The Anguish Beneath
“While you may feel physically and mentally strong, you still experience a forceful undercurrent of anguish. You sleep well, you work well, but there are few waking moments when you do not feel that throbbing pain in your heart that makes everything seem up in the air. You know that you are progressing, but you can’t understand why this anguish keeps pervading everything you think, say, or do. There is still a deep, unresolved pain, but you cannot take it away yourself. It exists far deeper than you can reach.
Be patient and trust. You have to move gradually deeper into your heart. There is a place far down that is like a turbulent river, and that place frightens you. But do not fear. One day it will be quiet and peaceful.”
– Henri Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love
There is a pattern to my life, a pattern which I became consciously aware of last winter. First, there is anger. Then, there is sadness. Anger and outrage at injustice I perceive in the world, anger and outrage at injustice I perceive within myself. Then, a deep well of sadness that seeks to drown everything that I do, a grief that protects me from those who are strangers and a grief that keeps me from those who are closest to me.
It is a pattern I know is coming, but it’s a pattern I often feel helpless to stop. I quickly grow tired of it. Tired of the physical toll anger takes on me, tired of the mental toll sadness takes on me. Tired of wanting deeply to respond to the love and kindness of my friends and family around me but unable to do little but sit stoically as I refuse to let even a smile cross my face.
Yet, strangely; I feel I am making progress in the midst of this bitterly cold winter season. A paraphrase of a song lyric by John Mark McMillan has stuck with me these last few months; “may a river of joy flow forth from the cup of suffering you have received…”
I have only just begun to explore the interconnectedness of joy and suffering. On the surface, it seems like such an absurd premise if not a bit trite to one who may be suffering. It’s an easy platitude to say to someone who is suffering to try to explain away the often unjust luck of fate from which suffering lands.
It has always been easy, almost natural, for me to explore the suffering my own mind imparts on my life. Since around the time of early adolescence, it is what I have known, one of my oldest companions. Joy is a much more difficult, almost frightening, state as it is largely an unknown.
That is not to say I haven’t experienced joy or am opposed to joy. It certainly seems like an attribute worth striving towards. I have experienced joy in my relationships, in my accomplishments and I see joy all around me all the time, especially in my wife and children. But the thought of sustained joy is what eludes and frustrates me.
Why frustrates? Because I convince myself that I should be joyful and happy. I live in a privileged time in history and in a privileged place in the world. What right do I have to not feel joyful at all times?
Ah, but such is the dirty trick of suffering. It convinces me that my own suffering is nothing compared to someone else’s. And then it adds guilt that I should be wasting the access to joy I have been freely given through no work of my own.
Twice now in the last 12 months I have been in conversations with others where I have made some sort of comment along the lines of “In my life, I can identify several factors that could put me at risk for suicide, but suicide is not an act I have ever really contemplated.” Both times I made the comment (once in passing, once during a training I was leading), it was intended as positive reflection on the status of my mental health. Both times, the comment shook me deeply as immediately the question came to my mind of “why not?”
I hadn’t really contemplated this question before. I mean to sit around and wonder “Why had I never considered suicide?” is a bit of an odd practice to say the least. But, I had made the statement and now I had to wrestle with the question.
As I have wrestled with that question these last few months, here is what I have concluded; my overly logical unconscious mind has been looking out for me.
That is, on some level, I had convinced myself of the logic that no matter how angry and sad I might be, objectively speaking because of the privileges I enjoy and have access to, I had no right to feel so badly about myself and my life that ending it was the solution. The problem though is, all those reasons are external supports. My successes, my career, my status, etc. For most of my life, I had relied on these external supports to carry me through my deeply held mental health struggles. So then, the next question became, “What would I do if those supports were removed?” or more so “What if those supports upon which I was basing the whole of my identity were removed and I was left with just myself to fall back on for support?”
It took me awhile for my conscious mind to come to this last question, but I think my unconscious mind sensed it immediately. I believe the reason why the original comment shook me so much was because deep down, I had no good, comforting answer.
But, I did come up with a plan that would lead me to an answer. I took a step I had been contemplating for years, but never I had actually followed through with because I had convinced myself that it wasn’t a step for me. I didn’t feel like I was too good to take that step or anything obnoxious like that, but rather again, I let myself fall into the trap that by external measurements I wasn’t ‘broken’ enough to take the step I needed to. That by taking that step, I was taking up resources that could be better used by someone else. Again, the dirty tricks of suffering are subtle and powerful.
That step I took? I began attending therapy.
It has not been easy, as like any good therapy, it requires me to work on myself, to wrestle with my inner darkness, to fail at making changes, to get up and try again and perhaps most importantly, to accept myself, to accept my strengths, to accept my faults, to come to terms with my own cup of suffering that life has given me.
Slowly I can see progress being made. Slowly I experience more joy in my life. Slowly I come to believe more fully in the ethos of the faith I follow. Slowly, slowly, slowly the cup of suffering, the stream of anguish beneath all I do is turning into a river of joy that seeks to over-run the banks of the my life. Yes, the suffering will always be there, like any stream that feeds into a river, but someday it will be but a slight undercurrent to the peaceful and calm waters that surround it.
Thank you for the gift of your time, I hope I have used it well.