Healing Is A Process that Never Ends

One of the great transforming passages in my life was having cancer in my mid-thirties. This experience unraveled the way I see the world. It scoured my lens of perception, landing me in a deeper sense of living. There are certain experiences that reform us, as if God’s a tireless blacksmith who, against our pleading, forges the metal in us, though it takes years for our heart and mind to cool from the pounding. My journey with cancer was how I was forged.

One of the mysteries of being human is that healing is a process that never ends. Transformation, even from a single event, can continue for eternity. And so, I continue to be transformed by my journey with cancer, which began with my struggle through three years of illness and alarm from 1987 to 1990. All those years ago, that struggle brought me close to death. Today, I remain committed to surfacing the lessons of transformation as they continue to shape the lens that life has given me. The transformative events may differ for each of us, but every soul will face a life-changing threshold that will keep shaping who we are for the rest of our life.

As coal is pressed into a diamond, experience presses us into the clear jewel that we are. Difficult as this is, this is the hard-earned way that wisdom appears in the world. And though what’s unearthed here comes from the heat of my journey, the lessons are for everyday living. It’s a law of spiritual nature: that the press of crisis, illness, heartbreak, and grief make visible what’s essential to live. Somehow, our life-giving lessons are more easily seen through the press of difficulty. So much of what we learn and pass on is the residue of more heated times. This is how we preserve what matters. This is how we create medicine out of our suffering.

Though my story is framed around a particular crisis, I believe that all forms of crisis somehow raise a common instinct to survive, and with that a common set of tools—such as risk, trust, compassion, and surrender—becomes available to all. And coming this far, it seems clear that being a survivor is embracing the will to live, and whether that embrace lasts for years or months or days or even hours, whoever embraces life is a survivor.

Sooner or later, we’re asked to be honest with our fears and hopes, to render, through our experience, the irreducible mystery of life in which we all swim. After all this way, I know that I am weak and strong, stubborn and determined, afraid and brave, giving and demanding, resilient and stalled, confused and clear—sometimes all at once. I know now that going on without denying any aspect of the human drama is what strength is all about.

We are each in a lifetime conversation with suffering and care that, in time, will open us to our strengths and gifts. We are meant, it seems, to come apart and come together, so we can discover who we are at the core. We are meant, it seems, to be rearranged by what we go through and held up to that process by those who care. We are meant to accept suffering and care as our teachers, our mentors, as the tools used by time to shape us into what matters.

And while we each want a map for how to live our lives,, your map won’t help me and my map won’t guide you. Only inhabiting our personhood can reveal our map to us. All we can do is encourage each other to enliven our personal authenticity, which will lead us to discover and decipher our own way. Ultimately, we each are meant to gather meaning through relationship: with ourselves, each other, and with suffering and care.

So here I am, like you: not healed, but healing; not sure, but gaining in confidence; no longer a bother to others, but still troubled; full of wonder when not in pain. Here I am, thrilled and raw at the prospect of waking one more time. I stand before you, humbled, a Lazarus of sorts, and I don’t pretend to know half of what has happened to me.

What I do know is that cancer in its acuteness pierced me into open living, and I’ve been working ever since to sanctify that open port without crisis as its trigger. But can this be done without crisis pushing us off the ledge? That’s the question now, years from the leap: how to keep leaping from a desire to be real so as not to be shoved by an ever-lurking crisis.

Oh how do I give you where I’ve been? How do I open my palms and say, see how pain has simplified the air, see how struggle has boiled down to joy? They say that birds dream in the nest and whatever they see makes them wake and sing. How late must it be for me to whisper that our nest is our suffering? How quiet for me to offer that living is in the vastness that experience opens. How utterly rearranged must we be to realize that loving is the courage to hold each other as we break and worship what unfolds.

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Adapted with permission from Inside the Miracle: Enduring Suffering, Approaching Wholeness by Mark Nepo. Copyright © 2015. To be published in November 2015 by Sounds True. §


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Mark Nepo moved and inspired readers and seekers around the world with his #1 New York Times bestseller The Book of Awakening. Beloved as a poet, teacher, and storyteller, Mark has published sixteen books and recorded eleven audio projects, including the award-winning Seven Thousand Ways to Listen (Atria). To learn more, please visit marknepo.com.