Thursday, May 7, 2009

unbearable sorrow

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Last night I was reading an NYTimes article about smallish companies faced with the need to lay people off. These were companies where people knew and sometimes cared about each other.

The decisions were often made by people with a conscience who were forced to cope with the fallout generated by people who largely lacked one. One woman who felt she should tell the affected workers face-to-face of the decision to lay them off went back to her office and broke down in tears: The fierceness of life's required triage was just too much for her.

A number of months ago, on the radio, there was a story about a Japanese CEO who announced that his company was going belly-up. He stood before the microphones and -- mind you, this guy was Japanese -- wept. He asked that anyone who could help the people who worked for him ... please help them: This is not their fault. The CEO clearly thought he was at fault. Out of whatever mind-set, he was willing to shoulder the responsibility.

Sometimes, whether near or far, personal or objective, things become "unbearably sad" and the triage of life ... oh man, it hurts through to the bone. Personal or objective, things fall apart and the heart is filled with despair. It...is...awful. And no amount of philosophical or religious icing can sweeten this bitter cake.

There is no escape and yet every fiber of the body and mind longs for escape. Sometimes it truly wonders me that Zen Buddhists should run around wrapping themselves in 1,700 koans when there are already enough koans for any sensible human being: No escape, but longing for escape, for example. If that's not an honest-to-god koan, I don't know what is.

Without distancing ourselves from any "unbearable sadness" -- without trying to put icing on a bitter cake from a pristine philosophical or religious distance -- I think it is something worth noticing and following through on: At the very moment that anyone might be "unbearably sad," still, the fact of the matter is that s/he is (right now) bearing it. Hating it, sure; weeping, sure; wailing at the heavens, sure; feeling as every bone were broken with sorrow, sure; filled with fear and anguish, sure; pleading for an escape route, sure ... and yet, for all that, in this very moment, bearing an "unbearable sorrow."

Sometimes Buddhists or others inclined towards spiritual endeavor attempt to hide out in a particular persuasion, to snuggle up to and be enfolded by a particular religion or philosophy. They seek consolation. And the fact is that they deserve it, but the consolation they seek in philosophy or religion is bound to fall apart. Facts are facts and where there is no escape, finding an escape route amounts to a false and unconsoling hope, good for five minutes or ten, perhaps, but unable to withstand the fierce triage that life dishes up in various times and places.

If I had to guess, I guess I would guess this -- that the true consolation, the one that does not crumble in the face of life's unbending circumstances, lies in the seed planted by the recognition that in the moments of "unbearable sorrow," still, we are, in fact, bearing it. It takes courage and patience and doubt to nourish this seed. Really, it takes balls, because the desire to escape from the inescapable is so damned strong; it just 'feels' true ... and don't tell me otherwise! ... I just KNOW this longing to escape is true! But is it? I think consolation lies with the one willing to ask and answer this question: This is unbearable and yet I am bearing it -- how does that work? What implications does it have?

In the face of "unbearable sorrow," philosophy and religion may offer some temporary solace (look at the number of churches and temples, the number of monks and nuns, the number of books filled with wisdom that paper this earth) ... but philosophy and religion can piss up a rope when anyone bears an unbearable sorrow. Philosophy and religion are secondary, however pleasant they may be. Hiding out among second-hand wisdoms may be popular and occasionally useful, but that doesn't really crack the nut, does it? Second-hand nostrums cannot cure first-hand sorrows.

What is not secondary, what is not doomed to failure, is this one small seed: In the midst of the unbearable, I am bearing it.

Now ... what is the truth of this utterly commonplace fact?
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