Beyond Palace Walls

Bear ye one another’s burdens
~Galatians 6:2

Perhaps you’ve heard the expression, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” It’s the sort of throwaway line we use when we’re confronted with the suffering of another human being and think they need us to show them some purpose behind their misfortune or else reassure them that everything will somehow be well in the end.

Naturally, it’s nonsense. And the truth is, we usually say things like this to make ourselves feel better when the ugliness of reality imposes itself on the carefully curated and altogether fragile charade that we mistake for a happy life. Whereas compassion draws us close to the person who suffers, pity separates us and creates distance between us and the person who suffers.

Perhaps you recall that the Buddha was a prince and his father carefully shielded him from anything that might cause him sadness or suffering or discomfort. The young prince lived his life behind physical and spiritual walls until, against his father’s wishes, he ventured forth into the world and encountered the reality of life when he observed pain, illness, old age, and death. Instead of retreating from the trauma and returning to the delusion he had known at his father’s palace, he began a spiritual path that even today inspires many of us. The Buddha found a way to transform suffering through compassion.

Some time ago as I chatted with a Buddhist friend, he observed that the primary symbol of Christianity — a dead man on a dead tree — seemed brutal and vulgar next to the image cherished by Buddhists — a man at peace resting in the shade of a verdant tree. Now, there is something disturbing and even fucked up about the tortured image of Christ on the Cross. But what my friend failed to understand is that the Buddha sitting self-contentedly all alone under a shade tree is likewise an obscene and offensive image, as the world is filled with suffering and misery and people who need help. In truth, the primary images of both Christianity and Buddhism are easily misunderstood and both fail to communicate the full story of the men in whose names these religions were founded. To my mind, the point is this: Both Jesus and the Buddha were transformed by their encounter with the Tree; once transformed, both of them arose and went forth from the Tree. As I wrote somewhere, their transformative spiritual experience was not meant to end with them — it was meant to transform the Universe.

Congressman John Lewis, one of the great Americans of our time, speaks of redemptive suffering, using language that he and I both learned in seminary when we were young men. This expression doesn’t mean that suffering necessarily brings us positive transformation. Like any human experience, suffering can be a help or a hindrance. Though we cannot control much of what happens to us in life — those things that we suffer — each of us has the capacity to choose our response. We can anchor ourselves in anger, bitterness, hatred, selfishness, or resentment. In Biblical language, this is called hardening our hearts, and when we harden our hearts we end up progressively alone and alienated from others. Some theologians describe Hell as the state of absolute, unending alienation and loneliness, while the Buddhist teacher Sangharakshita notes that suffering is compounded by isolation and loneliness.

On the other hand, since all of us suffer, suffering can be a place of encounter with other beings who seem different, unconnected, even unintelligible to us. We become aware of our shared experience of life that is precarious, difficult, confusing, fearful, uncertain, unjust, and all too short. We may not actually feel each other’s pain (ahem!) but we understand something of each other’s pain because we have experienced pain in our own lives.

For example, I don’t know what it’s like for you to lose your grandmother, but I lost my grandmother and losing her brought me sadness and pain that I feel still today, decades later. And while I can’t take away your suffering, I can help ease the loneliness and alienation that accompany your suffering. I think that’s something of what John Lewis is getting at when he talks about redemptive suffering. His own traumatic experiences during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s might have made him a bitter, nasty, resentful man. But they didn’t. Instead, they inspired him to help those who need help and to love those who need love. His commitment to compassionate nonviolence has inspired millions of people — myself included.

~BT Waldbillig
October 19, 2017

 

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