The daily quality of my life changed a few years ago without expectation or warning with the abrupt onset of a rare muscular disorder. It includes varying degrees of pain and dysfunction unless I am asleep. Fortunately, my version is segmented, meaning it affects only one muscle group. It impairs but does not fully limit activities I enjoy. Further, the symptoms are treatable. I am progressively improving with great family and medical support. Thankfully, the condition is neither life threatening nor shortening. Unfortunately, however, there is no cure and the chance of remission (always temporary) is close to zero.
Others certainly deal with more serious health issues. My heart goes out to them and anyone struggling with disease. Nevertheless, mine has been a load for me, and I am a wimp when it comes to struggles.
How do we accept painful realities in our own and others' lives — and in our world—while working hard and the best we can to effectuate positive changes? Regarding storms we must pass through in life, Archbishop Desmond Tutu says: "We cannot succeed by denying what exists. The acceptance of reality is the only place from which change can begin." The Dalai Lama adds that "stress and anxiety come from our expectations of how life should be. When we are able to accept that life is how it is,... we are able to ease the ride, to go from ... suffering ... to ... greater ease, comfort, and happiness."
These words of wisdom from such prominent, humble, and inclusive world leaders of Christianity (the Archbishop) and Buddhism (the Dalai Lama) are from "The Book of Joy" by Douglas Abrams, who is Jewish and adds his own helpful nuggets throughout the book. Best read slowly, a few pages at a time in a devotional style so that the spiritual insights sink in, the book chronicles a week of meetings and discussions on various subjects in 2015.
There is a lot more to learn for another day about the Nobel Peace Prize winning Archbishop and Dalai Lama, including their experiences with and responses to violence, oppression, and exile. For now, their words exchanged in these face-to-face meetings between friends are treasures indeed. They each advocate a wide perspective on life that primarily focuses on the needs of others, not taking ourselves too seriously, and includes a sense of humor, all while not neglecting our own personal issues.
Regarding suffering of any kind, these spiritual giants draw an important distinction between immediate reaction and a pause to reflect and collect ourselves before an appropriate response. In my personal experience the last few years, I readily identify the difference between quickly slamming my fist against a door on a bad day (never a good idea) and pausing, breathing and considering what I might continue doing to improve and make things better. In the broader context of encountering hatred, injustice or oppression, the intentional and reflective pause, consideration and respond path can sometimes lead to a more compassionate, understanding, de-fusing, and effective change than a gut reaction.
In Abrams's chapter titled "Acceptance: The Only Place Where Change Can Begin," Abrams emphasizes that "[a]cceptance ... is the opposite of resignation and defeat." Further from Abrams: "The kind of acceptance that the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop were advocating is not passive. It is powerful. It does not deny the importance of taking life seriously and working hard to change what needs changing, to redeem what needs redemption."
Whether we are talking about personal struggles with disease, social injustice, or any type of suffering, the point is to thoughtfully and actively work and do our very best toward positive change. Whether rooted in Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity (the three prominent perspectives in The Book of Joy), another authentic faith tradition, or simply a keen sense of humanity, all of our lives are gifts. We should treasure and qualitatively enjoy them, including working toward improvement in the face of any type of personal or social disease.
Walt Shelton is a part-time professor at Baylor Law School and an environmental attorney in Austin. He leads small discussion groups in association with Highland Park Baptist Church in Austin and occasionally speaks to groups on faith and life related subjects.