No pain, no meaning

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative Loafing)

A reader writes: "You mentioned in one of your columns a long time ago about a peak moment when you were recovering from losing a love. I think a lot of people go through that experience in their lives and I think it would be great if you explored how to turn devastation (or in some cases the removal of an addiction) into a pathway for growth." Sara<P>

The fear of deep existential pain - or "psychological shattering," as I prefer to call it - is certainly one of the great anxieties of our time. Numerous scholars have noticed that our century's preoccupation with feeling happy and "whole" is reinforced by our era's main lens of personal insight: psychology. In the face of the most ordinary and inevitable pain, people now rush to psychotherapists to get "fixed," either by talk therapy or medication. There is a massive industry of self-help books and psychospiritual technologies, all designed to help people avoid suffering, or "follow their bliss" (in ways Joseph Campbell, who coined that phrase, never meant).

So, when you pose the question of how we are to turn devastation into a pathway for growth, I wonder if you are assuming that we can, through some exercise of the will, transform pain into a meaning that relieves suffering. This is a relatively new idea in human history. We have even come quite far from Freud, who posited that the "melancholic may be right," to the sunny optimism of that new age phrase, "pain is inevitable but suffering is optional," or its bodybuilding cousin, "no pain, no gain."

The fact is that life, or at least the second half of life, is in many ways a series of sacrifices that lead us to death. Suffering and pain are inevitable and gains are short-term. We must sacrifice the dreams of youth, our certitude, our fantasy of independence, our sense of immortality. We gain and lose everything - usually many times over in a life. And we live with loss with each breath. History demonstrates that a single life matters very little. Epidemic disease, war, famine, cruelty, accidents - all sweep life into the dustbin without an eyeblink.

Contrary to what may seem rational, the failure to deal with the perpetual shadow of death is the cause of both depression and addiction in modern life. Because - unlike the Greeks, for one example - we cannot honor death and the ancestors, we have become depressed consumerists. Consumerism is the unfulfilling fantasy that we can renew ourselves through the continual purchase of the new. (Addiction is consumerism become compulsive.)

So, how can we create meaning in the middle of any death - of a love or a lover, of a bad habit or a time of grace - without succumbing to the fantasy that suffering can be eliminated or the fatalism of suicidal?

Personal experience tells me that the bliss is inside the suffering, that the two experiences are co-existent. Andrew Harvey tells the story of watching a starving, suffering woman dancing on the beach in India. The literature of heroes, saints and martyrs is full of stories of men and women going to death in the throes of the ecstatic. Those of us who have been dually cursed and blessed to be present with many dying friends know that death can be beautiful and pleasureable in its way, a cracking open of consciousness into something outside time This idea is unthinkable to most in our culture. That is why we have such difficulty conceiving that people can rationally and pleasureably choose their own dying - while other cultures have utterly no difficulty imagining this.

So, Sara, we don't have to make anything of our "devastation." We don't have to fix it, medicate it or turn it into a morality play. We have to hold it with full consciousness. Dare I say we have to love it? If we do that - and it usually takes the witness of friends, a minister or a therapist who doesn't try to make things change but holds your feet in reality - the soul will spontaneously respond in ways most of us can't even imagine. We follow our bliss into loss and death.

Another reader writes: "I am stunned by the Kennedy tragedy. How do you explain a family that has so much tragedy in it?" - Rebecca <P>

The easiest explanation is that the family is full of risk-taking adventurers who put themselves more often in the path of early death. But I don't buy that. The plays of Shakespeare and the Greek dramatists are full of stories of ill-fated royal dynasties. We used to understand that something comes with identity as a member of our specific family.

I'm not talking about the effects of nurture in a certain environment. Nor am I really talking about "nature." I'm talking about the sense of collective fate that was understood in earlier times. It is still evident -- not just in dynastic families like the Kennedys. We know for example that suicide runs in families - along with depression or "melancholy," as it was once called. So does the opposite disposition. So do particular kinds of talents that take people into similar career paths. Studies of siblings separated at birth have often turned up uncanny smiliarities in life paths.

In other words, much about our fate, our destiny, is given with life. I suspect the deep grief we feel before John Kennedy's death in part is the resonance we have with the sense of fate suddenly made visible to our modern eyes again.

Copyright 1999 by Creative Loafing

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