Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Where is this going?


“I can’t handle conflict any more,” my friend said. She wanted to end her life. It wasn’t that she was miserable. She had lots to live for. She just can’t face conflict. Family conflict. World conflict. I suggested becoming a hermit instead of killing herself. There might be things worth staying alive for, like watching grandchildren grow up. Her eldest grandson just graduated from Harvard and worked full time for the Obama re-election campaign. He has a promising life ahead of him in public policy. Her youngest grandchild is 5 and full of spit and love. What will he see through his sweet tiny glasses? What will we see through him? Is there any amount of hope that counterbalances impossible and neverending conflict? Then there’s that middle grandchild, the teenage girl who smokes dope and terrorizes other girls as the school bully and dictator.

It’s the week of the 50th anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s suicide. They are saying that as the distance grows since her death, we see her less through that lens and take her work on its merits alone. Kafka said, “The meaning of life is that it stops,” but most of us keep the stopping at arm’s length and wouldn’t dream of inviting it. Is this really our meaning? That today I might put my feet on the floor for the last time?

There are chickens outside the door pecking with their mechanized heads at birdseed. They are efficient at eating and at laying eggs. They are alive, and it is death that keeps them pecking at the seed.

Why on earth have we been given minds to devise such complications, setting us apart from other creatures as the judges and destroyers, and mourners and sufferers?

I watched a Montessori video of a one-year-old child sitting on the kitchen floor concentrating on a tin can, measuring spoons, and various other metal household objects. He examined each item, put it into the can, shook it, listened to its bangs and clangs. Then he pulled them out again, fit them together, exploring their shapes and sizes. He sat for several minutes in rapt attention.

Where is this going? We humans own such gifts! Our minds and hearts are our great treasure. We cannot, absolutely cannot control the world. And it is the very attempt by certain institutions to do so that could be our undoing.

I look to the babies. I look to the chickens, to see how to focus on a few things that are essential. Madness pecks at us while we tiptoe a path toward meaning and hope. We know. We know it can all be undone, every manmade and every unmanmade reality on earth.

Tomorrow is Love Day, and 99% of me rolls my eyes at the commercial sentimentality. (Yet I sent my littlest valentine a small gift and card with two dogs on the front who are really grammy and grandpa.) 100% of me believes we need to love better. I’ll accept that as my meaning today: This day may be my last chance to love better.


24 comments:

  1. Sorry to hear about your friend's despair, Ruth, but the fact remains that no one remains a one-year-old who can find both concentration and rapture in a tin can and a few spoons. We soon pass into a world rife with more conflict than we ever imagined, and while we try to move on, madness does indeed peck at us "while we tiptoe a path toward meaning and love." Perhaps I should not say this publicly, but I understand the despair that takes hold when one is perennially uncomfortable with a materialistic, egotistical, competitive, and conflict-driven world. The question that must always be addressed, however, is whether we can find a life-affirming solution, rather than make the ultimate surrender to what is often a harsh world.

    Personally, I think there is always a life-affirming solution. Perhaps it begins with refusing to allow the world to define who we are. We can then be the antidote for what we abhor. We can be the peace in a world of conflict; we can be the beauty in a world of ugliness; we can be the hope in a world of cynicism — and I never, never forget that the change anyone desires must begin with that person's individual life. Everyone should become the world he or she imagines. If I'm unwilling to do that with my own life, what right do I have to complain?

    I hope this doesn't sound too "preachy." It's just my personal views on what is often a difficult challenge for so many people

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    1. It is essential that we be open about this despair. Truly I think anyone who doesn't feel despair at some level has limited consciousness. Or they have already completed the work we are talking about. But as you say, the work is never complete, because the work is in ourselves in response to the world of conflict.

      I love thinking about a "life-affirming solution" being a refusal to let the world define us. I am drawn to your being peace, being beauty, being hope. These are actions, activities, engagements, ways of living. Life is a prayer (as you said to me in your post about the blue heron).

      Thank you.

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  2. Dear Ruthie,

    So true, so true. Sometimes one can't even bear it any more. One is so tired of suffering and hearing of suffering. I quite understand your friend who is finding things horribly difficult.
    I remember Louis Simpson, the poet, being so ANGRY with Sylvia Plath for taking the coward's way out --except I don't think we can judge. I don't think sad people can see outside themselves.
    I'm rambling.
    Yes, the tinies give us the most amazing joy and the suffering of the world nearly breaks us.....so we merely have to go on putting one foot in front of the other and trying to be kind.
    Happy Valentine's Day.

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    1. You are not rambling. I rambled. This was nearly a stream of consciousness post, and I can barely stand to read it over. But it felt necessary to say these things, to write out the feelings.

      One foot in front of the other and trying to be kind. YES. One moment, one kind act. Watching eagerly.

      Happy Valentine's Day to you too.

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  3. At the risk of wading too far back into the weeds, I would simply add something relevant that I read a moment ago. The great Zen teacher D.T. Suzuki stated that, while no one can escape the problems of life, you can "change your understanding" of those problems.

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    1. Those three words are very helpful. Often it's a matter of turning something just a little, so the light falls on it differently. We have to step out of patterns, the conventions we've created for ourselves (let alone someone else's conventions). And of course ego is the ruler of our conventions, so we have to figure out how to get that queen off her side saddle.

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  4. It is difficult to talk someone out of suicide when they feel powerless. Professional help should be used as the CDC says that 90% of people who die by suicide have a diagnosable and treatable psychiatric disorder at the time of their death. I have seen many very depressed persons being helped with good treatments and medicines.

    Poverty and war increase suicide I think and also money (the lack of it, or the want of it.) The CDC rate for 2010 said that suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US – and military veterans have double the suicide rate. I read on Reuters in February (and I made a note of it) that 22 military veterans kill themselves in the US each day, or one every 65 minutes. There were more suicides last year in the military than combat death. But I also believe that the US is changing. It is becoming more tolerant, more accepting of minorities. Young people are voting more for a progressive agenda than the ultra conservatives of the right – as was shown with President Obama’s re-election, so there is hope that in the future the US will be a different place, more open, more diverse and caring. I think that if we generalize about life then we can be in a state of despair – but with just a slight change of attitude, as when observing young children at play, we can be hopeful again. I would say that a good way to be happy, feel optimistic and get rid of our bad thoughts is to take a walk in nature and watch the sky, look at the trees, observe the birds, watch the sunrise or sunset, look outside of ourselves and think how amazing our planet is –that we are such a small part of it, but an important part. Negative thoughts engender more negative thoughts to the point that it can physically change the brain – and that has been proven, so it’s important to get away from these sad thoughts.

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    1. Thank you. Yes, professional help should be sought immediately. I've learned at the university from the Counseling Center that it is all right to ask a student who sounds quite depressed if they have had suicidal thoughts. It's not an easy thing to ask; I had to ask once. Thankfully that student sought help at my prompting.

      I have spent years with this friend while she went through suicidal ideation. Years. Thankfully, very very thankfully, she has found great relief from depression through an antidepressant. Her life has changed dramatically in the past 15 years for the better. However, this now is quite noticeably different. She is not depressed! It's not that she can't face her life, which is really quite successful and happy. It's that she is tired of conflict and just wants to lie down and never wake up again. It is difficult to articulate how and who she is in such a short space. It's not like she is immanently suicidal in the sense we usually think of, and in the sense I talked with her about for years.

      Yes all you say about our society opening up in many ways is good and hopeful. It is all still quite overwhelming, because not only are the problems grave, the people who "lead" us are in deep antagonism about how to resolve them. However, as you say, and as George says, if we daily, consistently, persistently connect with the things that bring us light we can get centered again and look within for joy, peace, love. I agree that we get hungry for what we feed ourselves, and if we feed ourselves negativity, we want more. It takes great thought and attention to approach all of these things with intelligent love. I think it is no wonder that we grow weary at times. We need to encourage each other, and I thank you for your encouragement here, and always.

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    2. I’m back. You said about your friend “It's that she is tired of conflict and just wants to lie down and never wake up again.” Conflicts with families and friends are depressing and hard to take. But I feel that in a way you are responsible for you own life and not let other control it with their problems.

      Today is Valentine’s Day – I have been married almost 46 years and we lived together 2 years before that = 48 years total. We have had ups and downs but we have survived because we have given each other space – we were not joined at the hip as they say. I have traveled widely while he went west with his friends, and we like different things. Too much togetherness is not healthy. I believe in the Buddhist perspective that you just should not get that attached, and should let problems roll away from you (I don’t mean you, just in general.)

      Your friend needs not to take all this inside her, go away, go for a trip, and think about something else when people come and bother her – she has a responsibility to her own life and happiness. Let the people who bring happiness in and the others should go on their own, to their own karma. One aspect of freedom is the freedom to allow yourself to be happy and the power to choose who and what outside yourself will touch or affect you. But then, she may unknowingly be attached to these conflicts and have a need for martyrdom in a way… so…

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    3. Well said, Vagabonde, very well said. Wise words, and I know their truth from experience.

      As for my friend, yes it is her own story. She is burdened with cares that I have been privileged to be freed from. But that is my story, not hers. I've watched her grow lighter and freer over the years, and it may be that she will find a way to be freer yet. I pray so.

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    1. Thanks, me too. The ease of his metaphors, and then that punch that language is not the way to express love ... BAM!

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  6. "We need to encourage each other"

    and you're doing an admirable job, both with this particular friend and in many other ways in many other relationships. Through your blogs as well.

    What a dilemma for us all, we personally suffer, we see it spread broadly through everyone's lives - those we know, those we don't. Somehow though there is, when you pay attention, when you open up to the entirety, something miraculous too. I have mixed feelings about non-attachment when it suggests we detach from the suffering we see and feel. How else, but to connect with it, can we have com-passion, can we recognize our commonality and our responsibility to ease the way however we can?
    Wendy

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    1. Thank you, Wendy.

      I deeply relate to what you've written here. As suffering increases, so does spiritual connection, or it can, with intention. I have felt what you say about detachment. Yet as I said to George at his blog recently, letting go with the mind does not mean letting go with the heart.

      xoxo

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  7. Such a profound post - and your commentors responses as well. I have no words to add really, except to agree with you that "we need to love better." Or maybe we just need to learn to love - period... To keep the heart open in the face of pain and suffering - our own and others - embrace it all, and each other... It's a hard kind of love...

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    1. Oh yes, Christine. "Or maybe we just need to learn to love - period." Love is after all, love: pure, unburdened with fear.

      Thank you.

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  8. I'm sure I know your friend, Ruth, and can only say I'm so glad she has you! I've read Vagabonde's comments and your replies. This is good. Thank you for opening this up here.

    Over 40 years ago, when Bill and I first started our student ministry in San Diego and just before getting pregnant with Amy, I told a dear neighbor that I wasn't sure I wanted to have any children because of the state of our world at that time. Her immediate response was, "But Ginnie, I thought that's what your faith was all about!" Needless to say, I've never forgotten that...even with all the horrendous stuff that has happened since.

    The babies like your little James and the chickens that peck outside your door...keep reminding us of what is important in life as we know it. Do we really believe that Love Wins? I hope so. What else is there to live for?

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    1. Boots, it's a dance of light and dark. Do I believe the darkness is necessary to understanding the light?

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  9. Hoping your friend finds peace and joy

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  10. wow. so much of humanity is stretched among these words. your friend's cry out as to why live? and your valentine sent to a little one in spite of - no despite - a holiday that screams commercialism. we can humanize it. we bring our humanity to it. our dualistic world thrives on conflict, but humanity's role is to not let that control us, defeat us. if only we could learn how to, as joseph campbell states: participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world.

    my wishes that your friend finds peace and balance.

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    1. Thank you for this, Amanda. I love the Campbell quote!

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  11. Once upon a time, a very, very long time ago, I could think of nothing but suicide. I wasn't very serious about it, truth to tell, but I felt myself in a box with no way out. In short: powerless. A very, very wise friend advised that I should dump the box metaphor, and think instead of a very dark closet. Then, I was to find whatever it was that would crack the door, the very slightest bit, to allow in the tiniest bit of light. Because, of course, if the light is coming in, it will be possible, with a bit more effort, to open the door farther and get out.

    And then, once upon a time, not very long ago at all, my dear mother said, on a nearly daily basis, "I'm just tired, and I just want to lie down and never wake up." She was, after all, 93 years old, had outlived every friend and most family, and had no desire to hang around. She wasn't suicidal, she was longing for release.

    Two situations, two generations, two metaphors, but the same desire - to live and die with dignity. Grant anyone some dignity, it seems to me, and they find their way through the maze.

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    1. A very interesting approach, Linda. You really have something there. It takes respect, especially self respect, to let in those tiny rays of light, one at a time. Thank you!

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All responses are welcome.