“For three nights he slept with irons around his ankles in the cells of the local garrison. But when he was released he felt defrauded by the brevity of his captivity, and even in the days of his old age, when so many other wars were confused in his memory, he still thought he was the only man in the city, and perhaps the country, who had dragged five-pound leg irons for the sake of love.”
- From Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
One of the things that distinguishes us as humans is our ability to think symbolically. It’s what enabled us to develop language, since in essence a word is simply a symbolic container for meaning that, with the exception of onomatopoeias, has very little to do with the form or sound of the word itself. Although we’re perhaps not as aware of it, we’re constantly applying the same symbolic approach to virtually everything we experience in our lives. We turn objects, people and experiences into symbols that are just as powerful as words, and often even more so.
Our symbolic instinct reaches it’s full potential in the context of suffering. Some of the most potent cultural symbols of our day, i.e. Christ on the cross, involve the symbolic transmutation of an act of suffering into something far greater than itself. When someone makes a conscious decision to open themselves to suffering out of love for something or someone, that suffering in effect becomes a symbol of that love.
A few months ago, I had an experience that brought this home in a powerful way. I was spending time with people in a group setting, and made the decision to leave because at the time I was going through a challenging period and wanted to avoid negatively impacting the people around me. After leaving I felt lonely, on top of the struggle I was already going through. What I noticed, however, is that irrespective of whether leaving the group was the right choice in the end (in retrospect I don’t think it was), I could consciously choose to experience the loneliness I felt partially as a symbol of my own desire to respect and support other people’s experiences.
That realization set off an avalanche, and I couldn’t stop noticing how all of life’s various challenges, pains and frustrations can act as arrows that point to something greater and more important than themselves; toward a deep desire to express love and be loved. Quite literally, I couldn’t stop seeing love everywhere. Even seemingly trivial things like washing the dishes shone with a different light. Why else would I wash dishes if not for a desire to care for myself and the people I live with by creating an environment that supports their and my wellbeing? Even the mild suffering of washing the dishes, or appreciating it when someone else does, becomes a chance to notice something beautiful.
The ability to transform an experience of suffering into an experience of love, not because the suffering is shoved away but be because it comes to represent something far greater than itself, is, to me, the best kind of alchemy.