Updated: Feb 23
Photo by Sage Friedman - Unsplash
The Suffering of Peaceful Resistance
A Passage from my new work
"The Subtle Art of Suffering in the Balance of Love."
Over a decade and a half ago Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh released a reference book about Buddhist principles entitled “The Art of Power.” I purchased the paperback imagining that it would be about powerlessness and resistance in politics. When I read the book I was surprised that it was written for and about powerful people and how to exert influence effectively. Although I thought this was a worthy topic for a book written by a Zen practitioner, I wondered about the flip-side and how to be effectively vulnerable. I wanted to know about powerlessness.
As a volunteer I took time amongst the homeless, poor and disenfranchised. I've gone bankrupt twice and have nearly been homeless and lost everything on at least one occasion. When you have no money or position in life it is hard to imagine that you have a meaningful choice or significant pull in the world. The double entendre of being “broke” suddenly has more prominence. It's a sick sort of humor that as we are left with fewer paths out of disparity the resources or motivation that pull us up dries out. Our pain, neglect and friction with friends and relatives becomes our only means of crying out for help. It can take months or years for society to listen but eventually individuals find their way out. I began to describe this phenomenon as the power of powerlessness.
Our pain is an influence. It almost creates a vacuum in the world, drawing people and situations to us like a moth to the flame. If we do not suffer correctly we are apt to draw in bad circumstances. Agonizing outwardly attracts crime, lust, hatred and violence. So many impoverished individuals fall into this trap due to the fact that to suffer inwardly is so damaging. To make ourselves vulnerable to painful circumstances, being non judgmental in our views and love to the point of debilitation is what most try to avoid when they are broken. Some would say it takes the patience of a saint to see one's situation from outside of their life and to shoulder the burden without wondering why the universe is doing these things to them personally. It is frustrating, maddening and terrifying. It can drive a man or woman to the brink of insanity, seeing many on the streets, in the hospital or worse.
It takes faith to understand that relief will come. Whether you are spiritual or not, when you suffer it begs the question whether help will ever arrive. Many individuals give up and resort to self harm or substance abuse. Others get help but still feel lost, in grief that there is not more of a safety net for them, fearful that it could happen twice once the support is taken away. In the endless vulnerability of powerlessness one must remember that the circumstances will change. The pain will eventually end, new opportunities will become available or at the very least you will learn to shoulder the burden for others as a load-bearing wall that loved ones can gather underneath. In their comfort and gratitude you may find the relief you seek. If that is not possible the problems arise when our loved ones do not value our support. This leads to the suffering of peaceful resistance and activism.
When we find no relief after years of suffering for those we love we come to the precipice of frustration and despair that breaks us through to a new life of survival. We lower ourselves on the hierarchy of needs to a desperate state where a knot must be tied for us to hold onto. Trivial things become valuable and cherished. A warm blanket, a cup of tea or a few more minutes in the bath may seem luxurious. The tiny comforts begin to fulfill us. Perhaps even a small bite of flavorful food is enough to get us through the day. When we feel imprisoned or tortured by life our everyday becomes a battle. We hold out for hope through the hurt, fear and isolation for a hard fought victory. They do come eventually although they are fleeting. Primo Levi quotes, “The sea's only gifts are harsh blows and occasionally the chance to feel strong.” In this mode of livelihood the passage is law. It seems life can crucify us every day with mundane insults. Each comfort that is withdrawn from us hits us harder and harder until we feel like we cannot endure. Perhaps a child has not called in months. Maybe a lover has been colder than usual. It might be difficult to make ends meet and we haven't felt secure in years. These little inadequacies grind on us to the point where we feel gnawed on. It's as though all we feel is bone grinding against bone as we try to move our weary joints. This is when the impermanence of life must be remembered. The situation will change. It has to. Occasionally there is the chance to feel strong.
Our faith in the universe is so important in our resistance to surrender. We seek connection and then interconnection. We see how our strength nourishes those around us. A smile through the pain to a clerk at the grocery store seems special. It seems more heartfelt, more genuine, more real. It is funny how our suffering seems comforting to others. If you become skilled enough you can notice it creating opportunities, giving others a stable hand to hold and a firm footing to let their own dreams take hold. We struggle so that they do not need to. When we fight off the pain of another day and arrive at the end, we can sit and contemplate who had a more graceful life. Who trod the path behind us which was now free of debris? Who danced gracefully down the road where we once struggled? I guarantee that someone did.
Our suffering breaks barriers for others. It gives others hope and inspires them to be strong like we are. We see it in history, in figures like Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. We find strength in the heroes of antiquity.
The key to the suffering of the powerless is to always look at the wider view. Pull your perception back away from the daily grind. Understand that those remembered for their strength clung desperately to life on a daily basis. They often felt doubt, like they were failures or that eventually they would succumb to the challenges of humanity. However, in that struggle is where we all find safety, security and comfort. It is as though their pain created footholds for us to climb up the mountain and we can do the same for those in our lives, and those who come after them. The digging, gnawing, grinding and thrashing that we feel within is constantly carving out a warm, comforting place for some one, somewhere. The practice is cultivating the empathy and compassion needed to allow life to pass us over, to say to ourselves “If I am to be left out in the cold today I hope I am the only one and no one ever will again. May I be ever more frigid so that others treading in my wake feel the heat of my heart. May the presence of my body in this place give others warmth and if I endure, might they remember my comfort and allow me into their home someday.”
It's so important to remember that what we give to our fellow man will be given back in kind someday. We cannot all give of ourselves without restraint or hope of receiving anything back. No one wants to live their life as a martyr subsisting only on the idea that help will arrive eventually. There is a brilliant idea though that this experience is valuable. That being here is a blessing and that there are many that would be glad to feel pain if only they could. I draw to mind the image of a paralyzed woman seeking to feel anything in her extremities. If only to feel a little hurt would be miraculous and sometimes that is how you have to look at it. Pain is encouragement to move forward, to find relief and the proof that we are alive. The nerves are connected. We can find meaning in what is happening and our resistance to fear, death and ugliness is a valuable effort. Our powerlessness is what guides those around us to feel protected and to be better, stronger people themselves. I feel grateful everyday for the opportunities to maintain this burden, this position in life, simply to say someone else doesn't need to. Being this way you saved someone today. Never ever forget that.
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- February 23, 2023 -