Letter to a friend

I know you are suffering. You tell me that you feel broken, exhausted. Your horizons are diminished. You feel as though you have lost a better self and have no way to regain it. In spite of the specialists, the doctors, herbalists, clinicians, the diets and disciplinary regimes, a cure eludes you. You are beginning to despair. I can hear the anguish in your voice, the distress on your face, when we speak about your condition. You are suffering.
At times you see your illness as the cause of your suffering. It is the insurmountable obstacle that prevents you from realising your true, happier, self. At others, you blame yourself for not being able to accept your condition and forge a life within it. You see your suffering as a sign of failure: your great and perpetual failure to be happy. As if happiness was an achievement. As if us non-sufferers were somehow better at living than you.

From time to time you have asked me for advice. This is a hard thing to give (what can I say that you don’t already know? What can I say to you, that I shouldn’t also say to myself?). But there is a scene from a favourite movie of mine that keeps coming to mind. In the closing scenes of The Secretary, the main character, Lee Holloway, addresses her lover in a public letter. She tells him why she wants to pursue a relationship with him, a relationship he finds shameful (they are in an S & M relationship). And why she would choose this, seemingly pathological relationship, over another more conventional marriage, to a childhood friend. She confides: I have always suffered, now I have someone to suffer with.
In her lover she has found a partner and a witness to her pain. She loves him because he doesn’t want to cure or comfort. He loves her for who she is. Through him she finds belonging in a world delimited by her anxieties.

There is a beautiful social logic in the film’s narrative. And there is also a profound, but easily forgotten, lesson to be learnt from Lee Holloway. We suffer. More or less. For various reasons. And at times more obviously than at others. We are hurt, lonely, anxious, ill. We get sick. We become frail. We depend on others. The busyness, the activity, the plans and projects we undertake only distract us (momentarily) from the unavoidable fact that despite the achievements of our maturity, we remain naked, vulnerable, often afraid.
That is not to say that one form of suffering is equivalent to another (I hope I don’t sound morally pretentious drawing a line between your situation and my own). But if we accept what Lee says about suffering, it means that the presence of it in our lives cannot be seen as a sign of our failure to achieve a better, more perfected state. It is simply the way we are. Isn’t that what our Buddhist friends are always telling us, life is suffering? It is a cynical view only from the perspective of one who struggles against it.

Lee embraces the reality of her life by addressing herself fully to her suffering. This is what I want to tell you; that if I can give you any advice at all, it is that you must address your suffering. I don’t mean that you should treat your condition as a problem to be solved, or an obstacle to be overcome. That is how we usually think of address, isn’t it? The government is doing its best to address the budget deficit; it is not doing enough to address the problem of climate change, and so forth. Of course such an attitude has its place. But too often it throws us into that mindset that negates the present (who we are, where we are, right now). And what if a problem cannot be solved? What if, as you suspect of your own condition, an illness condition cannot be cured?

When I speak of address then, I mean it in the formal sense. According to the Oxford, an address involves attention. It is to direct one’s attention to another; it is to attend. To give attention and to attend: to be present (to who you are now, not who you want to be in some imagined future). And being present, that is, attending, involves a particular form of attention. Attend, tend, tenderness. To tend to a wound. To tend a garden. I have always loved that word, for it implies a loving cultivation, a sense of care.

That is what the main character embraces at the end of the film: her tenderness is not only directed at her companion, but also herself. In her unconventional relationship with her E. Edward Grey she finds a way to love herself, and to love their strange world, framed as it is, by her anxieties and fears. (The viability of that world is not conditioned on the absence or final overcoming of her anxieties and fears. They have a place within it).

So if there is anything useful I could say to you, it would be to seek repose within the life that you have right now. Let go of the future you once imagined for yourself. Address yourself to your suffering and find some peace within it.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *