Q: This month I celebrated 3 years of sobriety. Through AA I connected with my Higher Power and grew through the steps. I experienced that feeling of gratefulness I’d never felt before and my world continued to grow and expand. Last year I became ill in November. I was diagnosed with Hepatitis C and Fibromyalgia. Last week I was told I had nodules in my lungs. I’m finding it harder and harder to remain grateful. I’ve had to leave my job. Daily I’m faced with pain and extreme fatigue. I’m trying to find the lesson to be learned in this illness, but more and more I find myself asking the universe why me. — Cathy, Chicago

A: Dear Cathy,

Your question is a difficult one and a crucial one. It is not just your question. It is also Job’s question (in fact, i would suggest that you read the Book of Job, in Stephen Mitchell’s translation), and so often the question posed in the Psalms (also something worth reading, in my translation published as Opening to You: Zen-Inspired Translations of the Psalms). It is the question of anyone who has suffered deeply and has had his or her faith tested by that suffering. But it is also an important and constant question for all of us: For if our spirituality and our gratefulness depend on good things happening and good feelings arising within us, then we are all in for a rude awakening. For we all get sick, we all die, we all lose everything we have. Clearly our spirituality has to be able to meet the kind of challenge that you are now facing and overcome it.

I am sure your path to recovery was not an easy one — it never is. But once you go far enough down that path, you find joy. You are free of the demons that once held you in their sway. It becomes delightful to be alive and to experience health and wholeness. Now, however, you have lost your health. It is more difficult to be grateful. And yet, bitterness and disappointment won’t help you. To add bitterness and disappointment on top of the physical pain and limitation is to make something bad much worse.

In the Buddhist Mindfulness Sutra the Buddha teaches that awareness — what Simone Weill called “attention, a point of eternity in the soul” — is the only path to healing and liberation. This is a radical message: that simply by being intensely aware of what we are experiencing, being open to it, without denial or rejection, we will find the path of healing. This means what it says, and it is such good news, even though it seems counter-intuitive. In fact, though, i know it to be true. If we can patiently stay with our experience — stay open to it, calm with it, accepting of it — we will find happiness and healing. We will come to be grateful even for such huge problems as those you are facing. We may still feel pain and difficulty. We may still from time to time be visited by despair. But we will also know transcendence. We will know that our very infirmity has brought us to spiritual heights we never knew were possible. And we will have a great sympathy for all people — and for everything in this world.

Most of the psalms turn on this point: “You (God) have turned my anguish into joy.” The Book of Job ends with transcendence: God shows himself to Job, and Job realizes that as long as he is stuck on the smallness of his own problems he will suffer. But when he is met in his problems by the awesome “whirlwind” — the immensity of the fact of Being itself — he is lifted up out of them even though they are still present physically.

I do not mean to underestimate the struggle you face now and will continue to face. But it is the human struggle we all must face some day. It is exactly because there are always such struggles that spirituality exists as a support for us. I wish you the best of luck.

Yours in gratitude,
Zoketsu Norman Fischer

American Soto Zen roshipoet and Buddhist author and founder of the Everyday Zen Foundation

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