The next day, we set out for the birthplace of Buddha. It takes us a few hours by car to get there, and we arrive in the heat of the day. It’s about 105 degrees with high humidity.
Anant shows us where to leave our shoes at the gate of the memorial grounds. He explains that we will need to walk to and around the temple barefoot because this is holy ground. Our shoes will be waiting for us when we’re done. We can see the heat radiating off the pavement, and the temple is not a short walk from the shoe stand. Anant smiles wide at my slack-jawed expression, bobbles his head side to side, makes the ‘OK’ sign with both hands, and repeats the Buddhist/Hindu saying, “Life is suffering.”
This isn’t the first time he’s said this.
He first said it during the 7-hour road trip from Kathmandu to Chitwan. We wound our way through the Himalayan foothills on roads that used to be pavement, even had safety railings in some places. But the earthquakes and mudslides of 2015 destroyed them. Now all that remains is dusty, lane-less, pothole-riddled earth with steep inclines and drop-offs on either side. The dust was so thick at times that we occasionally lost sight of the petrol tanker in front of us.
He also said it when we found out the internet cable at our Lumbini hotel had been accidentally cut, rendering our stay WiFi-less. All kinds of suffering.
Initially, this phrase put me off. It smacked of abdication or a shirking of responsibility. I think this aversion was partially due to my American heritage. Our national identity pivots around being the hero, and we tie our worth to what we do. We so value action.
I certainly felt left behind. I struggled in a sea of smiley Christians, all rushing towards celebration, while I desperately tried to keep my head above the waves. I even rushed myself, trying to expedite my grief. Many times, in the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda, I was in so deep it felt like it would be easier to just swim down.
In my darkest moments, I curled up inside a podcast called Terrible, Thanks for Asking where the host, Nora McInerny, and her guests look up close at hard things they’ve experienced: death, sickness, abuse. And it was so healing for me. Often I listened as complete strangers gave words to my own experience, explained my charred insides to me, and confirmed, “It’s OK to not be OK.”
We have a responsibility to sit with people dealing with hard things and bear witness to their suffering. We want to fix it immediately and get to the celebration, the ‘After’ picture, the happy ending. That’s much easier than acknowledging that life is so often suffering. But, sometimes, we need to sit on our hands and simply affirm this pain.
One of the biggest obstacles that kept me from seeking professional therapy was that I didn’t want someone “fixing” it. I felt like I was bleeding out, and going to therapy would just add someone explaining tourniquet theory to my chaos.
But, in my very first session, after I spent 20 minutes ugly-crying and word-vomiting all over a lady I’d just met, she simply took a breath said, “You have been carrying so much.” I exhaled after holding my breath for six months.
This is where we have to start: in the garden. Life is suffering.
It’s hard and so utterly unfair, and you’re carrying it all.
I see you. It’s OK to not be OK.
And I will bear witness to your pain, your anger, your confusion.
I see you.
I see you.
The following day, we begin one of our longest drives – 10 hours total. The plan is to cross over the border early and finally introduce ourselves to India. We won’t stop until we reached Varanasi.
About 20% into this epic road trip, our van’s AC gives out. When the driver says we have 3 hours to go, my phone says it is 106º inside the bus. Anant turns to me and says, with his rhythmically rolled R’s, “I feel like a roast chicken.” I smile, “Me too.” Then I bobble my head side to side, make two Buddha hands, and say, “Life is suffering.”