A friend I made in Chile shared with me this quote he read once that stuck with him. We’d been discussing the social/political climate in Chile, which led us to talk about the misguidedness and, at times, impossibility of comparing suffering. And he said, “Suffering is like a gas--it fills the space it’s in.”
The real quote is from Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, and it goes, “A man's suffering is similar to the behavior of a gas…. [It] completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the ‘size’ of human suffering is absolutely relative.”
This quote continued to be relevant in day-to-day conversations for the rest of our time in Chile. It would pop up every so often, a thread tying together different days, conversations and circumstances. “Suffering is like a gas,” we’d say. Whenever one of us would say it I’d picture a squat little gas fireplace filling with smoke ‘til you couldn’t see in.
Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning has followed me around since early February to an uncanny extent. A friend gave me the book in the weeks before I left for abroad, and throughout my time in Chile, it somehow never faded from view--people kept quoting it or recommending it, and it was even suggested as a way to get through the difficulty of leaving Chile.
Now I’m back in the States, quarantining in a friend’s apartment in St. Paul, Minnesota. Not twenty minutes ago, I was laying eagle-spread on the wooden floor next to my air mattress trying to comprehend that I was in the US instead of Chile, and I asked myself, how do you feel? I was expecting to feel sad. But I didn’t. I’ve been checking in every day, waiting to feel sad, assuming it must be coming for me, but it has never come. Truthfully, I haven’t been sad in a long time.
To be clear: I want to be in Chile. Returning to my country was the last thing in the world I wanted to do, and from the moment I found out I had to go back to the moment my plane touched US soil, I felt like I was watching a movie of my life instead of actually living it. The desire to go back to Santiago is so strong it’s startling, and it hits me like I’m getting shocked by carpet static. But I’m not sad. I think Viktor Frankl helped me figure out why, just now (his streak of remaining eerily relevant continues ever longer)--
Suffering is like a gas, but I’m learning awe is like that, too. Awe fills every crevice of the body so that there’s no room for anything else. What I realized there on the floor was that I’m not sad, I’m in awe. In total awe of what I had in Chile. I spent many moments abroad simply trying to wrap my mind around the magnitude of what was happening, and there were so many dimensions to living in Chile that most of the time things felt a little surreal. Plus, the abundance of love and appreciation I felt and gave nonstop seems in hindsight nearly impossible.
There’s no room for sadness in a body that holds this much awe. Now when I picture that lil’ gas fireplace, plugged at the top, is so full it’s nearly opaque.
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<p>I'm from small-town Minnesota and in my third year at Grinnell College, where I'm independently majoring in Health Science Writing. I enjoy drinking tea, cooking, swing dancing and signing ASL. I also read a lot of books and entertain myself with little things like research projects and scavenger hunts. I chose to study abroad in Santiago, Chile - a city of over 5 million - because my top two priorities were (1) to live someplace I could speak Spanish all the time, and (2) to live in a way that's significantly different from what I already know.</p>