Any theory of what life ultimately means, if it means anything at all, must take into account the reality of loss. We can contemplate things at some high level of abstraction, safe in the refuge of logic and ideas, or we can grapple with what’s really going on in life as we live it. And life includes a lot of suffering.
Obviously the Buddha realized this before I did, although I’m not quite ready to jump on board with his diagnosis and treatment plan. He believed that “life is suffering” (dukka), but that it doesn’t have to be this way. Suffering is eradicable; if we understand its cause, we can conceivably fix the problem and live without suffering (or at least with less).
His theory was that we suffer because we attach ourselves to things and people that are by nature impermanent (anicca). Our desperate need (craving, tanha) for them to be a certain way in order to make us feel safe, powerful, important or whatever, locks them inside expectations that are hopelessly unrealistic. As they change or inevitably fail to meet our expectations, we are left hurt, disappointed, and profoundly discouraged.
Siddhartha left his wife and child in order to pursue enlightenment, which he found through the discipline of extinguishing desire and relinquishing every attachment to this passing world. The ultimate reality he came to realize was representable only by the symbol of a candle flame (desire) blowing out (nirvana). An absolute quiescence and undisturbed tranquility was the consistent result of his meditative effort; unattached and untroubled. This, he thought, should be our goal: liberation from suffering.
The Greek school of Stoic philosophy taught something similar. By gaining detachment from the things that change and fall away from us, a certain equanimity can be attained that will make the philosopher immune to anxiety and disappointment. This was believed to be a superior state of existence – something like the gods who hover just outside the flux and frustrations of mortal life.
A certain quality of intellectual transcendence (and emotional disengagement) has infiltrated just about every part of the high culture of the West. Experimental science, colonial politics, and other-worldly religion have all benefited from this ability of ours to detach from our feelings, our bodies, and our sympathetic connection to each other and the earth.
The title of this blog post is intentionally ambiguous. Is it about the tears real human beings shed in response to the hardships and losses of life? Or does it refer to tears in cloth, ruptures in the stitch-pattern that holds fabric together? As my readers might guess, the answer is “Yes.”Long before the rise of medieval love poetry and the Arthurian knights, Jesus of Nazareth was the first Troubadour. He didn’t teach escape from suffering through renunciation and detachment. He didn’t instruct his disciples to extinguish desire and separate their minds from the complications of mortal existence. In a variety of ways, he encouraged his friends to get into life, reach out to others, and look for God in everything. Suffering is not to be idolized or pursued for its own sake, but I hear him saying that unless we are willing to take on the full burden of existence our lives will fall short of fulfillment.
So let’s begin with love, which is another name for the dance of attraction, copulation, ecstasy, and communion that spins the atoms and electrifies the cells of all living things. When two people meet, this interplay of forces carries on at both conscious and unconscious levels. The inherent intelligence of the universe is toward relationship, cooperation and oneness; if we can loosen up our definition a bit, then love is this intelligence. It’s what moves us to open up, reach out, and connect ourselves to another person. I will name this aspect of love, desire.
To his credit, Siddhartha discriminated between desire as such and selfish craving, extinguishing the latter as he sought to direct the former along the eightfold path of a virtuous life. But even at that, his program for liberation tended to steer around the tangles of everyday interpersonal love. This may be due to the fact that our closer relationships intrude on that inner fortress of security, self-defense, and secret motives we call “myself.” Just declaring it an illusion (anatta, no self), a kind of reaction formation that has no reality apart from the peculiar way it flinches and contracts against the conditions of existence, is not terribly helpful.
When we look into it, the mystery of interpersonal love is perhaps most apparent in the dynamics of trust. Here we must be more or less willing to allow another person into the vulnerable and less defended parts of ourselves. This is what love requires, which means that we must open ourselves to the possibility of getting hurt, exploited, abandoned, or betrayed. If we struggle with shame or self-doubt, this requirement to let down our guard may be more than we are able to manage.
Our ability to trust another person and allow him or her into our life is a function of self-confidence, which in turn has roots in what I have elsewhere called existential faith – the act of releasing oneself to the gracious support of a provident reality. This is where deep inner peace can be found, in the “letting go” of self and simply relaxing into being. If we lack this internal grounding, then we might try to make up for it in our relationships. Where there needs to be healthy trust, instead we turn our desire into demanding and unrealistic expectations on our partner to be just as we (so desperately) need him or her to be.
But if there is this inner peace – this faith-full release of to the deeper mystery of being-itself – then trust will happen and we will allow the other person into our lives. Desire, in turn, will move us into the dance of longing and embrace, bringing us together as one. It is here that we find true joy.
Desire motivates us to reach out to another person, to connect, to mingle, to entwine the branches of our separate lives into a shared pattern of meaning unique to our relationship. The distinct anchor-points in this connection are where we hold on. What I’m calling joy, then, is the experience of fulfillment we have as we share ourselves with another person and discover an expanded life together. In the very word fulfillment is this idea of capacity (“filled full”), expansion, and self-transcendence.
Now if you’re with me so far, the foregoing has been a set-up for the real point of this post. When we love another person and merge our life together with theirs, the time will come when one or the other “passes on.” I don’t only mean that we physically die, but that we change. We may change our minds, our life direction, our values and ambitions. Perhaps we want something else out of life and decide to move on. Or maybe our loved one does die. However it happens, those anchor-points that had tied our lives together suddenly become tears in the fabric of life’s meaning.
If you want real joy in life, then you need to learn how to love another person. That may not sound very Buddhist, but it certainly is Christian – in the sense of being right in line with the life, teaching, and philosophy of Jesus. A more Stoic or ascetic perspective would counsel against the quest for joy in life, since the place we find it (in love) will only lead to suffering. In our grief we long to have our lost love back in our life. To avoid this suffering, you should keep yourself from the entanglement of love.
A philosophy of life worth anything at all needs to embrace suffering. It must be willing to take on the grief of a fully human existence. We want joy, and so we need to learn how to love; but in loving we will eventually come to grief. True enough, we can renounce suffering as unnatural, as not part of “The Plan.” We can imagine a future day when nothing changes, everyone lives forever, love is uncomplicated, and joy never ends.
For now, however, we have an important choice to make.