Q:  Can you help me understand how to be grateful for and enjoy that which is so “right” in life, when those I love are suffering? My family/friends have serious health problems (end-of-life, cancer, untreated diabetes, liver damage), and I find feel guilty about having a nice meal, walking or driving somewhere, being free from physical pain when these loved ones are confined to a hospital bed or stuck in an apartment with no way to get out. What can I do? What is appropriate to honor them and love my life? — Mary C., Kentucky

A:  Dear Mary,

This sounds like quite a challenging chapter in your life as you try to meet so many needs at once! All your resources are being called upon daily. To refuel from time to time so that you can love your life is nowhere near selfish…it’s essential!

Throughout the ages wise, caring people like you have noticed how mysterious and poignant and beautiful the weaving together of ease and suffering is in our lives. Even those in the worst pain have moments when a surprising wave of gentleness lightens their burden, while those who seem to have everything one could desire have been pierced by a feeling that this couldn’t be all there is to life. Comfort and pain are more like a single, circular brush stroke than like polarities. It is your relative comfort that allows you to support the people you love, while it is their suffering that reminds you of your own mortality and of the gifts of the present moment. Beyond either of these two states – comfort or suffering – is an awareness that allows room for each of them, without judging that one is preferable.

When you orient yourself in that awareness, you can clearly see that it’s not unkind to others to go for a walk or enjoy a meal or have the marvelous mobility of driving. These acts are simply a way of living your life fully. There’s no way around it: What awaits you is the need to live your own life, which is at once distinct from the lives of those around you and yet which has countless aspects in common with others. What other life than your own, after all, can you live?

And yet, it’s as if a tightly closed fist needs to open in order to let go of the guilt of having a life full of grace. That’s the opening to gratefulness. You can see in your own life this grace: all the freedom to enjoy and – even more importantly – to be. When you live out of that great fullness, it communicates directly to those around you as blessing. No need to explain, to yourself or to them, why you are walking and they are in bed, why you feel well and they are dying. These “whys” have no answers. If the tables turn and you find yourself in bed, you can still walk that path of open acceptance. Even when you are suffering you can discover what’s worth learning from your present circumstances and how grace inhabits even the roughest terrain.

The very nature of your question shows that you’re already giving depths of love and care to those around you. When you need to drive somewhere and a loved one does not want to or cannot come with you, you use your best judgment about how to balance these two different needs. Sometimes you will see that you need to stay with them after all; sometimes you will know that getting fresh air and a different view will make you all the stronger and kinder for being with them again later. The better you take care of yourself and consider your own needs as no more and no less important than those of anyone around you, the more you will be able to clearly see what response a given situation calls for. Take one step back as if you are viewing the whole scene with yourself in it, and you will be able to see more easily how this mysterious whole, ease and suffering alike, flows together.

With deep regard,
Patricia Campbell Carlson

Gratefulness.org webteam member (2001-2013) and past Executive Director of A Network for Grateful Living