Forty years ago I was one of the first clinicians at the newly established mental health unit at the local children’s hospital. Most of the kids I saw were from economically disadvantaged families in great distress. What could I offer these children in one hour a week. I was happy to see them. I enjoyed talking with them about what they liked and enjoyed in their lives as well as listening to the troubles they were willing to share. Apparently they looked forward to seeing me as well.
Gradually I realized that the little I gave was something that meant a great deal to them–genuine attention. My interest in them was real. There were really no therapeutic techniques or strategies that actually could affect their difficult lives. But I believed then and do so now, that these kids with very difficult lives at home, school, and in the streets, and I felt pleasure simply being present with each other. Eventually, however, under the accumulation of hearing so many tales of too young hard lives, I moved on. But I was glad I cared for them enough to cry.
MS sucks!” Laughter and nodding heads greet my opening statement. It is twenty years ago and I am facilitating a workshop for individuals and families living with multiple sclerosis. Participants are pleased that a professional who shares their diagnosis has a similar perspective on their situations. Group discussion is lively, but then a fellow about forty years old says something that gives me pause.
“Not that I’m glad that I have it [MS],” he remarks, “but I’ve become a better person since I was diagnosed ten years ago.” His comment sounds familiar: I realize that several other participants have pronounced much the same thing. Each has described a change of personality since the onset of illness that would be considered a worthwhile outcome of any psychotherapy process.
One woman says she has become stronger, more self-reliant. Another claims she is less negative than before her diagnosis. A man states that he is more intimate and emotionally expressive in his personal encounters. Others in the group nod their heads in agreement.
Irvin Yalom reports similar findings in his work with terminally ill cancer patients. Many people, he writes, describe “startling shifts” that “can be characterized in no other way than ‘personal growth/” Among the changes people identify are “a rearrangement of life’s priorities,” “vivid appreciation of the elemental facts of life,” “fewer interpersonal fears,” and “enhanced sense of living in the immediate present.”
Yet, despite these warrants of significant and positive change, every single person in my workshop makes sure of adding, “Not that I’m glad that I have it.” Why are people so reluctant to say they are glad to have experienced something from which good has been made? Of course, for some with illness, the losses are too recent or too great. They may fear worse days to come or feel unable to wrench any meaning from their fate. Yet it is possible for people to find or even imagine value where there appears to be none.
And so it is, as the recent loss of Bodhi sadly reminds me. There is no love without suffering. And I am glad I suffered and cried, for it means I loved.