My friend Phyllis Pilgrim is a yoga and meditation teacher at Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico. Students from around the world, young and old, men and women, find her work inspirational and life-changing.
But things haven't been so easy for Phyllis. As a child during WWII, she was held captive with her mother and brother in Japanese internment camps in Java. Much later in life, her mother told her that she had survived those years in the camp because she had made it a practice to say thank you every day when she could “see something beautiful, hear something beautiful, and say something beautiful to someone.” Phyllis has made her mother’s practice the foundation of how she leads her life.
I thought of Phyllis recently as I listened to my client Cathy lament about how lonely she was. No wonder. Long ago, Cathy had come to the conclusion that no one could be trusted enough to share true love and affection.
“Everyone betrays you in the end,” she murmured in my office one afternoon. She learned this early on: when she was 13, her father had left her mother. So at 38 years old, she continued to view this bitter experience as the essence of what could be expected of another human being, and as a reminder of why it was better not to trust others.
Neither Cathy nor Pilgrim will ever "get over" their painful experiences. Sure, one of them (Cathy) has made her experience a blueprint to keep recreating the loss, while the other Phyllis) has found a way forward to embrace the best of life. But neither have aimed to forget about or de-emphasize the profound impact of their past.
And odds are that all of us have experienced traumatizing experiences in the past, varying in degrees of intensity and impact. So for all of us, it helps to remember that there are some basic truths about human experience that are universal.
We can find ways to incorporate these truths into how we live our lives, rather than pretend things could’ve been different. With that, here are seven foundational truths about human suffering and resilience:
1. Closure doesn’t exist.
How often do we hear a friend say of an ex-lover, “I just need to see her one more time so we can have closure”? Or listen to the survivor of a tragic story interviewed say, “When find out why the accident happened, I will get closure.”
The answer is often. But one of the hard truths about this life is that there is really no such thing as closure. We hold onto the myth of it as a comfort mechanism, but that mechanism is ultimately a defense.
The pain we have experienced may be reduced and even fade. But the memory is in us forever. And the scar doesn’t just go away, but rather becomes a part of us in the present.
Many of the great teachers and philosophers believe our wounds are the openings to compassion, consciousness, and wisdom. We can honor our wounds if we can recognize their purpose rather than deny them, which gives them power over us.
2. What we do with "unfinished pieces" is up to us.
No ceremony, no “big talk,” or goodbye ritual will change what has happened. Experiences happen, and it is our choice to figure out how to respond. To be an adult is to accept our wounds as a part of our past and to know our choice lies in how we move forward, which includes acceptance that life gives us pain and loss. Of course, it also offers new beginnings and joy, if we’re open to them.
3. Time doesn’t heal the wound; it changes how we see it.
The happiness in our lives doesn’t erase the pain and the pain doesn’t eliminate the gifts and the new beginnings if we allow them to come into us.
4. Everything is transient.
One of my granddaughters lives in New York. We’ve had a special bond practically since she was born. It’s always a delight for me to visit her.
But the last time I went to see her, there was a shift. She had just turned seven, and I noticed a difference in our dynamic. When I went to pick her up at school, she, like always, ran up to me and gave me a big, heartfelt hug. But then she turned away to rejoin her friends. It was totally right and age appropriate that she was far more interested in her classmates than in me. Still, I felt sad, even as I accepted this sign of the natural passage of time, from the seasons to the cycles of love. The only real stability we have is within ourselves.
5. Life isn’t always fair.
Vicki was the first person I ever knew who was into health food and fitness. I met her when she was 20. She died before she was 22o of an illness no one saw coming nor knew how to treat. Meanwhile, her mother Sue weighed at least 300 pounds, and spent her days watching television and reading Harlequin romances. She’s still alive at 94, and all her organs function perfectly.
How can this be? Life is unfair. Finding a way to do all we can to make our life turn out as we want it to, and then letting the outcome be what it is going to be is the only path to inner well-being.
6. Our real power lies in how we react to what happens to us.
We can’t erase our past as though it didn’t exist, and I don’t believe we’re meant to get over our losses. As the poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen has written, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” If we see our sorrows as a passage or a waystation, they can inspire us to use the incredible gift of our life.
7. Finally, we don’t “get over” anything.
Each day we create our future by choice and with the gifts of the lessons we’ve learned.
Especially the hardest ones.