Sunday, August 28, 2011

Suffering teaches us that we are not alone

Sounds odd to say that. After all, we find ourselves in the position of utter desolation, with no one caring, no one helping, no one really understanding. That is one of the forms that suffering takes. In suffering we occasionally find ourselves utterly alone. But we are not.

The great human tendency is to think of ourselves as the center of the universe.

We call it narcissism when others do it. Tell a story and have the other person respond with his or her story. Share a dream and watch the hearer say it was prompted by something he or she told you. Talk about a common human failing and get the response, "I'm not like that!"

The scientific speculation is that newborn infants perceive everything as an extension of themselves. Growing up involves painfully realizing that no, in fact, the world doesn't exist for you.

Enter suffering and its wisdom.

At the dark bottom of the well of sorrow, bereft of friend or foe, I realize that I can do nothing about my circumstances. At least not at the moment. I can get cancer, whether I like it or not; a storm can wash away my favorite spot; parents and relatives can die. I can't even choose when this will happen or when to feel better.

Why? Because I am not alone. Reality, the universe, my planet, my nation, my city, my home, the people I know and don't know, they all exist and will continue to go on their merry way with or without me.

Reality is not just a clever projection. If it were, I would be able to control it. But no, it behaves of its own without so much as a "by your leave." Such insolence to someone as important as me!

This we can learn from suffering: we are not alone, there is a wondrous and scary, glorious and tragic, disgusting and beautiful world of things and people outside of ourselves. They don't really care whether they inflict pain and we can't stop them from doing so if they are determined.

Gautama Buddha realized it at the foot of the tree thousands of years ago. Insofar as I know, however, and I do know very little, he didn't particularly draw a lesson from suffering, other than one antidote, detachment.

I assent to that, but because I am still attached to the idea of Truth with a capital T, I revel in the lesson of suffering. I am a part, a speck, of the universe.

I am not alone.


Andy said...

Strangely, I really like this post!

Anonymous said...

On this same train of thought -- I think that out of suffering can and often does come compassion for other people. Sometimes you have to know suffering in order to be compassionate in that people who have been sheltered their whole lives have more difficulty being compassionate!