Anxiety, Suffering and Blessing
Sam Trumbore | May 15, 2016

If I were to take a snap shot of my life and pass it around the world, most people would say I am living a blessed life.  I was born into a professional class family, always had a roof over my head and enough to eat. I had excellent medical care as I grew up. I attended a top tier university and did well. I had the good fortune to live, got to school and work in one of the most attractive places in the world, the San Francisco Bay Area.

Today, I have the good fortune to pursue a ministry here in Albany in which I experience great joy and satisfaction.  My wife Philomena is very happy with her work in private practice as a psychotherapist offering a highly effective form of trauma therapy.  Our son Andrew has graduated from SUNY Potsdam with a degree in Political Science. Right now he has his first (temporary) job and is building work experience.

Our health and teeth are mostly good.  We live in a home we like very much with some equity accumulating. We have decent used cars that are not in need of major repairs. We can walk to grocery store, restaurants and to catch the bus. We have some savings for a rainy day.  We have some money accumulating for retirement.  As I count up my many blessings, I got nothing to complain about.  Compared to the vast majority of people in the world, my family is living like royalty – better than most royalty of the past!

And yet, and yet, I am no stranger to anxiety and suffering.  All of us have potential health threats looming ahead.  If I eat the wrong foods, often without knowing that that food was a risk, I could have serious intestinal problems that are potentially very dangerous.  We have our risk factors we’re watching or taking medication to mitigate.  Philomena and I both exercise but likely not enough to get the most benefit.

And as someone who has many, many Facebook friends, Twitterers I follow, and knows a lot of people in the Capital Region and the regional and national UU community, I’m regularly aware of the difficulties these people are experiencing in their lives.  Electronic media and social networking has allowed all of us to keep in touch with a vast array of people who are experiencing the full range of human experience … all the time.  Birth, growing up, sickness, old age and death are in our feeds every day. Each of us has family members who are experiencing challenges in the areas of health and employment. As is typical for a congregation our size, I’m frequently concerned about someone in the hospital having a health crisis, losing ground due to illness and old age, and preparing for the end of their lives usually after a long and full life.

It just takes one small disturbance of these social and personal sources for anxiety and suffering to crop up.  The balance suddenly shifts and all the blessings go out the window as the disturbance occupies our full attention.  One new little ache on the side of a tooth, a blood test that comes back with a measurement out of the normal range, some problem with a gadget or device or software program, and my emotions start hijacking my thinking process.  And in that agitated mind state, I lose my perspective and suffer even more than the moment requires.

Evolution is to blame for the imbalance – and we should be glad it exists! We evolved to give the unpleasant of existence far more attention than the pleasant. The unpleasant holds our attention because that kind of sensation is critical in identifying threats. A loud sound, a flash of light or color, a nasty smell, might be a sign of a predator coming after us. A bitter taste might be warning us what is in our mouth could be poisonous or spoiled. Recognizing an angry expression might prepare us for self-defense. Missing one of these cues could put our lives at risk. Missing a pleasant warm breeze, the sweetness of the smell and taste of a freshly picked apple, the soft caress of a caring partner or kind words of emotional support are far less critical to our survival – though they are essential for the feeling of wellbeing. Sadly, pleasant feelings invite us to feel safe … and fall asleep.

Fortunately, biological programming isn’t our destiny. The wonderful plasticity of our minds allows us to rebalance our attention from evolution’s default settings. That is the power of mindful awareness. Our ability to know the changing emotional landscape moment by moment is a powerful tool we can develop. We can develop a balanced attention that takes in both the pleasant and the unpleasant without biasing our minds to one rather than the other. Both will be with us until we take our last breath. Neither need dominate our awareness.

When we experience both the pleasant and unpleasant of existence with equanimity and acceptance, while being awake and attentive to the neutral as well, and nurture our ability to respond with compassion and fairness, our lives will be truly blessed.