By David Williams
We in the United States want to live the American Dream—to live as long as possible and stay as young as possible. Not only do we want to be free from pain, but we also want many material things that give us pleasure. Working as a physician, I see how the health system in the United States is oriented towards helping us live out the American Dream. Great amounts of money are spent extending our lives and making us more beautiful through cosmetic surgery. When someone dies, it is often seen as a failure. People come into my office saying, "I don't have time to be sick," or, "I'm tired of not feeling well," suggesting that they expect suffering and death to come to them on their terms. The problem is the unavoidable presence of suffering and death in this life. We can try all we want to modify this fact, but we are all going to suffer and die. We are so used to the desire to live as long and as enjoyably as possible, and so unaccustomed to suffering and death, that when suffering and death occur, we are frightened and unprepared.
As a physician, I see that if I have not come to terms with my own suffering and death and the suffering and loss of my loved ones, I have a hard time dealing with patients who are suffering and dying. I either separate myself from the patient, appearing cold and callous, or I avoid the situation entirely. The patient will not only have a physician who is unable to help him through this time, but he may actually have someone who works against him.
Being a Buddhist helps me accept the reality of suffering and death in my life and in the lives of my family, friends, and patients. It helps me grow beyond a seemingly bleak realization of death to a deep understanding of the Buddha nature of all things. Peace and happiness are always available to us if we can be in touch with this Buddha nature in the present moment. When suffering does arise, I can face my fears better and be there to help others. Suffering and death, when handled properly, can be the gateway to deeper growth that is not possible any other way.
With a growing number of HIV/AIDS patients, I have many opportunities to experience the suffering and death of these precious humans. It can be difficult for me to be there to wimess the pain in the patient who is not able to handle the suffering, but what I try to do is to let my patients know that their suffering does not need to overwhelm them; that there is a way out from underneath the unbearable weight of their burden. I try to be there to help them go beyond the suffering and their impending death. It is only with this realization of suffering and death that we can grow through meditation and go on with living life to the fullest.
David Williams is a medical doctor in Riverview, Michigan.