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Life as an Experience in Contrast

Vivid moments of contrast can provide richness and fresh insight. That doesn't mean they're all meaningful or enjoyable, though.

This first memory is effortless. When I close my eyes, I can feel the warm breeze that kissed my face as I stood on a small boat and gazed at the Caribbean Sea. As the boat broke the water, it churned the deep shades of sapphire and azure into layers of cerulean and cornflower. The waves crested in shades of white that perfectly matched the colors of the insulating clouds in a brilliant sky.

As I looked at the tranquil, sleeping faces of my sons, it seemed that, just for a moment, everything was perfect. It was as though the hum of the boat’s engine was the only thing keeping us tied to earth—without it, we would have been completely absorbed by heaven. 

There, in that moment, it was easy to feel the transcendent peace of equanimity, the capaciousness of God’s love. I saw it as vividly as the skyline. I smelled it, fresh and sweet as a gust of ocean air. I heard it in the chatter of passing seagulls and I felt it in the comfortable kiss that my husband, Michael, pressed into my shoulder. 

There, in that moment, it was easy to feel the transcendent peace of equanimity, the capaciousness of God’s love. I saw it as vividly as the skyline.

My second memory is at home only a few weeks prior to the first and starts with sleeping. Not the kind of sleep where my brain is still cataloging every creak and pop of the house as it settles in for the night, but the kind of deep, warm, and agreeable sleep that comes after a long day. It was in that sleep when I felt a tap, tap, tap and heard a whimpered, “Mom.” Kai’s voice was on the verge of tears. I opened my eyes and saw him holding his belly. 

Every evening, Kai is hooked up to a pump that feeds him calorically-dense formula through a tube in his stomach. The stoma (the hole where the tube sits) was created surgically, but the tube itself is just a plastic valve held in place by a small water balloon. As old tubes wear out, we replace them with new tubes by deflating the balloon in the old tube, swapping and then inflating the balloon in the new tube. 

With a frightened groan, he told me how during the night, the formula lines on his pump tangled around his tube. When he turned, the lines caught and his tube (with the balloon still full) was ripped from his stomach. Michael turned on the lights and we examined his stoma. Despite a little blood, no major damage had been done, so we tossed the old tube and went to the shelf to get a new one. 

Kai’s stomach was swollen and painful from the trauma, and every time we tried to put the new tube in, he would wince and squirm. After several frustratingly unsuccessful attempts, we gave up. However, the opening would begin to seal within a few hours, so a new tube needed to be placed soon to avoid surgery to unseal his stoma. To insert a new G-tube into Kai’s raw belly, we needed a firmer and steadier hand. Or someone less sympathetic?

It was approaching 1 a.m. so we were long past the operating hours of the pediatrician or InstaCare. Our only option was the emergency room. As we approached, the large hospital building seemed to be blanketed in a darkness that even the streetlights seemed unable to diffuse, and the waiting room had the sterile scent of industrial cleaner. I checked us in and we sat down. Kai was 17 and had had his G-tube for five years, so this wasn’t the first time we’d had issues related to it, but he still nervously fidgeted next to me. 

It was noiseless and eerily somber in the E.R. that evening. The silence was so still that even the subtle hiss of the sliding automatic door seemed deafening. Everyone turned toward the noise and watched as an Asian couple in their mid-fifties walked up to the counter. They were looking for their son. “He’s currently en route,” the nurse said quietly. “Once he arrives, they will be transferring him to the ICU.” She pointed to the seats across from Kai and me. “Just go ahead and wait over there.” She paused and the couple nodded. “I’ll call you when he arrives and you can go up with him.” Their faces exhibited grief and their shoulders were weighed down by the agony and distress that comes with the fragility of life.

As I think about the juxtaposition of these two memories, one on the ocean and the other in the emergency room, I wonder if it is possible to feel equanimity in both. Peace, comfort, and love come easily when the world around you is paradisaical. But were those parents feeling the love of God while waiting for their son’s arrival in the E.R. that night? 

In certain moments of deep despondency, the presence of God feels remote. During these times, I try to hide from my sorrows. Without God, I feel hollow, and in that vacant space the feeling of hopelessness flourishes. Why, especially in my darkest moments, does it seem so hard to feel His presence?

Life is full of dukkha, a Buddhist word that encompasses life’s pain, suffering, stress, anxiety, and uncertainty. The first noble truth of Buddhism is that dukkha is inevitable. Matthew tells us that while in Gethsemane,  Jesus said, “My soul is sorrowful to the point of death” (Matthew  26:38). After Jesus prayed, He looked for His disciples, and Luke tells us, “He found them sleeping as a result of sorrow” (Luke 22:45). Like Jesus’ disciples, I too have looked to sleep (literally and figuratively) as a way of coping with life’s seemingly unbearable burdens. Thinking of the Lord’s disciples also employing sleep when overwhelmed at their own sense of Jesus’ anguish breaks my heart. No one is immune from dukkha.

There is a misconception that if we truly understand our purpose and the expanse of our blessings, we will always be happy; that even in trials, we’ll gratefully say, “This is such a great opportunity for me to learn!” and subsequently thank God for our hardships and struggles. While I’m not discounting the idea of using trials as an opportunity for growth, that doesn’t mean we’ll suddenly feel only pleasant things. And it’s a problem to ignore dukkha and bottle up or hide the emotions that have been labeled as negative. Be honest with God and yourself about your emotions. I feel sadness. I feel guilt and discouragement. I feel fear, anger, and anxiety. I feel alone. 

Acknowledging that dukkha is inherent in life can give us new strength to wake up from our sleep. This does not mean the cause of our pain is easily justified. Rather, it means simply acknowledging that feelings and emotions that result from the situation are unavoidable. This spiritual awakening to the reality of our situation puts us in a position to better receive the grace of Jesus Christ by setting aside the resistance to our pain so we can focus on what exactly the Healer might offer.

In Matthew 6:34 Jesus says, “Do not worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow can worry for itself.” He doesn’t say, “Don’t worry at all.” He tells us we need only worry about today today and deal with tomorrow tomorrow because grace is given moment by moment as we need it. 

Dukkha is inevitable; God’s grace is ineffable. 

My life has been and will continue to be an amalgamation of contrasts: happiness and sadness, joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain. God created this existence as an experience of opposites. His will is for us to learn to live in this world not by deflecting these tensions, but perhaps instead by sitting with them for a moment, addressing them, and then setting them aside. 

Dukkha is inevitable; God’s grace is ineffable.

You cannot feel joy without also understanding sorrow. In life, each moment needs to be understood for exactly what it is, pleasant or unpleasant, encouraging or challenging. Then, in those present feelings, we should take comfort in the knowledge that God is there. Dukkha encompasses our pain, stress, sadness, and anxiety, and, as such, is an essential part of experiencing equanimity.

Acknowledging our feelings, both sweet and painful, and understanding that they are part of life allows us to move past them and find peace in God. In so many occasions (if not all), accepting dukkha is accepting the will of God.

Being present in each moment frees us to receive God’s love without holding on to judgments from the past or succumbing to worries of the future. It’s in this soft spot, this fleeting moment of the present, that we can find God (or be found by God) and thus be able to receive His grace.

About the author

Lis Malmgren

Lis Malmgren is a social media specialist in the School of Family Life at BYU.
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