“Radiolab” replayed a story this month that mentioned hockey great Wayne Gretzky (NPR 2/9/2014,”Secrets of Success,” original air date 7/26/2010). At the age of two, Gretzky’s parents put hockey on TV for him and when the game was over he would cry. It seems at two, he loved the game that much. My own early memory is so much less, but still similar. On the first day of fourth grade we were required to write about our summer. I recall thinking that I could probably survive fourth grade if all I had to do was write, of course, that was before the math began.
I think that writing is a little different from the obsessive passion of the Wayne Gretzkys and Olympic hopefuls of the world, for example, because the writers I most enjoy have read a lot and lived life. While it may be true about many passions, vocations, or the arts in general, it seems that there is a need for times of reflection and quiet – passion alone is not enough. It has been my experience regarding both religion and writing, that periods of solitude and retreat are essential, especially when we are struggling.
Islam is projected to be the fastest-growing religion worldwide according to Pew Research (link follows), rising from 1.6 to 2.2 billion people by 2030. All that started in a cave, with one person. Mohammed, before he was the prophet he was to become, needed some solitude and developed a habit of retreating to a cave in the hills of Mount Hira outside Mecca, (Huston Smith, The World’s Religions, 1991, p.224).
The Buddha, before he was the Buddha, was Siddhartha Gautama and born to a wealthy family, offered every comfort and luxury of his culture. But he left it all behind, including a wife and son, to “live the life of a lonely forest-dweller…to rejoice in solitude,” (Huston, p.83-4). And so, from solitude, two of the world’s great religions began.
In part, the retreat by Mohammed and the Buddha was a response to the suffering around them. In our post-modern world of runaway capitalism, I ask you to think about a basic and common form of suffering, workplace bullies.
The Philadelphia Business Journal did an unscientific survey of 173 responding readers and 58 percent said they knew of a supervisor at work who was bullying people; another nine percent said there was one who quit or was fired, which makes 67 percent. PBJ asked the wrong question. The question should have been: “Have you or any of your coworkers been bullied at work?” I guarantee the number would have been higher, and 67 percent is not small. If this number is representative, or as I suggest low, then lots of people are miserable at work. They fear for their jobs, their health, and have little peace of mind. Job satisfaction is a ridiculous fantasy when your spirit is crushed on a daily basis. And even if your passion is outside of work, you drag home too depleted to pursue it. You become Wayne Gretzky forgetting that there was a hockey game on tonight and just losing interest in the puck.
I assert that in a capitalistic society with the ever-widening gap between the disgustingly rich and the working poor, threatening someone’s livelihood is economic violence. The expertise of the bullies is convincing you they can harm you, they are willing to do it, and enjoying the whole dirty business. In some cases, they really can hurt you. If, like most folks, you can’t quit because you need the job, you are stuck. Has anyone noticed the workplace has gotten meaner?
There are a number of reasons that Mohammed and the Buddha needed solitude, and their response to suffering was, in my opinion, one of these reasons. I had a shrink once who called it “strategic retreat.” With enough retreat, meditation, contemplation, and if you are a person of faith – then prayer, I believe you can survive.
This is not my tidiest column. I have started to write this several times over several months. I intended to go on a rant about bullies and how I am just sure God doesn’t like them. What I won’t do is defend them or rationalize their bad behavior because of a difficult childhood, or crap like that. It doesn’t matter why they are a bully. It matters who they are bullying and what weapons they are using. It might be a jealous co-worker starting gossip or a supervisor who thinks you remind him of the sister who regularly called him on his shit. The bully is not my preoccupation or priority, it is the victim. If that is you, I want to let you know that you that you do not deserve this and that I recognize that your pain is real.
There are no easy answers for suffering, whatever the cause. If your religion is not helping you with this, then consider reframing it. I have read a little something about all of the major religions and some of the minors. They all have something to say about suffering and some of it is helpful. Don’t take any of it at first reading or what you were taught by others. Allow yourself, like Mohammed, some time alone in the cave and see what comes to you. I don’t have much faith and it is not common or traditional, but I do believe that if you are suffering, eventually there will be some measure of comfort come into your life. You may not see justice served to the bully, but you might get some for yourself, which is much more important. – J.B.