A long time ago, a wise man told me that "pain happens, but suffering is optional".
I argued, of course, pointing out the suffering innocents in the world, all those who didn't ask for their hunger or disease or abuse...all the vivid stories and images, personal and collective, confirming the unfairness of life or the cruelty of God. I was young and felt deeply victimized.
He asked me exactly how I knew such agony was not "asked for"...I had to admit that, well--I didn't. But it all seems so pointless!
Now I'm less young and have dropped the conviction that I'm a victim of anything or anyone; I still occasionally set myself up, though, with my stories or expectations, and feel the pain of some exploding situation. When this happens, I carefully pull each piece of shrapnel from my heart and take a good long look at what I can learn, before releasing it back to nothingness. I no longer protect and defend my injured state as if it is more real than my healthy one.
As time and a whole series of dramas have unfolded for my education and exploration, I have come to understand the point of view my wise counselor shared with me. Suffering truly is optional, but only if one can quiet the panicked howling of a mind arguing passionately with Reality. This requires some patience and a willingness to admit that whatever the surface appearance of a situation, there are vast movements and dynamics underneath, deep currents that a divided mind can never see. And just like physical currents in the ocean or energetic currents in the body, some gift, nourishment or balancing element is coming along on its own perfectly timed schedule--synchronized harmoniously in a much larger, far more intelligent Self.
I seem to be learning, because fewer gifts are arriving in exploding packages. When things blow up, I am rather unsurprised, and can usually trace the cause to the detonator in my very own hand. Healing begins almost immediately when I don't waste energy on a futile search for some outside persecutor. Pain still happens, but suffering (the endless mental probing of the pain) is much reduced.
Less victimhood does, indeed, require a willingness to take total responsibility for feelings and behavior on the surface. But what is truly needed is a continued openness and honesty--more and more honesty with myself and others, more and more trust as the situation reveals itself to be what it actually is, rather than what I thought it might be. It could take seconds or years; without fail, what is Real is what wins. I can align with it or attempt to fight it. In other words, I can be in harmony or dissonance with myself. These days, I don't have the time or the inclination to insist on any particular version of a story for very long. Things do change.
This is not to say that I'll stand there passively while being attacked. If the situation warrants physical escape, defense or just holding my ground, that is Reality. What I am always responsible for is my interpretation of events and whether I use them to expand or contract--to live fully and flexibly or exist as a hardened cast of a being. Open awareness, flexibility and honesty are different words for the same condition, or maybe different aspects of what always turns out to be true and real, and in some essential, undivided way, good.
Having been a student of my own emotional life for so long, it was perhaps inevitable that I questioned the whole process itself. I understand physical pain, and even the similar, surface function of emotional pain (too hot, don't touch!). But why must we so often behave in ways that are destructive to ourselves and others? Why do we find ourselves in situations, relationships, addictions that are like recurring nightmares?
I can only conclude from my own experience (as well as the experiences of many, many people I've talked to), that we do these things to learn about forgiveness. Not the outer, socially-sanctioned kind, but a state of forgiving in which pain is nothing more than a call to attention, a pull to the center, a clear inquiry into what we, personally, are creating in this very moment.
From ground (zero) up, we learn deeper and deeper forgiving of ourselves, our relations with each other, and all our blindness, fragility and insane toughness. Over and over, we must view our private pain and suffering from all angles, until we finally see it for what it really is...until we understand what we really are...until there is nothing to forgive. Our perceived gifts, until then, will always be scaled-down, once-removed versions of what's possible.
May we trust enough to receive by simply cupping our hands, rather than using manipulation, fighting, repression or stealth to feel the natural love and power of being alive...