For the last few months, the blog has been silent. And not because I don’t have anything to say, but because I’ve been in deep contemplation. You see, I’m going through a dark night of the soul – a time that most spiritual seekers go through at least once in their lives where one’s spirituality is thrown into chaos and your beliefs are called into question. This is a time of forced reexamination, of doubt, and unfortunately, of despair. The end result of such a difficult time is only one of three outcomes: strengthened faith, changed belief, or the complete dissolution of faith and belief altogether.
My best friend of nearly 20 years, Ann (I’m calling her by her middle name for privacy reasons) nearly died back in November. I got the call on a Sunday that she was undergoing emergency brain surgery and that her chances were grim. All I could do was beg the universe not to take her now, when her life had only amounted to unmitigated suffering for so long. It hardly seemed fair to end her story after a decade of tragedy and struggle. To tell you the story of Ann’s life’s struggles would take an entire book. If it were possible to encapsulate a person’s life into a paragraph or two, I might describe a shining soul, beautiful inside and out, who has endured a truly remarkable level of suffering in her young life. Constant, life-threatening illnesses, loss and abandonment have been the general theme of her life, with the last 10 years the hardest to endure. Starting with a misdiagnosed heart condition, Ann underwent a splenectomy from a tumor on her spleen, two pulmonary embolisms that nearly killed her, double-pneumonia (twice), a several-year battle with advanced Lyme’s disease, and finally, the discovery of an AVM on her brain; a collection of abnormal blood vessels that can cause stroke or aneurysm. Her insurance company denied Ann the first-rate treatment, and so Ann was forced to undergo radiation therapy developed just after world war two. Instead of shrinking the AVM, her brain reacted poorly and swelled, later developing a spreading necrosis. Ann was forced to undergo chemotherapy in an effort to stop the necrosis as well as take the highest doses of steroids available to control the swelling in her brain. She developed Cushing’s syndrome from the steroids, and endured terrible headaches and pains in her body. Surrounding these health crisis was a host of minor health issues that most egregiously I’ve probably forgotten because they were so numerous and so constant. She also contended with a family member struggling with mental illness, her father’s life-long illness and premature passing, and a difficult marriage that finally ended in a devastating divorce only three weeks before the swelling in her brain became so severe that it compressed her brain stem and threatened her life.
The most miraculous thing about Ann and what I find so incredibly inspiring, is that she has never allowed the suffering in her life to make her embittered or angry. And when she was well enough, she has lived well. She’s traveled, she’s learned, she’s loved unconditionally and shown extraordinary kindness to others. During our countless discussions of her illnesses and prognosis, Ann has always remained spiritual and humble, hoping that she might finally get well in order to use her suffering to help others. Privately, I felt certain that this must be Ann’s path. Everything in the spirituality books tells me that earth is a school, and that we have the opportunity to learn through suffering in order to become better souls and share our wisdom and grace with others. Ann never suffered from the ills of materialistic wants or desires, and would have – saint-like – used her experience to help others. She only needed to win the battle against her own illnesses first. With each small win, we both wondered if the time had come for her to begin following her life’s destiny and using what she’d learned. We never doubted that Ann’s struggles were part of a greater purpose. But the next battle was always just around the corner, and we wondered how much suffering was enough to learn the lessons of compassion and humility when it seemed she had so much to give already.
That Sunday, however, my spiritual optimism came crashing down around me. All I could see was pointless suffering. Endless pain. And possibly, the abrupt end of a life that could have been dedicated to helping others. Hadn’t Ann suffered enough? What kind of God or higher self or spiritual guide would continually heap this amount of suffering on a soul until they either broke down into self-loathing, anger and bitterness or simply gave up and died? What was the point? Was there a point?
Ann miraculously survived the brain surgery. But the swelling in her brain created trauma, resulting in memory loss and confusion. One of Ann’s close friends who is a nurse practitioner flew down to Florida to speak with the doctors and do what she could to help. Once I got a chance to speak with her, she told me the unvarnished truth: Ann isn’t responding as well to the steroids as they had hoped, her brain is continuing to swell, and the part that chilled me most: Ann’s personality has changed. Although I knew that traumatic brain injury could cause all manner of personality, behavior and memory changes, it was difficult to accept. I had always considered Ann’s sweet personality to be her soul shining through, not just the particular configuration of her neurons.
A week later, while our friend was helping Ann settle into a rehab center, I was able, for the first time, speak with her on the phone. It was a short conversation. And it was surreal. I felt as though I was talking to a stranger. Her voice was not the same pitch, her inflections completely different. And I had the sense, as I was talking to her, that she didn’t fully remember who I was. I felt like she regarded me like a co-worker, or an acquaintance. She got off the phone quickly with me, handing me back to our friend who later tried to reassure me by telling me how glad Ann was to have heard from me. But nothing could shake my sadness.
Was this still my Ann? Could a brain injury really sever the deep soul connection I had always counted on? And I hated myself for selfishly grieving the loss of my friend, when I should have been only concerned for her physical well-being and healing. I was deeply concerned, of course, but I was also rattled. I sobbed after getting off the phone with her. Sobbed for her pain and suffering, sobbed for the injustice of it all.
I could only think about Phineas Gage, the famous case of a man who survived being impaled by a railroad spike through his head, damaging his frontal lobe. The formally genial and kind man became an enraged, troublesome bully for the rest of his short life before he died from alcoholism. His case illustrated how damage to the frontal lobe of the brain can drastically affect a person’s core personality and has long been flouted by materialists to prove that the brain not only creates consciousness, but creates the quality of one’s personality that we spiritualists ascribe to having a soul and being a unique creation of the universe. Is it all just neurons and cells and the physics of atoms?
I thought of the pain of the families of Alzheimer’s sufferers everywhere, who watch the people they love disappear, like shadows covering the sun, and turn into strangers. I also thought of the miracle of terminal lucidity, where the occluded soul reveals itself shortly before death, bypassing the damaged brain and revealing for precious minutes to hours, the hidden soul inside with personality and memories in-tact. But mostly, I just thought about Ann. Her suffering. Her endless suffering.
I couldn’t write anything on the blog. I couldn’t even continue with my spiritual work and research during this time. It felt hollow and empty. I felt embarrassed and ashamed for the times I’d spouted the same old bullshit about ‘choosing difficult lives’ for the purpose of learning, and how earth was meant to be challenging, but there was a purpose for all after all. How could I say such things? I’d never lost a child, or watched a love one succumb to Alzheimer or face cancer. I’ve faced some harsh difficulties in my life, to be sure, but this was the first time that I was met with truly unjust suffering in the extreme. And I felt the same anger and doubt and loss of faith that I have seen in others enduring such tragedy. It made me marvel at those who find even greater strength in faith during times such as these, when I was so ready to throw it all out of the window.
And so I was driving on a cold Thursday, contemplating everything I had previously believed. I cast my mind back to when I was in my early 20s and I had first picked up Seth Speaks randomly in a old dusty bookstore. Ann was with me that day, as she was often during that blissful time of our youth, before death, illness, addiction and financial and emotional tragedy struck us each down in turn.
The core tenet of Seth Speaks, and indeed all of the Seth books, is a single philosophy: You create your own reality. I had built my spirituality on this idea. It turned a chaotic life of unknowns into something that I had a hope of directing toward calmer seas. Instead of seeing myself as a victim of life’s randomness, I found myself empowered by these words. I knew I would still be enduring pain and loss and suffering, but it was not needless suffering. There was, according to Seth, a purpose behind it. Thoughts and beliefs have the most incredible power to influence your life, and by examining your beliefs and expectations, you could begin to improve your reality.
Ann and I clung to that belief so long, waiting for the time when the illnesses and tragedy that always seemed to befall her would end, and she could put these hard-fought lessons into practice. When things only got worse over the years, we struggled to look for the lessons that we were meant to learn, striving to unlock the one thing that would end the suffering. Was it lack of self-love? Fear of abandonment? Some hubris that we failed to recognize in ourselves? If all of this suffering was purposeful, then it must be the result of some wrong thinking, some damaged ideology or some arrogance that we failed to correct. But for a kind person like Ann, I couldn’t think of any thought or deed she possessed that required such harsh corrective action. Finally, our discussions began to revolve around the idea of generational curses, karmic retribution, even the idea of an onslaught of evil spirits. This was spiritual desperation in a dark morass of impending hopelessness.
As I drove through the rainy, cold night, I questioned it. I questioned all of it. Everything I learned, everything I believed or wanted to believe about my personal spirituality. I was reminded that even Jane Roberts, Seth’s channeler, couldn’t ‘believe’ herself out of her final illness, a painful condition that left her bedridden in the months before her death.
I pulled up to a light, and I saw a license plate in front of me that caught my eye: KJV 1123. November 23rd is my birthday, and the date of the last text message from Ann before her medical emergency. The meaning of the first three letters, KJV, rang out in my head automatically: King James Version. I’m not sure why because I’m certainly no bible-reader or Christian, but with nothing else to lose, I googled “King James version chapter 11, verse 23”.
And here’s what it said:
For verily I say unto you, That whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass; he shall have whatsoever he saith.
Now my doubt was already so complete, I wasn’t sure if I could believe this was a sign. I had already been praying and asking for guidance, and the universe had been silent until now. I wasn’t receiving the reassurance or synchronicity that I’d so relied on at other times in my life, or at the very least, I couldn’t see it.
But here it was – an answer to the very thing I was doubting only a minute before. Can we truly affect our reality with our beliefs? And the answer I got was ‘yes’. But as amazing as this synchronicity was, it didn’t answer my question on suffering. As I reflect on this now, maybe I was asking the wrong question. Maybe the question is really, “what beliefs do we have that create such suffering?”
And that, my friends, I have no answer to. I cannot think of any belief so terrible that my beautiful, vivacious Ann must lay alone in a cold hospital a thousand miles away, her beautiful long, dark hair shorn to her skull, her body ravaged by the side effects of so many medications, and her mind clouded by a traumatized brain.
And so, when I have the mind and strength to write, I’m going to explore the philosophy of suffering. How does religion and spirituality answer the perennial question: why do bad things happen to good people? How has philosophy attempted to answer it? We all already know the answer that materialists give, but to accept that answer would be to assign the same meaning to Ann’s suffering as one might give to a coin flip or random number generator. I refuse to believe – at least not yet – that Ann was simply unlucky.
Before Ann’s brain surgery, she was reading about the Catholic saints. No doubt she was finding comfort in learning about the lasting good that was revealed through their suffering. I, too, would like to learn of the suffering of others and how it has served to inspire good works. Perhaps learning about how people great and small have dealt with pain and suffering can reveal some mitigating truths that can help us to face the pain in our lives with greater strength. Maybe I, too, can do good in the face of Ann’s suffering.
It is my last hope, anyway. And for you, the few readers who made it to the end of this long, sad, rambling post: How have you handled suffering in your life? Do you feel your suffering has been pointless, or has time revealed a purpose for it, or are you undecided about it? I genuinely would like to hear your perspective.
Edit: I asked my mother to read my post draft, and she added her response to the end. No stranger to suffering herself, I thought I’d share her words:
It should not be your last hope. Hope should always stand with you, like a friend. Bad things happen to good people to make good people better. Darkness follows light. Light comes from darkness. What you need is time. You can not understand suffering in a vacuum. You must continue to move forward even if you have to crawl. You must continue to dwell on your pain until a new reality rises up and you are stronger and more faithful to your core. It is the very definition of belief or faith. It must be stronger than you are; as a blind man sees and a deaf man hears.