Why All This Suffering?

March 16, 2012


Van Gogh knew about suffering.

The geriatric patients at the hospital where I volunteer love to tell me about their lives. Some have only months to live and others may be dead by the time I come in for my next shift. They talk to me about how much they are suffering right now and the topic soon turns to what else they have suffered in their lives. Read any novel, or watch any film, and the narrative is the same. It is often said that in fiction there are only about seven stories which get repeated and reworked through the ages. I disagree. There is only the one story. Take these very common examples.

A young woman meets a young man, and she immediately takes a shine to him. She spends hours imagining what it would be like if he were her man. They date and as the relationship progresses, she finds herself extremely happy. After a few months, he calls her less often, their dates are less frequent and he seems more distant. Then one day she finds out that the man is now seeing someone else. The young woman suffers. Other variations on this narrative are that after years of marriage, one of them dies and the other is left grieving.

Consider another scene. A couple dream of owning their own home. One day they find enough finances to purchase their ideal house. They spend years fixing it up the way like. Then one or both of them lose their jobs, and they can no longer pay the mortgage. They are forced to walk away from their house. Naturally, they suffer. Variations of this are, the house burns down in a fire/flood/earthquake. Or perhaps instead of a house it could be a child, a friend, a car, jewelry, designer clothes, anything tangible.

Final scenario, a young man works hard and becomes a success in his chosen career. He enjoys all the rewards of that success, praise, respect, admiration. Perhaps he is even acquires fame. Then one day he falls ill with a serious condition, perhaps cancer. Or he simply ages and loses his edge. He is no longer admired and respected. He suffers.

It seems to me that these, and any other narrative you can imagine, have the same underlying arc. There is a desire which promises lasting happiness. The person purses that idea, attains it and enjoys it for a time. Then something or the other beyond his control brings that desire fulfillment to an end. Either the object of desire perishes or the person loses interest in that object. Isn’t that what all suffering boils down to?

When I look back over the course of my life,  I see that it has been only the one mistake responsible for my emotional pain. Time and again I have expected people, places, things of the temporal world to bring me lasting happiness. What an unreasonable expectation! This world is time bound, and so of course everything within it has an expiration date. When the object of my happiness is destined to either decay, fade, break, or die, investing emotionally in it will certainly bring heartache. And the amount of suffering I experience is directly proportional to the happiness that thing or person or place had brought  to me.

Now that I know this fact, is there a way out of my suffering? Can being acutely aware, each and every moment, about the fragility of life make me immune to hurt? I believe it can. To the extent that I am able to keep mindful, to that extent I feel free. This does not mean I cannot enjoy the things of the world when they present themselves. Though I do not hanker after them  anymore. I can’t get obsessed about anyone or anything. When the time inevitably comes to say goodbye to the objects of pleasure, I helps to expect it. I am more ready for its loss. This has diminished my pain greatly.

What is more, some lesser desires have evaporated altogether. Reduced hankering has meant reduced agitations of the  mind. And a calmer mind is a happier mind.  A calm mind can fade into oblivion, and at such moments there is a glimmer of a lasting, unassailable happiness which is independent of everything.

Fiction writing may not have given me fame or riches, but it did give this valuable insight. For that I am grateful.


Not Mine! Not Mine! 

My friend Dennis loves content sales. He trolls Craigslist daily in search of them and is ever alert for street posts about garage sales. Not that he needs more stuff, he just cannot pass up a bargain. Needless to say his apartment is cluttered, but he cherishes each and every bargain in his overstuffed closets. I sometimes like to accompany him on these treasure hunts, not to shop of course but to remind myself every now and again that ownership is onerous.

I went with him last fall to the estate sale of a diseased elderly man. The man evidently had good taste and the disposable income to indulge it. I suspect he might have been a gay man since the only beneficiary of his estate was a nephew who had flown in from Calgary ‘to be rid of all this junk’. The nephew made it clear he was keen to sell the apartment and return home to his wife. The apartment was immaculate and orderly, the furnishings were old but stylish. The brass on the Tiffany lamps was polished, the wood on the Noguchi coffee table was scuff-free and glossy with care, the many Royal Doulton chachkas were lovingly grouped and tenderly cared for. No doubt the man must have paid a considerable amount of money for the items in this apartment. Yet the nephew had piled his clothing into cardboard boxes  marked ‘For Salvation Army’. More than one of the sweaters was cashmere, some of the shirts were Brooks Brothers, there was even Armani. How this man must have treasured his possessions, surely he must have taken pains not to spill food on the cashmere, worn the Armani only on special occasions, perhaps had fretted about break-ins when he was away from home. In the end it will all end up in the dollar-bin of a charity shop, or it would sit marked-down at an estate sale, waiting to be haggled further by someone like Dennis.  No doubt the nephew’s appraisal of the worth of the uncle’s precious items was coldly objective, dispassionately utilitarian, but were these objects really more valuable than that? Isn’t it the weight of sentiment that had made these objects more valuable of their previous owner?

It was not long after this that I had occasion to fly to New York City on business. One Saturday afternoon I found myself in the midst of the annual Christmas shopping frenzy of Fifth Avenue. Hordes of tourists and locals jostled each other (and me) to peek at the artful window displays – watches, perfumes, and name-brand hand bags. Matrons with shopping bags shuffled couture racks as though decks of cards, eager youths snatched clothing from shelves faster than the clerks could restock them. The clang of the cash registers was deafening. It is not only the hype of Madison Avenue that gives value to these objects, but the price tags themselves. Don’t we believe that a 3000-dollar Prada bag is better made than its cheap sidewalk knock-off? While these expensive items look so glossy in the windows of Saks or Winstons, I couldn’t help but remember that man’s estate sale. All of these lavish trinkets are destined to one day be part of someone’s estate.

To escape from these throngs, I decided to spend the rest of the afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum. There are rooms upon rooms of treasures that once belonged to emperors, kings  and other elite. Objects that they killed for, sometimes literally. Wars had been fought, millions of people had paid for these items with sweat and blood. Just as I was enjoying the beauty of these treasures, I noticed one of the curators enter a glass doorway where others were joyfully setting-up for a display not yet ready for public viewing. I envied them, they were custodians of all this artistic beauty, but free from the stress of its ownership.

As I pondered this it occurred to me that it was not the aesthetic merits of an item which make it desirable. People feel possessive about the most trivial of things. I see this every week at the homeless shelter where I volunteer. Men will get into arguments over a bagel, taking someone’s seat might warrant a fist fight. It is from this attitude of ‘mine’ that all the problem originate. As soon as I returned home I decided to make changes in my relationship with my belongings. From now on, I will be their custodian, not their owner. I will look after them, enjoy them, but will not lose sight of the fact one day they will no longer be mine. I feel a weight off me already.

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