Strategies for Coping with Suffering

I participate in a monthly covenant group. We’re a small group of six to ten people (depending on who is available) that get together once a month. We give each other brain dumps on our lives. We also pick a new topic for general discussion. We do all this in the basement of the Unitarian Universalist church that I attend. This month’s topic was how we cope with the nasty stuff that life throws at us.

This is a tough one for us UUs. Most of us do not believe in traditional notions of God. Many of us don’t believe in God at all and are rabid secular humanists. Those with more traditional faiths can project their anxieties to the Almighty through prayer. While some of us practice meditation, no one in my covenant group prays.

Coping happens on many levels. Suffering is usually sharpest when we experience the death of a loved one. But we may also suffer by watching someone we love suffer, and certainly incidents like cancer can cause enormous personal suffering. I feel fortunate to have thus far largely escaped the grief of the death of someone I loved. But I was the exception in my group. The members of my covenant group have all experienced the loss of someone very close to them. One woman related the death of her mother in 1979 from cancer. She broke down and cried. I thought: how extraordinarily attached she must have been to her mother to still feel such acute grief more than 25 years later. But in a way she was fortunate. Not many of us experience such a meaningful relationship with another human being during our lives.

Comparing their experiences with mine I felt very fortunate. I heard stories of a church member who will spend the rest of her life in a nursing home. Yet she still clings to life, in all its mundanity. My suffering is more prosaic: aging parents and coping with a spouse with fairly serious mental and physical health issues.

But who is to say whether one person’s suffering is worse than another’s? The friend in my covenant group lost her mother more than 25 years ago, but at least her mother is now at peace. The loss can still feel acute at times, but she has moved forward in her life. For those of us in a caregiver role, the ups and downs of the suffering of someone we love are a daily trial. What it lacks in extremes perhaps it makes up for in duration. For me it sometimes feels like a marathon that never ends.

How do people get over suffering? We opined that talking with friends and family helps. But I am not so sure about that. I think we all must grieve when we suffer loss. Part of the healing can come from expressing the grief, whether privately or with friends. As much as I love my parents, I don’t believe that unloading to them about my trials of the moment is going to make me feel any better. It seems we emerge when we piece together unique pieces of mental gauze to cover our wounds. It’s almost a quilt that we stitch by ourselves: a little bit of this, a little bit of that. No one size really fits all. We have to make it fit in the unique context of our own personal suffering.

I personally am skeptical that prayer reduces suffering. It may be a step in the healing process to project your anguish on a higher and unseen power, but suffering seems to be universal. Through suffering we learn life’s deepest lessons. We would be shallow and superficial people if we did not suffer. In some respects suffering is good.

I have found some strategies for me that, while no solution, act a lot like a temporary pain relief. For example, when I feel anxious or really stressed I find that exercise helps a lot. A vigorous thirty mile bike ride engages my mind and body. It takes me out of the immediate situation (assuming I can escape in the first place) and gives me a chance to focus on something else. When I get home exhausted and sweaty I feel like I have changed my perspective for a bit.

I have also learned to not put my hand on a hot stove. By this I mean that while I need to be involved in the care of people I love, getting too deeply nested in their problems can adversely affect me. I am not in a position to help them best if I cannot stay above the fray. I am not sure this is actually the best coping strategy, but it seems many times to work for me. The hard part is finding ways to stay concerned but not too empathic. If you truly love someone it can be hard to deliberately emotionally detach yourself from the situation.

Perhaps the best coping strategy for anyone suffering is to engage in life as much as possible. Admittedly this can be a tall order. That woman in a nursing home will find it very challenging to find ways to keep her mind busy and to bring other people into her life. But to some extent we can we can minimize our suffering by accepting that suffering is a part of life, but only a part of life. We need to make the deliberate decision to bring in the outside world even though we grieve. Death finds all of us in time. But life is also about many other things, including joy. We cannot experience these things if we stay mired in grief. Thus it is important to keep engaging, even while we grieve. To let the bad stuff out we must also let some of the good stuff in.

Good Billionaire

And my unlikely nominee for best philanthropist?

It pains me to say it, but it’s Bill Gates. More specifically Bill and his wife Melinda Gates. Yes, that Bill Gates, the man whose net worth is currently about thirty billion dollars. Yes, that Bill Gates, the man my wife routinely curses at. She swears someday she is going to Redmond to firebomb his house. Because many of us (I know we are so un-American) just don’t like Bill Gates. We consider Windows “technology” to be buggy and inferior crap designed to drive us nuts. I hold Bill Gates personally responsible for wasting hundreds of my hours, for which I was never compensated. When Windows 3.1 ruled the world my machine crashed every 30 minutes, if I was lucky. What a piece of crap, I thought. Why would anyone, particularly my employer, spend so much money to own this piece of shit? How could any company allow such crap to go on the market?

And it didn’t get much better. Windows 95 was marginally better but it was often BSOD (Blue Screen of Death) City. Windows 98 was the same piece of crap, and Windows Me was the most unreliable Windows product since Windows 3.1. Reliability started improving with Windows 2000 but of course something had to give. And that was security. It became clear that Windows was a hacker’s dream. My PC regularly got infested with viruses, spyware, adware and Trojan horses. To use it with any sense of security my wife and I had to become PC security experts. Even after putting in firewalls, virus checkers and plugging every hole we could think of we still have security issues. God only knows what else may be on our PCs that we don’t know about. And all this is the fault of Bill Gates, who rushed buggy products to market without adequate testing and forced us to cough up premium prices for inferior software.

Yeah, I know I should have got a Mac. Except I couldn’t work from home with a Mac. The reality was the business world was Windows centric and there was not much I could do about it. I could just feel frustrated and resent feeling like my pocket had been picked clean.

So it really pains me to admit that Bill and Melinda Gates are excellent philanthropists. I figured when it came to philanthropy they would bring their formidable software skills to it and completely wreck it. But that’s not what happened. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is perhaps not only the best funded charity in the world, but doing the most vital work out there.

For example take malaria. It kills a child in the world every three seconds. And it is a completely preventable disease. A third of the world is at risk of developing malaria. Malaria vaccines are relatively cheap by our standards, but it is hard to get to all the third world countries in order to inoculate people. But even where spraying and inoculations are difficult, simple malaria netting can greatly reduce the likelihood of contracting the disease. The Gates Foundation is taking a pragmatic approach that might actually solve the problem.

It is hard for many of us to understand just how desperately poor billions of people are. In some places of the world, like Thailand, families have to sell their own daughters into prostitution to survive. Even malaria netting costs more than they can afford. Handing out malaria netting in these areas greatly reduces the risk of contracting malaria. Clearly inoculations and systematic spraying are also important. The Gates Foundation is working in all three areas. Money and persistence can do a lot of good. And arguably they are doing a much more effective job than many governmental organizations are doing, although they often work directly with leading organizations addressing these problems. Of course many governmental organizations such as the World Health Organization are not always flush with sufficient funds. But Bill Gates can use his personal fortune to create the sustained focus needed to seriously address chronic problems like malaria.

In the global health arena, the Gates Foundation is arguably at the forefront. The Gates Foundation is funding HIV/AIDS research in both vaccines and in drugs that minimize symptoms and extend patients’ lives. It is also working on HIV/AIDS prevention strategies. In addition to HIV/AIDS the Gates Foundation is coordinating work on other common and preventable diseases like tuberculosis. It is working to make sure that people in poor countries have access to tuberculosis, measles, polio and other vaccines that the rest of us take for granted.

But one area that makes me almost want to shake Bill Gates’s hand is the foundation’s work in family planning. While our Administration wrings its hands over using tax dollars on birth control in third world countries, the Gates Foundation is pushing family planning in the poorest areas of the world. I have been giving money to Planned Parenthood World Population Control for more than a decade. I can think of no better use of my money than to help stabilize the world’s population. But the amount I can contribute is tiny. The Gates Foundation can throw hundreds of millions of dollars at the problem. And they apparently don’t give two figs if birth control upsets some Catholics and Mormons. Stabilizing the population is good for humanity and good for the planet.

In short Bill and Melinda have proven themselves to be excellent humanists. Realizing they can’t take their billions with them into the afterlife, they have decided to use significant chunks of their fortunes to target some of the thorniest and most pressing problems in the world. It would be nice if we could adequately fund efforts in these areas on the national and international level, but we seem to have other priorities like tax cuts. Free of the prejudice and ignorance that comprises much of our leadership, the Gates Foundation can potentially solve some of these persistent and thorny problems.

So while I still resent Bill Gates for all the time and money he cost me, I feel a little better toward him because he is using a significant portion of his fortune to make the world a better place. I still intend to buy a Mac one of these days though.