Now in my seventies, I notice friends and family members in the same age range making far reaching decisions that may shorten their lives. When I’m flummoxed and plunged into distress by the actions of people I love, often not open to outside help, what resources can I turn to? I’m fortunate to have Buddhist teachings that help. I’ve come to understand that my grief can provide a wellspring of compassion and wisdom. Buddhism has a name for this: Boddhichitta, but putting it into practice proves to be very hard for me. My family and close friends provide me with practice.
At age seventy-seven, my sister, Beth, adores eating one-quarter pound of butter per day. She also drinks peppermint schnapps and other liqueurs at night. Carrying an extra one hundred twenty-five pounds of body weight, she’s had a major stroke and several heart surgeries in the last few years. Once in a while, she tries a diet. But, after a short time, she reverts to her old ways and gains the weight back. This looks like an agonizing cycle and I commiserate with how despondent she sometimes feels. Despite the obvious danger of her bad habits, she remains attached to them. Friends and family members’ suggestions for reform, mine included, go unheeded. All I can do is love her, hope for the best and feel extremely grateful I’ve avoided her path.
Luckily, I’m lactose intolerant, so I look at butter and see a stomach ache. Liquor gives me pains in the gut and makes me feel stupid and slow. It seems to be dumb luck that Beth’s downfalls don’t tempt me. When I witness her suffering and unsuccessful efforts to help herself, my heart cracks open to new layers of sadness. Boddhichitta practice says this is good because it’s the source to our compassion. When I consciously overcome my disgust at Beth’s bad habits and feel the deep sadness, I feel empathy and send her prayers.
Perhaps Beth imitates our mother, although Mom’s post-five p.m. libations consisted of two coffee mugs of straight vodka, one ice cube in each. An extrovert, Mom loved her drinking buddies until the day she died at age eighty. In her fifties, she gave up exercise and became overweight and mostly chair-bound. By her seventies, she could barely walk. But most people didn’t notice because they saw the party girl, sitting and drinking. With uproarious joy, she maintained this life style until the day a brain hemorrhage suddenly ended her life.
I deeply mourn her, but don’t want to copy her life choices. Being an introvert, I savor peaceful time for long walks and yoga. The occasional tea parties I enjoy don’t escalate into the raucous daily get-togethers based on alcohol that Mom so loved.
She considered my tee-totaling life boring. Swayed by her charismatic personality, I accepted her judgments for several decades. Filled with self-loathing for never being good enough, I felt miserable. But over the years, through self-reflection and meditation, I’ve come to embrace a happy quiet life and appreciate my differences from her. Although painful at times, loving her has not been in vain because Boddhichitta bolsters me with an ultimate spiritual value.
Since the second grade, my girlfriend, Jane, has been like a sister to me. Sharing years of Girl Scout camp together, we still love the outdoors. We get together on hiking trails or in her garden. Although she’s Christian and I’m Buddhist, we love to discuss our vibrant spiritual lives. Often, we compare notes on what works best for us and share recent authors we’ve read. She’s quirky and artistic and it’s a treat to visit art museums together. I relish the depth her life-long friendship gives me. We reminisce about our parents and school high-jinx. Whatever I can’t remember, she’s sure to know and refresh my memory. This enriches my knowledge and insight into my younger years.
Yet, I can’t fathom the choices Jane’s making in her seventies. She stays in an abusive relationship she should have, by her own reckoning, left twenty years ago. The daily emotional strain takes a heavy mental and physical toll. She undergoes two to three surgeries a year, her pain level unimaginable to me. We share profound talks about her decision to remain with her spouse and continue her bitter arguments with him. She feels strongly she must try to prevail on certain key issues. Her health continues to worsen. A recent incurable lung disease renders her unable to walk much anymore. Yet she stays in this destructive situation. My heart aches for her.
In the past, when I’ve had relationships with intractable partners, I’ve been able to let them go so we can each pursue a separate path. This process is messy and it’s an experience no one wants. But I’m dismayed that Jane’s precious life remains severely compromised and progressively gets worse. When I feel this sorrow, similar to what I experience with Beth, I empathize, love them both and pray. Also, I more sincerely appreciate that I can detach from destructive partners and some bad habits, giving myself the gift of a serene life.
In loving Beth, Mom and Jane, I carve a hollow in my soul for their hurts and hardships. I often remind myself to dwell instead on my empathy for them, Boddhichitta. In Buddhism, it’s a spiritual value, essential to acquire on the path toward enlightenment. I should be thankful to my three heartbreakers because I’m learning unexpected lessons that greatly increase my sympathy for them and others like them. Their struggles carry extra poignancy during what may be their last years. Maybe it’s strange, but I’m slowly becoming grateful that I’ve witnessed and shared their pain and troubles. Thank you Beth, Mom and Jane for helping me to open my heart wider than I thought possible.
Cate Burns is the author of Libido Tsunami: Awash with the Droll in Life, in which she unearths the ludicrous in the emotional live traps surrounding us — in families, friends and disastrous romances. Get it on Amazon today.