In a time of despair, when I felt disconnected from all that was good in my life, I was helped a lot by something Rilke wrote to comfort a troubled young man in Letters to a Young Poet: “So you mustn’t be frightened . . . if a sadness rises in front of you, larger than any you have ever seen. . . . You must realize . . . that life has not forgotten you. . . .”
A sense of having been forgotten by “normal” life is common when we are going through difficult times, as if we are trapped in a parallel universe where broken people live. But when we realize that healing can spring from the deepest sorrow, we regain our connection with the suffering world and trust that we can reenter the “unbroken” zone. Awareness of connection creates the path for transforming suffering into positive change. We do not seek pain, of course, but when it happens—and it will—we learn to bear it differently, as an unavoidable part of being alive, a shared struggle that joins us to our brothers and sisters, rather than as a relentless problem we can never seem to fix, an enemy we cannot hope to conquer.
It is possible to metabolize grief in ways that don’t produce hostility but that nourish our lives, our families, and our communities, and offer lessons for moral and spiritual growth. We see that freedom depends on our ability to open to a bigger context. In the midst of pain, we look toward what is whole and undamaged.
It is not that everything becomes all right, but everything is recognized as part of the immense story of life, of nature, of truth. It’s certainly not that everything becomes pleasant or inconsequential, but we are no longer defined by trauma, because now we have a more powerful sense of wholeness and connection.
In late September 2001, I was leading a meditation workshop in New York. One of the participants told the class, “I am a fireman.” In that moment, in that town, we all knew exactly what his statement implied. After a pause, he went on, “The towers collapsed on top of me. I escaped, though many of my friends did not. I decided that I didn’t want my life to end there. I wanted to find a way to go on.”
Not only did he go on, but he helped many people through their own darkness. This firefighter and I became good friends. The last time I saw him was at a program I taught near the World Trade Center site as part of a commemoration of the tenth anniversary of 9/11. I was surprised that the firefighter had been willing to be in the immediate area of ground zero so close to the anniversary, but I was very touched that he had. When I told him that, he spoke of how important it felt to him to see new buildings going up on that site—that it had ripped him apart to face that jagged hole in the ground. He needed to see that life had gone on.
Excerpt from Love Your Enemies.