One of the problems that naturally occurs when a light is shone on pain and suffering is that those who are looking at this picture are overwhelmed by pity. This might seem like a good outcome – surely if we are sorry for someone we’ll try to help? Well the answer to that is not a definite ‘yes’. Sometimes when we feel sorry for people we also feel angry, or resentful or superior or confused. We wonder how this can happen and why they can’t help themselves just like we have to do and if they have some inherent shortcoming that precludes them from building a wholesome and sustaining life for themselves… Continue reading
We all seek love. We need it. It holds us together – literally.
The thing about love is that it grabs our attention even while it takes our breath away.
Love shows us what is already true. It shows us the power lying at the core of everything. A power that ties us together. Links our molecules and energy and fates and well-being. Entangles us like particles moving in response to each other. Wordlessly, remotely, completely bound together forever in a harmonious dance.
Love does have appetites and that makes us fear it as well as long for it. We see it as a double edged sword to be approached with trepidation. But there really is no need.
All appetites are natural. They are just instincts and neither good nor bad. They just are.
We don’t fear our appetite for food. We just know that we have to be in control of it and not vice versa.
Love is the same.
Nothing works without it. It’s like food for our hearts and souls and minds. We can’t be without it. And we aren’t. We are beloved of each other.
And yet we resist it.
We insist on concentrating on the differences between us.
Colour, race, nationality, religion, politics, culture, gender, age, status, beliefs, thoughts.
Sure we’re different.
There’s no doubt about it.
But how about the ways we are the same?
Why don’t we really concentrate on what we share instead of what separates us?
I really mean that as a question – why don’t we?
What stops us trying to work together?
What are the obstacles to our seeing our similarities?
Can we talk about that?
The final story in the trilogy of how I have accidentally learned some life lessons from my children involves my youngest son – Three-of-Three. He was seven or eight at the time. In this story, the parent (me) and the kids were all snuggled up in bed having a ‘tell-me-stories-about-when-I-was-a-baby’ session. I was obliging with funny stories about babies eating worms and being afraid of garden hoses and leaves and cacti and somehow it came up that when I was pregnant with Three-of-Three, due to a pregnancy complication (placenta praevia), I had to stay in bed for two full months. The conversation that ensued went something like this –
Three-of-Three: “But did you stay in bed all the time?”
Me: “I did.”
Three-of-Three: “Every single day for two whole months?”
Me: “Every single minute of every single day.”
Three-of-Three: “But why did you do that?”
Me: “Because if I didn’t you wouldn’t have been able to grow in my tummy.”
Three-of-Three: “Would I have died?”
Three-of-Three sat up in bed, looked at me very seriously and didn’t say anything for a few seconds, he was obviously thinking about this new information. Finally, once he’d digested it, with a very solemn expression on his small face he said – “Thanks, Mom.”
I was completely taken aback. I had always seen that time when I was pregnant with him as being about me. My experience. My pregnancy. My fear. My worry. My potential loss. I saw my two months of being consigned to bed as something I did for myself.
He saw it differently. He saw himself as a person in his own right, not an extension of me, or even a ‘product’ of me but a whole, distinct other person.
And for the first time, I really realised that that was true. Not that I hadn’t given lip-service to that idea before – I had. There was just something about his heart-felt expression of thanks that showed me not only that was he grateful but also that he really wasn’t me.
Which got me to thinking that our children, as well as being born of and influenced (for better or worse) by us are also complete human beings in their own right (also for better or worse).
Which means so are we. We are products of certain people and certain times and certain environments but that’s not all we are – we are also uniquely ourselves.
Just like Three-of-Three.
If you are short of time watch the last three minutes – from 15.00 onwards – as there is a beautiful potted version of the entire talk at the end of the presentation.
If you have 18 minutes, watch it all.
It’s worth it.
Alo read a very interesting piece on this very presentation, over at CreativeConflictWisdom’s Blog – http://creativeconflictwisdom.wordpress.com/2012/03/14/religion-transcendence-and-group-selection-jon-haidts-view/
A mother and daughter travelled the world to film stories of ordinary people making a difference. This is their story –
Thanks to Katherine at Bowl of Miso – http://bowlofmiso.com/2012/02/18/opening-our-eyes/ – for pointing me in the direction of this very interesting video.
Sadness is not contagious. In our valiant efforts to be constructive and positive in a world full of difficulty, we can mistake avoiding the distress of others for a way of maintaining our own positivity.
Thanks to our mirror neurons and our natural empathy with other living creatures, encountering sadness most definitely touches us and can even make us feel upset.
But while avoiding the pain of others may momentarily make us feel better, it doesn’t really contribute to our own well-being – or even our own happiness.
Engaging with others in their suffering has an important place in our development as individuals and as societies.
The Charter for Compassion, founder, Karen Armstrong, has some interesting points to make about this subject.
In Buddhism, compassion (karuna) is defined as a determination to liberate others from their grief, something that is impossible if we do not admit to our own unhappiness and misery…It is, of course, important to encourage the positive, but it is also crucial sometimes to allow ourselves to mourn…Today there is often a degree of heartlessness in our determined good cheer, because if we simply tell people to be ‘positive’ when they speak to us of their sorrow, we may leave them feeling misunderstood and isolated in their distress. Somebody once told me that when she had cancer, the hardest thing of all was her friends’ relentless insistence that she adopt a positive attitude; they refused to let her discuss her fears – probably because they were frightened by her disease and found it an uncomfortable reminder of their own mortality… (1)
Life is hard and trying to maintain a constructive and positive outlook is both necessary and challenging. The distress of others will seldom prove to be a cause of unbearable suffering within ourselves. Occasionally, someone else’s story may resonate so strongly with our own that we do feel pain – but that pain is not caused by anyone else’s pain, it is our own pain. It is already there and might just need an occasional remembrance if we are to maintain a mostly positive and constructive outlook.
There are consequences for us collectively, and as individuals, when we intentionally turn away from the pain we encounter. We might believe we are better off because we have avoided any collateral sadness involved, but we may well have paid a very high price for this momentary comfort.
Because when we do this we lose something so important it isn’t worth the tiny gain – we lose not only an opportunity to bring comfort to another human being but also the strongest thread that can bring us to our own happiness – a connection to our personal suffering. Without this connection we can’t offer compassion to ourselves and so, we will struggle with our quest for happiness, no matter how often we look the other way.
As Karen Armstrong puts it so beautifully,
…make a conscious effort to look back on the events that have caused you distress in the past…Make a deliberate effort to inhabit those moments fully and send a message of encouragement and sympathy to your former self. The object of this exercise is not to leave you wallowing in self-pity. The vivid memory of painful times past is a reservoir on which you can draw when you try to live according to the Golden Rule.* By remembering your own sorrow vividly, you will make it possible for yourself to feel empathy with others. (2)
*There are many variants of the Golden Rule but they all boil down to the same message – Always treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself.
(1) Karen Armstrong, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, pp 72-3
(2) ibid, p. 73
Two young children, one crying. 1922. Stanley Field Expedition to British Guiana
Participants: Bror E. Dahlgren and John R. Millar
- The Compassionate Global Community (chaikadai.wordpress.com)
- How to Ease the Pain of Isolation During the Holidays (psychologytoday.com)
- Read the Charter for Compassion Here & Join Us All on the Path (charlisehillarson.wordpress.com)
- Connected in Grief and Sadness (walkinthemud.wordpress.com)
- The Emotional Numbness (livinglifewithraandfms.wordpress.com)
Roll up! Roll up!
Unique human capacity awaiting development.
See past the pain that creeps up along you, threatening to warp and smother you.
Avoid destroyers-in-pleasure’s clothing – Siren-songs dripping poison honey.
Instead try this –
The only way to live in the moment and not be seduced by its pleasures and pains.
This capacity is standard in every human model but may be hidden in a compartment labelled with other names such as Fanciful or Crazy or Impossible, or even, Waste of Time.
Be careful to check the contents of each compartment carefully because the labelling process is faulty and you may well miss out on your Vision because of this on-going problem.
You need to search and find and develop this capacity (you definitely have it) no matter what you want to do. Even scientists need Vision – in fact they might need it more than the rest of us.
Good luck with your quest.
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” Albert Einstein
And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music. – Friedrich Nietzsche
It’s easy to believe in war and injustice
in greed and corruption
in hatred and prejudice and violence.
It’s harder to believe in equity and justice and unity and peace.
But once upon a time…
Slavery was the norm – nobody thought it unreasonable that one human being own another.
Everybody believed women were inferior to men.
White people were genuinely thought to be superior to everyone else.
Appendicitis was usually a death sentence…
The thought of human beings flying was ludicrous and nobody had ever dreamed people all over the world could communicate almost instantaneously…
All change happens because at the very, very start someone believes it is possible.
We see what we believe so if we believe something is possible then we will search and search until we find the way to make it a reality – for better or worse.
So – while peace, love, understanding, equity, and justice might not be that easy to envisage, the first step in attaining any of those things is to believe they are attainable. Strain your ears until you hear the music and then – dance…
Reciprocity – the practice of exchanging things with others for mutual benefit – is widely recognised as an important feature of successful co-operation but how does reciprocity between ordinary people actually work?
Mary hits Joan. Joan is angry so she hits Mary back – repaying her in kind.
An eye for an eye.
Tit for tat.
Positive and negative, it’s a if there is a hidden balance that must constantly be maintained. Impulses like revenge solve nothing of course but this striving for reciprocity appears to be deeply rooted within us. It’s naturally occurring and is neither good nor bad in itself – only in its application.
If we look at our instincts as tools to help us survive and develop, rather than tie ourselves up in knots either suppressing or exalting these naturally occurring impulses, then maybe it might be easier to use them properly.
Instincts are simultaneously wonderful and problematic – like any tool. Even a humble hammer is all about application – it is enormously useful and – literally – constructive, if you want to hang a picture or build a cabinet or a wall but in other circumstances it can also be used to destroy or kill.
The solution is not to get rid of hammers but make sure we use them properly. Just like our instincts.