THE BLOG
11/21/2014 04:07 pm ET Updated Jan 19, 2015

How Do You Live?

Two weeks before she killed herself, my older sister Marcia showed up at my house, wanting to ask an important question. She stared at me for a long time, looking haggard and sad after months of depression, till finally Marcia came out with it. "How do you live?" my sister asked, looking deep into my eyes. "How do you do it?"

I had no earthly idea what to tell her. I was 21, self-absorbed and ambitious, far more interested in making it in the world than in exploring my inner life. I answered Marcia with platitudes ("Put one foot in front of the other." "What's the choice?" "You just do.") that sent her away from me disappointed. After she died, Marcia's question became my haunting mantra. How does a person survive his own life? How does a person get up off the ground after he's been knocked down? What gives us hope, what brings us meaning? When I became a seeker ten years later, I traveled the world in search of answers from master survivors and teachers, individuals who'd come through a wide variety of catastrophes -- from physical paralysis to sexual violence to AIDS, slavery, the Holocaust, and the death of a child from cancer. Varied as their stories were, I was struck most of all by the common refrains that echoed among these survivors, wisdom that one could apply not only in times of serious crisis but also to the traumas of everyday life, stress, disappointment, heartache, health issues, setbacks in jobs, romance, and finances, the ordinary tsurris that comes with having a human existence. How does a person live through that?

Their responses were bracing, original, and sometimes counterintuitive. Here are a few of my favorites:

Something else is also true. A bereaved mother named Maria Housden said this to me following her three-year-old daughter's death from cancer. Surviving a suicidal depression, Maria had a spiritual awakening that led to her writing a classic book for bereaved parents (Hannah's Gift), leaving an unhappy marriage, and coming to know herself for the first time. "No matter what's happening at a given moment," Maria told me, "something else is also true." Becoming aware of the double nature of experience enables us to persevere when we're struggling to find our way forward through darkness. "There is a hidden face to every situation that will only be revealed in time. The information isn't all in yet; we don't know the shape that changes will take." Survivors learn the line between good and bad luck is extremely fuzzy (unwanted things lead to some excellent outcomes) and that life is often enriched by loss and the brightened by dark materials.

Reinvention is my philosophy. Poet Laureate Stanley Kunitz said this to me when he was 99 and filled with more joie de vivre than most people muster in a lifetime. Stanley had been through many horrors, from the suicide of his father to rampant anti-Semitism (he lost a teaching job at Harvard after being told that "students wouldn't appreciate being taught by a Jew") to the disappearance of his first wife from their farm, never to be seen again. Yet Stanley was exuberantly engaged, fascinated by all manner of things, and committed to beauty (he compared every new poem to "meeting a new bride"). "Self-reinvention is my philosophy," he insisted. "Imagination is the key to creating a life that is ever new. We are each of us a changeling person. We are not going to be the same decade after decade," he explained. "Wisdom results from confronting not only one's desires but also one's limitations." Stanley viewed his life as an organic process (his famous garden in Provincetown served as his poetic laboratory), and viewed existence as an ongoing growth process with all its pains and uncertainties. This enabled him to meet the future with curiosity rather than dread, a sentiment captured in the last lines of his poem 'The Round." "I can scarcely wait till tomorrow/when a new life begins for me/ as it does each day/ as it does each day."

Until I question my thoughts, I suffer. If I got a tattoo across my forehead, this is what it would say. Knowing that we create our own suffering, moment by moment, thought by obsessive thought, is to understand why being alive can be so damn painful. We can interrupt this cycle of suffering by questioning our thoughts, however, as the Buddha taught and Byron Katie told me during an interview. We were sitting in this remarkable teacher's hotel room in New York City. Katie was sitting across from me next to her husband, renowned translator Stephen Mitchell. I had come through a weekend workshop with Katie and been deeply impressed by her particular brand of ferocious tough love and refusal to coddle her students' illusions. Instead, she challenges our dearest-held stories by asking, simply, "Is it true?" and taking a wrecking ball to our stories. During our interview, I asked Katie about her take-no-prisoners approach to awakening. She smiled at me with naughty amusement. "Tell me, honey, do you want to be free? Or do you want to suffer?" Needless to say, that shut me up fast.

Gratitude is everything. I was told this by Brother David Steindl-Rast, the Benedictine monk, during a phone call from his hermitage in Upstate New York. "A spiritual energy flows through the universe, a super aliveness, an active YES," Brother David told me. "When we say count your blessings, this is as very profound teaching. A stream of blessing, of energy, is flowing from the universal source as blood pulsates from the heart. Knowing this, I'm energized and pass the blessing along to my brother so it flows again to its source. In this way we create a network of grateful living." How beautiful is that? A network of grateful living. It turns out that gratitude is the antidote to self-pity; it's the voice reminding us that if life is, indeed, a gift, then the appropriate answer must be "Thank you." Cheesy as this may sound to cynical ears, gratitude is the bottom line, truly. Anyone who's ever been rescued from despair by remembering that life could be much worse knows this to be true. It's possible to have compassion for ourselves without a trace of self-pity.

Optimism is not required for healing. Contrary to the New Age notion that we're responsible for everything that happens to us, including physical illness, Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen reminded me that "optimism is not required for healing," and that our so-called destructive emotions are actually part of the healing process. "People can get caught in anger, this is true," said Rachel, an M.D., author, and longtime survivor of chronic illness. "But there is a place for anger in the process of becoming a human being. Without it there's something important you don't get to have." That thing is authenticity, she told me. The flaky idea that if we don't keep a smiley-face on we're conspiring with the forces of darkness is nothing but propaganda and magical thinking. Apparently, it is far wiser (and more healthful) to be honestly unhappy, pessimistic, and vulnerable than it is to be fraudulently optimistic. As long as we don't remain stuck in resistance. As long as we surrender to what is true and remember that we are not in control.

These are some things that I would have shared with Marcia. If only I had known.