My Own Worst Enemy.
Suffering and change.
This is the second part in an ongoing series on the deeper meaning of coping, with this bit focused on suffering and change and how adverse external conditions can create adverse internal pathologies that take on their own life. It might be worth reading the first installment of this series if you haven’t, which provides some additional context on my situation. I’d like to wish everyone a Happy Christmas and New Year and to say thank you for everything, your support really means the world.
Last winter, I began to undergo a personal and spiritual crisis more intense than anything I’d experienced before, the meaning of which I’m still grappling with and have by no means resolved. Of course, this whole decade-spanning bout with chronic illness has been one ongoing crisis of meaning and identity, but something was changing or dying in me that made it feel almost impossible to bear for another moment: I was losing the heart for this battle.
Everything I had been holding back for years was all tumbling down on me at once and there was no escaping it. Everything I had come to lean on for a sense of comfort and security and stability over the years with this illness began to slowly and then all at once turn to poison before my eyes. I couldn’t actually believe what was happening to me. Everything I said and did and thought and felt and all my remaining relationships came to feel overwhelmingly evil and false. I felt evil and false, and everywhere I looked was a mirror into my own mangled soul and a reminder of my own inadequacy. I was trapped and, worse, I knew it.
The fear was strong and ever present, and even my dreams and fantasies no longer brought any relief or reward. Nothing I did seemed to matter; the problem was deep and ingrained and wasn’t going away because the problem was my own existence. I had become a walking, talking pathology — a living, breathing germ. The coping patterns that I’d adopted to deal with the pain and get through time, I could now see and never unsee, were actively contributing to the pain and making things worse. There was no way home. The excuse of having a debilitating illness could no longer stave off the fact that I hated the life I was living and despised the person I had become.
After years of doing absolutely everything to recover from this disease and not just failing miserably but actually getting so much worse, I had lost sight of what was happening beneath it, or that there was anything or anyone at all beneath it. A part of me had died the day I got sick all those years ago that I was never able to fully accept, and I had been clinging for years to the memory of a ghost.
This was all hitting me at once and there was nowhere and nothing and no one I could turn to for guidance or support. Every bit of advice anyone imparted just annoyed or infuriated me. And there was no one I could blame or rage against for this state of affairs, either, not God or nature, not society or culture, not my parents, not my ex-friends or ex-girlfriends who left me behind, not those damn doctors who denied the reality of my illness, nobody and nothing, just a vacuum, an empty space where someone or something to blame should’ve been. No matter what others might do to help me, I realized, too, I was completely and totally alone in my experience and beyond the reach or warmth of anyone. And worst of all, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was all in some sense my fault, that my illness signified a personal failure.
I had become my own worst enemy — maybe I always had been, and maybe we all are — and if I did something terrible in reaction to my situation, just to feel some sense of power over my own life and body, just to feel the blood in my veins, I knew that it would be on me and no one else. There was no way out.
Once you see that everything in your life is a way of coping, where do you go from there? How do you come back into the world and feel human again after coming undone and untethered? How do you regain faith in life when it feels as though life itself, your own body, has betrayed you? How do you achieve perspective and appreciate what you still do have when you can barely get through the day or see beyond the pain of the moment? How do you cope with the worst kinds of suffering, let alone use that suffering to change your life in some worthwhile way — to take all that horror and tragedy and darkness and pain and make of it something worth living for?
True, lasting change in the human being is among the hardest and rarest and most painful and scary things in this world, and there is a part of us that resists it like cancer. Yet it is often out of the worst and darkest and lowest moments in our lives that change springs on us, whether we will or no.
Change and suffering are interwoven, I think. We are creatures of habit who don’t generally change unless we are forced to through pain, and the deeper the pain, usually, the greater the change. “Suffering is the sole origin of consciousness,” wrote Dostoevsky. Art, morality and wisdom, those things which we value most – the beautiful, the good, the true – often emerge from the thresher of human suffering and darkness, right at the moment that we can’t take it anymore. We break and break open and sometimes something breaks through. Change emerges and flows outward, from the individual into the world.
There may be nothing more tragic than needing to change more than anything and not being able to for whatever reason. But there’s a certain clarity in knowing that we would go through any amount of pain in order to change, that we would die to change. When we can’t change what’s happening to us outwardly, something is forced to change from within. When we can’t put a stop to our suffering, we have no choice but to accept it and somehow use it to change. Sometimes we have to know what it’s like to be completely alone in the universe before we can realize ourselves as individuals and human beings, and sometimes a part of us has to die before another, deeper part can come alive. So what better time than the present to launch this newsletter, now that I’m in the thick of it and have nowhere else to go?
All the driving questions and tensions of this project have to do with suffering and darkness, our vulnerabilities and limitations, and how to face and accept them and somehow transform ourselves through them. How can we use suffering to become more human, and what does that even mean or look like? Does all suffering have meaning or just some forms of it? Does each kind of suffering involve a different response? Is there a limit to how much a person can suffer and still proceed with spirit, or is there a part of us that remains unaffected? What is suffering, after all? And how to reconcile the differences and disparities between different people’s lives and situations while still moving toward some kind of larger humanism? Of course, I can only broach these questions through the mediating lens of my own experience and my own pain. We must find out for ourselves.
To clarify, I am not talking about the suffering that we can choose or control, like training for a marathon or drinking too much alcohol, but the unchosen and inescapable suffering that has no answer or solution and would seem to be without any obvious purpose or value: The pain of losing someone or something you love, of disadvantage and deprivation, of illness and disability, of emotional and physical suffering, of injustice and evil, and of sheer existential barrenness. I don’t want to give out any kind of false hope or wishful thinking or starry-eyed romanticism that says all suffering is good or can in all cases be overcome. In many cases, it can’t. There is no cap on how much a person can suffer and no limit to how far one can fall. In general, I think suffering is to be relieved if possible or otherwise completely avoided. I’m talking about the suffering we cannot avoid or relieve and have no choice but to accept.
It is very human to feel that our suffering is owed something or entitles us in some way, but I’ve come to believe that suffering is just suffering: It doesn’t abide by any moral logic or cosmic justice and has no meaning beyond the meaning we make of it. If my experience has taught me anything, it’s that life is not fair and progress is by no means guaranteed. Sometimes things just get worse for people and we don’t ever get back up from the things that happen to us, or else we go dark and turn bad and take our pain out on others. To simply avoid turning evil through profound and lasting pain is itself a major accomplishment. The most immediate concern for the sufferer is simply finding relief.
Even still, there’s something about the bottom, the pit of despair, that forces us to reconcile ourselves and come to terms with reality out of sheer necessity and without much else to lose, bringing us closer to the meaning and truth of our own experience and perhaps even the meaning and truth of being alive. While it may be the exception, people do sometimes get back up from the terrible things that happen to them and somehow manage to put their pain to good use, dedicating their lives to helping others undergoing similar struggles. Suffering can go either way, I think, can both humanize and dehumanize, mature or infantilize, moralize or demoralize, sensitize or desensitize us to the suffering of other people. The only thing that is certain is that suffering demands some type of reaction: The energy created by pain has to go somewhere, has to find some release. So while not all forms of suffering can be overcome, I believe it is only through suffering that human beings ever truly change. That’s what this is ultimately about, for me. I believe people can change, and the world can change, and I can change.