Just Above Sunset Archives
February 23, 2004 - Some of us think life is a bit too dukkha these days, but some of us don't.
As some of you know one
of he constant arguments I have with my good friend "the conservative" centers on attitude.
As I understand his position he maintains the one and the key determining factor in any kind of success in life his
having the right attitude - a positive one, assuming things will work out for the best, and denying doubts. Never believe things won't work out. I argue sometimes they
don't or even can't work out. Contingency planning is good, not defeatist. He says negative thoughts will produce negative results. We go round and round on this. And drink heavily. He claims I'm so damned European in this, and I say he's doing his "Babbitt" number - the delusional,
blindly optimistic na´ve American. No one wins.
... the best children's classics have always evoked the dark side of life. Alice's Wonderland reveals the arbitrary demands and heartless craziness of the adult world from a child's perspective. The sinister menace of the Wild Wood is a constant threat in The Wind in the Willows. In the novels of Frances Hodgson Burnett, children are regularly abandoned, bereaved, neglected and ill-treated. Some parents would prefer their children to read books that are more upbeat, but Wilson's success and the endurance of these classics remind us that children know instinctively what is best for them, and find that their worst fears become more manageable when they are made explicit. It seems that many children have not yet succumbed quite as fully as adults to the "positive thinking" that is fast becoming a social orthodoxy.
So what's this particular social orthodoxy she sees?
Increasingly it is becoming unacceptable to voice legitimate distress. If you lose your job, become chronically ill, or fall prey to loneliness or depression, you are likely
to be told - often abrasively - to look on the bright side. With unseemly haste,
people rush to put an optimistic gloss on a disaster or to suggest a patently unworkable solution. We seem to be cultivating an intolerance of pain - even our own.
An acquaintance once told me that quite the most difficult aspect of her cancer was her friends' strident insistence
that she develop a positive attitude, and her guilt at being unable to do so.
Yes, but what kind of balance
between mindless optimism (denial) and despair can we achieve? Where do we turn
Some forms of religion encourage us to bury our heads in the sand to block out the suffering that surrounds us on all sides. The rich man in his palace can reconcile himself to the plight of the poor man at his gate by reminding himself that this is part of God's bright and beautiful plan; those who suffer poverty and oppression in this life will be recompensed in the hereafter. When thousands die in an earthquake, we can tell ourselves that God knew what he was doing.
Perhaps God knows. Perhaps not. We certainly dont know.
If we deny the reality of suffering, we will ignore the distress of others. At its best, religion requires the faithful to see things as they really are. In Buddhism, the First Noble Truth that is essential for enlightenment is that life is dukkha: "unsatisfactory,
awry". The Buddha's father tried to shield him from sorrow by imprisoning him
in a pleasure-palace, walled off from disturbing reality. Guards were posted
to drive away any distressing spectacle. For 29 years, the Buddha lived in this
fool's paradise, locked into a delusion and unable to make spiritual progress. Finally
the gods intervened and forced the young man to confront mortality, sickness and decay.
Only then could he begin his quest for Nirvana.
Ah, the conservative Christian
right is just developmentally challenged! Cool.
The failure to confront unpleasant reality can also be politically dangerous. In the Bible, those preachers who told people to look on the bright side, that God would protect Jerusalem and that everything would work out for the best are condemned as "false prophets". The prophet Jeremiah has become a byword for excessive gloom, but if people had listened to his dire predictions, the Babylonian army might not have destroyed Jerusalem. He was not being "negative"; he was right.
Oh no! The former
nun is using the Bible to say we need someone to stand up to Bush and Rumsfeld and the rest of the messianic imperialists
who tell us we did a good thing in Iraq and things are or will be wonderful. We
need some realistic gloom? My conservative friend would be getting really angry
In the past, we have sometimes pursued policies that have resulted in great suffering, telling
ourselves that all would ultimately be well. We have let conflicts fester until
they have become intractable. We have supported such allies as Saddam Hussein,
ignoring the atrocities they inflict upon their people. We are now rightly outraged
by his massacre of his Kurdish subjects, but at the time we ineffectually turned a blind eye.
Today we are reaping the reward of our heedless karma. The pain that we
ignored in some parts of the world has hardened into murderous rage.
What a downer! She thinks BAD THINGS might happen again? Why is she so negative?