"You have the pain, the sorrow, the fear within yourself; don't keep it for you alone. Allow the sangha, allow the community to embrace it for you. Allow the collective energy to help you to embrace it, because alone, you are not strong enough to embrace your pain, your sorrow ... If we allow the community to embrace us, then we will not sink into the ocean of suffering." -- Thich Nhat Hanh
May 17 was one of the most nerve-wracking days of my life. I was heading in for my third prenatal sonogram ever; the first two revealed that our embryos didn't take off, the cells never differentiating enough to create organs. I was expecting the worst at this one. My anxiety was palpable; I even sobbed in a public restroom the night before. I just needed an outlet for that anxiety to leave my body, and that night, it was in tears. I was looking for a way to process this anxiety, and one of my mindfulness teachers gave me a good suggestion: to tap into collective suffering as a way of making the container for my own suffering bigger. I think this is akin to Tara Brach's oft-quoted metaphor that if you are in touch with the whole ocean, you are less afraid of the waves.
So, I stopped looking at Wednesday's appointment as "my" ultrasound, and started thinking of all the women who have been on that same table I was going to be lying on. I broadened the thought to all the women having fertility issues everywhere, and more broadly, every expectant mom praying that everything would be ok with her sonogram. The exercise didn't stop there: I was able to relate my worry about the
sonogram to all the suffering of the world, and I thought in particular
about a dear friend of mine right now who is very sick. I can't explain why this helped ease my anxiety, but it did. It took me out of myself, and made me a part of something bigger, which, of course, I am.
Before David and I got out of the car to head up to the clinic, we prayed together, asking God for a favorable outcome to the sonogram, or the strength to get through this together if it was not a favorable outcome. I don't think anyone was more surprised than I was to hear our doctor say, "So, there's the baby, and you can see it's heart beating." Hearing that heart beat* was magical, though I could barely hear it through my tears of joy (and shock!)
The concept of sharing sorrow doesn't just exist in the narrow way I describe it above. It has helped me more than once to share my sorrows with all of the communities I'm blessed to be a part of. One of the starkest contrasts David and I noticed was the aftermath of my father's death vs. our first miscarriage a few weeks later. After my dad's death, there were about 70 people here a day to sit shiva with me. I found their presence comforting. We largely faced the miscarriage silent and alone, except for the few friends we notified. Several of them came to hang out and talk. Suffering of this magnitude is too big to be handled alone, and I am often saddened by the many women who tell me they have had serious fertility problems, miscarriages, and ectopic pregnancies and told no one other than their doctors. I am including women whom I know who are extremely close to their mothers, yet never tell their moms about these events. This kind of extreme secrecy only harms, in my opinion, never heals.
The concept of shared joy is as powerful as shared sorrow. In my immediate circumstance, experiencing my wider social circle's joy at our pregnancy is infectious and exciting. In a broader context, this is a skill I have had to work to cultivate over the past few years. My disability from Lyme Disease has meant the end to many professional and social opportunities that I used to enjoy. When you encounter that, your choice is to withdraw and become closed off and contracted, or to learn to cultivate joy from others' happiness. At times, it was very hard to hold this joy as most of my friends expanded their families as I was struggling with first having to delay childbearing because of my infections, and later, my inability to stay pregnant. Nevertheless, I have always found this goal worth pursuing to the best of my ability.
* Seeing the six week-old on this sonogram was powerful for me in another context: seeing and hearing that little heart beating brought me back to when I used to volunteer for Planned Parenthood in what seems like another lifetime. They drilled into us in the clinic where I volunteered that what was being aborted was "just tissue." Seeing the heartbeat in my sonogram reinforced my unease with abortion, and also made me understand why pro-choice advocates are so upset by Christian pregnancy counseling centers using early ultrasound to influence women's decisions about their pregnancies. It also occurred to me, seeing that beating heart, that it was "just tissue" -- the same way my heart, my hands, and my brain are also "just tissue."