Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Am I the Only One?

I can't say for sure when it happened. I could name a few events, some major and many minor, that may have contributed to the situation. But, really, I can't provide a single outstanding event that has made me the way that I am today.

I am cold, callous, insensitive, distanced, isolated, and aloof. I see innocent people die in silly wars on my TV and I debate the philosophical implications of cultural clashes. I watch people starve amid tribal warfare and I condemn the UN for not doing its job. I see immigrants who have died trying to find a better life in a nation that hates them and I feel nothing but anger toward politicians.

I see the world and its suffering and I don't let it in, not really.

It's so much easier to remove myself to the intellectual realm, as I am doing right now. I see all these horrors in my world being perpetrated on other human beings, and I don't cry or feel my heart breaking -- not usually. I get angry, frustrated, and bitter -- all things that are thinking, not things that hit me in my gut.

How does this happen? When I was a kid I couldn't watch Wild Kingdom and see a lion kill an antelope without crying. I was sensitive in the ways most kids are sensitive -- until it was crushed. How did that die? What killed it?

We should feel each other's pain. We should not be able to watch an entire group of people wiped off the face of the earth in Darfur or Somalia and feel nothing. We should not be able to watch hundreds of innocent people die as collateral damage in an unjust war and simply rant about our corrupt government.

I am not satisfied with being callous and cold and distanced.

Life is dukkha. Buddhism teaches -- and observation confirms -- that the world is filled with suffering. That's not all it is, of course, but there is war, sickness, injustice, brutality, hatred, death. We are surrounded by these things and we generally choose not to pay attention. And it is a choice.

Clearly, there is more to life than suffering, but until we become too uneasy, too uncomfortable, too pained by the suffering in the world that we no longer can tolerate it, it will persist.

When I sit in tonglen I can feel that pain. I can breathe it in . . . and breathe it out . . . and feel it in my gut. When I watch West Wing episodes (and I have all of them), I am often moved to that place where I feel instead of think. When I read great poetry, I am moved to that place.

Why do I need to seek out depth of feeling? When it did cease to be my natural state?

Am I the only one who feels this way?


aumeye said...

Funny, I was just thinking about something similar over the weekend. I went to see Hair (the musical), and found myself crying at the end of the show. After a few moments, I realized I was crying for the troops who are currently suffering and dying in Iraq and elsewhere. But I did wonder why I needed a show -- a dramatization of an unrelated yet arguably comparable event -- to move me from the disconnect of intellectual awareness, to a palpable, emotional consciousness.

I entertain the idea that it's not that we are not capable of reacting with our gut to the pain around us, instead of just with our heads, but that we are not built to withstand the enormity of that reality on a regular basis. So our self-protection resources are perpetually triggered, without our necessarily noticing them. Then, suddenly, we meet these senses in a different context, or another moment, and they punch us in our solar plexus and we are powerfully reminded that we do indeed...feel it.

lxr23g56 said...


Ok first off I have been reading your blog for a while now and I enjoy it very much, so thanks.

Second I am a Jew and not so much a Buddhist, therefore my take on this may not fit so well with your own but it might, so I offer it up to you.

You wrote "I see the world and its suffering and I don't let it in, not really."

If you mean you don't touch it in the same way it touches those being directly hit with the situation of suffering, then I don't think it's a bad thing at all. We don't need to suffer along with others in order to be touched by it and/or aware of it.

If we suffered the way we did when we were children we would spend a lot of time paralyzed and overwhelmed. We are adults and must be able to push through our own sense of voyeuristic suffering so that we can help those who are in need. I like the fact that not every event wrenches my gut because it allows me to keep centered.

Because from that sense of centered detachment I can better act with skillful means and do my part helping out. For me this is a much cleaner way because my suffering isn't wrapped up in it and there is less confusion about whose suffering am I really trying to alleviate, mine or there's?

God allows me to remain emotionally separated from the suffering of others to spare me that pain, but God also commands me to put my own absence of suffering to good use by working towards addressing the suffering of others.

However for that to happen we need to care and act and that’s something not everyone does but I don't think it’s because we aren't suffering it’s because we are distracted in don't truly realize what needs to be done.

Anyhow for what it's worth you've got my take.

Be well.

Unknown said...

I am extremely impressed by the advice / words of wisdom that aumeye and tikkunger are giving you, Bill.

For my part, I am all too aware of how impossible it has been for me to fix things within ten feet of me. Fix Somalia? The most I can hope is to recognize how powerless I am in the face of that calamity.

The world needs seemingly cold, calculating reason to act against the oppression and horrors in the world. There is a lot of feeling for others in us. Perhaps not enough, but there is a lot.

The world is simply a terribly hard thing to fix.

Dirt-poor people have babies in dirt-poor places. We have not yet begun to think about fixing things in any way that might take hold and be permanent and lead toward real global peace and massive outbreaks of happiness.

william harryman said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone.

I don't really want to be an open wound of suffering walking around -- but I don't want to be so detached and removed that I can shrug off atrocities across the street or across the globe. There must be some kind of balance.

This is part of my on-going struggle to reclaim my emotional line -- to learn how to feel deeply and authentically. I think this post represents a swing in the pendulum to the other extreme, or at least a sense that I need to go there in order to find balance.

Anyway, it's all good, all part of the learning.