Let in Beauty, Medicine for the Suffering
The poet Mark Nepo shared this story in his recent seminar on Fear, Pain, and Grief. To me, it embodies the most essential qualities of resilience.
Mark is a long-time cancer survivor. Years after his surgeries and treatment, one of the sequelae from the chemotherapy was a serious 7-month bout of a stomach condition called gastroparesis – his stomach couldn’t process and drain the food passing through as quickly as normal, the back-up would cause intermittent but severe pain.
One summer afternoon, while walking around the house, Mark noticed two Baltimore orioles at the window; they had shown up at the bird feeders in his garden, migrating through his region of Michigan. Mark moved quietly toward the window to see them more clearly and rejoice in their presence…and experienced a sudden, severe attack of stomach pain.
“There you have it. We all live in the midst…one step from pain and one step from beauty. I was challenged, as we all are. How could I, in that moment, not give in completely and be chained by my suffering, not ignore it because that makes it worse. But to honor the truth of it and still not miss the orioles. Not just because they were beautiful but that their beauty was part of the medicine. Our challenge, I learned in that day, was to let beauty in while we’re suffering.
I couldn’t escape the fact that I had this condition but I was more than that condition. So how could I feel my pain and awkwardly move toward the window anyway and take in the beauty of the Baltimore orioles. And this became a metaphor for me, because we all experience this every day in lesser ways. We are all learning over and over again how to not be defined by what happens to us, face it, and let in beauty even while we’re suffering.
Mark’s deeper point in this seminar was that we are more than what has happened to us. That’s a basic principle of all healing from trauma, of all practices of post-traumatic growth. Whether surviving cancer, or surviving the loss of a loved one, or surviving any of the generic fears, pains, and griefs of the human condition.
Mark is a revered poet and his teachings have inspired many over the last two decades. This exercise is one I’ve taught in many workshops over the last decade. It, too, helps people put a traumatizing event into the perspective of a larger narrative, one that helps us know ourselves as more than what has happened to us.
EXERCISE: CREATING A COHERENT NARRATIVE
Allow at least thirty minutes to do this written reflection, even if you are working with a small, manageable event. Taking the time to reflect creates space in your brain’s processing to generate insights you might not have expected.
1. Identify a single event you want to practice with. Choose an event that you did manage to cope with, one that you processed successfully and learned from. You want to stay in your range of resilience in this exercise and not risk being retriggered or retraumatized. (With practice, however, this tool can help you process anything that has ever happened.)
2. Write your reflections for each of these prompts, and take as much time as you need.
Describe what happened; describe the consequences. Use your tools of mindfulness and self-compassion to come to the awareness and acceptance of a compassionate observer’s perspective. Try to relate to the event somewhat objectively.
Describe the resources, practices, tools and coping strategies you used at the time. Recall these clearly, with honesty and pride, no shame or blame. It’s important to recover the strengths and resources you already had at the time.
Describe the resources and responses you would use now if you could do this over. You have probably grown and learned since the event occurred. This step integrates that learning.
Describe the lessons you learned, the growth you experienced, the positive meanings you found. Take all the time you need; this step is the turning point of the exercise.
List the things you now appreciate because of the event. Resilience involves more than coping. It’s finding the new lessons, the new possibilities, the new opportunities, the new sense of meaning and purpose and life direction because of the event, not just in spite of it.
3. When you have finished this written reflection, set it aside for two or three days. When you reread it, notice whether you’ve had any additional insights to add to what you have already written.
4. Reread this reflection again a month or a year later, and notice how your relationship to the event has continued to shift.
5. Create a coherent narrative for as many challenging events in your life as you wish. Eventually your brain will learn to generalize this process: you can reframe events more quickly and more easily.
This exercise helps you let go of any stories about yourself that are not helpful to you now and to reflect on and claim any resilience you have already developed. It can also help you trust that you will be resilient in the face of whatever might happen in the future.