I have this theory that it is possible, if difficult, for a person who is sick or physically suffering to find mental peace in the midst of it. That it helps anyone to know that suffering isn't total and can't last forever; that it helps a humanist to know that, since everyone suffers, in his suffering he shares in a common humanity that links him to everyone who has lived; that it helps the Christian to believe that suffering has redemptive value and to ask for grace.
I have a little experience with this, but not lots. Mostly when I have been physically ill -- and I have never dealt with misery that was both terrible and indefinite -- I have retreated to bed, resolutely consuming fluids and determinedly resting, planning to be done with it as quickly and responsibly as possible. I have five childbirths to look back on, of course, and in only one of them (number two) do I remember the physical sensations coming at me faster than I felt I could cope; and that one was over before too long. I know that mild discomfort, the kind that is too mild to justify retreating to bed, makes me irritated and whiny, so that I can't help but let everyone around me know that I have an ache; I limp, I wince.
Still I have this theory that one could achieve mental peace in physical suffering of illnesses, the sorts of things that happen to some unlucky people. Gratitude, perspective, transcendence, fellow-feeling, petition, and redemption are all accessible -- in theory -- to people who are physically suffering, alone or in combination. A few sufferers, the lucky from among the unlucky, even report gratitude for the suffering itself, for the lessons it has taught and the graces it has conferred. We can believe those tales without casting aspersions on sufferers who don't manage to find gratitude and peace, I think, since everyone is entitled to tell his own story. So it is possible, and maybe it even is possible to everyone, if we knew how to access it.
Mind you, though, nobody thinks that the inner peace, when it comes, makes the suffering go away.
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So what about mental suffering? Can you find inner peace when you suffer from crippling anxiety? Can you rejoice in clinical depression?
It seems that anxiety, compulsions, depressions, addictions, are illnesses like any other; if they are more mysterious, still they seem to be thorns in the flesh. So just like any other kind of illness, the suffering they create is real in the body. Therefore they ought to be subject to the same "rules" of redemption. They are a way to share in the world's great penance, in the suffering of Christ. They also don't last forever, and connect us to the great mass of humankind stretching back through and beyond history. We can ask for grace to help us bear them.
But it seems a bit of a contradiction in terms to imagine that one can find or be graced with peace in the midst of, say, anxiety. I can imagine being at inner peace in the midst of suffering pain from a pulled muscle or an intestinal illness. I can imagine being at inner peace despite physical limitations from damaged limbs or a weakened immune system. But what can it mean to have found peace at the same time as experiencing the suffering that comes from anxiety? How can peace and anxiety co-exist, be co-experienced in the same consciousness?
I do not have a clinically diagnosed anxiety disorder or compulsion disorder, but I have a compulsive-type personality and I experience subclinical anxiety in certain situations. It is often heightened at the holidays. I was sitting meditatively the other day and contemplating the roil of tension that swirled in my brain, knowing that worry and perfectionism is not the reason for the season, and unsure what the most transcendent and redemptive response to this particular misery might be.
Obviously one asks politely for the grace to cope with one's duties despite the suffering, and one can also ask that it be taken away if that is convenient, please. And I am able to acknowledge that the anxiousness won't last forever, that I will have good days as well as rough ones over the next few weeks, that I will be past the roughest patch eventually, and I won't have to live with it for longer than the rest of my life.
But is the redemptive peace in this sort of suffering found by detaching oneself from it, denying it, forcing oneself up and out of it as much as one can? Or is it found by entering fully into the suffering somehow?
With respect to ordinary, physical pain, it seems that common spiritual advice is never to squelch and deny your sensations, but to embrace the cross so as better to bear up under it. But is embracing a cross of anxiety and depression a way to find peace, or a rejection of it? Does this kind of cross work in the reverse of the physical one? Or is there a way to experience and embrace the cross of anxiety in your body and mind, while experiencing calm and peace in some third area of your consciousness -- your full human person -- at the same time? And what does that feel like, and how would you know when it is happening?
Or do you just have to trust -- based on what you know of what you have done, said, thought in response to your pain -- that it is there, insensible, radiating outward from some center you cannot touch or see?
I don't have answers to this question.