On Suffering and Dignity: Thoughts on Nepal

While I have learned through many earthquakes to remain humbled in the face of Mother Nature’s disagreeableness, I have also observed that people respond in myriad ways when confronted with news of natural disasters such as that which has occurred in Nepal. Many are shocked, saddened, and want to help but are quickly confused about how to take effective action, and so do nothing. Some might donate money to the Red Cross or update their Facebook status expressing warm sentiments. Others feel moved to get on a plane in an attempt to make a difference in some small way. Some of us detach entirely, finding comfort in the solace of the fact that this happened on the other side of the world, far from our bubble. Whatever the details or intents, this is a hard reality to meet. Even the knowledge that something like this has happened continues to shift the ground beneath our feet. Awareness of these events and those like them cause us to fundamentally question the ongoing stability of the ground upon which we stand, and earthquakes inform us emphatically that its intactness is violently relative on occasion. We are perpetually exposed to harm by virtue of being alive in this world, despite our ultimately ineffective mental maneuvering – and sometimes we are literally jolted into awareness of this fact, and it can be equally destabilizing as it can be a catalyst for growth.

This uncertainty causes suffering within us in the form of anxiety over loss of safety, stability, and often the possibility of future loss and grief. As a result, we may construct elaborate methods to avoid encountering these more challenging considerations instead of accepting their inevitability and setting about to prepare ourselves for their arrival adaptively. In so doing, we become at odds with how things really are – the fact that pain will come in some form again and again and that this is not up to us. We have no control over it’s presence when it comes to nature other than how we choose to meet it’s appearance. Still, we often find ourselves denying the truth of pain as an infrequent but stubbornly consistent part of life, unconsciously demanding that it not be so, and when we meet suffering anyway, whether ours or someone else’s, we act surprised and ask, “How could this happen to me? And how can I run away? Where’s the door?!”

Further, sometimes what we end up receiving, through no fault of our own, is something much worse than what we ever “deserved.” No one ”deserves” an earthquake or a tornado. They just happen and we have to accept that they do, like the oxygen we must breath if we wish to stay alive. Still, we continue to demand that the universe be “just,” and that these unfortunate events bestowed upon us are appropriately allocated or perhaps serve as some sort of universal retribution. We demand that it all make sense in some way. It has to be part of the plan, otherwise there is reason to question the validity of the plan and we are thrown into chaos. Time and time again we do this, though, reality has not yet ceded our demands in this way – when our loved one gets cancer or when a tsunami kills hundreds of thousands of people out of the blue. And so we become at odds with what is, that these things just happen, and we become confused, and we seek to make sense of what is inherently senseless, raging when it doesn’t come together neatly, consistently with our preferred outcomes and prescriptions.

I write these words in the aftermath of an earthquake in Nepal, which has killed approximately 3400 people and counting. All I can speak to is my own suffering in relation to these developments, as the scale of devastation is hard for my mind and experience to comprehend. I weep for the loss of possibility for those who have perished, along with the pain that their families and friends are experiencing. I weep because in the most human of senses, they are no different from me. An earthquake of this magnitude can certainly happen here in San Francisco, and these others all breathed oxygen too, went to work each day, and ate food, smiled, and struggled, just like I do. Each of those lost were people with hopes and dreams, just like me, attempting to navigate their worlds, aspiring toward a better life for themselves and those that they loved. And we all live in a world where nature can snap that away from any of us at any point in a jolt, an avalanche, or a slip on a banana peel. I suffer in tow because I am reminded of my own mortality and that of those I love, and the uncertainty that contemplation of this fact brings is vivid. I also suffer with their families because I have lost people close to me too, though in a different way, and there is a void now that I did not have before, and this is painful and palpable because it is direct in a way that the loss of a stranger is not. Yet I see myself in these people, across the planet, who are now gone, and I am less now than I was before I heard the news. Losing my family to illness and natural causes is not the same as the total devastation that earthquakes bring, and yet it still hurts uniquely when events like this cause impermanence to come to mind, as suffering is suffering in the end. When suffering afflicts others, we can also be reminded of how we cope with our own, and whether or not we can meet ourselves there with compassion and dignity in order to heal, or whether we avoid it and look away instead. However, it is in the space between discernment and response that we have the capacity for choice, which determines the extent to which we offer kindness to ourselves and, by extension, to others; whether we open up to them or whether we close down.

The uncertainty and resultant anxiety that is surfaced by this awareness on any level; how we receive this knowledge and what we tell ourselves about its meaning, can make or break our waking hours. The extent to which we can come to terms with the truths of our shared reality and remain open to the possibility of any pain that this may bring is directly proportionate to our capacity to experience the possibilities of joy and happiness once more in the aftermath of ruin. How paradoxical and absurd this is, really. Nevertheless, peace and joy are found on the other side of our openness to pain and suffering. It is only when we have the courage to meet the world on its own terms, as unforgiving as it can be sometimes, that we become open to seeing ourselves in each other, as fellow travelers; seeing the fragility of existence in each other’s eyes, and at this point kindness is all that makes sense anymore.

The aid workers lifting children from the rubble, comforting them in the wake of disaster, and the dear friends and loved ones that listen to our laments when we’re filled with sorrow – how blessed we are, as humans, to have such capacities for love and connection within us in the midst of uncertainty and horror, each of us mitigating our realities in and of ourselves, and yet, so inextricably linked together – that we continue to lift each other up during the worst of times so consistently, and in so doing, lift our hearts to heights we never knew existed, so we might help one another awaken the next day with a little more gratitude and connection anyway, feeling a little bit stronger – more resilient – than we did the day before, and then we find that we are invincible in our hearts… because we are loved.

Adam Burn

Adam Burn

Adam is a Certified Compassion Cultivation Teacher who trained at Stanford University’s School of Medicine at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE). He is a proud veteran of the United States Air Force and holds a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Arizona State University and a master’s degree in Clinical Psychology from the Arizona School of Professional Psychology. While engaged in graduate studies, Adam became intrigued by research into the neuroscientific bases of contemplative practices as empirically demonstrated avenues toward well-being for persons suffering from trauma, depression, anxiety, and burnout. He has served in patient support capacities in neuropsychological assessment and therapeutic services at the Mayo Clinic, Stanford University Medical Center, community-based mental health agencies, private psychology practices, and in detention facilities. Adam currently coordinates research efforts at Palo Alto VA Health Care System and is particularly interested in the cultural and holistic treatment implications underlying complimentary and alternative methodologies for veterans in need. He has found compassion meditation practice to be a deeply empowering vehicle, through which resilience and thriving can be achieved in the face of life’s inevitable challenges.
Adam Burn

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