Just after midnight on June 12 of last year there was a knock on my door. Awake but startled, I peered through the peephole to see three friends, grinning and holding a cupcake with a lit candle in it. “That’s right,” I recalled. “It’s my birthday.” I begrudgingly let these kind souls in. Seeking to escape just such a circumstance, I had intentionally told no one of my upcoming birthday. Was planning to spend it in my apartment alone. Facebook probably ratted me out. So here life was, in the form of three friends, squeezing through the blockades of isolation I had erected specifically to keep it out. “I must try harder,” I thought.
And so I did. And it worked. The texts, calls and visits grew less and less frequent. But I was also growing sicker and sicker. One fortuitous knock unexpectedly brought help, and over a period of time I was nursed back to health physically, with attention also directed to my mental, spiritual and social well-being.
Now at another birthday, I take a moment to look back at the past year, and also to scan the horizon. For about half of last year, I did not think I would make it this far, and for the greater part of that time, I didn’t care. But I’m glad I did.
During the more intensive period of recuperation, I was reading some poems by Amir Sulaiman. In one, he quotes verse 94:5 of the Qur’an, “fa inna ma’al usri yusra.” “So, verily, with every difficulty there is relief.” If I were to sum up what experience has taught me in the past year, it would be approximate to that quote.
Faced with challenges largely of my own creation yet seemingly outside of my control, I encountered many difficulties. In hindsight, it was those very periods of pain and suffering that spurred the growth which led to healing, to relief. However, that relief did not occur as a result of just stoically bearing the pain alone. I learned I had to drop much of what I thought I knew about my pain and my condition. To surrender in a certain sense. And to allow others who were qualified to assist in the healing. It was not something I could do on my own.
I have applied this learning not just to my personal life, in dealing with difficult situations and emotions, but also to my worldview. And it is in that spirit I write about it here, not just to talk about myself or my birthday.
We carry a tremendous amount of pain right now. There are those of us who are in touch with it, or who are motivated to act because of it, or whose lives are directly impacted by it. There are those who ignore it, minimize it or indulge in it, but I believe it impacts them all the same, often showing up in unpleasant ways they may be unaware of. It is pain carried by peoples’ histories, collective traumas, the legacies of systems and institutions, appearing in a myriad of forms each day, some acknowledged but most borne in an exclamatory silence, thereby doubling the wounding.
In spasms, there are reactions to the pain. Attempts to make sense of the incomprehensible; to hold the unbearable. Others denigrate and mock, or deploy force, fearing how the pain implicates them. There is a search for how to respond, how to feel, how to even formulate the right questions, let alone offer up answers.
That pain, humanity’s pain, far outsizes my own and I do not mean to compare the two, simply to hold them in reference to one another. I would like that to be my birthday gift to others – a drop of empathy and an idea that, “So, verily, with every difficulty there is relief.” We, as humans, face a collective difficulty, the pain of which is real. The opportunity exists to find relief. It is a matter of intention and attention to the processes we are already in the midst of, whether we want to be or not.