Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Be Not Solitary

Be not solitary, be not idle.

- Robt. Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, Sec 4, 2:6

* * *

Suffering is a dislocation, a misalignment from what was expected or desired. It is a broken link in a chain of circumstance. It is unavoidable. It returns like a lost dog coming home and takes on so many forms–both large (in the moment) and small (at a distance). Memory plays a role in it. Those who are once bitten twice shy come to wall off parts of their lives because of life's refusal to comply to expectations and desires. Though seemingly protected they actually suffer twice: first the fear and then the isolation that curbs what could have been possible with their days.

This isolating factor, this add-on cruelty makes formidable what was merely difficult. 

And what are we to make of it? to do with it? I think if we suffer it alone there is hubris in it, a pride in the ability to endure that displaces the causes of our suffering–an injustice and an unjustness as may be the case–with the deeply satisfying thrill of knowing how much you can bear. This is all self-referential, a glorying in being fucked. This is the false suffering Viktor Frankl spoke of. It is, in many ways, our default setting. But that still does not answer what are we to do with this dislocation, this rupture between our expectation and what has occurred instead? If suffering alone isolates us then there can be no value in the experience at all for it is closed loop: it begins and ends and begins with us. It is only when we use the raw material of our suffering to help another, to share our story so another might be spared or comforted, only when we overcome the isolation can the suffering be considered a useful thing, an essential thing, a necessary gift if our consciousness is to inhale all it can and so build our capacity for compassion.

Perhaps I have this wrong, but it seems to me this is the function of our days. No one gets a pass on suffering. No one. But many forego the peace it can bring.

* * *

To suffer alone, to endure, is to suffer without end, without pause, without respite or a cool glass of water. To bear up burdens alone is, in some very compelling ways, heroic: Atlas and Hercules all in one, the golden apple being the certainty that one was strong enough. And like most things heroic, it is foolish, the bluntest instrument to do the job.

No, the answer lies not in carrying an ever greater load, but in transforming it into weightlessness, refusing its gravity by denying the impulse to withdraw, circle wagons, close the blinds and turn out the lights. Italo Calvino wrote:

"After forty years of writing fiction, after exploring various roads and making diverse experiments, the time has come for me to look for an overall definition of my work. I would suggest this: my working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight. I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language."

This seems a good place to begin, for what are our burdens, our sufferings except the language we use to describe them and to describe ourselves in the midst of carrying the weight of our losses? This is our story, the one we tell ourselves over and over to make sense out of the facts and occurrences of our lives. But if that story is is only whispered in our own head, if it never leaks out, if it never finds an audience of at least one, then the weight of that story grows until it is impossible to tell where the point of suffering ends and the story of the suffering begins. It becomes all of one piece.

But to dare to reveal it to another is the beginning of a new life, a new way of understanding and dealing with what ever it was that brought you to your knees.  Like all things, even your sufferings are to be used because they are the material at hand. The great flaw in the logic of what passes for stoicism is that life will begin again after the suffering has ceased, that there will be a day in the future when the way is cleared of this debris, but until then all that can be done is to bear up one's pall.

No, man. That ain't right.

Life has not ceased to continue. It continues and flows around you, the way a river slides past a rock. You are no longer carried, but are an obstacle. To rejoin the river's flow you have to subtract the weight and the way to do that is to take what is at hand–your loss, your sorrow, your anger, your fear– and use it to expiate the notion that you are alone in this. We are easily wounded. We are often afraid. What is best in us can be drained by being too long in the wasteland. The cure is not found in seeing how long we can endure, but in finding a way to let grief be a falling leaf. We are not to deny our losses, but to use them to be a bit kinder than we might otherwise have been, to be quicker to forgive, to be present when others are lost, to judge less and live more. This is the pearl of great price: out of suffering comes kindness.

To get to this understanding two things are required: be not solitary, be not idle.

The transformation of your losses is not done in a vacuum. It can only be done with at least one other: your spouse, your child, a friend, a stranger, a cause that touches countless others. To reach out from the solitary into the injustice and unjustness of the teeming world is a refutation of idle isolation. There is a force in it that learns to sustain itself on that contact, that feeds further action. And what is truly remarkable, what is the gift in all this is that action taken to redeem what has been lost, to forgive it, is never self-referential. It moves outward from your unique experience so that others can see a part of their own lives reflected and so feel less alone.

The struggle of our days is not between life and death, but between withdrawing from life, or engaging it. To have been hurt, to have been lost, to have struggled leaves open the door of greater compassion. This possibility is available to each of us because no one gets a pass on suffering, but this is achieved only if you be not solitary, if you be not idle.

I wish you well.


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