Thursday, 3 August 2017

Everything Doesn't Happen For A Reason

화각장 A few weeks ago a friend directed me to Everything Doesn't Happen For A Reason, by Tim Lawrence. It's attracted an enthusiastic following online, and since August has become the traditional time for Rusty Ring to address such topics, I figure this is my opening.

Tim's central hypothesis – you gotta love writers who state their thesis right in the title – is also a primary Zen principal, but his objective trends rather more to the negative than affirmative.

Specifically, he's that tired of grieving people being told they're "suffering for a reason", that it's all part of some great compassionate plan, that "God never gives you more than you can handle."

"That's the kind of bullshit that destroys lives," he says. "And it is categorically untrue."

Preach, brother. The problem with the "everything happens for a reason" crowd, aside from their faulty analysis, is that they lay a giant trip on the injured, just when their resistance is low. Now they're dumb, weak – hell, even ungrateful – as well.

Tim goes on to finger the origin of this nonsense:
...our culture has treated grief as a problem to be solved, an illness to be healed, or both. In the process, we've done everything we can to avoid, ignore, or transform grief. As a result, when you're faced with tragedy you usually find that […] you're surrounded by platitudes.
…In so doing, we deny [sufferers] the right to be human. [My emphasis.]
It's a hallmark of some worldviews to meet dukkha with weapons-grade denial. If you insist the Universe is ruled by a benevolent force, or that a given socio-political system is self-correcting, you'll immediately bang your skull on the titanium grille of the ever-oncoming First Noble Truth. Then you'll have to abandon all positive ends and exhaust your remaining intellectual capital on explaining why bad things keep happening in your Dictatorship of Infinite Good.

Therefore, for the benefit of all sentient beings, Ima say it right out loud:

Life is pain.

This is a direct result of the inescapable nature of existence. (Seriously. Don't try to escape it. That's a major source of pain. Second Noble Truth, for those of you playing at home.)

All of that is orthodox Buddhism – though Tim is an Anglican monastic. There is, however, one aspect of his programme that flirts with unskilfulness.

He's big into "letting people go".

Not that this isn't often an excellent idea. Good people tend to allow themselves to be abused, on the belief, inbred or inculcated, that they somehow deserve it, or that they owe it to others. Like other decent folks, I've suffered at the hands of those who took advantage of my patience and good will. I should have let those people go right off. Ideally before I picked them up.

However, like all weapons, this one is apt to wound its wielder, especially if overused. Thus Tim:
If anyone tells you that all is not lost, that it happened for a reason, that you’ll become better as a result of your grief, you can let them go.
Seems a tad trigger-happy to me. I've often said useless things, maybe even hurtful ones, to people I authentically wanted to support. Problem was I didn't know what to say.

(Free tip from our Hard-Earned Insight Department: Sometimes you can't help. Sadly, the world is still awaiting the self-improvement book How to Help When You Can't Help.)

So let's not lose our humanity, here. When I've been in the worst possible shape, my capacity to remain human in the face of inhumanity has been tremendously gratifying.

Tim also loses me when he suggests that grief won't make you a better person. It damn well will, if you're determined that it will. As self-centred as I am now, I'm a buddha compared to what I was before. If recent politics prove anything, it's our moral obligation to suffer intelligently.

But of course it's not skilful to say that to someone in the throes of heartache. Instead, I try to offer tested survival tips from my own laboratory. And, since guilt and regret are key components of grief, I also bear witness to their decency. Psychopaths don't suffer.

Still, advising others is fraught. Often the best tack is just to accompany the sufferer in shared silence, accepting the person and the pain. Especially, to remember him or her actively. Call and text (that strange word again: "and"), visit, invite him or her out, break the isolation that's the warhead of both shame and grief.

Tim makes all these points, and others as well, in his timely essay. There's a reason it's been so well-received. Whether you're in pain yourself, or accompanying someone who is, give it a read.

(Photo of artist drawing Kanzeon, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, courtesy of Republic of Korea Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism and Wikimedia Commons.)
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