Reflections on Suffering and Loss
Certain questions really grip me. What is suffering? I agree with Reverend Angel Kyodo Williams, who said that suffering is anything that causes contraction. Who suffers? Or, maybe I should say, who doesn’t suffer! How does our grasping at pleasant experiences and our rejection of unpleasant experiences create suffering? And whose suffering am I intending to bring up here? In a general way our bodhicitta practice is meant to take us out of this contraction and to direct our love toward others-- teachers and mentors, family, friends, neutral people, those whom we dislike, and to those whom we don’t even know. Knowing that suffering is inevitable in our worldly context strengthens this commitment to send our prayers to all sentient beings. As Reverend Angel put it, our practice should help us meet painful conditions and build resilience to meet the challenges of our time and our lives. No small goal!
Each of us suffers small and big losses, from minor disappointments to the ongoing losses associated with aging: loss of hair, problems with teeth, changes in eyesight and mobility, painful joints, and on and on. Most of us also experience more significant losses: of our homes or loss of jobs and of course the loss of parents, partners, even our children. My daily prayers always include others who are suffering with illness, actively dying or, like Bob Lucas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, have recently died.
Then there are losses that may seem less immediate or present, depending upon our race and ethnicity. Racism manifests in multifarious and insidious ways, but murder, forced sterilization, and incarceration of people of color, especially African-Americans, is deeply repugnant and downright wrong. Black Lives Matter, All Lives Matter, and We Are Connected.
My learning about black lives in particular was initiated long ago. When I was a high school and college student in the 1960s and 1970s, the civil rights movement was in full swing. As a child in white suburbia, insulated from the experiences of people of color, I gained access to their world through reading. 11th grade history class on what was happening in the South, murder of Medgar Evers, and more. Of the extensive literature I read in late adolescence, James Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name probably had the greatest influence, for he wrote about racism, what he called “the question of color,” and “graver questions of self.” Like many others, it took years before I would read Toni Cade Bombara, Zora Neale Hurston, Paule Marshall, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Margaret Walker, the women who have since been recognized for their unique insights into racism and the realities of African-American experience. Later I studied Liberation Theology, Feminist Theology, and Black Theology – all of which are mostly but not exclusively Christian in focus. In particular, black theologian James Cone asked readers of his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree to wrestle with how to heal the deep wounds that lynching has caused.
Then there is the larger national and global political landscape, which leaves me teetering on despair at times. We face the rise of fascism, and the loss of genuine democracy, or at least the threats to our own constitution, judicial system, and such. But I think of Mohandas Gandhi, who said “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it – always.” When I despair, I will remember that love, uncondidtional love, a kind heart, tsewa – always wins.
Then there is the pandemic. I don’t think I really need to say much about the worldwide effects of the coronavirus. Yesterday’s death toll includes 205,000 US citizens, with nearly 1M deaths and 32.6M reported cases of COVID-19. worldwide. Changes have been wrought on communities everywhere.
Then there is nature -- for instance, the loss of thousand-year-old Redwood and Joshua trees in California that have burned as part of the devastation of 3M acres in nasty fires. My heart aches for the animals, bear and deer, muskrats and beavers and fish, snakes and spiders, birds and bees and ants, all of whom have died in those fires; and for all those individuals, families, and businesses that have lost so much. In the Australian fires estimates are that 3 billion animals have been killed or displaced. There about 46M acres were burned before the fires were extinquished.
My heart aches for those all over the world who cannot breathe because of fires and smoke and interminable haze and air that is actually dangerous to breathe. Close to home in Colorado several fires still rage and strong warnings are out this weekend about the front range.
Then there is the earth itself and the changes wrought by the quickly progressing process of climate change. I’m sure we all know what’s at stake here: melting glaciers and permafrost, loss of sea ice, accelerating sea level rise, longer, more intense heat waves, generally rising temperatures, erratic weather patterns, stronger hurricanes, tornados, typhoons, and cyclones. More devastation for communities all over the planet. When I look at the scientific projections regarding climate change this seems to be like the end time, or at least the cataclysmic end of the Kali Yuga (Hindu model of time, with 4 yugas, we are in the last one now). . . .whatever you believe, it’s pretty dire out there.
With all of this in mind, I reach out as far as I can to bring others, and the earth itself, into my field of care. (Excerpts from a podcast I gave on September 27, 2020, available here.)