Modern myths

There seems to be a strange idea which has been around for at least a decade, maybe longer, that we aren’t supposed to feel pain. That somehow the goal of life is to get to some Zen place where we can take whatever life throws at us without batting an eyelid.

The more I engage with the real stuff of living the more I think it is a crock of shit.

That kind of philosophy leads to denial of what is real, not engagement. Emotions are useful guides to navigating the world. And they should not rule our actions, but we need to feel.

I don’t want to live in a world where I don’t experience grief when some precious element of my life is removed. I want to experience love, joy, anger, frustration, peace. But I want to get to a space where those emotions, particularly the negative ones, flow through me unimpeded and therefore quickly.

The only way I can think to do that is to pay attention to the areas of my life which are not free. Where is my interior freedom constrained? If there are people I would rather not interact with, how do I come to a place where I can interact and allow the emotion that may be evoked to pass quickly? If there are things I’d rather not do but which are necessary, how do I embrace the task so that it isn’t emotionally demanding.

It is about learning to feel what is real, to accept the emotion and to allow it to pass.

The image in my mind is a water pipe. When strong emotion comes and the pipe is clear, i.e. I have interior freedom, the emotion can be very strong, but it will pass smoothly and quickly through my system. Every area of my life, or relationship which I declare to be ‘off limits’ is an impediment. With every emotional surge, eddy currents are set up and the result is turbulence. The more impediments, the longer and the stronger the turbulence.

Where are the areas of unfreedom in your life?


The things that shape us

A friend of mine made a comment on Facebook earlier this week – ‘It’s far easier to write tragedy that feels important than to write a great happy ending’

It got me thinking about why that is the case. I suspect it may have something to do with the uncomfortable reality that as adults we learn far more through suffering than we do through success.

But that doesn’t mean that we do, in fact, learn more through suffering. It is an active choice. It is not the fact of having suffered that makes us wise – mostly the fact of suffering just makes us bitter!

Wisdom comes from the distillation of reflection on the experience. It requires a willingness to allow ourselves to be taught; a willingness to see the possibility of our own unconscious complicity or perhaps conscious fault; a willingness to see things from a larger perspective than our own.

And yet there is still more required for true wisdom to emerge – a willingness to let go of sense of identity as ‘sufferer’. We need ultimately to let go of the incident that has shaped us. We need to forgive those who have caused us harm.

It really is only in actually letting go, allowing the emotional tags to fall slack, that we can begin to access the fruit of suffering.

To think that suffering or tragedy is instructional on its own is to entirely miss the point. It is the equivalent of waiting for something to grow from a trash heap. You need to separate out the potential compost from the rubbish, and then you need to plant the seed of hope.


I’ve been reading some stuff on forgiveness lately. I happened across a short book written by Jacques Derrida entitled On cosmopolitanism and forgiveness. In it he takes a fascinating position on forgiveness

In order to approach now the very concept of forgiveness, logic and common sense agree for once with the paradox: it is necessary, it seems to me, to begin from the fact that, yes, there is the unforgivable. Is this not, in truth, the only thing to forgive? The only thing that calls for forgiveness? If one is only prepared to forgive what appears forgivable, what the church calls ‘venial sin’, then the very idea of forgiveness would disappear. If there is something to forgive, it would be what in religious language is called mortal sin, the worst, the unforgivable crime or harm. From which comes the aporia, which can be described in its dry and implacable formality, without mercy: forgiveness forgives only the unforgivable. One cannot, or should not, forgive; there is only forgiveness, if there is any, where there is the unforgivable. That is to say that forgiveness must announce itself as impossibility itself.”

I find this a brilliant starting point. He later goes on, in fact, to make this position one end of a spectrum.

I think I only discovered what forgiveness is when I stumbled into trying to forgive something which had broken me. It was only at this point that I stopped trying to will myself to forgive – my will was simply inadequate to the task – and started praying for the grace to forgive.

Forgiveness is a process I participate in, not something I can generate.

But I think we only learn this when hit up against the thing which we are incapable of forgiving – the unforgivable – that we stop believing that we can do it ourselves. It is only when we begin to truly face the thing that has broken us in some way that we recognise our need to forgive. Until then we don’t really grasp what it is to forgive.

This week Eugene De Kock – the man known as Prime Evil – was released on parole. He served just 20 years of the 212 year sentence that was handed down. And yet there were those whose family members had been murdered and tortured in the Apartheid era who spoke publicly of forgiving him (see Russell Pollitt’s article here).

How is that possible? And yet it is. I believe through grace (although that language may not work for the people who have forgiven him)

Pierre de Vos commenting on the same events speaks of the complicit silence of far too many white South Africans (his article is here). His invitation at the end I think is an important part of the process of forgiveness which ever side of the equation you are on – to dare to enter fully into the recognition of what happened.

What was the hurt? What was the harm?

Following Derrida, these are situations which have no reparation. There is no pay back, no vengence, no possible restoration. There is only forgiveness of that which is unforgivable.

And I know I am not capable of forgiving. I can only stand in my brokenness and in woundedness with my desire to forgive and trust that, in God’s good time, the grace will be given.

On pain and suffering

I’ve slowly been reading my way through Being with dying by Joan Halifax. I’m finding it to be a thought provoking read. The last chapter I read was on pain and suffering. Joan Halifax is a well known Buddhist teacher so those who follow that tradition will possibly not find this to be a novel thought, but it certainly was to me.

In our culture we are terrified of pain. We avoid pain (physical and emotional) at all costs. Usually by using some kind of numbing behaviour, or indeed a numbing substance! For many us, perhaps even the vast majority of us, there is no distinction between pain and suffering. If we are in pain we must be suffering.

But Halifax makes an interesting separation: ‘Pain is physical discomfort, while suffering is the story around the pain. …. The first arrow, the sensation of pain, is bad enough. But it’s the second arrow–the story we tell ourselves about our pain–that’s the real trouble.’

This idea is fascinating to me. I’ve struggled with physical pain for the last 16 months. It is nothing too dramatic, mostly it is rather mild, with occasional escalations. The most recent variant has been situated in my hip which had made walking (my favourite way to unwind) uncomfortable.

Just in the last few days, since reading this chapter, I have been watching myself. When I am able to separate pain and suffering I am far better able to cope with the pain. It is much more manageable and much less threatening. When the pain gets worse, I am more able to simply accept that it is worse, rather than immediately considering the potential implications. In noticing the variation in the pain, I am also able to see, far more quickly when it diminishes as well.

I suspect that it will take me a long time to really begin to live with what is, rather than immediately creating a story around it.

How do I respond?

The news this week has been filled with horror after horror. The shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines plane over the Ukraine. The violence between the Israelis and the Palestinians. And the Christians who are being forced to flee from Mosul under the threat of death.

What is this world that we are living in? And how do I respond?

One response is simply to try to ignore it all. To get on with my own peaceful life, but somehow that seems inadequate. Besides, the fact that where I am living now is relatively peaceful (in my narrow corridor of life) is just how it happens to be right now. It may not be this way forever. Actually, looking at history, it probably won’t be this way forever!!

So burying my head in the sand seems not to be a good option. But what then? Continually reading news feeds simply escalates emotional response but doesn’t achieve terribly much more than that. I have plenty of my own feelings, I don’t really need the help of sensationalism!!

There is prayer, of course. And I do believe in the power of prayer – although don’t ask me how I think it ‘works’. And I do pray. But somehow praying for situations which are so far removed from my reality can feel a bit empty.

My friend and fellow blogger, Fran Rossi Szpylczyn, wrote about all of this earlier in the week (you can find her post here). Her answer or perhaps better her quest is to focus on finding peace in her own life. To me that seems like a challenge worth taking on.

To me, this means not only looking into myself for areas where I am not at peace. But also being attentive to my being in the world. Are there places, situations or relationships where I cause disruption? Am I the bearer of destruction in any way? Am I sowing the seeds of discontent? Are there any circumstances in which I take pleasure in another person’s pain?

When I start combing through my experience using this frame, I realise that perhaps I am not quite so innocent as I would like to believe. There are times when I operate out of my own unresolved woundings in such a way as to spread the destruction.

On Mandela Day I wrote on my Facebook wall that I was going to let go of old woundings. It occurs me that this may be the project of lifetime, but it seems a project worth doing!

Dealing with suffering

Over the last couple of days I have come across a couple articles on the ways in which spirituality has been commercialized. Whilst I am sure those who have developed spirituality programs for use in business have had good intentions, it seems that the essence has been lost in the process.

The real problem is that at the heart of any spirituality of substance is a paradox which holds both the real giftedness of the individual and the capacity for destruction in tension. This means that when we are riding high on success we are able to recognise that the success is only partly attributable to our efforts – success is always a combination of hard work and serendipity. It also means that when we face circumstances of suffering that we are able to see that again, we are only partly responsible.

Suffering is one of the great conundrums – in Christianity we have no theological argument which can contain suffering, all we have is the image of Jesus on the cross. We have no explanation for why suffering exists that can really comfort us when we are in the midst of such circumstances.

We find the spiritualities of success so alluring. The popularity of the book The Secret a few years ago is one such example. The idea that we can create our own reality, that someone we are in charge of our destiny, if we can just think right is so appealing. (In Christianity, the prosperity gospel is very similar). When things are going well, these ideologies are so provocative and feed into our ego – Look at how well we are doing, we have got it right. And it feels like we are in control.

But when things go wrong, like losing your job or cancer or an unexpected loss, we have no place to turn because we think it is all up to us. And if that were not sufficiently confusing in itself, we discover that our companions who shared our way of thinking now no longer know what to say, and don’t want to be associated with the negativity our new position. Fearful of being tainted, they shy away.

When we are able to sit with suffering in a place of compassionate care we often discover that the suffering isn’t entirely from nowhere, but it also is not usually entirely our fault. There are elements of personal responsibility and elements of this simply being a part of life. We need a spirituality which can help us pick through the rubble effectively.

Any spirituality which emphasises success rather than compassion will be toxic in the long run because such a spirituality will not have the capacity to cope with suffering.