Dear Dr. Norquist:
I am writing to you with a heavy heart. My husband and I have been married for almost 40 years. We’ve raised three children together and made it through the hard times and good times. We’ve had our differences, but we’ve always supported each other when the need arose.
I’m struggling now with the fact that my husband has been diagnosed with emphysema, and his struggle to get enough air in his lungs just breaks my heart. His breathing is labored and loud. I can hear it from almost anywhere in our home. It reminds me of how hard it is for him to do anything. Sometimes I get so mad at him for not giving given up the smoking earlier. I feel so helpless to help him. I miss the things we used to do together – like taking an evening walk. Now, being around the love of my life is bittersweet. I love being with him, yet it’s painful to see him suffering. The sound of his breathing just reminds me how limited our time together is. I don’t know if there’s anything you can say to help me. I just needed to get this off my chest and I felt you might understand.
Dr. Norquist responds:
The depth of our pain and suffering defines the potential depth of our love. There is a quote from The Prophet by Khalil Gibran that expresses this beautifully:
“Then a woman said, “Speak to us of Joy and Sorrow.”
And he answered:
“Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”
Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Loving and emotional vulnerability go hand-in-hand. It is the nature of a world defined by dualities. Your life is abundantly richer due to your capacity for loving and this makes you more vulnerable to pain. Compare this to a life lived with a closed heart, and a shallow or undeveloped capacity for emotional experiences. What would your life have been like had you not been able to experience deep love, joy, beauty and also deep pain, grief, and suffering? Would you give up the positive experiences in an effort to avoid the pain?
As human beings, we have many ways of protecting ourselves from pain that feels too overwhelming. We can shut down, and deny or dull our awareness of our feelings. We can distract ourselves from our feelings, with work, other’s needs, or crises – constant fires we feel we need to attend to. We can self-medicate, with alcohol and pills. We can also use our great analytical abilities to intellectualize our pain. Coping mechanisms are essential in managing the adversity that is inherent in living. These coping mechanisms protect us from some of the pain, but it is at the expense of our capacity to feel joy and love.
The bittersweet experience you describe is from being able to experience both love and pain at the same time. This can result in an incredibly rich experience of ‘aliveness’ – the kind of experience that stands apart from time and gives new meaning to living life.
On a more practical note, I encourage you and your husband to search for new ways of creating positive experiences together. Catch moments that can be appreciated and thus expanded. Pray, and send light and love to each other. Look for humor whenever it can be experienced. Perhaps there are more sedentary shared activities that you could do together – board games, cards, puzzles, reading together, books on tape, etc. There are many excellent books on the process of dying, books that hold much relevance for living a fuller life. I’d recommend two books by Steven Levine A Year to Live: How to Live This Year as If It Were Your Last and Who Dies?: An Investigation of Conscious Living and Conscious Dying. I hope this is helpful.
(Dr. Sallie Norquist is a licensed psychologist (NJ #2371) in private practice and is director of Chaitanya Counseling Services, a center for upliftment and enlivenment, in Hoboken.)Dr. Norquist and the staff of Chaitanya invite you to write them at Chaitanya Counseling Services, 51 Newark St., Suite 202, Hoboken, NJ 07030 or www.chaitanya.com or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by fax at (201) 656-4700. Questions can address various topics, including relationships, life’s stresses, difficulties, mysteries and dilemmas, as well as questions related to managing stress or alternative ways of understanding health-related concerns. 2013 Chaitanya Counseling Services