Monday, January 12, 2009

The Road Which All Must Tread

"None can come to the sublime heights of the divinity," said the Eternal Wisdom, "or taste its ineffable sweetness, if first they have not experienced the bitterness and lowliness of my humanity. The higher they climb without passing by my humanity, the lower afterward shall be their fall. My humanity is the road which all must tread who would come to that which you seek: my sufferings are the door by which all must come in."

~Heinrich Suso (Teachings of the Christian Mystics, edited by A. Harvey)

What to do about the problem of suffering?

I don't presume to think that I can come to any conclusion regarding this difficult question, but it's an unavoidable one and, what the hell, I might as well jump into the deep end with this blog.

Buddhism teaches that life is suffering and that release from suffering is possible. It prescribes its Eightfold Path as the means for achieving that release. The cause of suffering is said to be attachment. Now, there is much that I admire and am drawn to in Buddhism, but I have always had some trouble with the idea of detachment. Don't get me wrong, there are many things for which I find detachment a wise and healthy and helpful teaching. I try (though I do not succeed) not to cling to material things, or self-aggrandizing states of the ego, or even to my hopes and plans for future, both near and far. However, there are attachments from which I have no desire to be released, no matter what suffering they may cause.

My wife, my two children, my sister, my family and friends -- these are people that I love, for whom I have experienced both joy and grief. Because to love is to suffer. Loving someone means becoming vulnerable, getting hurt, being afraid they'll get hurt, fearing you'll lose them, almost losing them, and inevitably losing them.

The quote above from the Christian mystic, Heinrich Suso, does not teach the avoidance of suffering, but states instead that suffering is the door to sharing in the divinity of the Eternal Wisdom, of Christ. It is through our humanity -- not avoiding or escaping it, but through it -- that we reach to the divine. Our humanity, says the Eternal Wisdom, is composed of bitterness and lowliness, as if it were our task as human beings to learn something about suffering, in particular, the suffering of love ("For God so loved the world . . .").

The night my wife was taken in for emergency surgery, I spent a terrified few hours thinking she would die, desperate at the thought that I would never speak with her, caress her, or kiss her again. I tried to avoid the scene in my head in which I had to tell my kids they would never see their mommy again. I have never experienced such profound desperation. She came through it, thank God, and if there were any way I could go back to avoid that night for both my wife and I, I would do it. And yet, there is something else that is left to me from that night that is harder to describe.

To be able to suffer that way for the love of another human being means something. It's painful, but it's good at the same time. To know that I have the kind of love that could cause me that depth of suffering gives my life a meaning, I believe, that it would not have in any other way. And as I think about it, as I write this, I want more of that kind of dangerous love in my life, not less. It makes me wonder if the Buddhist formula about attachment isn't backwards, at least in respect to the kind of attachment called human love. That is, I do not think, as I said above, that to love is to suffer. Rather, it is suffering that lets us know that we have truly loved.

I want more of that kind of pain.

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