How to suffer well.

Today I chatted briefly with a woman who has just been diagnosed with cancer.  I could see the suffering in her eyes.  And it all came back to me.

The way my spirit felt broken.  The lump in my throat.  The pit in my stomach.  They way I didn’t eat for days.  The middle of the night panics. The crying in the shower.  The forced smiles for my kids.  The tears that could bubble up in an instant.  The constant fear.

It is always amazing how quickly I can return there.  Sometimes when I’m running and my muscles are aching in the very best way, and my breathing is regular, and my heart feels strong — I think — maybe I can out run it. Maybe I can pretend it never happened at all.  And then I look over my shoulder, only to see “oncology appointment” written neatly in my planner.

While I was hiking in Colorado a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t help but think about my suffering.  And this may sound strange to say, but I think I suffered well.  Could it be that there is an art to suffering? A graceful way to fall?

In my mind I kept writing and rewriting this blog:

How to suffer well:

Fall all the way to the bottom.  Don’t catch yourself.  Don’t brace yourself.  Don’t prepare for the landing.  Fall all the way down.  You are going there anyway.  To embrace the fall, is to shorten it.

And here is the thing about being at the bottom — you get this unique perspective of life, you get this unbelievable view of -up. Sometimes I would imagine myself on the bottom of the ocean floor, life swirling around me in this rhythm that wasn’t mine.  I would picture bubbles, and slanted light, and that feeling of being a kid in the pool and opening your eyes underwater and looking at the sky.  From down there the light bends, and colors merge, and you can hear sound, but no words, and you know when you rise to the surface you will fill your lungs with air, just to float back down again.

Sometimes beautiful, tragic, devastating, and powerful things happen at the bottom. Fall all the way down.

Shed your leaves.  Let go of all the stuff that covers you up.  This is hard to do.  And cancer doesn’t leave you with much time.  Sometimes you find yourself shaving your head when you were only months away from having your hair long enough to pull off a side braid.  Sometimes knives are involved, and surgical glue.  Sometimes you don’t have a choice as to how and when you will let your leaves go.  And you find yourself staring in the mirror bald and broken wondering how you ever thought a zit, a patch of gray hair, a new found wrinkle, or jeans that didn’t fit — ever brought you down.  Let all the stuff that covers you up -go.  Be bare.

Sometimes there is such beauty in the bareness.

Finally, be both. Be both brave and terrified.  Take deep breaths and steps forward. Put on your tennis shoes, turn your music up and move. And also, allow yourself to cry.  To wilt.  To curl up in a ball on the couch for as long as you can.  Be both graceful and a mess.  Tie up your scarf, put on your dangling earrings and dare yourself to dance.  And also, cry so hard that your eyes swell up.  Go out into the world red, and blotchy, and broken.  Be both.  Never make yourself choose.

There is such freedom in both.

So there is my advice: fall all the way to the bottom, shed your leaves, and be both.  I call it the art of suffering.  It is something I never aspired to be good at, but life is funny like that.  And you don’t have to have cancer to suffer this way, perhaps it is a universal truth.  To kneel down to the dragon.  To surrender yourself in a way that doesn’t make you weak, just vulnerable.  To say out loud, “I am broken.” I like to comfort myself by believing that to suffer well, is to heal well.

And here is the most important part . . . you will heal.  It’s a promise.  Your healing might not look like what you think it should look like, but you will heal.  This is how I know:

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The sun always rises = darkness never lasts.

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There is beauty in the shadows.

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Love will always find a way.

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