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Notes on Suffering

This morning at church I was talking to Aiko, who had heard through Yayoi how much I had enjoyed Dave Sammons’ May 7 sermon on Suffering. I had been especially attuned to his words that day given how much I had happened to be suffering at that time. Aiko had said that she had not enjoyed the sermon as much. She felt that when it came to understanding suffering, the Buddhists were better at it than the UUs, because after all, suffering is central to Buddhist philosophy.

Anyway, Dave’s sermon was, in a way, akin to a blog post, in which he reviewed, quoting at length, the work of Gerald Sittser, who, in his book A Grace Disguised, narrated his own confrontation with suffering from the death of his family in a car accident. So, here I’ll share some of Sittser, some of Sammons, and some of Howard.

Sittser: We can indulge ourselves in self-pity or we can empathise with others and embrace their pain as our own. We can run away from sorrow and drown it in addictions, or we can learn to live with sorrow. We can nurse wounds of having been cheated in life or we can be grateful . . . even if there seems to be little reason for it. We can return evil for evil or we can overcome evil with good. It is this power to choose that adds dignity to our humanity and gives us the ability to transcend our circumstances, thus releasing us from living as mere victims.

Sammons: Making a choice to do this isn’t easy, but if we can’t do it we add to the loss we’ve faced the tragedy of losing ourselves — and where’s the value in that? To choose life in the face of loss, even though it may not relieve us of all our pain, lets the pain shrink to an appropriate place inside of us. It lets it become just one of the things we feel, one that no longer poisons or immobilizes us, like the constant back pain with which I have to deal — like the physical pains with which a lot of us have to deal.

I recall that when I was a child, every physical pain was an occasion, a crisis, to cry out about, to be cured by an adult. As I got older I learned that, actually, you’re going to stub a lot of toes, scrape a lot of knees and elbows, and for the most part, it is not a big deal. You live life better if you acknowledge that yes, it hurts, but stop the bleeding, apply whatever treatment is required, but for the most part you’re best off if you shut up, let it be, and keep going with life. (Though, with the really big pain, the treatment often is to be comforted by a friend, and you need to cry out. And the best a friend can do is listen, share the pain, and wish the person well.)

Sittser: I received many cards and letters after the car accident and I am grateful that few people presumed to give advice. Instead, they expressed shock, anger and doubt. “Why you?” they kept asking. As one person commented, “your family appeared so ideal. This tragedy is a terrible injustice. If it can happen to you, it can happen to any of us. Now no one is safe!”

No one is safe, because the world isn’t a safe place to live. It is often mean, unpredictable and unjust. But loss has nothing to do with fairness. Some people live long and happily, though they deserve to suffer. Others endure one loss after another, though they deserve to be blessed. Loss is no more a respecter of persons than good fortune is . . .

Granted, I did not deserve to lose three members of my family. But then again, I am not sure I deserved their presence in my life, either.

One thing that I have really been digging, is that while I have had, one the whole, a really fricking blessed life, I’m not actually entitled to anything. Sure, if I lose my job, the welfare state kicks in and sends me unemployment checks, and yes, I agree that society should afford basic health care to its citizens, but on the cosmic scale . . . doesn’t matter how good or bad you are, you get what you get. And you need to live the life you have the best you can. It was good fortune that found me married to Yayoi, and there were days when I could hardly believe my luck! And now it is bad fortune that it all fell apart. Oh woe is me! But, this is life.

Now, it is not as dark as all that: if you live life righteously, you will have positive effects on other people. Karma will come around. But just because I’m good at what I do doesn’t mean I’ll have a job doing that, and just because I am ready to love doesn’t mean I’ll find the right woman to receive that love. But, we focus on doing what we do well, so that when our capacities are employed, the life experience is that much more fulfilling. (All the same, I like to stay flexible, and ready to work with what life hands me . . . Unix, serving pizza, or pulling shots in a cafe, two romanic weeks in Italy with a woman I met the night before I left the States, or what could have been a life partner in Yayoi, I’ll enjoy life how I can.)

Sammons: Being able to forgive became an issue for Sittser when the driver who killed the members of his family was brought to trial. In spite of being drunk on that night he managed, on a technicality, to win an acquittal. After the trial, Sittser dreamed night after night about how to get revenge. But in the midst of his fantasies Sittser realized that holding on to such feelings weren’t going to hurt the other guy. They were going to hurt him. So he let go of his anger.

The fact of life is that the “good guys” don’t always win. But, in Sittser’s case he realized that no amount of punishment meted out to the driver who hit his car was going to compensate him for his loss. . . . Sittser realized that holding on to his anger would have trapped him in to the mentality of a victim and this would have kept him from getting on with his life. Not only this, people who lock themselves into a feeling of “victimhood” may actually come to “enjoy their misery because it gives them a sense of power over their enemies, who they blame for their problems, and power over their friends, to whom they complain and from whom they demand pity.”

I came to feel that that last part was perhaps something that Yayoi was doing . . . the grievances she had with me she came to see as insurmountable. She gained an easy but false strength from someone who wanted validation by being her endless fountain of pity. But, as my current mantra goes, “this is not my problem.” Instead, I look at myself: at first, I did feel a victim, some poor schmoe whose wife had an affair. Boo hoo! But what did that get me? Nada. It was only when I began looking at myself, and taking responsibility for what I could do . . . although that didn’t save my marriage, I feel as well about myself as I can: “no regrets.”

(And yes, while it feels good to relay my woe to friends, I always feel a touch of guilt afterwards. I tend to apologise, or make excuses, because I don’t feel that whining is the best way, but you know we have to make exceptions sometimes, and these friends have made an exception for me, because in a time of suffering, some bitching is healthy.)

And what about revenge? For Yayoi, I just feel sorry. Haven’t even called her a bad word. As for Colin, I have thought that it would be neat if I had an Uncle Tony Soprano, or that if the universe were somehow to arrange a special event between a blunt object and his skull, which caused him to bleed from the ears and talk with a lisp the rest of his life, that this would on some level please me. But, no . . . that still does me no good. It doesn’t get my marriage back, and even if it did, would I want that? Nope. So what am I left with? Well, I almost feel sorry for the disgusting little shitface:

Sammons: Understanding this, it finally occurred to Sittser that the accident in which he was involved, as tragic as it was, may have been as tough on the other guy as it was on him. He says that his “feeling of sorrow was bad enough in itself,” so he “could not imagine feeling guilty on top of that or, even worse, not having any feeling, meaning my soul was dead.”

Time to grow.

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