thought that you alone had lost a son; the law of death is that among all living creatures there is no permanence.”
I found out after my daughter’s passing that my Grandma had lost a child—her first as well—to spinal bifida. The knowledge that I was not alone, that I was not the only one who had suffered such a seemingly senseless loss, did much to support me through my own spiritual transformation. When my Grandmother quoted Nietzsche, she was actually speaking from personal experience. What HADN’T killed her HAD made her stronger: after suffering the death of her first-born, she was able to move on to successfully birth two more children and have long and successful careers as both an elementary school teacher and semiprofessional soprano. And although she experienced more suffering—such as the untimely death of her beloved husband—she still rose from the depths of despair to put both her children through college and support herself comfortably into old age. She saw the births of eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, and lived to the ripe old age of 96. She was opinionated, stubborn, and unyielding. She was also decisive, dependable, loving, loyal, and steadfast.
My Grandma became, as Loundon’s words so aptly described, “a stronger, wiser, better person who help(ed) others grow, too.” She was able to transform devastation to victory, and become an example of how to be happy, generous, and loving. And as my own life moved forward from that place of deep grieving, I too began to more fully understand that the same struggle that challenges us, transforms us, helping us to finally break out of the cocoon and evolve.
I think I’ll quote Nietzsche too when my own children or grandchildren look to me for support during difficult times. I’ve already chosen the words: “You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.”
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