The body of a starving horse cannot forget the size it was born to.
A few weeks ago, I listened to the rain come down all night and thought about the grief people live with, the suffering that doesn’t go away. In our neighborhood lives a peacock that calls out through day and night. It’s mating season for peacocks, a season that goes on for four months. During this time, the peacock cries out for a mate. There is no peahen in our neighborhood, however, so the peacock’s cries echo down the valley day and night. His calls will never be answered. I hear his calls, and consider how many across the world whose needs for housing, food, clothing, clean water, clean air, or health care are never met. Suffering abounds. To live in this world is to participate in its suffering. How do we meet the suffering in the world and in our own lives? How do we cultivate the strength of spirit to be able to endure the suffering that will inevitably come to us all as we eventually approach our own deaths?
As Hirshfield’s describes in her short poem above, it feels a kind of punishment or sentence to remember what you once had or could do but are no longer able to because of physical limitations caused by accident, disease, declining health or age. But our lives don’t continue on in the same state over time. Living things change and age. We need to be able to look our own mortality in the face, yet this is very hard to do. We don’t gain inner strength to deal with these changes over night. We need to prepare for it through our lifetime.
Perhaps we have such difficulty with suffering because little in our culture prepares us to live with it, to understand or to transcend it. We don’t see suffering as as a part of life and don’t know how to learn from it. Most of us want to avoid suffering and reject pain. People prefer to be powerful and strong, not weak and suffering.
When we suffer, we tend to feel reduced and limited. The world shrinks. William Stafford’s poem, “How To Regain Your Soul,” describes a way to respond to suffering that enlarges and renews.
Come down Canyon Creek trail on a summer afternoon
that one place where the valley floor opens out. You will see
the white butterflies. Because of the way shadows
come off those vertical rocks in the west, there are
shafts of sunlight hitting the river and a deep
long purple gorge straight ahead. Put down your pack.
Above, air sighs the pines. It was this way
when Rome was clanging, when Troy was being built,
when campfires lighted caves. The white butterflies dance
by the thousands in the still sunshine. Suddenly, anything
could happen to you. Your soul pulls toward the canyon
and then shines back through the white wings to be you again.
One way to deal with suffering or difficulty the poem suggests, is to wander out into nature because in doing so you enable yourself to view your ills from a broader perspective. As Stafford suggests, in nature we can find a place where the world opens again, and as the poem describes, the shadows you see coming off the hard, sheer places in your life leading toward nightfall and the west are now the very thing enabling you also to see light on the river leading through the canyon walls. This is a place to observe deeply. It’s worth spending time to understand, and the stanza closes by saying, “Put down your pack.” When we suffer, it takes time to absorb the reality that your suffering could also bring you a new life source that will lead you through the rock-walled gorge of your experience. It’s worth spending time being present with this understanding–simply taking it in.
The poem’s second stanza begins with air stirring the pines. Lightness enters in. Breath. When we take time to rest in the awareness of this new state were in, we make space for something new to enter our awareness. Stafford recognizes that world we inhabit may be weighted with heavy gravity. He relates the ancient struggles of Rome and Troy, to the beginnings of human civilization living in caves. The very words Rome and Troy echo with sounds of war. We know struggle and work are part of civilizations’ foundation and history. But these descriptions of civilization’s efforts are held together in the poem’s stanza on either side by air breathing through the pines and light lifting and illuminating the wings of butterflies. Stafford reminds us this is what it is to be human. Heaviness and struggle are required for existence, yes. But present alongside the weight and effort is the magnificence of the larger world–the stunning ephemeral qualities of existence itself–the butterflies dancing in the still sun by the thousands–those resplendent moments where beauty captures and leads us into a place toward the sublime, moments where time seems to stand still, and for an instance we taste what it is to step inside eternity. Caught in an experience of what Abraham Joshua would name as “radical wonder,” the world opens. “Suddenly, anything/ could happen to you,” writes Stafford. We see now how we can inhabit our bodies as our “soul pulls toward the canyon,” the difficult and narrow places. We are are body, and we are spirit–light shining through wings.
We get used to the way things are or have been going along in our lives, and tend to think that is the way it always has been or will be. The earth and everything in it, however, is in a state of transition. At Pinnacles National Park in California, you can walk past gargantuan boulders and through caves made as a result of volcanic explosions, landslides, the slipping of tectonic plates on the San Andreas Fault, and erosion–both natural and chemical. The result today, millions of years later, is an amazing place of incredible beauty and biodiversity. We want to understand why we suffer and how to be released from suffering. When examining the earth we walk on, however, we can realize that it, too, has endured great change and many other life forms on earth have endured pain as result.
The great Jewish theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel, said, “We may doubt anything, except that we are struck with amazement. When in doubt, we raise questions; when in wonder, we do not even know how to ask a question. Doubts may be resolved, radical amazement can never be erased. There is no answer in the world to [our] radical wonder. Under the running sea of our theories and scientific explanations lies the aboriginal abyss of radical amazement.” (Man Is Not Alone, p. 13) The result of the fissures, volcanos and erosion is, in the end, great beauty. Maybe instead of seeking an answer to our suffering we want to seek ways to stand under the light breaking through the cracks in our life’s hard and heavy rocks where we can experience wonder.