“I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness, and the willingness to remain vulnerable.” -Anne Morrow Lindbergh, A Gift from the Sea
If suffering alone did teach, we would be so very wise right now, wouldn’t we? For it feels as if this year gone by has delivered more than its fair share of suffering.
My own world was rocked with suffering when my mother died in March. By late summer, I had lost count of all the people in my circle who also lost a parent this year. (At last count it was 22, and I think the final sum must be well over 30.) I lost a younger friend to cancer, and an even younger one to suicide. Not to mention a host of celebrities who died in 2016.
Events on the national and international stage were fraught with suffering as well. Here in the states we tried to wrap our hearts and minds around an extremely angry and divisive political campaign and the resulting fallout from the election, while people abroad struggled with continued terrorist attacks, invasions by hostile armies, and upheavals in government.
All year I’ve been looking forward to December 31. Something in me wants to believe the jinx will be over as soon as we rip that old calendar off the wall and hang up a shiny new one for 2017. As if we can literally turn a great big page on the world and start fresh with a clean slate and a renewed hope. As if we can start out this New Year not only older but wiser for all the heartache we’ve been through.
Whether I’m wise or not, I am smart enough to know that’s just magical thinking. There is a symbolic sense of new beginnings in starting a New Year and an intrinsic sense of optimism incurred when we contemplate the blank pages in our date books; but there hasn’t been any miraculous resetting of the universe, no reboot of the cosmic hard drive. We’ve got to go forward with only the insight gained from the sum total of our lives and especially from the suffering of 2016, insight that has the potential for distillation into true wisdom.
This morning I sit in a lovely three bedroom home on a quiet channel off the Gulf of Mexico. My husband and my two little dogs sleep peacefully down the hall. I’ve had a bad night. My older dog, Magic, woke me up at 1:30 a.m., and I’ve been awake ever since. Reading, writing, roaming the house with my hands cupped around a huge mug of tea, fighting the anxiety and agitation that invariably accompanies these sleepless nights. Now, at 7:30 a.m., I feel sleepy for the first time since I went to bed last night. I dread the day, because it will be a struggle, even in this beautiful place, to keep moving forward.
The night just past seems like a mirror for the year just past. A disturbance early on disrupted my ability to move forward. I let myself focus on my restlessness, on my inability to calm down and go back to sleep. I stubbornly refused to give in to my body and I let the anxiety about not sleeping turn into agitation about what tomorrow would be like.
The morning passes in what has already turned into a familiar little routine. We drink coffee and eat toast beside the pool, listening to the birds call as they flit back and forth among the palm trees. We take the dogs to the park across the street, walk partway around the lake, and end up at the dog park where they sit like the elder generation that they are and watch the younger dogs frolic and chase and yip at one another’s tails. We come home, have a sandwich and lemonade beside the pool, watch our neighbor lower his cruiser into the channel and glide off down the waterway toward the Gulf. I take my book to the chaise lounge, put my feet up, read a few paragraphs and fall into a light sleep.
We enjoy these peaceful, quiet things. Like our dogs at the dog park this morning, we are content to sit back and watch the younger people racing madly through life in what greatly resembles the activities of two young mini-pinschers we watched this morning on a mad tear around the park. I am allowing myself to rest here, to just sit in the warm breeze, eat simple meals, read my book, write a few words here and there in my journal. I’m trying not to let the news of the world rock me too greatly (but just now! Carrie Fisher, dead at 60! More suffering!)
We await the arrival of our son and his family as they drive in their new car from Texas to south Florida. I try not to dwell on the terrorist nature of this entire year, try not to let myself be overcome with thoughts of all the dangers on those many miles of highway between there and here, all the potential for disaster. Those three are my most vulnerable spot right now, my weak point. Without them I’m not sure I could stand.
So I muster the energy to take a shower, to wash my hair and put on some makeup. We’ll go out, I say, into Naples. We’ll wander the familiar streets of 3rd Avenue, maybe stop for a drink and a bite to eat. We’ll window-shop and people watch. We’ll smile and say hello to people we pass.
It’s 2:30 p.m. The day feels so long already. Bedtime will come early, and, God willing, my eyes will stay closed all night.
Only a few more days until we can close the book on 2016. I thumb through the pages in my calendar, the old fashioned paper kind that fits easily in my purse. The dates fly by like animated characters, a flip-book of experiences creating a movie of my life in these past 360 days.
I recognize that I have not always let the suffering of this year teach me. I have not always “added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness” in the right amounts or at the proper times. What I have done is let suffering diminish me; I’ve let it drain my enthusiasm for life in general. I’ve let it close me off from happiness, sometimes even from recognizing what happiness really is.
There are no magic fixes for this new year ahead. There are still many challenges for me and for the rest of the world. But for 2017 I hope I can be more open to joy, more patient with the vagaries of the world, more understanding toward people with whom I don't agree. I want to allow myself the freedom to begin again, to embark on new experiences with “beginners mind,” willing to stretch my wings. It won’t all come easily or overnight. 2016 was a long, sad year. It may take all of 2017 to soothe those hurts and build up the scar tissue of wisdom.
It’s 7:00, and we’re back home. We did some errands, then stopped into one of our “special spots,” the rooftop bar at a restaurant called Bayside. It’s a local spot we visited often in the years we lived here, often enough to be on a first name basis with the bartender, Scott. We had the habit of stopping mid-afternoon for a drink, perching on our bar stools and gazing out to sea. Today we did the same, deciding to stay for dinner, sharing our favorite meal - a Florida grouper sandwich and pasta salad. We return home, buoyed by those happy, revived memories.
Perhaps the wisest words in Anne Lindbergh’s quote are these: “Everyone suffers.” In this, we are a true community, no matter how rich or poor, no matter the color of our skin or the god we worship. Often what gives us the ability to survive is the simplest of things. Simply putting one foot in front of the other. Simply finding the places and people that make us happiest. Simply doing the work we’re called to do. Simply saying “thank you.” Simply recalling fond memories. Simply making new ones.
That’s my wisdom for the day. That’s most likely my wisdom for the New Year.
It’s 8:30, I’ve propped my eyes open long enough to watch an episode of The Crown. A warm bath and a cool bed are the only things I’m interested in right now. And sleep, please God, an entire night’s worth for a change.
I’m ready for a new day.