The inevitable and the optional

My mother has offered me countless nuggets of wisdom over my lifetime, but one of the ones I remember well and yet have always struggled with is a Buddhist saying:

Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. 

The first several times she offered this to me I couldn’t grab hold of it. I didn’t know exactly what it meant, and I couldn’t figure out how to parse out the difference between the two. 

Then one day, after I had experienced a devastating break up and my first real heartbreak I was sitting in my room wallowing in my tears, which had become a regular practice. I glanced down beside me and saw the novel that I was reading, lying in wait for me to dive back into the story. I looked at the book, considered it for a moment, then shook my head. “No,” I said to myself, “I just feel like all I can do is sit here in my misery. I don’t have the capacity to read.” 

And then, suddenly, the lightbulb went off in my brain:  Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.

There was no avoiding the pain I was experiencing from the loss of a relationship. That pain would be with me until it went away (which took about a year, for what it’s worth). But I did NOT have to choose to sit with misery as my companion. I could pick up my book. I could lose myself in a story. I could allow myself some reprieve. 

As we all sit in wait of what the next thing the CDC or government is going to recommend in the midst of the spread of COVID-19, I have found myself reflecting on that nugget of wisdom quite a bit. That exact line doesn’t work, but some variation of it does:

Gathering information is necessary, panic is optional. 

Planning is necessary, obsession is optional. 

Staying home if you’re sick is necessary, buying toilet paper is optional. 

Kidding on that last one, of course. Couldn’t resist. 

But here’s the thing: I’ve been trying to send out a couple of emails for 48 hours now and I can’t get it done.  I can’t get to it because I’m either fielding phone calls from people who are spinning with the magnitude of this thing or I’m pacing my kitchen trying to figure out if I have enough food in the freezer for…what? I’m not even sure. The not-knowing what exactly is about to happen is causing its own anxiety. 

This is unchartered territory for us, and there’s a lot of unkowns still. But there are also some ways we can mitigate the anxiety, and walk through this as informed, careful, sane humans. I believe in us. We can do this. 

Here are a few thoughts I’ve had about how to navigate this time – how to choose NOT to obsess or panic:

  1. Easy on that social media, Sparky.  Listen, as we’re being asked to practice “social distancing” this is perhaps the most grateful I’ve ever been for technology, because we still need to be connected. But your Facebook newsfeed is dangerous territory right now. This is a great time to create some groups and post encouraging words to one another, offer support, and share cat videos. If you are accessing Facebook on a computer browser, consider getting a news feed eradicator extension, which allows you to go on Facebook and visit the groups without seeing the newsfeed. 
  2. Watch Love is Blind, not CNN.  If there’s ever been a time to give thanks for crappy reality shows, it is now. You can read articles and listen to podcasts (as long as you are checking your sources) to get the information that you need, but the news media is trying to fill a 24-hour news cycle and they will sensationalize. Wouldn’t you rather see Amber get engaged?
  • Laugh. We don’t need to be making light of something that is very serious, but a little levity will go a long way for us right now. And the internet is full of amazing memes and gifs to keep us going.  Endorphins, people. We need them.
  • Exercise. Doesn’t need to be fancy. Push-ups in your living room will do. (See what I did there? I made you laugh! WE ALL KNOW I DON’T DO PUSH-UPS)
  • Read a book, play a board game, listen to a podcast. All of these things will help you unplug for a while and you can, at least temporarily, forget about coronavirus. Your brain needs a break! There are countless podcasts that will inspire you and help you connect with God, like this one
  • Check in on someone else.  Like I said earlier, we need to be connected right now. Take a Lysol wipe to your iphone and start using it! Call people you often call, and call people you don’t usually call. See how they are doing. Crack a few jokes. See if they need anything. If you are young and healthy and good about not touching your face, deliver a few groceries to someone that can’t leave the house. If you are in a position where your income will not suffer from not being at work, buy an amazon gift card or some groceries for someone who isn’t as fortunate. Doing something for others will help you feel like you do have control at a time when it’s feeling like control is being taken away from you. Take it from Olaf:
  • Go easy with self-medicating. Wine and brownies are starting to look reallllll good right now, but ultimately will not help you have your best brain. Moderation is important, and so are vegetables.
  • Pray. Crazy, I know, but I’m convinced that this will help too. For me, it’s especially helpful to do something with my hands. Folding origami stars, for instance. Write the name of someone you are praying for on the paper and get to work. Write letters or cards to people letting them know you are thinking of them. Read scripture.
  • Listen to music – all the music. It will soothe your soul. Start with this one, which I have a particular affection for.
  • Breathe. We’ll get through this. We are taking extraordinary measures to prevent things from getting worse. It feels extreme, but we are being as careful as we can be. We are helping keep people safe and healthy.

Friends, this is hard, but we’re in this together. Please love yourselves and others – love is the very best antidote to fear. And when you find yourself faced with a moment where you can choose something other than panic – do it! You’ll be glad you did.

Quick note: Some of us have very real anxiety issues, and I am not trying to suggest that you can choose your way out of that. Call your doctor and have your prescriptions refilled. Call your therapist, because insurance companies are approving phone meetings right now. Take care of yourself. (THEN watch Love is Blind.)

7 thoughts on “The inevitable and the optional

  1. Dear Meaghan,
    Your post and attachments are JUST what I needed tonight. I’m choosing to be in the non-suffering optional group! My faith has brought me through many trials and helped me always not to “suffer”. This “sermon” is reminiscent of some of your sermons at St Thomas. Thank you so much. Through you, ECC continues to sustain my faith.


  2. This is excellent, and I love and appreciate the writer very much. So much I might even share a roll of toilet paper if she asks.

  3. As always your words of wisdom are appreciated and right on. Thank you!! This week has been agony, not being able to visit my 94 year old father in a nursing home, whom I have spent very evening with for over four years now. He just doesn’t understand what is going on. Prayers for all concerned

  4. Thank you very much, Meaghan. This is great. I’ve been doing repetitive prayer (serenity prayer mostly) slowly and softly, but audibly, so I can hear what I’m saying. Slows down my heart rate, brings down my blood pressure, quiets my mind.
    Love you

Leave a Reply