Category Archives: Suffering

The C-word

For five years I walked in the Philly “Race for the Cure” in memory of my sister-in-law’s mother, Jane. She was someone I really liked and spent time with when she was dying. When I walked I saw t-shirts announcing people who were there in memory of someone who had died. There were also special shirts for survivors. By profession, I’m a nonprofit fundraiser and I respect the astounding financial success of the Komen folks, but for me as an individual, the event became too big and commercial for something that I experienced as personal. And, by the way, I am totally sick of all the pink shit. Give it a rest already.pink-ribbon

In the nineties, I was a hospice volunteer at a cancer center for about three years, also in honor of Jane and my cousin, Robin who died from AIDS. I learned from that volunteer work that cancer is just not the worst way to go. I also learned that the most difficult deaths were usually due more to troubled relationships, or lack of any, than from physical pain. And the greatest pain at the end of life is usually from regret or guilt.

As I have written before, I reject what I consider the juvenile theology of a god fussing about every detail of my life. In fact, I had a lengthy discussion with a woman just a couple weeks ago who asked me to pray for the Eagles football team. I wish I was kidding. I wish she hadn’t been serious. I did tell her I thought god didn’t give a crap about football. Then she launched into a lecture on how sports contributes to our society and how praying for football helps bring people to god or some other such nonsense.

Last week I was in a meeting at a church exploring grant opportunities related to food security, i.e. feeding the hungry. I was talking to a woman who told me she chose this mission project in her church to honor her 42-year-old daughter who died from breast cancer. She told me how it hurts her to see those survivor-women celebrating. She was not being petty, I assure you. She just said, “I don’t know why God took my daughter.” We agreed that there are many mysteries in life that we just can understand. Just yesterday a close friend was diagnosed with MS and she is the sole support and caregiver of her mother with Alzheimer’s and her special needs son. No indeed, life is just not fair.

I do believe in cause and effect, and in karma. Though not the cause of every bad thing, karma can be social, with a lot of us paying for the sins of many before us. I think some cancers in our modern world are the result of our modern world. It could be the long-term result of additives in food, off-gassing from new carpet, years of vehicle exhaust in the atmosphere, and better examples my science-y friends can name without blinking. I accept the invisible, long-term consequence resulting in one in three Americans having a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime. Since I have two siblings, odds are, it will be one of us.  And if it means, not unlike Passover, it’s me and my siblings are passed-over, then I accept. And although bargaining with the Universe is probably pointless, when times are tough the desperate start negotiating. I’ll take one for the team. I don’t have kids and I’m healthier than my sibs, so I can handle the fight. That’s just pragmatic.

For right now, I don’t know if I am sick. The spot of the biopsy is sore, so every time I move wrong and I feel the soreness, it reminds me and I wonder if I have cancer. So many times in our lives we find ourselves in that place of not-knowing. This is a sacred space. I am not experiencing fear. Not because I am courageous because I am not. Not because I believe in a personal god. I do not. I am not afraid because I am lucky enough to have access to health care. That said, I am very afraid of it bankrupting me with my $6,000 a year deductible.

What I find so deeply disturbing, and what does bring tears to my eyes, is this raw and profound reminder of my vulnerability. Most of us function with an assumption of control. I think it is how we keep going, being productive, maybe even happy. Deep down, I know this is an illusion. Better than anyone, the Buddhists try and teach this to us. But I am very Western and want to believe I am the boss of me. Well, clearly I am not.

The other reaction haunting me is how few activities seem important right now. I can tell you I surely don’t give a damn about the dishes. Then there’s work. Normally I find it satisfying – at least some of the time. Right now I feel like I’m raising money to buy life rafts for the Titanic and it has already set sail. (Don’t over analyze the metaphor because I don’t know if the Titanic is me, or the job, or it’s all a mood swing.)

It is uncomfortable, but I am working to honor this sacred time and space by recognizing my fragile humanity. This place of not knowing is sad and lonely. Don’t misunderstand me, I am lucky to have numerous, wonderful friends who have already been supportive; but ultimately, this experience is a solitary one. I have been forced to stop and accept my lack of control, even over my own body. It is the lack of power over something so important and personal as my own body that has me unhinged. Have I been betrayed by the very vessel that makes this human experience possible?And where is God in all this? That answer is only relevant when you answer that for yourself. I do believe there is a Universal force of love. And I believe those whom I have loved and who have died might just be on the other side looking out for me. I hope so. But cancer is not god’s fault nor up to god to cure.

The irony nearly escaped me that this is “Breast Cancer Awareness Month.” I hope to celebrate by not having it. But while I’m in the place of not knowing, I will accept my fragile humanity with as much grace as I can muster, with my little dog at my side, and some really good human beings who have my back, not the least of which is my spouse. If you read this and find yourself, for any reason, in that place of solitude and not knowing then I can only tell you I get it and wish you peace. So on this Yom Kippur, Shalom to folks of all faiths or none. #

Advertisements

Tiny Houses and Religion

TinyHouse

Tiny Houses by Jay Shafer

When I think about what I most like doing at home, it is reading, writing, watching birds/squirrels/rabbits in the yard, and hanging-out with my cats – no disrespect to my spouse. (He’s just noisier and higher maintenance.) If I have a vice, other than eating chocolate and all forms of sugar, it is that I like entertaining. I’m not great at it, and meals are not gourmet, but I will have cloth napkins, fresh flowers, quality food, and wine. This is what I expect of myself. My entertaining is not extravagant, but I could not do it in a Tiny House.

“We the Tiny House People: Small Homes, Tiny Flats & Wee Shelters” By Kirsten Dirksen

Though I envy those Tiny House people, I do have some stuff that I want to have around me; however, I don’t have offspring and what means something to me now, will mean nothing to those who are left to disperse my humble possessions after my demise. Maybe it will fall to my nieces, who I pray I have taught to not just send it all to the landfill, but at least find a thrift shop. So being middle-aged, I’m looking around thinking what a pain in the ass it will be for someone to deal with all this crap. And yet, a Tiny House? Where will I put my table linens? The litter boxes?

There you have it, the minimalist quandary. What do I keep? What do I shed? What do I refuse to take in? It’s no different in religion. The way that the major religions are practiced today is probably not the way they started, or even what used to be good about them. But do not be confused. Minimalism is not fundamentalism. Fundamentalism, as I define it, takes a religion to the fundamentals of days gone by, without a sense of context, e.g. Biblical Literalists. A minimalist view would look at the essence of a religion. In other words, I believe religious minimalism can be found in understanding the context of religious thought without being limited by its history or even modern corruptions. (All religion is interpretive and minimalism is one interpretation.)

Perhaps Buddhism is the Tiny House of religions. For me, it is the first religion that comes to mind in thinking about minimalism because it is both complex and simple. What is the essence of Buddhism? It depends who you ask. You could get answers like: mindfulness, life is suffering, detachment, compassion, noble truths, meditation, and so much more.

Buddhism can be practiced simply, but reconciling compassion with detachment always seemed complex to me. For example, one interpretation of Buddhism had monks sweeping the ants from the walkway in front of them, lest they step on and kill any of them. Yet in another account, I read about a Japanese monastery that drowned unwanted kittens – or worse, loosed their aggressive dog to do the dirty work and kill the kitten violently, (Janwillem van de Wetering, The Empty Mirror: Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery, 1973, p.35-6). They must have had some discomfort with this killing because they did it at night. I introduce this story not to accuse those particular monks of hypocrisy, but to identify the difficulty in making choices and reconciling values. Essential Buddhism to me is found in the quote which I thought was the Buddha, though I have been unable to substantiate, it is: “Look at the world through the eyes of compassion.”

We could use more compassion. We now live in a world with rants and deeply disturbing photos posted online with global access. Last week there was a picture of a starving African woman on my Twitter feed. Some American (I think) white male responded by saying, “f-her.” Really? Condemnation for starvation? That makes no sense. I responded with something like, “Why are you so angry? Why does suffering not reach you?” He responded by repeatedly Tweeting a photo of himself (I assume) to jam-up my Twitter feed. I am baffled by his attitude, just as I am confounded by a world with the sophistication of social media and the barbarity of be-headings.

What is the appropriate response to proud, showy brutality, for the civilized and compassionate of the world? (Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly has a good story on this – link below.) I don’t think it is a time for Buddhist detachment in terms of action; but it is definitely time to detach from the vengeful emotions that I believe Buddhists rightly warn us would perpetuate the pain to which we might hope to respond in the first place. Even though it is popular to equate religion with conflict, the essence of most religions is compassion. A minimalist approach to these religions can inform better choices in a complex world.

Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly on ISIS

I am one of those people who lives paycheck-to-paycheck and spends significant time worrying about money, so I’m not judging – I’m right there with you, but the financial obsession of Americans at all income levels, leaves little energy left to consider or confront difficult and painful social issues, local or global. I believe our consumer-culture and aggressive capitalism has anesthetized us from being all that we can be as human beings. In the grind of getting to work, staying employed, and paying the bills, it is nearly impossible to feel empowered. It’s even difficult to get Americans to vote and that is a simple, civic act that costs us nothing and is usually less than one mile from our homes. Do you know what does feel good? Yes, spending money.

I don’t have the answers, but I am comfortable posing some questions. What choices will I make today that will keep my life more simple, with fewer material distractions? What actions can I take that will not support global aggression? What thoughts and intentions can I nurture in myself that will send healing energy to the hungry and abused? What actions must I take to demonstrate my compassion and take it beyond private intentions? To quote Zen Master Seung Sahn, “Only don’t know.” Begging indulgence from my Buddhist friends, my unenlightened Western interpretation is that I don’t think we should stop asking questions, but rather remain humble in our pursuit of right action and right thought. Life happens in the small choices. Should I buy it? Should I keep it? What does vacation really mean? Does this activity nurture my soul or sedate it? “Only don’t know.” –J.B.

Wet Suits and Suicide

The first time I was breathing underwater with scuba gear it was in a Kansas YMCA swimming pool. Breathing underwater was as amazing as the final test was terrifying, for which a mandatory free-ascent without oxygen was required. It took me three tries. However, my success had the intended result. I learned that in spite of my instincts, I could ascend from 40-feet of very cold, muddy water on a single breath. Since the test was early spring in a huge Arkansas lake, we were wearing wet suits.

Wet suits are another thing that don’t seem logical. When you get in the water, it soaks WetsuitCroppedyour suit. Your body then warms the water, very quickly, which continues to serve as a layer of warmth and protection from the cold water. I would love to walk around life with a social wet suit, protecting me from the cold-shoulders we inevitably bump into.

The thing about a wet suit is that out of water, walking around is exhausting. What was a layer of protection in the cold water becomes untenable on land. I think that clinical depression, for some, is like walking around land in a wet suit, but without it actually keeping you warm. It is like a permanent, cumbersome weight that you can’t figure out how to peel off. And at the risk of extending the metaphor too far, I would say that the wet suit of depression can convince one that taking it off would be worse than the misery of wearing it. Those on the outside might say, “Just take it off,” as in ‘get over it.’ But of course, it doesn’t work like that.

There are probably many groups of experts on suicide, but one of them which keeps statistics is the American Association of Suicidology (which is a word, and is the study of suicide prevention per Webster). They tell us that more women attempt suicide, but more men succeed, for example. A Washington Post story reports that there has been an alarming spike in the rate of suicide in white, middle-age men since 1999.

The Washington Post on Suicide and Robin Williams

While I am very sad about the loss of Robin Williams, I believe he made a choice that was his to make. We’ll never know what he was thinking at the time, but I can see that maybe he was just tired of walking around on dry land in a wetsuit and flat-out couldn’t figure how to get the damn thing off. The Parkinson’s was one more utterly exhausting obstacle – like trying to run track in a wetsuit. In Robin William’s case, he would have been expected to make jokes for everyone else while doing it.  Maybe he just thought,  “Enough is enough.” That he apparently hung himself does creep me out, but there should be some recognition for him in staying clean-and-sober to the end of his days, after what I’ve read was years of struggle.

In the last few days, in casual conversations in various settings and comments online, on radio and television, I’ve heard people say, “What about those he left behind?” “What a shame.” I remember someone telling a suicide story about an acquaintance saying, “Suicide is an angry act. It hurts everyone left behind.” Suicide may have a ripple effect on those left behind, but it is the most deeply personal act possible. It’s just not about you. That is not said to diminish the pain of those left behind. It is just to ask, why can’t people make a choice about their own exit?

HelenNearingBookCover

Loving and Leaving the Good Life, by Helen Nearing

Helen and Scott Nearing come to mind. They were the original hippies, leaving a comfortable Manhattan life during the Great Depression and teaching themselves subsistence living in rural Vermont, then Maine. Their story is a good one, but what is relative to this topic is that at age 100, Scott was finished. He accomplished what he intended, he had no life-threatening illness, he simply stopped eating. He did indeed make a graceful exit. And it was his to make.

Goodlife Website on Scott and Helen Nearing

Disclaimer: I realize depression it is a treatable condition, not all people with depression are suicidal, and not all suicides can be linked to depression. Some would say that suicide can only be the result of mental illness. America may be a financially wealthy country but when it comes to mental health this is a primitive, unenlightened society. So, maybe the argument that suicide is linked to a treatable mental illness is often correct, but it is a moot point when mental health treatment is even less available and/or affordable than physical healthcare, for many of the non-wealthy. There’s the added problem that even if you have some insurance to help, you really don’t want mental health problems on your medical record. You know I’m right about that.

In our less-than-enlightened society, medical advances have outpaced ethics and common sense. People are living much longer, but not necessarily doing it well. Human beings are lingering beyond their ability to be productive, or even happy. Many are suffering painful, prolonged illnesses without the opportunity to get off the runaway train of medical science that lengthens life but can’t help us live it.

I was a hospice volunteer for several years. I learned that religion does not always support the dying or the suffering. In fact religion contributes to the shame around suicide. If someone is in so much pain they see suicide as a viable option, shaming them exacerbates the misery. One argument religions have used in condemning suicide is to assert the unerring sacred value of life – at all costs. This position is promoted even while all the major religions venerate martyrs. There are religious martyrs who died at their own hands and those who engaged in behavior that would make their death inevitable – that doesn’t even count religious wars. So a sweeping assertion about the unerring sacred value of life doesn’t hold consistent with how religions have been practiced historically.

As the article linked below says, it is not that long ago that a funeral mass was denied if the deceased committed suicide. While the Roman Catholic Church is now responding to suicide with more compassion, church teachings still make it clear that suicide is morally wrong. I single out the Roman Catholic Church because it is an easy and obvious target, but don’t think it is the only religion with discomfort around suicide.

CatholicDigest.com on Suicide

The thing about shaming suicide is that it makes people less willing to talk. The American Society for Suicide Prevention counts “Positive connections to family, peers, community, and social institutions such as marriage and religion that foster resilience,” as “protective factors for suicide prevention.” If someone is too ashamed to talk, how can they make those “connections?”

Preventing Suicide

I remind you that when it comes to faith, there are no certainties. That is actually what faith means – believing what can’t be seen or proven. So since it’s all speculation, maRobinWilliamsFBybe we could do the right thing and back off the judgment of the suffering and the tired. Suicide is mysterious. We can’t truly know what was going on. We can only try to pay attention to the people around us. And in any case, every adult deserves the opportunity to make a choice about their exit. To Robin Williams I say: Thank you. I respect your choice. Though we wanted more, you gave us plenty. – J.B.

#

Suffer Me Not

When it comes to suffering, Job is the poster child.  It is a familiar story for Jews and Christians.  If Job was around in 2011 (if you haven’t heard of him – read his name with a long “o” as in robe), I think his story could go something like the version that follows.  At the time of this writing I’m in Texas, so I’m going to use that as a context.

Job had a ranch in Central Texas with thousands of cattle, show-quality horses for his family’s recreation, and goats and sheep for fun and commerce.  He was happy with his wife and they had seven kids.  His home was bigger than “Southfork” from the show “Dallas,” with a staff of more than 50, who liked working for him.  Everyone wanted to be invited to his parties.  There were pig roasts, champagne receptions, and pool parties with unlimited kegs of beer.

Job was not only successful, he was a devoutly religious person, including philanthropy to both Jewish and non-Jewish causes.  It wasn’t easy to find a synagogue in Texas, but he found one and went regularly – not just on the high holidays.  His children all had bar and bat mitzvahs followed by fabulous parties on the ranch.

As the story goes, the Devil challenged God in asserting that Job was only faithful because he had a great life.  Well, Job did have everything, after all.  So God made a bet with the Devil that if Job lost everything he would still be faithful.

One day Job’s brother had a party which his kids were attending.  Before Job could get there, one of the neighbors flew up the long lane to the ranch in his Dodge Ram pick-up and reported there had been an unexpected tornado collapsing the house on everyone at the party.  No survivors.  By this time the storm was moving toward Job’s ranch with heavy lightning which struck one of the barns and resulted in a flash fire.  It was summer in Texas and everything was dry as toast (you know, Texas toast) and the fire spread too fast for fire trucks to even get to the gate of the ranch. Everything burned.  Job had just leveraged his real estate to expand his cattle herd.  Now with everything wiped out from the storm and fire, Job had no children, no business, and the value of the real estate and remaining livestock would just barely eliminate his debt leaving Job with nothing.  His wife survived, but she was not happy to be with a guy who was now broke.

Still Job did not blame God, so the Devil kicked it up a notch.  Job got skin cancer and had painful, ugly sores, to which Job’s wife said, “Where is your God now?”  Don’t think Job wasn’t miserable.  “Why didn’t I die at birth?” he lamented.  There are pages and pages of agonizing poetry that follow.  Job does make his despair and hopelessness clear, but he does not blame God for his situation.  The story has a happy ending, but the eventual return of good fortune to Job never really resolved this story for me.

Job’s tale is troubling at so many levels, not the least of which is the notion of God and the Devil rolling the dice over Job’s life.  I asked a Rabbi for insight on this once and he shrugged and said (in a Yiddish accent), “Eh.  Bad things happen to good people.”  You think?  I have not had Christian clergy explain this story to me with any greater satisfaction.  I have come to find the theology of a personified God and Devil playing craps with a human life an immature and even ridiculous interpretation, but perhaps that’s not the point.

I suggest that Job’s story is not about God and the Devil, it’s about the human condition.  It is easy for humans to wish for an omnipotent, parental God to rescue us when we struggle and want someone to blame in times of pain and loss.  For me it took quite a bit less than tornado, fire, and cancer.  I lost the job of my dreams and my beloved dog within a few months time and became convinced that God doesn’t like me – even though I don’t really believe in a personal God.

There is also the kind of pain and grief that no one else sees; the anguish of unreliable mental health, for example.  And there are those – sometimes you or  me – who have periods of abject loneliness or a paralyzing sense of failure.  Invisible suffering is still painful.

Parabola magazine is published by the Society for the Study of Myth and Tradition and addressed suffering from the perspective of many different traditions (http://www.parabola.org/) in the Spring 2011 issue.  Jewish scholar Jonathan Omer-Man said, “Ultimately I think that one of the teachings of the Book of Job is that the quest for meaning can sometimes be futile, and that our task is not to understand the cause of our suffering, why it happened, but rather to transcend the experience by accepting the mystery of our experience,” (“Accepting the Mystery,” p.21-5, citation on page 22-3).

Perhaps it is also important to learn from Job the value of a good rant.  Expressing his despair did not mean he had lost faith.  Sometimes life does suck.  That being understood, suffering can be like alchemy, with the refiner’s fire providing us with new insights.  It is a spiritual consolation but not an emotional analgesic.  When scholars and theologians (or Oprah) wax philosophical about suffering, sometimes they gloss too quickly over the painful part.  But after respecting the pain, there can be more.  I have enough faith in the human spirit and greater forces outside ourselves to believe that we can experience grace.  It might not make it easier, but it might make it more bearable, and it might leave us with one good thing we can hang on to after some of the pain lessens.  I leave it to you to work out your own idea of grace.

Faith and the Lost Dog

This column is going to be more personal than what I usually write, and I do not promise a happy ending.  Consider yourself warned.  Don’t worry, I won’t do it often.    It is also a little longer than usual.  I have edited as best I could and I just can’t say what I need to say in fewer words.  And personal column or not, your comments in response are always welcome.

Religion, doctrine, theology, these are all big picture concepts.  What we believe, what we have faith in – that is where the rubber meets the road.  Faith is individual and personal, and not an area where any of us have the right to dictate to each other.  Further, if you are deferring your own personal discernment to others, whether they are friends, spouses, or clergy (especially clergy), then you are shirking responsibility for your own spirituality.  (I don’t mean atheists or agnostics, for they – by definition – are taking a position for themselves.)

My faith is exercised by believing in an eventual good outcome in times of pain and noticing the times of joy and contentment with gratitude.  Just Monday morning I was sitting in my office writing, with my dog Buddy crashed out on the futon looking so content I took a picture.  I remember feeling grateful to have the peace and safe space to read, and write, and be with the unquestioning devotion of Buddy.  Joseph Campbell said, “Follow your bliss,” and I can say that this was a blissful morning.  I don’t have a full-time job and I never seem to have money, but in that moment, life was perfect for me.

I have to ask, is joyful contentment an invitation for Evil?  It seems so.  On Tuesday evening Buddy ran away.  Buddy has epilepsy and I give him a lot medication every day.  He has run twice before, but I sincerely believed we had corrected his lapses in judgment and willingness to cooperate with me.  That being said, there is nothing he loves more than running and running with reckless abandon.  I couldn’t bring myself to keep him constantly tethered to me on a leash.  Our yard is big and sheltered and I had every confidence that I could teach him it was best to stay home.  I was so very wrong.  It was as if Evil whispered in his ear and even as he was looking back at me, he just kept going further away from me until he vanished into suburban hedges.  The last time I saw him was 6:20 p.m. on Tuesday evening.

And that is why I found myself last evening sitting in the backyard of my veterinarian’s office (close to where he was last spotted) from 9:30 p.m. to midnight, writing by flashlight in between meditating and dozing off.  I did this the night before (except for the writing part) and have spent many other hours starting at 5:30 a.m. driving, walking, and sitting search for my missing dog.  Again and again I ask how this is possible when Buddy and I are so connected.  As I write this, it is Buddy’s fifth day in 90-plus degree heat with no food, water, or medication.  Maybe I’ve been watching too many “Charmed” re-runs, but isn’t there some protection for the innocent?  Well, if Evil is an entity with a dark plan for pain, this was the most successful shot at my faith that could have been fired.

In the interests of disclosure, I practice Christianity, though many Christians would not want to claim me.  I’m not really sure about the deity of Jesus and I certainly don’t believe Christianity is the only ultimate truth.  I admit to cursing like a stevedore and loving tequila.  Though I am now with my favorite spouse, I have too many divorces behind me.  (I think you get the picture.)

I do not believe in God the Chess Master, smirking while we all scramble to figure out his mysterious “will” for our lives.  I do believe in karmic justice and every time I get screwed I hope that I live long enough to see some of it.  I also do not believe in a Santa Claus God to whom we submit requests for relief from pain or just bonuses for being such great folks – like a winning lottery ticket.  I do believe in miracles, but most often the miracle is that another human was motivated to do something kind for no personal gain.  That counts, by golly.

If Buddy does not come home safely, or worst of all, if I never actually know what happened to him, then I have to say, Evil won.  That is quite enough to make me question the power of love in the universe.

Remember Chief Seattle told us we are all part of the web of life?  The reverence of that connection is what my relationship with Buddy means to me.  I had an everyday connection to all that is good in the world.  I had a clear understanding of unconditional love.  I knew simple joy.  So if it is the goal of Evil to disrupt and destroy: mission accomplished.  If I never see Buddy again, I expect to go on with my life.  His abrupt and premature departure does not diminish what we had.  It does shake my faith to the core.  I don’t really believe in a personal God, but I also don’t believe in Nothing.  And somewhere in the middle, I was hoping for help in a time of pain for things that are out of my control.  Sort of sums up the human condition, doesn’t it?  Well, we’ll see what happens.

P.S. Don’t tell me if you find a typo.  I haven’t slept much since Tuesday.

Epilogue: As of 7/19/2010  he is not home and no one has seen him since the 15th.