Seeking Peace in Our Worrisome World

By Mary Pipher, The Washington Post, March 26, 2009

Washington, USA -- All over America people are on the edge. They are worried about their businesses, health care and bank accounts. Some of my friends and family members have lost their homes and all of them are praying that they won't lose their jobs.

As I look at the faces of people on the street, I see sorrow, exhaustion and fear. I know that some of these people are falling apart, but I don't know which ones. From personal experience I am aware of how quietly we can melt down.

My crisis was precipitated by the last speech I gave in 2001. Since the publication of "Reviving Ophelia" in 1994, I had pushed myself to work harder, faster and better. Over the years I had developed insomnia and heart and blood pressure problems. On an icy November morning my husband and I traveled from Nebraska to Ohio on commuter planes, both of which experienced mechanical problems. I had the flu and felt exhausted from my recent work trips. We drove a rental car through drizzle to a cheap motel in a dismal town. We stopped at the only place we could find that was open, a dark and dirty café. I had been reading "Fast Food Nation," a book about the quality of food in America.

I believed I could taste fecal matter in my chili. I realized that I was in trouble. Either my food was contaminated or I was so seriously depressed that I imagined I was eating excrement. Whichever it was, the treatment was the same -- go home and stay there.

At the event, my mood was black, but I marshaled my forces and functioned. Still, during the Q and A, when a student asked me, "What was the point of your talk?" I cascaded back into despair. I knew I was in trouble. By the next afternoon, when our flight touched down in Lincoln, I didn't want to move, speak, or eat. Acting normal, pretending to care, or talking to anyone required too much energy. I yearned for a vacation from the human race.

That winter I was, as Raymond Carver put it, 'too nervous to eat pie." Mostly I stayed home. I read biographies of Abraham Lincoln and I cooked my favorite soups. I walked on the prairie and listened to Bach. Mine was a polite crisis. I performed all my duties and no one but Jim, not even my adult children or best friends, knew I was falling apart. I tell you this because we can never know who among us is living in despair. Everyone carries a heavy burden. Everyone.

Trauma often turns us towards the sacred. I knew that my old ways of coping were inadequate for the tasks at hand. Growth was the only way out of my crisis. I turned towards Buddhism to calm down and to connect to something larger than my tired broken self. As I moved into Buddhist language and away from the terminology of mental health, I felt less damaged and alone. Buddha taught that life is suffering. In my sadness, I was simply committing the crime of being human. Slowly I recovered my health and vitality. But I did more than bounce back. I found a spiritual home where I could go when I wanted to be present and feel grateful. I increased my capacity for joy.

We all suffer but we don't all grow. Some of us remain locked in our small selves cosseted by a blanket of familiar, but outdated ideas. My new book, "Seeking Peace: Chronicles of the Worst Buddhist in the World," is about my search for a bigger self. But I hope it is not just about me. I wrote it about us.

Despair is prevalent if not universal, but so are ancient and universal rituals of comfort and healing. We can lie in the grass like lizards and soak in the springtime sun. We can plant some pansies or tomatoes and visit with our neighbors. We can rock babies, lie down under the stars and walk along rivers. We can share meals and stories, and yes, we can share our pain and our love for each other.

Mary Pipher, Ph.D., is a psychologist and the author of the new book, "Seeking Peace: Chronicles of the Worst Buddhist in the World." She will be reading and signing her books at 1 p.m. Saturday at Politics & Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave NW, in Washington. Her seven previous books, include the New York Times bestsellers "Reviving Ophelia," "The Shelter of Each Other," and "Another Country," as well as "Writing to Change the World."