I’ve just had a beautiful and somewhat surreal experience.
I was listening to Bach’s sublime masterpiece the St Matthew’s Passion on a beautiful and sunny Good Friday morning, and through the open windows I noticed a young wallaby listening along with me.
I’m pretty sure that he/she was listening because normally when I see the wallabies they are either passing through, or grazing or sometimes taking a siesta (they usually lie down for this). This wallaby wasn’t doing any of those things – it was sitting still facing my open window and listening. It stayed there for at least an hour and a half, through two CD changes and only moved on when it got spooked by the sounds of a rubbish collection truck reversing at the end of the road nearby.
As we shared this spiritual experience together, I was contemplating the suffering of Jesus on the cross and I wondered what the wallaby’s experience was – and I imagined it contemplating the millions of animals who died in the fires last year and, more recently, the floods. And in my imagination wallaby and human were sharing a sacred ritual time of grieving for all who suffer and all who have passed, united across species in our shared love and compassion.
Suffering is hard!
Suffering is hard!
It’s hard to make sense of. It’s hard to be present to our own suffering and it’s hard to be present to suffering in other people.
In our relatively affluent Western culture it may be even harder because we are raised almost to believe that we have a right to not suffer. We are cut off, insulated from suffering. If, as children, we got sick we were taken to the doctor with an unshakeable faith that we could be cured with some medicines or, in the worst case, an operation. If we experience pain we are given pain-killers and for emotional pain there are anti-depressants and counsellors.
Culturally we avoid being present to the reality of suffering, just as we avoid being present to the reality of death.
So when we do experience suffering – the incurable disease; the times of poverty; the pain that won’t go away; the heartache of betrayal, separation and loss – it comes as a bit of a shock!
And to make things even worse we have the widespread belief that “we get what we deserve”.
We get what we deserve
This modern heresy comes in various forms. It is the Law of Attraction: the prosperity gurus teaching that wealth or poverty is all about our mindset. It is the New Age distortion of Quantum Theory, teaching us that we manifest whatever we hold in our consciousness. It is the Prosperity Theology that is sweeping through many churches, particularly in America (but now increasingly in Australia as well), which says that if we do the right thing by God – following the 10 commandments, giving a 10th of our money to the church – then God will bless us with prosperity as a reward (and therefore if we are not being blessed by God then we can’t be doing the right thing).
These beliefs persist even outside spirituality. When the average Australian thinks of poor people, most likely they think of “dole-bludgers”, welfare scroungers, people who drink too much or do drugs. Or they might think of refugees who are terrifyingly different from us – uncivilised people from uncivilised countries who we fear might bring their problems with them to our civilised and prosperous nation.
Again the underlying message is that these poor people who suffer are somehow responsible for their own suffering.
It is a core belief of the dominant neo-liberal economic and political paradigm. And it is obvious to anyone who cares to look, that this belief is designed to benefit the wealthy and privileged and to justify not showing compassion, not sharing wealth and power to lift people out of poverty.
And none of this is a new phenomenon!
The old, old story
Jesus confronted the same attitudes in relation to leprosy. The prevailing religious view of his time was that leprosy was a disease that afflicted people who had displeased God in some way. Their “uncleanness” and untouchability was not based on a fear of catching the disease by touching a leper (in fact it is very hard to catch it from touching a leper), but based on a fear of them being morally and spiritually unclean.
Of course, Jesus would have none of this, and he touched and healed the lepers he encountered.
Long before Jesus we have the Old Testament story of Job – a man who was “blameless and upright, fearing God and turning away from evil” – who experienced calamity after calamity, losing everything, and then having to put up with his so-called “comforters” who thought he must be in some way responsible for his own plight. The story of Job is an important counterpoint to the endemic belief that we get what we deserve.
Riding trains in India
In India, a continent of ancient and diverse spirituality, a continent of vast contrasts of wealth and poverty, we have the concepts of Karma and Caste, and I gained some insights into these when travelling in India in my 20s. Before then, I hadn’t seen myself as wealthy. But in the face of constant poverty and begging from people who clearly had much less than I did, I was torn between my instinct for compassion and desire to help and on the other side my fear of giving away everything I own to what was clearly an inexhaustible ocean of need. With relief I latched onto the story I’d been told that most of them were working for gangs and wouldn’t even get to keep the money I gave them. It was the excuse I needed (and wanted) to not give money, and so instead I carried a bunch of bananas and gave them away whenever a beggar asked.
I remember one overnight train ride. Normally I’d been able to book tickets in carriages with bunks, but this time they were all booked out and all I could get was a reserved seat. Unlike the sleeping carriages these were open to anyone with a ticket to travel, and at each station more people would pile into the carriage. While I was reflexively using my elbows to protect the seat space that I had paid for and felt entitled to, I noticed that the poor people sitting at my feet would act completely differently – squeezing themselves even smaller to make room for other people. I felt ashamed of my reactions and decided to instead surrender to the experience – a decision that was soon challenged when one of the small children sitting above me in the luggage rack needed to pee, and some of the pee landed on my head.
I share these experiences to illustrate just how hard the encounter with poverty and suffering can be if we really open ourselves to the experience.
On that trip I was often angered by what I saw as the indifference and hard-heartedness of the Indian middle classes who seemed not to care about the suffering around them. By the time I came to leave, several months later, I was relieved to be going. I understood that if I was to stay there there were only two possible paths for me – either I could keep surrendering as I had on that train, and end up like Mother Teresa (who I met in Calcutta) in service to love and compassion; or I could try to hold onto whatever wealth, possessions and status I had, and end up like the middle classes I had judged so harshly.
In those moments of moral confrontation I had to decide: – this person in front of me, who needs my money more than I need it – is he my brother, my equal as one of God’s children? Or is he lesser than me, less deserving than I, and therefore someone who in some way deserves to have less wealth than I do?
The undeserving poor
This question, I believe, goes right to the heart of the economic inequality in the world today.
Those who have wealth, in a world where people suffer because of poverty, can only justify holding onto their wealth by believing that they are better than the others – that they deserve their wealth and others deserve their poverty. And to maintain that belief, the rich go to great lengths to make sure that they don’t ever have to really encounter in any meaningful way people who are poor and who suffer. And the richer people become, the more cut off they become from the realities of the majority of the world.
In India, these dynamics manifest in the Caste system: people are born into a particular caste and status because of their Karma – the consequences of their actions in previous lives. So everyone gets what they deserves!
Of course there is a layer of truth to this – but there is a real danger when we import a superficial belief in Karma into a hyper-individualised Western culture where it sits alongside half-baked notions of the Law of Attraction, neo-liberal economics, trauma and widespread addictions to consumerism, status-anxiety and other ills.
India also gave rise to Buddhism, another important response to the problem of suffering. For the Buddha, suffering is part and parcel of the world we inhabit, and our attempts to avoid suffering just make things worse. Suffering comes through attachment to what we desire, and the way to lessen suffering is to let go of attachment and embrace and accept the transient nature of what is.
Authentic Buddhism has much depth and subtlety to it. But when the idea of “detachment” is detached from the breadth and richness of Buddhist culture and imported into Western thought, it often becomes “spiritual by-passing”. In the name of detachment, Western spiritual by-passers avoid the emotions that are essential to processing pain and loss – the emotions of grief, anger and despair. Just as Jesus’ contemporaries avoided contact with lepers, today’s spiritual by-passers avoid engaging with the emotions of pain because these are “low vibration” emotions and they don’t want to lower their “vibrational state” by having to feel them. Buddhist detachment often gets translated in the West to psychological avoidance with meditation as the mode of avoidance.
Again: Suffering is hard!
There’s a part of the thinking mind, sometimes called the egoic mind, that sees its job as keeping us safe by working out what is going on. In the face of suffering, this egoic mind goes into overdrive asking the question “Why?”:
“Why is this happening to me?”
“What have I done to deserve this?”
This last question may seem strange. It often seems incomprehensible to us that children who have been abused routinely believe that the abuse was their fault. And yet …. could it be that the alternative is even more terrifying?
If I can work out what I did wrong, then I can avoid doing it and the suffering will stop.
But if my suffering is not because of anything I have done, then there is nothing I can do to prevent it. At any time, and for no reason, I can be thrown into the experience of suffering and there is not a goddam thing I can do about it.
The suffering of the innocent is often used as the conclusive logical proof that God, as an all-powerful and loving supreme-being cannot exist. The argument goes like this: If God is all-powerful and can prevent suffering but chooses not to, then he cannot be all good. If God wishes to relieve suffering but cannot, then he is not all-powerful. These themes are brilliantly explored by Dostoevsky in his novel The Bothers Karamazov in the section called The Grand Inquisitor (well worth a read – in fact essential reading IMHO).
Returning to Good Friday – the day in the Christian calendar when we remember the torture and execution of Jesus (God incarnate; Human embodying the Divine) – what can Christianity offer us when contemplating suffering?
A wise Archbishop once said that “heresy is the refusal to embrace both sides of a paradox”. Spiritual truths are often paradoxical – ie they hold two or more apparently contradictory truths alongside each other.
Going back to Karma, it expresses a truth that our universe has a law of cause and effect. In such a universe, my every action and every thought has consequences which ripple out (often consequences which are unseen) affecting my own life and the lives of others and I have to take responsibility for those consequences .
In paradoxical tension with that is another truth which says that the universe is full of many other beings whose actions and intentions are rippling out and combining with each other in unpredictable ways. The little boat of my life is often tossed about by those combined ripples which sometimes come at me as huge waves and even storms which threaten to sink me.
Taking a step further, we can say that my actions (which flow from my thoughts) have the potential to cause either joy or suffering (and all points in between) for myself and for others. And other’s actions have the potential to cause joy or suffering to me. Here we get into the territory of “sin” (in English the word comes from a Saxon archery word which means “to miss the target”) and the relationship between “sin” and suffering.
In Christianity there is a relationship between sin and suffering, but it is not a clear and direct relationship. We learn that sin gets passed on “to the seventh generation” (inter-generational trauma). And we learn that the “price” (in terms of painful consequences) can be paid by someone who is themselves without sin – ie they were in no way, shape or form responsible for causing that suffering. And sometimes suffering simply falls on undeserving people without any discernable cause, without rhyme or reason.
Beyond that, we learn that God her/himself knows what it is like to suffer, to be betrayed and abandoned by even the closest friends, to lose everything – even faith itself (Jesus’s words on the cross “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”). Orthodox traditions even say that Jesus descended into the depths of hell itself. The message here is: whatever suffering we can experience, God knows from direct experience what it is like and is able to walk alongside us, to accompany us in our suffering. And Christians are invited to walk alongside and accompany those who suffer, embodying as much as we are capable the example of Jesus.
The timing of Easter in the Christian calendar (at least in the Northern hemisphere) also points to an ancient truth – the law of change and cycles. This is the truth we see expressed in indigenous traditions as the Medicine Wheel and the Four Directions. Easter marks the point in the calendar between Winter and Spring. Winter is the time of darkness, the time of unknowing, the time of death. It is followed by Spring, the time of fresh green shoots emerging from the dead earth, the season of lambs being born and bunny rabbits emerging from their burrows, chicks emerging from their eggs as the shells crack open (a reminder that we may need to crack open if we are to give birth to something new). So Christianity can also teach us that all things pass and change, nothing is stuck and permanent, and that death and rebirth, times of abundance and times of scarcity, times of light and times of darkness, are all part of the natural cycles of the universe.
I’m offering these perspectives – not from a place of believing Christianity superior to other religions, but because this is the tradition I grew up in and know best and continue to deepen in. I also recognise that much of what goes by the label Christianity lacks depth and compassion and is infected by the errors and delusions of the wider culture. The same can be said of all religions – but those are subjects for other blog posts.
Coming back to our theme of suffering on this Good Friday 2021, I think the wisest note to end on is silence. There comes a point when witnessing, or accompanying, or experiencing suffering, where words fail us. There is nothing useful to be said, no sense to be made, no words that can ease the pain. That egoic voice that is desperately trying to understand, trying to make sense, trying to find someone to blame … that voice has to fall silent in the face of the great mystery. All that remains is to stay present – not so much in our minds but in our bodies, hearts and emotions. To stay present and heart-open as long as it takes … until at last … by a mysterious alchemy … we are transformed … deepened … purified … cracked open … into something new and mysterious.
Whatever suffering we may be experiencing or accompanying in others, may we know that we are not alone – that Spirit is with us. And may we know that all things pass. And may we, in time, find our souls nourished and deepened in love.