Finding Love in Suffering

This post is about finding love in the deepest and darkest moments of our lives. How can we find peace and bliss when we have suffered great loss? Perhaps someone we loved dearly passed away or left us? Perhaps we lost that job that we cared for so much? Perhaps something that we gave our life to collapsed?

We are emotive beings. And such things register deeply in us. They affect us viscerally. And this is natural. There are two broad approaches based on one’s response to such situations – either get subsumed by the emotion or refuse to acknowledge that it has impacted oneself (i.e. run away from it). In general, sensitive people tend to suffer more. But, getting stuck with the emotion is detrimental to one’s well-being. On the other hand, people who know how to shut off their emotions seem to suffer less. However, research has shown that both types register this impact equally on the level of the body. The landmark experiment documenting this is on attachment styles. This wonderful experiment on toddlers is known as the “Strange Situation”. This experiment was first conducted by psychologist Mary Ainsworth (see this article for an excellent background on this experiment). Diane Poole Heller in her excellent book, The Power of Attachment has this to say on the so called ‘avoidants’ or ‘Insensitive’ people who appear to suffer less:

She [i.e. Mary Ainsworth] devised a procedure that examined about one hundred families with children between the ages of twelve months and eighteen months. The kids were in a room with their mothers and a stranger, playing with few toys, and the researchers observed and catalogued what happened when the mother left for a while and then returned. Some kids became excited when their mother returned, hugging them or inviting them over to play. Many of the children displayed very little stress and reacted positively in this way. However, some of the children didn’t respond like this at all. When their mother returned, they acted as if they didn’t care, or they ignored their mother entirely and simply kept playing with their toys by themselves. The researchers originally thought that these kids were merely indifferent, but when they added in physiological measures, these particular children displayed lots of signs of stress. They were actually experiencing strong reactions to their mother coming and going, but they were acting in such a way to make those experiences invisible. In a way, they had shut down their normal reactions, and they were expending a lot of energy to do so.

Poole Heller, Diane. The Power of Attachment (p. 64). Sounds True. Kindle Edition

What is evident is that avoiding tough situations is like fooling your own body. It does more harm than good. This is corroborated by an excellent passage in Viktor Frankl’s landmark bestseller Man’s Search for Meaning, which documents his experiences as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps. He has these beautiful lines to say:

In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen. Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life may have suffered much pain (they were often of a delicate constitution), but the damage to their inner selves was less. They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom. Only in this way can one explain the apparent paradox that some prisoners of a less hardy make-up often seemed to survive camp life better that did those of a robust nature.

Frankl, Viktor. Man’s Search for Meaning : The Classic Tribute to Hope From the Holocaust (p. 29). Rider. 2011.

So far, we’ve seen that we cannot fool ourselves. We do feel bad when terrible things happen to us. And we must learn to face them. The body anyways registers it as stress. Sensitive people are those people who listen to their emotions and the impacts of those sensations on the body. Such people can use their rich inner minds to channelize the suffering to find love. But how can this be done? Again Frankl has these touching lines to say in memory of his wife:

Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. Real or not her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.

For the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way – in the honorable way – in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment.

Frankl, Viktor. Man’s Search for Meaning : The Classic Tribute to Hope From the Holocaust (p. 30-31). Rider. 2011.

Love is the act of deeply cherishing what one values the most. It is the emotional communion with this feeling that helps man transcend the deepest, the darkest moments of one’s life. Let’s assume that we have lost our partner, someone we loved so deeply and truly. Life seems desolate, barren and meaningless. Many of us ask ourselves, “What is the point of going on anymore?”. At this juncture, one needs to understand that the reason one suffers so much is because we loved this person so much. And the extent of suffering is a measure of the extent of love. This is the silver lining. By accepting the suffering, we shift our awareness to the extent of love. Cherish this love – even if the memory causes pain. The deeper we begin to evoke feelings of love towards the image of the departed person, the greater is our ability to transmute suffering to love. Does it matter whether the other person knows or not? Frankl again:

A thought crossed my mind: I didn’t even know if she were still alive. I knew only one thing – which I have learned well by now: love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. Whether or not he is actually present, whether or not he is still alive at all, ceases somehow to be of importance.

Frankl, Viktor. Man’s Search for Meaning : The Classic Tribute to Hope From the Holocaust (p. 31). Rider. 2011.

Frankl hits upon a deep truth. In love, two ceases to be – and only one remains. It is not right to say only ‘I’ remain, for even the separate, egoic ‘I’ ceases to be. Thoughts cease and only a gentle warm feeling of love is experienced. This feeling of love has no boundaries and need not even be directed towards anyone. One just revels in this vibrant resonance. This depth is the essence of being human. And Viktor Frankl calls it love.

Therefore, let us not rue over what we have lost, however beautiful it is. Understand that the suffering is a measure of our love towards the object. This indicates our capacity to love. By gently bringing the attention towards this fact in us, we begin to convert suffering into love.

This is the single greatest thing that will keep us living happy lives. And a love unveiled by suffering is so strong and yet so gentle, that people who come in touch with you, will be impacted. This is the meaning of Christ’s suffering. This is the way of the cross. Only when one surrenders fully to this, can love (Jesus) be reborn. This is the allegory behind his reincarnation.

While we may certainly not have been physically tortured like the Christ or Frankl, our suffering is noble too. Accept it. And this is the only way to transcend it.

A Golden Oriole. Gandhinagar. 2017.

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