Finding a Way Up
by Mindy Milam
I know that to be born human means that at times we will suffer, but nothing could have prepared me for having my life as I know it suddenly and literally washed away when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in August 2005. My partner and I lost our house and nearly all of our possessions, her car, a rental property and my business.
This has been the deepest grief of my lifetime. It is impossible for me to describe in words my feelings at witnessing our home submerged for several weeks beneath five feet of seawater, sewerage, motor oils and other toxins; at sifting through my lifetime's worth of now slime-covered personal possessions; at having to place these on the curb in front of my house like trash, and then watch a bobcat scoop them into the back of a large truck to be destroyed. Buddhism talks about the idea of "turning poison into medicine." When the storm and flood had subsided, I resolved that this experience was my opportunity to do just that.
I found in The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin a passage that reads, "Gold can be neither burned by fire nor corroded or swept away by water, but iron is vulnerable to both. A worthy person is like gold, a fool like iron.... The sutra states ... 'The good fortune you gain thereby ... cannot be burned by fire or washed away by water.'" I placed this and a message of encouragement that we had received from SGI President Ikeda regarding the hurricane on my Buddhist altar, and read them as often as necessary.
The effort to remain a person of "gold" has been a daily struggle. In the last two months we have lived in four places, and are awaiting a government-issued travel trailer we will park on our front yard and call home while we tackle the rebuilding process.
When negative aspects of my life predominate and I plunge into a world of despair and hopelessness, I remind myself that the world of Buddhahood still exists within me--the positive, undaunted aspect of our lives--and I chant for that to manifest. Sometimes I struggle second by second between the part of me that wants to give up because life is so difficult right now, and that part of me that will not be stopped or defeated.
I am encouraged by what Nichiren wrote about happiness: "Suffer what there is to suffer, enjoy what there is to enjoy. Regard both suffering and joy as facts of life, and continue chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, no matter what happens." Such fortitude, he says, will enable one to experience "boundless joy from the Law."
The Buddhism I practice promises that my suffering can be an opportunity to make my life even better than it was before this disaster, if I am willing to be tenacious in my efforts.
Throughout this experience I have chanted for the life force and wisdom to make the best from this situation, focusing on how I could use my skills and training as a licensed clinical social worker to help people who are rebuilding the city. I am now engaged in contract work providing stress management and supportive counseling to staff for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies. I am also rebuilding my own private practice in counseling.
I believe in hope. I believe in my limitless potential, and I am determined to continue to use this practice to help heal my life, the lives of those around me, and my larger community. I remind myself of the example of others who have stayed strong in the toughest and most trying circumstances, and that I can accomplish things in my life in the middle of all of this suffering and destruction. I feel a deep sense of gratitude to all of those people who are supporting me, in a variety of ways. I want to be an example for others to never give up. I will not quit!
[ Courtesy January 2006 SGI Quarterly ]