Thursday, July 9, 2009

Suffering Movement

Called to Question
Not a day goes by that I don’t question life. I have the mind of a four-year-old at times; it’s not the questions of who, what, when, or where that give me pause, but why?
Much of this inquiry has been internal. Why am I the way I am? The manner in which I define my identity is often determined by the answers given to this central question. This curiosity is then extended beyond the boundaries of my own skin. Why are people the way they are? What moves them to do what they do?
Of course there are the socio-psychological reasons, contextual clues that come together as a confluence of forces over which it seems we have no control: race, class, gender, nationality and so on. Demographics have become demigods, cultural inventions to which we honor and obey, often painfully contorting our round persons into square specifications. I believe this marks the beginning of our suffering in life. Suffering is, in fact, a universal truth that crosses cultural and geographic lines. Though degrees of suffering vary, no one is immune.
All religions try to address the issue. I have found the most honest philosophy to be that of the Buddhist: Life is suffering. Such a simple answer, however, inevitably leads the four-year-old to put her hands on her hips and ask, “But why?”

Some Answers Create More Problems
Why are children molested? Why are women raped? Why are civilians killed? Why do so few have everything while the rest of us struggle just to maintain? The Buddhists would answer that we suffer because of our desires. I agree with this in material terms but have yet to see how it responds to the above questions. Under this philosophy, children desire to be safe and protected, therefore they must let go of this desire to be free from suffering. Women are attached to the idea that their body is sacred and should not be violated; if they release their ideas about what is sacred could they reach a state of nirvana while being raped?
Obviously, this last thought is an extreme oversimplification, and it is not my intention to offend. I recognize the wisdom in much of what Buddha teaches as a very complex form of simplicity. As I grow older, however, complex theories only compound my dissatisfaction. Perhaps America’s culture of instant gratification has permeated my shield against worldliness, but I need to simplify the complicated world in which we live. Yes, this is clearly a desire, and if I simply let go of my attachment to understanding life, I will be at peace. This is one reason why I am not a Buddhist.

Still, I can see the appeal in Eastern religions. They are somewhat passive, in stark contrast to the often aggressive extremism found in some versions of Christianity and Islam. To a Buddhist, all struggle and tension are released. More to the point, under this philosophy there is a notion that offers a reason behind our suffering; karma suggests that we are all receiving our spiritual inheritance. I suffer due to bad karma, inherited because of something I did in a previous lifetime. Men in this life mistreated me, not because I allowed them, but because I was a womanizer in my past life. I am poor and needy now, not because I made unwise financial decisions, but because I was rich and selfish then. I must have also abused and neglected children. Because of this past, one I can only imagine, suffering is necessary in order for me to pay for previous sins.

There was a point in my spiritual development when I bought into the basics of karmic law, but I was misguided. I created much of own suffering to speed up the karmic process, hoping I could pay off the debt from my past life sooner. The problem with this way of thinking is obvious to any spiritually mature person: one can never know in this life the amount owed from the past. It can only be assumed based on how much one suffers - the greater the suffrage in this life, the more heinous the deed must have been in the past life.
There are some traditions, the ancient Vedanta for example, that believe God may sometimes intervene in dispensing the karma due, but only a spiritual master can tell you “the sequence in which our Karma will bear fruit.”[i] But what if the master delivers bad news: Sorry, it seems you are destined to pay the amount in full. I would pray the amount didn’t include capitalized interest! Jokes aside, there is a disarming dilemma in karmic belief systems: if one is powerless in influencing his own condition, why bother?
Karma can easily lead to excusing ourselves from the hard work of healing and living healthier in this life. Worse, if we believe we get another life after this one, what’s to keep us from relishing every inch of our fleshly desires? In today’s American society, too many conform to the “play now, pay later” mentality. If karma is true, Americans in particular will be paying off spiritual debts for many lives to come.

Christianity's "Karmic" Solution
Of course there are other, more evolved ways we can engage karma, and though it is not called karma, Christianity shares similar views. You reap what you sow. What you put out comes back to you tenfold. These phrases suggest there is a choice in the cause that creates the effect. They resonate with what is supported by science: the law of attraction - like attracts like. Negative spirits seek and invariably finds negative spirits. If my life force steals from the Creating life force, I’m destined to be bankrupt in the end. If, however, I give selflessly without expecting reward, I am promised to be given blessings beyond my imagination. "Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you" (Luke 6:38).
This solution demonstrates it would be in our best interest to become an agent in our own healing. It holds us accountable for our thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. If I think I am limited, I will be bound by those limitations. If I act like a victim, I become easy prey. If I feel depressed daily, joy will pass me by. The opposite is equally true. If you think you can overcome obstacles, you discover paths that lead the way. If you act respectable, you are given respect. If you let go of your pain, you create an open space for healing to take place. The spirit created living this way will ensure that we will not only enjoy this life, but our after-life as well.

Godliness Is Unnatural
Giving unconditionally is terribly difficult. It can be done for a day or two, some may even manage for months. Yet, invariably, they will fail if they rely on themselves to keep giving. To be like this every single moment of each day requires supernatural ability to respond to all matters spiritually. Bill Myers sets up his main character with such a challenge in The Wager. Without spoiling the ending, the moral is this: it is not within our power to be godly.
I am more likely to respond out of natural instinct – fear – rather than any super-spiritual power. I may act respectable, but there is no guarantee that I will not be disrespected, and if caught on a day when I am low on love and patience, I will most certainly lose my karma cool. Should I fall to this temptation, I damage my trouble free existence in the next life, all because someone provoked me in my moment of weakness.
This is hardly fair. Thus the major flaw in karmic law: there is no forgiveness or grace. Should I fail to think and act positively just once, karma shows no mercy. Karyn Henley notes this in her book Love Trumps Karma. “Law is impersonal. It cannot forgive. People harvest what they plant. That’s just the way it is.” Here is where Christianity, in my opinion, bridges the karmic cliff. “He is grace, mercy, forgiveness and love.” Coming to know and receive these gifts is a learning process. Henley uses the tree of knowledge as an example. “Humans needed the tree in order to grow mentally and spiritually. The tree taught us to understand God’s goodness and love. God’s purpose in all this was for humans to learn and admit that we are not God, and for humans to allow him to be God, the Supreme Creator.”[ii]

Means to a Righteous End
So according to the Christian view, it is for higher learning that we suffer. To know ease and comfort, we must become familiar with it’s opposite: suffering. To appreciate goodness, we must experience evil. To know how right God is, we must witness how wrong we are. It is a simple formula, in order to make any comparison or contrast, we need two distinct variables. The further apart in likeness, the more obvious the distinction between the two forces. Once the difference is learned, one can exercise free will to choose which force to follow. The power of the chosen force convicts and empowers us to move.
We cannot know this by nature; the best way to learn is through experience, not explanation. Herein lies the answer for why we suffer great evil: we need a sharpening tool. Great evil sharpens the image of goodness. St. Paul addresses this very issue, noting that it is through weakness we are made strong. Anyone with even a superficial understanding of life would agree that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Suffering, according to this view, is our baptism by fire, testing our metal to reveal our worth. Even Darwin would have to agree, the stronger the animal, the greater chance of survival.

Is it necessary, then, that children suffer? The answer is as difficult to swallow as suffering itself, but put simply – yes, we must all suffer. Why? As I evolve in my spirituality, and serve as steward to my own children, I have come to understand that knowing the difference between good and evil is as critical to our growth as is the knowledge of left or right, up or down. The earlier a child learns, the sooner she can choose her direction in life and act accordingly.
I am not so naïve, however, to teach my children that if they simply do good, they will be treated nicely. Even under God’s protection and grace, I can still be visited by evil. Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble.” This is parallel to the “Life is suffering” philosophy, but unlike Buddhism, Christianity has a more forgiving end: when I turn to God in my trouble, I receive His grace. Unlike the notion of karma, which says “God is very fair and gives you exactly what you deserve,"[iii] the notion of grace says that though we deserve to suffer greatly, we are liberated from our sins through faith in Christ.
This freedom has a price: when we turn to God, we must turn away from sin. This clause is for those who would run to God when they’re broken, receive the gift of grace, then turn back to sin again. This is what I call a “revolving Christian,” one who is born again, and again, and again, coming in and out of Christ’s door more often then a petty criminal in the American prison system. Sin is their identity, and until they stop identifying with what separates them from God, they will remain apart, suffering alone.

Down, But Not Out
It is on this premise that I pledge my resolve: if I am to suffer in this world, I do not want to do it alone, and I want to be strong enough to move through the trouble till its end. Yet, it is this movement that often rears resistance. To move means to change position in one direction or another. There is suffering in movement, especially if we have been stuck at the same point in our evolution for some time. The longer we have tarried, the more painful it is to move. Like pulling up dandelion roots, it is hard to let go of the ground we have covered, even if the soil no longer provides the nutrients necessary to grow. We acclimate to struggle, accepting it as part of our identity.
There are some, myself included, who have experienced so much struggle that anything else is viewed suspiciously. When presented with an opportunity to move, we hesitate or repudiate, preferring the familiar struggle instead of the unknown. We choose to stay in the struggle rather than separate from the collective suffering, for there is comfort in group thinking. At least I’m not suffering alone. Suffering alone is what weakens one’s tenacity to endure, even if we are only prolonging our suffering. This is where courageous leadership can make all the difference. One woman, too tired to walk to the back of the bus as required by law, was brave enough to refuse, sitting instead in the front. This singular action was powerful enough to move suffering to the back seat, calling on all riders who were tired of suffering to do the same.

Life is suffering. Suffering demands change. Change requires movement. People are the way they are because of suffering, or because they are free from suffering and therefore have no cause to move. What binds people together in one body is love, surely, but this expression is made possible by the experience of suffering. How quickly we join together with compassion for one another when we share similar hurts and sorrows.
Look at any tragic event throughout history; examine the movement of those who suffer as a result. No matter who they are, they are the way they are because of their response to suffering. Do they move with resistance? Do they rush through it, their actions screaming “survival of the fittest,” bullying everyone out of the way as they go? Do they recoil at the very idea of moving at all? Or is there a conscious awareness in their movement, careful and deliberate, sensing they are being made better because of their suffering? These people stop and listen before taking the next step. They reach out to offer or receive help as they limp along. They have a love of life, a resilience to survive the trouble and thrive in the life that comes after, not the next life, but in the present. They are not identified by how they have suffered, but who they have become as a result of their suffering.

[ii]Henley, Karyn. Love Trumps Karma, Karyn Henley Resources, 2005

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