“It’s easy to feel pressure to be someone who “suffers well” – grateful and graceful and stoic 24/7. But that doesn’t allow us to exist fully, to experience the full range of the human condition, from happiness to grief, from gratitude to envy.”Suleika Jaouad, “Reasons to Live Through the Apocalypse: a meditation on small joys…”
“Suffering well” has its perks. I’ve discovered that as I have found myself doing just that in the midst of my second journey through cancer. Praise arrives from those who cannot imagine that suffering can be done “well.” Hope sits nearby when even minor suffering is overcome. A future beckons encouragingly when I stand on top of the hill and not in the valley. A whole day can be made or broken by whether or how much I can “suffer well.”
Suffering well, though, can sometimes carry a cost of its own. An expectation to rise above can become a subtle new weight to carry along with the very real weight of any hard times. I can easily disappoint myself when I fail to measure up to my hopes for myself. After all, if I suffer well, I suffer less – or not at all. When I fail, I am reminded once again that I am never totally in control. And that becomes its own kind of suffering.
“…what we end up longing for and leaning on in hard times are the little quotidian comforts and delights; they lift and carry us from day to day. Noting these joys is a muscle I’ve been consciously trying to exercise: training the eye to see them and training the mind to hold on to them…it’s helped me identify what lifts me up, and then I can cultivate more of it.”Suleika Jaouad, ibid.
I have begun to do just that in the past two weeks as I have struggled with a multitude of escalating muscle pains from my chemo drug: back, shoulders, neck, wrist. It’s hard to stand up to their constant presence even as I try to persevere to live well in spite of them.
I have started getting better at trading some of the hard stuff for some of the little surprises that have shown up without my expecting them.
I found out that the CT scan of a week ago showed that my tumor has not grown smaller, which was disappointing. Then I realized, it hasn’t grown larger, either. A little thing to remind me that small comforts can be large when gathered in.
Last week, one of the many masked nurses who rotate through my hours of infusion recognized me, and I, her, and I felt connected in a new way to my four hours of healing that day. Just one familiar nurse, but it was enough to change that afternoon’s long stay hooked up to a machine that could change my future.
Rain was pelting the earth when I drove to physical therapy, and there was no escaping it when I had to park far from the building. I hunched over as if to protect myself during the long walk, then gave up and lifted my face to the sky, stuck out my tongue to lick up the falling drops, and drank in the sky.
A beautiful plant of tender yellow paper daisies came with a dear, dear friend for Easter. They are small and delicate, and they stand so tall for something so fragile looking. They make me smile. I count them every day – there will be 15 and they bring the sun close.
A phone call from a dear friend surprised me from a thousand miles away, a kindred spirit who always knows just how to put everything into perspective and set me on level ground. And the physical pains even lessened a bit.
On a trip into town, my van shaking against the high winds, I was surprised to notice that the warming weather has begun to bring the buds forth on our long-bare trees. Now I can watch for them to open to the sun.
There have been surprises all around me, one gift at a time, as I have begun to take notice, to take in the unexpected. They don’t take away the hard stuff altogether, but they teach me that life does not need to be large to be deeper than I could imagine.
Looking for the ordinary, the mundane, the everyday gifts is becoming an intentional exercise. Each one is a measure of grace that brings me back to level ground and to gratitude because they might not have happened.
They are all around us in the familiar little things we long ago took for granted. I am poised to look for them, to expect them, to let them balance me against the hard stuff.
They are famous for lifting some physical pain, too, so what have I to lose?