Joanna Macy, Buddhist practitioner, author and eco-activist speaks of embracing suffering (ourselves and others) from a place of compassion in Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age. She wisely states that "feeling our own despair and fear [is] the key to loving, to hoping, and to acting. But this ability runs against the dominant [global] preoccupation with success in which all pain is viewed as dysfunctional."
I would extend this philosophy to many New Age dictums about how we should perceive our lives and describe our experiences, shying away from expressions of anger, grief, ennui and only allowing ourselves to feel and express joy, love and passion. Although these are, without a doubt, powerful experiences of being, denying the totality of our human experience prevents us from fully acknowledging and accepting responsibility for the impact of our thoughts, words and deeds on everyone and everything that co-exists in the web of life.
In reflecting on her experience of her culture, Joanna continues. “We lack the mirrors that tell us the truth about our lives [in the shadow of a] sanguine confidence in the future that is the hallmark of the American character and a source of national pride.” If we dare to “[admit] that we know fear and pain, [it] can appear to be a failure of maintaining stamina and even competence” and more frighteningly in the global psyche, an admission of vulnerability which is perceived as a weakness that deserves to be preyed upon.
The many years that I spent denying the truth of what I was feeling did me more harm than good. And without awareness of my actual experience, I could not recognize what the people and world around me was trying to mirror to me. I could not, like the mythical undead, see myself in the mirror…and so a life of passionate fulfillment was not available to me…nor was authentic connection with other living things.
The refusal to acknowledge pain and suffering as our own and as impacting all other living things is akin to refusing to look at the little man behind the curtain or to being able to see that the emperor truly has no clothes. This lack of vision and awareness then allows suffering to continue in the world as we distract ourselves with technology and with doing more and having more.
It takes almost super-human courage (at least it felt that way to me at first) to be willing to acknowledge our own suffering because at the moment we agree to do so, we open Pandora’s box and we begin to actually feel our pain. What most people forget is that at the bottom of the box was Hope…and without Hope, we risk being trapped in the hamster wheel of fear and despair. When we allow Hope to co-exist with our pain, we give ourselves the energy (even if it’s only the size of a ‘mustard seed’) and willingness to move through our suffering and onto self-actualization.
I close with another quote from Rita Nakashima Brock in her article “On Mirrors, Mists, and Murmurs” from the anthology Weaving the Visions: New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality by Judith Plaskow and Carol P. Christ.
“To allow ourselves to suffer means risking feeling stupid, guilty, unpatriotic, doubtful, powerless, panicky, too emotional, or a failure. We can be accused of provoking disaster or causing others distress, but to deny our own suffering and the suffering of others leads us, according to Macy, to live an alienated double life haunted by self-doubt, to hedonistic or compulsive displacement activity, to passivity, to the psychological projection of our pain, to destructive behaviours, to burnout, to intellectual apathy and to the ability to receive painful information…often immobilized by the fear of moving through that pain. But to be healed [and to support others in their healing] we must be willing to suffer.”
My biggest fear when I began to travel down this path of awareness and ultimate integration was that my suffering would become my primary default setting and that I would never enjoy life again. Ironically, I wasn’t really enjoying life and embracing my capacity for and experience of suffering brought incredible colour and depth to my life, making it more real than it had been since I was a little child. In fact children are the greatest teachers in this regard...they can move through suffering to joy within minutes and continue to live a life that is not weighed down by 'shoulds' or
Perhaps the vibrant colours of the fall have inspired me to reflect on this journey and to share these thoughts with any who happen upon them. Be that as it may, my prayer for me, for you and all living things is that we may become empowered to stand up for ourselves and each other as fully actualized beings and co-create a world in which, through partnership and mutual fulfillment, we can live lives that are fully and completely whole.