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If all I have is Now, where will I look for Joy? Without hope for the future, without hope that things will change, with no hope of finding what’s been lost, and no hope of restoring the past, with only the risk to crack open all that has hardened about me, what will I do with what I have?
Our task in living is how, not why. When we suffer, we get thrown into why: Why me? Why you? Why at this time? At best, why distracts us. At worst, it stalls us. What we do know is that life can be both miraculous and harsh, tender and devastating.
At times, we need to feel everything to make it through. At other times, we need to empty ourselves in order not to drown in our pain. When the surge of pain, or confusion, or awe is too great, we shut down automatically – like a circuit breaker. Most of the time we can reset ourselves. Sometimes we can’t.
Suffering from Traumatic Blindness
In the mid-eighties, Asian women began to show up at clinics in and around Los Angeles complaining of sudden blindness. When tested, nothing physiological was found wrong with their eyes. They were thought to be faking in order to receive disability benefits. These isolated cases grew in number until a subpopulation was recognized, all suffering the same inexplicable blindness.
Finally, it was discovered that these women had migrated from Cambodia, where they had witnessed unspeakable horrors, often perpetrated on their loved ones. In fact, they were all suffering from a traumatic blindness, their own form of post-traumatic stress. Even the trip across the Pacific couldn’t stop the terrible scenes from replaying or stop the fare that new unspeakable horrors would keep surprising them. At some point, their spirit mercifully shut down their sight in order to protect the tender center of their being.
Of course, the horrors were now inside their eyes, so it’s unclear if this sudden blindness protected them at all. But their plight has stayed with me as an example that, even within the art of facing things, there is a time not to look. And yet, in the deeper logic of our suffering, this is not inconsistent with the vow to remember such atrocities as Cambodia or the Holocaust. Sometimes we need to look away so that we can heal enough to tell the story.
My Journey Through Cancer
In my own small version of this, I travel great distances to speak of my journey through cancer and what it’s done to me. Yet I must swallow hard and look away every time a needle is poked in my vein. From outside, these things seem like contradictions – this looking and not looking, this search for truth only to shut down in the face of too difficult an experience. From inside, we are drawn into resilience through paradox.
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The poet Stanley Kunitz speaks to the urgent beauty of it all when he declares that “the deepest thing I know is that I am living and dying at once, and my conviction is to report that self-dialogue.” This kind of honest livelihood requires both feeling and emptying in the same way that breathing requires inhaling and exhaling. There is no way around it.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Conari Press,
an imprint of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC. www.redwheelweiser.com.
©2007 by Mark Nepo. All rights reserved.
Finding Inner Courage
by Mark Nepo.
Mark Nepo's broad range of stories and people, of traditions and insights, offers myriad ways for readers to relate to their own search for courage. Each of the nearly 60 brief essays and stories elucidates and inspires.
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Mark Nepo—the #1 New York Times bestselling author and popular spiritual teacher—“has given us not only a much-needed message of hope and inspiration, but a practical guide on how to build a better tomorrow, together” (Arianna Huffington, founder of HuffPost).
About the Author
Mark Nepo is a poet and philosopher who has taught in the fields of poetry and spirituality for over thirty years. He has published twelve books and recorded five CDs. His work has been translated into French, Portuguese, Japanese, and Danish. In leading spiritual retreats, in working with healing and medical communities, and in his teaching as a poet, Mark's work is widely accessible and used by many. He continues to offer readings, lectures, and retreats. Please visit Mark at: www.MarkNepo.com and www.threeintentions.com