When I got serious about writing, I stepped away from another community I had been involved with—a mindfulness meditation community. The weekly talk and “sit” fell on the same night as a weekly reading series. Rationalizing that I had left a stressful job and knew enough meditation to get me through a daily practice, Monday nights were re-dedicated to fellow writers. However, this week I was reminded of the Buddhist concept of suffering, which I had learned while studying meditation.
As happens, I’ve been challenged recently, meeting and working with someone whose beliefs are very different from mine. He is a young man finding his way in the world through an interesting combination of performance, argumentation, and annoyance. When he showed up for our meeting I was prepared for bombast and ready with my talking points for next steps on his project. He sat down, took out his notes and, before I could say anything, he started crying.
Initially, he brushed off his tears and told me he knew the project wasn’t going well, and that he wanted to make it better. As we talked through next steps, real tears started flowing. I asked if he wanted to talk. He told me about a fight he was having with all of his friends. The president had recently signed an executive order to ban federal funds to international groups that perform abortions or lobby to legalize abortions. He saw this as a victory and publicly celebrated on social media. To his surprise, he experienced a backlash from his friends. Frustrated and sad, his lips trembled as he asked me why people don’t understand that abortion is murder.
I was mad and started going through my mental catalog so that I could tell him exactly why everything he said was wrong. But what I saw on his face was suffering. In a moment that reminded me of Hesse’s Siddhartha, I felt like Govinda sitting at my desk, seeing this young man’s suffering. But also in his face, I saw all of the women and families who have suffered in their fight to make abortions safe and legal.
The best I could do at that moment was tell him that many people in the world are suffering right now, yet despite this suffering, we are still finding ways to talk to each other. I encouraged him to try to listen more instead of constantly being ready to argue—that sometimes, people with whom we disagree just need to be heard. As we all do. He gathered his notes and left, and I wondered if I had helped him at all. My words felt like a tiny round bandage for the gaping wound in his gut.
As I write this essay, I am reminded of the Aristotle quote about being able to hold a thought in our minds without accepting it. But a more applicable quote is from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s essay, The Crackup:
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the
mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for
example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make
In this moment of hopelessness for many, others have felt hopeless for quite some time. Neither side understands the other, or else understands only so much as to decide one side is “more wrong” than another. It is in this moment of my personal hopelessness that I realize something else that makes me afraid: there is no present relief from suffering.
Buddhists will argue (politely) with me on this point. However, thinking of this young man in his suffering, me in my own suffering, suffering in general because we will never agree on this particular issue, I realize that I am grasping for some sort of harmony, or at least that moment of grace when we agree to disagree. And here the Buddhists will agree that yes, this constant grasping for harmony and understanding will continue the cycle, my personal cycle, of suffering.
We are the great dis-satisfied, Nietzsche claimed. It’s not that we can never be happy. Rather, many of us are built with the intellectual capacity to see that things can be better, and want to change things for the better, however we define “better.” In the Buddhist sense, suffering is the grasping for an imagined time when things are “just right.” But in the Nietzchean sense, it is precisely this restlessness of recognizing things as less than ideal that motivates us toward change.
I have put the judgement of “bad” on suffering (as I often do with anger as well), but thinking of Buddhists and existentialists standing together in my mind gives me a small sense of relief. Dissatisfaction is a tricky thing. On the one hand, it motivated me to make this major life change to a writing life. The suffering comes when I grasp at constant publication as a measure of my worth and success as a writer. As I go through a publishing dry spell, I’ve forced myself back to my desk (with the help of a group of new writer friends), so that the writing still happens. Daily. My life is still changed for the better. I no longer suffer as I used to. Yet, I continue to push myself, not resting because of the small successes I’ve already had.
Reflecting on the recent meeting with the young man—confronting someone else’s suffering, confronting my own suffering, acknowledging but not trying to resolve anything in that moment—opened a moment of compassion for me. But, in turn, being compassionate to myself, my beliefs, and the many women and families who need support and advocacy now, I bought my ticket to our local Planned Parenthood dinner. Great dissatisfaction transforms to action. We should, as Fitzgerald reminds us, be able to see that, while things seem hopeless, we can maintain our determination to make them otherwise.
The Crackup by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
The Sound of Paper: Starting from Scratch by Julia Cameron
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