June 7, 2011

Fierce Compassion: Tornados, Prison + A More Maleable Reality.

I have a client in Missouri. We speak on the phone every two weeks. Her home is an hour or so outside of Joplin where she works as a yoga teacher and massage therapist. She describes the nurses, the teachers, the people that have lain their bodies on her table in the last several weeks since an EF5 tornado, packing 200MPH winds decimated a ¾ mile by 6 mile swath of their city.

These people describe the kind of things that include loss on a scale that’s hard to wrap a human brain around.

The loss of homes, schools, parents paralyzed from the neck down, brothers and sisters found crushed under rubble, still wrapped tightly around the babies they were trying desperately to protect.

I was in prison for selling ecstasy when I read the book “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl.

In his book about his own incarceration in holocaust concentration camps, Mr. Frankl makes the kind of astute observations about his life that made mine, on that bunk bed, with my hard thin mattress, and the cacophony of attention-seeking and fighting seem absolutely padded and almost free.

He describes being out in the snow, barefoot, starving and barely clothed, seeing prisoners of the local town marching past in shoes. He recounts how every sunken eye behind the fences of Auschwitz longed for the level of comfort these criminals were afforded.

It always puts things into a perspective to realize that your suffering can always be topped.

With keen objectivity, Mr. Frankl describes suffering as gas in a chamber. Regardless how much gas is released into the chamber, it will expand to fill every corner.

So it is with suffering. The way it can overtake our insides. The way it always exists, seeking refuge in our lives regardless of circumstance. How it feels so huge, like no one could possibly comprehend the pain.

He takes an almost Buddhist approach in his acceptance of this suffering and is able to wonder with unimaginable clarity, considering the weight of his life, what it would take to find peace in his own naked existence.

Naked. As in just him, on the earth, with no one or no thing to define or protect him.

What then?

And if he could find it, could it, perhaps be the difference between someone who is fundamentally broken by their loss of identity and someone who is subsequently filled with an insatiable need to live, developing an infinite well of compassion for the suffering of others?

How else can two such dichotomous outcomes emerge from the same kind of loss?

It was a light on for me. It was a moment of deep reflection to both be allowed to validate my own suffering, the complex feelings of pain, for my life, for my son, and recognition that it was my own desperate choices that led me here.

Grief and responsibility could coexist. Whether I would grow stronger or perish could be a choice.

My blessings, though small and strange were still countable. The thin wool blanket that scratched the soft skin of my neck while I slept, the dictionary and notebook at the end of my bed, the thick steel-toes shoes that blistered my heels. I was safe in the moment and for that I could be grateful. I was still far from naked and alone.

So while my client in Missouri talks of Joplin, the devastation of the tornado’s victims, she also she tells me that as soon as the storm had passed, as soon as those who could emerged from broken homes and broken lives that the looting started.

She tells me the story of one of the nurses who worked triage being inundated by addicts looking for pain killers, anti-anxiety meds, begging for anything. The nurse describes the staff’s challenge to discern who was genuinely in need and the perceived opportunists.

It made me think of Frankl. Of the dichotomy of humans. How we respond so differently to loss. How blessed we are to be able to recognize that our own suffering is inextricably connected to the suffering of others.

I thought of how everyone at the triage suffered. How the victims suffer, and how the addicts and the thieves suffer. That this split is between those that know they can choose to transcend circumstance and those that don’t.

I also thought of the many blessings I have to count. And I got off the phone and I counted fast and hard.

I feel incredibly blessed to be a survivor rather than a victim. I am blessed to be able to work with truly gifted healers and leaders. My clients inspire and inform my own life and practice in innumerable ways.

I am blessed to have been given a glimpse into a more maleable reality, where I get to choose a bigger story of service rather than hopelessness and a life of inflicting pain on others.

Like Frankl we have the distinctly human opportunity to observe, at any given moment, the beauty of our naked existence and instead of bitterness or exclusion we can be the impetus and strength that helps others see the beauty in theirs.

Victor Frankl’s experience helped me find the opening to view my prison sentence as a gift of time rather than a cause for shame. That I could respond to it as an option to walk a path of fierce compassion rather than be crushed into hostility by its weight.

I pray for the people of Joplin, both those that have lost and those that feel compelled to steal. That they all may see a way to back to the suface.

How do you cope in a crisis? Do you see opportunities arise or burdens to bear? Do you think you could find reason to live if you had nothing left but the breath of life in your lungs?

This post is published along with others at http://megworden.com
Photo credit Meagan on Flickr

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