I had an encounter recently that I’m still thinking about. Over the last few months I’ve seen less and less of one of my best friends. I finally arranged a time for us to talk, and asked what was happening. I asked my friend for the truth, and it certainly took courage to tell me and not to sugar coat it, but it was a hard truth to hear. My friend said that following my surgery in late February that it had become clear that I’m older and that I have a chronic illness, and that I will probably die first and meanwhile go through some hard times. The prospect of losing me had caused my friend to pull away, to stop wanting to hang out with me. This had gone on for almost 6 months when I finally confronted my friend and called the question.
I think this is an understandable attitude: when we care about someone, it hurts to see them suffer, and it hurts to think of them dying. It’s natural to want to avoid these feelings, and perhaps more natural the more we care about them. But this is, of course, an attitude that leaves elders isolated and alone, especially if we’re sick. What are nursing homes, after all, if not places where we can put the people we love where we don’t have to see them suffer? This is something I had thought about occasionally, but I had never experienced before personally; and rather than feel it as some kind of back-handed expression of caring about me, it felt like a betrayal, and it still feels like that.
I think that from a Buddhist perspective, the problem with any statement that starts with “I’m afraid I’ll lose you…” is that it focuses the attention on the future rather than the present. “Some time in the indefinite, unknowable future, you may die before me, and this prospect hurts me so much that I can’t bear to hang out with you in the present – where your struggles are quite manageable.” In fact my friend could die before me, or I could die first in a way that would be enlightening for us both, or I could recover from my illness, or neither of us could die for a long time.
And here is the other problem with this attitude: in the face of both genuine hardship and day-to-day joys, it pulls my friend away from me instead of towards me. We share less, which seems a shame. I miss the human connection I had with my friend, who is clearly suffering more than I am with this. I’m just living my life, while my friend is apparently carrying around a mass of unresolved suffering.
Thinking about it this way, I dug out Pema Chodron’s book Comfortable with Uncertainty and re-read the sections on tonglen and added the following to my daily practice. “May I be free of the pain of turning away from others as they grow old and have chronic illness. May my friend be free of the pain of turning away from others as they grow old and have chronic illness. May all beings be free of the pain of turning away from others as they grow old and have chronic illness.” It helps, both to recognize that I’ve felt the same urge to turn away, and to identify the act of turning away, rather than being turned away from, as the greater hurt.
It would help me if readers would post your reactions to this situation. Have you felt the urge to turn away from friends who are old, or sick, or otherwise suffering? How have you handled such feelings? Have your friends turned away from you? How have you handled that? What are your thoughts?
Photo by Dale Bennett