Suffering, King Arthur, Empathy, Learning & Doing

Suffering, dis-ease, frustration, dissatisfaction, pain, misery, torment and grief – the disjointedness of so much of life – caused by desire, greed, and clinging attachments that manifest in possessiveness, ignorance, and aggression – suffering is ubiquitous. Suffering manifests in injustice and distortion of basic human rights. What do we do about this? For me it actions need to be grounded in recognition of and respect for the profound importance of empathy, and of empathy with all living human beings – deep, powerful empathy that evokes passionate and compassionate action. We need to understand each other, in each others’ terms, context, culture, history, and beliefs.  And we need to think about the implications of our culture, history and beliefs for other people – how does all of that effect their lives?  Then we can ask them to consider how all of their stuff affects our lives … and then we are ready to make some changes.

And all of that begins with understanding, understanding based on real knowledge …In his book, The Once and Future King T.H. White (1958, p. 183) presents a conversation between Merlyn and the young Arthur.  Arthur is still a child, and has no idea that he will one day be King of England.  He is anguishing over the loss of his childhood playmate and best friend, Sir Kay who is preparing to become a knight and so has abandoned his relationship with Arthur.  Merlyn counsels Arthur,

“ The best thing for being sad is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails.  You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then – to learn.  Learn why the world wags and what wags it.  That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you.”

             Then when you know something, when you understand with your heart and mind, then go out and get your hands dirty (well engaged) and DO something. The Dali Lama once said, “compassion is not enough, you must act.” Truth be told, I think he was a little wrong. It’s not really compassion if you don’t act!

Mary Oliver and Wild Geese

 It is that time of year again. It is always some time of  year, it is always again. This time, in this moment, we are approaching Thanksgiving, the Solstice, Christmas, Hanukkah; we are approaching the season of giving thanks, and of clinging to the hope that light will come again into our lives, our world.  At moments like this, I often take solace in the poetry of Mary Oliver. Wild Geese is one of my most favoritest poems by her. It is already all over the web, so I hope to high heaven I am not breaking too many copyright protections in reposting it here for you all to enjoy!  Maybe you can take it as an invocation to go and check out one of her books from the library? Or maybe even head over to your independent bookstore and buy one for yourself?

 “Wild Geese,” by Mary Oliver from New & Selected Poems (Harcourt Brace).

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
       love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

And, here is a UTube Link to Mary Oliver herself reading Wild Geese and a couple of other poems:

Albert Camus, the Myth of Sisyphus and Happiness

Homer, the ancient Greek poet, is said to have believed that Sisyphus was the wisest and most prudent of all mortals. Other traditions describe him as a bit of a scoundrel. And, really, at the root, at the heart of matters, those who are wise and who are seen as scoundrels may not be all that very different.  Indeed, there are any number of stories about Sisyphus and his relationship and interactions with the gods of his day.  A consistent theme of the stories is that Sisyphus was a man who looked the gods squarely in the eyes and spoke his mind even making fun of what he thought were their foibles and short comings. Sisyphus loved life and living, he hated death, and he taunted the gods.  Well, as you can imagine the gods would only have but so much of that from Sisyphus, and indeed one day the gods have had enough, and they condemned Sisyphus to roll a huge round boulder to the top of a mountain.  At just the moment when Sisyphus and the stone reach the summit of the mountain – yep, you can see it coming, the boulder rolls down again. And, Sisyphus is compelled to return to the base of the mountain to undertake his task again and again and again in perpetuity.

Albert Camus’ description of Sisyphus’ struggle and his analysis of the existential (its Camus of course there is existential angst!) meaning of the struggle provide an interesting twist to the myth. Camus observes:

Myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them. As for this myth, one sees the whole effort of a body straining to raise the huge stone, to roll it, and push it up a slope a hundred times over; one sees the face screwed up, the cheek tight against the stone, the shoulder bracing the clay-covered mass, the foot wedging it, the fresh start with arms outstretched …

Now, I’ve read the myth of Sisyphus dozens of times, of used the myth as an analogy of all kinds of dull repetitive work, but I’ve never felt it like I did as I read Camus’ description! And then he goes on the descript Sisyphus as an absurd hero. An absurd hero whose scorn of the gods, whose hatred of death and Thanatos, whose passion for life won him a penalty in which his whole being is exerted toward accomplishing – exactly nothing. Now – how many of us have felt like we worked our hearts and souls out, like we worked our butts off and accomplished exactly nothing! Ah, Sisyphus our brother – absurd, yes, but hero?

Well, Camus redirects our focus to the moment after the boulder rolls down from the summit, the moment when Sisyphus turns and begins his own descent down the mountain. In that moment, in those moments Sisyphus stands as EveryMan, as EveryHuman, and walks in consciousness, in awareness of who he and the existential being of his condition. Wretched, but lucid, he thinks and therefore he claims liberation. Camus phrases it, “The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory.” The descent of Sisyphus is marked by exhaustion, frustration, sadness, and by joy. Within the angst of the dark night, of unbearable grief, of Gethsemane, within the soul of tragedy the lucid soul can find the foundation of strength and resilience.

Camus has Edipus cry out: “Despite so many ordeals, my advance age and the nobility of my soul make me conclude that all is well.”

This story is worth telling, worth thinking about – I think – just to get to that quote — “Despite so many ordeals, my advance age and the nobility of my soul make me conclude that all is well.” The phrase, ‘the nobility of my soul’ resonates for me. The conviction that ‘all is well’ even in the midst of ordeals, even in the midst of Sisyphus’ seemingly hopeless, endless, meaningless struggle – even then and there, all is well. Now that is something. That is a place where the discovery, the claiming of human dignity has depth and resonance and meaning.

And, Camus goes on to highlight that happiness and the absurd are siblings. There is no sun without shadow. There is no day without night. The choice to claim our fate, to say yes to the tasks, the actions we undertake – and to do so with conscious awareness and lucidity – there is the home of freedom and happiness. 

Be well my friends. Rest well and deeply knowing that all is well.