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Full catastrophe living

"Don't try to figure out suffering, Kev, it will drive you crazy," my Dad said to me several months into the illness that would eventually take him from us. In just the past week I've had several calls from people struggling with suffering that seems particularly "un-figure-out-able." So I thought of an essay (below) I originally included in The Inconceivable Surprise of Living about my trip to Biloxi, Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. Our medical team from Toledo was on site before the Red Cross or FEMA. But, believe it or not, Papa John's pizza got there before us, handing out pizzas for breakfast, lunch, and dinner to anyone who needed them! Just as Papa John's provided sustenance for our bodies, I hope the Jesuit theologian Teilhard de Chardin's words below and my reflections will provide you some sustenance for whatever you're dealing with this week.

In the final analysis, the question of why bad things happen to good people transmutes itself into some very different questions, no longer asking why something happened, but asking how we will respond, what we intend to do now that it happened.

—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

A few days after Hurricane Katrina struck in September 2005, a physician friend called and asked me if I would like to join him on a medical team he was organizing. Flying in over Biloxi, Mississippi I had a queasiness in my stomach as the sheared-off trees and damaged airport came into view. As we touched down in the hurricane zone, I was not sure I was strong enough to be compassionately present to what I was to see over the next nine days.

An elderly man I met described how he survived Katrina’s flooding by standing on tiptoes on his kitchen counter for hours in seawater up to his nose. Listening to many such stories, it was easy to slip into an existential funk about the randomness of who died and who did not. The mind always wants life to make sense, but the only thing that made sense on that trip was reaching out to suffering people in a catastrophe. We’re all up to our noses in mystery in this world. The mystery of suffering is as great and unyielding as the mystery of existence itself.

When I returned from Katrina I realized that the suffering I hear about daily in my office is every bit as worthy of compassion as the suffering of hurricane survivors. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book on mindfulness-based stress reduction, Full Catastrophe Living, takes its title from a line in the film Zorba the Greek. When asked if he is married, Zorba says: “I’m a man, so I married. Wife, children, house, everything. The full catastrophe.” We’re all living the “full catastrophe” of life. We’ve all got it all—the light and the dark, the joy and the sorrow. We’ll never figure out why everything happens, but we can ask what we intend to do now that it happened.

Kevin Anderson, Ph.D. is a psychologist, author, and speaker who lives in the Toledo, Ohio area. His latest book Now is Where God Lives: Nested Meditations to Delight the Mind and Awaken the Soul is available at Amazon or

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