Credit: Sir Matthew Digby Wyatt (1820-1877)

On Suffering/Salvation

PUBLISHED April 15, 2020

It’s been difficult to discern how to feel about all that is happening in the world at the moment, and that uncertainty has kept me away from responding to the handful of messages asking for advice on doing just that. But in a moment of clarity a course has been cut through the mental clutter, and so I’d like to offer my paltry sentiments here.

At first, admittedly, there was a novel thrill of life being completely upended. Of so many questions and such abrupt changes; all of a sudden out of work with millions of others, strongly urged to stay inside. It was reason to commune more regularly with the people I always guilt myself for not communing more regularly with–my parents, siblings, best friends from my hometown. In that sense, there was a comfort in being on a sinking ship, dancing with the band. We were all headed somewhere entirely uncertain together.

I am, most certainly, an introvert by emotional nature. I am quite comfortable holed up at home, with books, cats, tidying, little creative projects. We live near a wonderful park, and the slow emergence of spring has offered chilly, sunny walks by the river where, when it edges near 60° you’d be hard press to think anything was amiss, save for the surgical masks and gloves donned by stroller pushers, joggers, and dog walkers.

In that sense, much feels unaltered. Without logging onto Twitter, switching on CNN or talking to a particularly anxious family member, there is little outside the window to suggest that something terribly wrong is afoot. The air feels calm, though we know it’s a deadly sort of calm. Because of this knowing there has been much to take stock of and tally gratitude for on a daily basis. I have my health. My friends and family have their health. We have enough food. We are able to make ends meet. Those simple truths, when all else has been snatched out from under you, are truly enough. Which is what musings on this pandemic seem to unearth for those of us who, while interrupted, are not on the edge of disaster. There is so much to be grateful for, and they are unsurprisingly the most simple things: food, shelter, love, and sunshine.

How anyone can fix his gaze on anything else perplexes me. Sure, there are frustrations, there is the economic depression to be bothered by, the complete failings of our government, the violence that is the capitalist system, the thousands that are dying daily, silently and alone. But from where you stand, when you take stock, how do things fair? I find it troubling that our minds tend to rest and dwell in such negative spaces, when if the scope is pulled back and our lives are placed in context, we are doing alright. As a society, there are holes, we are hurting, but as individuals, often, we are doing alright.

We cannot help, it seems, but to focus on what hasn’t clicked into place yet, or that which has become slightly unhinged. It is something rather perpetual in our nature. We, as humans, have this odd and pernicious tendency to–while having the capacity to achieve happiness, health, and safety–thwart our own advances to such aims with every generation, through every Millenia. Even when no immediate threat is posed to our daily lives, even when we ourselves are safe and met with the essentials, we are unable to unburden ourselves from a narrative of suffering.

Humans, it seems, and as philosophers have narrated, are obsessed with our own suffering (I’m surely not the first or only to this point. In fact, I’d say required reading on this subject would be this article from The School of Life). We will, without fail, create conflict with our societies and daily lives even when, with a different narrative bend, the same circumstances could well be quite peaceful.

I have been considering this for some time, having observed with close proximity individuals intent on their own stories of suffering, and being guilty of the same in some small way I’m sure. There seems a real threat to abandoning something that seemingly speaks so directly to one’s identity. Depression, loss, financial struggle, past abuse, loneliness, neglect, rejection–we experience these things almost universally, with varying degrees of seriousness and for varying lengths of time. And often it seems the habit is to wear one’s suffering as a badge of honor; not as though having survived means now being that much stronger, but as though the suffering itself is an indelible mark of achievement.

As a society, we have romanticized the notion of suffering; we are so drawn to the idea of suffering that we cannot look away when we see it, and we cannot give it up when we experience it. Having suffered becomes something so essential to the fabric of social validity that we lock our stories of suffering to our identity, and carry them with us throughout the remainder of our lives–quite often when we are in truth far from them. And while the burden of the load strains our backs, we fear nothing more than simply putting it down and walking on.

There is a very real threat present in the world right now, one that presents itself in the form of an infectious disease, one that presents itself in the form of economic instability, or perhaps near ruin for some, and one that presents itself existentially in how we view the society that supports (or doesn’t) our daily lives and our relative place within it.

For many, this crisis may have illuminated how insignificant to the larger whole you really are. But that is unlikely, as each of us stands at the center of our own orbit. In fact, for most people there may be the urge to make this totally personal, something that is happening to you, with the other billions of people in the world as mere background cast. It is another failing of the mind to be unable to consider with any real gravity the lives of people it has never met and play no immediate consequence on its reality.

But if ever there is a moment to do so, to consider the lives of people one has never met, I’d say this is it. You feel lonely? Yes, I’d say we all collectively feel lonely at the moment. People sharing beds likely feel lonely curled next to each other at night, and medical workers in packed hospitals likely feel lonely as they near the end of a twelve hour shift, and the journalist attempting to report the truth certainly feels lonely, and the mother now tasked with homeschooling three kids most definitely feels lonely, and lost, and mad; and the thirty five year old with a new baby at home, hooked up to a ventilator but likely to die with no one near him save for anonymous, hurried ghosts in PPE feels perhaps loneliest of all.

The paradox of loneliness is that we all often feel it all together and all at once. Because to be truly understood is something that perpetually eludes us. There is real consequence to not knowing oneself, and often loneliness strikes an especially unnerving chord when the only companionship one has is with a stranger. For that reason quiet reflection is perhaps one of the most essential, grueling, and under-appreciated endeavors we can undertake.

I don’t think one needs to be particularly useful or productive at this moment, a dangerous impulse under normal circumstances and increasingly more so now, but I do think if nothing else one can take stock and find gratitude.

To focus on your suffering is to get this wrong, in my book. This is not a moment to dwell in the space in one’s mind where woes collect in the dusty corners. This is a moment to truly assess all that one has to be grateful for. There is always a story with a happier seeming ending to yours, there is always an achievement just over the horizon to place one’s hopes in, there is always something missing… if one is set on viewing the world that way. But there are boundless small gratitudes for the taking if one can fix one’s gaze on the glow of the sun that rises and sets without fail each and every day, on the subtle changes as the earth pitches on its axis, on the myriad of ways humans are infinitely complex and frivolous creatures. There is so much within one’s self to explore–there are so many worlds accessible to you through books, movies, music, and your own imagination. There is no shortage of magic hidden inside of the folds of everyday life that it would be a savage mistake to sit healthily inside this global catastrophe and think only of the ways your poor silly self is suffering.

I think perhaps the patience I typically have for the understandable nuances of the human condition has dwindled as a cacophony of complaints echo throughout the collective consciousness. Can we not edge ourselves ever so slightly to a more elevated field of existence? Can we not see our species collectively under duress and think only of the ways we are inextricably tied to each other’s fates? Of then considering what contribution we have, spiritually, to this greater whole? Of shedding any notion that life is meant solely for our own consumption and amusement? That we are deserving of every joy only so that we may under-appreciate it, cast it aside, and insatiably demand the next?

The antidote to your suffering is gratitude. Gratitude does not diminish the very real problems in your life; gratitude does not demand that you grin and bear pain that exists in your mind or body; gratitude does not alleviate that which you may be ignoring. Gratitude simply shifts the balance of your perspective to one that is rooted in all that you have, and all that you are, rather than all that you are lacking.

Rest here, rest in this place of gratitude. Let this be your grounding, your starting and ending place each day, your salvation.

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