“Suffering was the gateway to compassion”

couple things.

– There’s a little gem nested at the end of this long and somewhat troubling article (interesting, to be sure!  most troubling things are) that was the one point that I could wholeheartedly empathize with the author:

For these reasons, I am becoming convinced that the only real way to “personal growth” outside of direct action is through careful study of fiction.  Of course stories may have an intended meaning, but a well written story allows you to ask not just “what does the story mean?” but “why do I think that this is what the story means?”

– Just read this other article that is also troubling, but in a far more direct way in terms of the issues it addresses rather than the squidgy unreliable narrator aspect – The Bible Is Not a Diet Plan.

As someone who used to identify as a Christian, specifically as a Protestant, the rise of “self-help” bibles catered and tailored and filleted to the reader’s specification and comfort level is both worrisome and profoundly aggravating.  I don’t think that the Bible should be taken as a literal text by any means (I think that it is the work of humanity, not divinity), but even in that perspective, this is just fucking sick:

Daniel, one of the four kidnapped Jewish youths, “resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine,” and chose to subsist on vegetables instead, ending up as healthy as anyone in his captors’ court. So, as Time magazine recently reported, Warren has “launched the Daniel Plan, a comprehensive health-and-fitness program.”

We’ve seen this rise in the last century, the idea that God is a benevolent spirit who just wants you to be wealthy and prosperous and comfortable, and now also thin and healthy.  Which flies so deeply in the face of the events and perspectives recorded in the text that it does the most sickening disservice to its authors and their experiences.  Using the word “sacrilegious” has a connotation that is not what I want – again, I don’t think that the Bible is holy as such – but people lived and died for this stuff.  They lived and recorded and made up or whatever things deeply important to them, vital, and it lasted through thousands of years of history and mistranslation and restoration to promote a low-carb diet plan?

A story, sacred or secular, is a test of our empathy: an invitation to enter into the trials and hopes of a stranger. And it takes a remarkable self-centeredness to deliberately reject that invitation, to mine that story for anything that helps us grow our portfolios or shrink our waistlines, and throw away the husk of the human at its heart once we’ve sucked out all we can use. We can read selfishly just as we can act selfishly.

The author of the article points out that this appropriation is not new, citing medieval artistic depictions of biblical events in which all of the characters are wearing contemporary garments.  And he also points out that this is a useful tool in developing empathy – illustrating that the lives and actions and doubts and mistakes recorded in the text are ones that are not alien to us, because in one form or another we as human beings are wrestling with the same angels.

And I guess monetary gain from shaping an interpretation of scripture a particular way isn’t new either.  But the entire point of the Protestant Reformation (other than Henry VIII’s libido) was moving away from grace that could be purchased from the the village priest in the forms of indulgences.  (An interesting foreshadowing to Citizens United, actually – the more money you had, the more grace you could buy from God.)

But it means something when whatever marketing scheme you have must be divorced completely from context:

Do you remember The Prayer of Jabez, the Christian motivational book that sold nine million copies a decade ago? Its author, Bruce Wilkinson, urged readers to “enlarge their territory” by repeating word-for-word the prayer for success attributed to Jabez in the Book of Chronicles. Here’s how Wilkinson dispenses with all of the context around those magic words of prosperity:

“You’ll find [Jabez] hiding in the least read section of one of the least-read books of the Bible. The first nine chapters of 1 Chronicles are taken up with the official family tree of the Hebrew tribes… Talk about boring! The long lists of unfamiliar and difficult names—more than five hundred of them—are likely to make even the bravest Bible student turn back.”

Genealogies are “boring” and “difficult”—because we can’t use them. But they were recorded and preserved with such care because the strangers who wrote that book could use them. For the huge majority of human history, they were the measure of a man’s life. They bound you to your history and your land; they gave you a place among cousins, grandparents, sprawling generations of ancestors, in a rooted institution radically different from what passes for a family today. From Israel to China, generations of our ancestors memorized the names of their fathers’ fathers, chanted them, worked them into poems. Genealogies are a window into the alien minds of our forebears. But we cannot use them to get rich or thin. Wilkinson’s verdict: “boring!”

How can we love our neighbor if we cannot bother to understand – or at least acknowledge – what is/ was important to them?  How can we do this in the present, which is too close to not be uncomfortable and messy and incomplete, if we cannot do it with the past?

We must start somewhere.  I cannot live anyone’s life but my own.  My brain and experience is stuck behind my specific eyes, and I cannot change that.  But I can read and I can try to understand.  And this goes as clearly for the bible as it does for Moby Dick and The Satanic Verses and Mrs Dalloway.


to remember

this beautifully addresses a huge conflict in being a person – how can you love anyone when everyone is terrible in their own way?  and the importance of functioning as an artist, recognizing your own terribleness and finding compassion in others’.

some loveliness:

“Against the beautiful and the clever and the successful,” he reasons, “one can wage a pitiless war, but not against the unattractive: then the millstone weighs on the breast.”

What John Le Carré referred to as Greene’s “transcendent universal compassion,” Iyer has described as “the fellow feeling that one wounded, lonely, scared mortal feels for another, and the way that sometimes, especially in a moment of crisis, when we ‘forget ourselves’ (which is to say, escape our thoughts and reflexes), a single extended hand makes nonsense of all the curlicues in our head.” But never in Greene’s work is this hand extended by a saint. His characters are tormented souls and sinners all, cut from his own cloth.

In Greene’s view, even God is fallible, with a nature as divided and uncertain as our own. “We are part of the evolution of God,” he said, “and Hitler obviously aids the dark side of God, whilst Gandhi, John XXIII and [Cesar] Chavez aid the day side […] If God is torn as we are between the dark and the bright — and therefore suffers a certain division and anguish as we do — it makes Him a more sympathetic figure.” Through Scobie, Greene expressed an abiding distrust of any God who could cause the suffering of innocents, “who was not human enough to love what he had created.” Unfortunately, he found abundant evidence of this inhumane God in his lifetime, which encompassed the horrors of two World Wars, the Great Depression, and the Cold War. In Greene’s experience, Hazzard writes, “pleasure could not be an assumption and was not a goal; whereas suffering was a constant, and almost a code of honour. Suffering was the attestable key to imaginative existence.” Why? Because, in Greene’s experience, suffering was the gateway to compassion.

emphasis mine.  I was just speaking with another friend who considers himself an artist about what depression/ suffering does in terms of artistic development.  it’s an easy and cliched trap in which to fall, the pursuit of unhappiness because it assists you in plumbing deeper depths and makes you a more “interesting” or “profound” person.

but suffering only makes you greater as an artist if it makes you greater as a person.  if it extends your capacity for compassion.  and as such, it must be genuine, perhaps unexpected, rather than the masturbatory self-sabotage that we’ve seen artists – and people – fall into as a yearning to find a shortcut to living.

“Writing is a form of therapy. Sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human situation.”

“There are so many things that bother one about the world,” he told Shenker. “Injustice, intolerance. And that it all comes to an end.”

and compassion in some way demands action, i think.  whether donating or volunteering or taking the moment to look at someone else as a person.  the responsibility we have to each other.  and any artist that neglects to give and create beyond one’s own ego, one’s desire for admiration and praise…

we have a responsibility that we are nonetheless unable to fulfill in its impossible entirety:

Greene thus suggests that to be alive in this world is to have responsibilities, not just to oneself or for those closest, but in relationship to the complicated truth of all humankind. What’s tucked between the lines is the enormity of the suffering that Scobie perceives yet cannot comprehend, let alone assuage.

“The lights inside would have given an extraordinary impression of peace if one hadn’t known, just as the stars on this clear night also gave an impression of remoteness, security, freedom. If one knew, he wondered, the facts, would one have to feel pity even for the planets? If one reached what they called the heart of the matter.”

Remember that this novel is set in West Africa in the middle of World War II. Submarines are patrolling the Atlantic and sinking civilian ships, and far to the north European Jews are forced to wear yellow stars pinned to their coats. No direct mention is ever made in these pages of Kristallnacht, Auschwitz, or Bergen-Belsen, and yet, even in this fictional outpost, peace is an illusion. In actual fact, those stars represent the exact opposite of security and freedom. “How I hate this war,” Scobie thinks. No matter how far away human strife and suffering may be, “one still has one’s eyes…one’s ears…the restlessness, the haunting images, the terrible impotent feeling of responsibility and pity.”

peace is an illusion within my lifetime.  there’s the saying that colleges especially like to spout, that a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  which i don’t think is untrue.

but how can human beings be legitimately just?

spoken with humorous mistakes, yet sometimes strikingly true – a summary of european history from the lines of history essays from snot-nosed freshmen papers.

History, as we know, is always bias, [sic] because human beings have to be studied by other human beings, not by independent observers of another species.

nothing else but this could have happened

the hottest day of the summer was yesterday.  one of the hottest days i’ve experienced in seattle.  a friend and i went down to the crowded beach and lay in the sun right up next to the water.  when we ran in the water it was so cold, the waves unexpectedly powerful, pulling currents of heat and cold (or rather freezing and slightly less freezing) against us, and it was wonderful.

it was also the weekend the blue angels were in seattle and the sky would rend occasionally with the sound.  the doppler effect perfectly illustrated – the noise is so absolutely directional, but when you look at the source of the noise, what you are looking for isn’t there, but behind a tree already, a building, looping in the sky.  terrifying.

they flew over us when we were in the water, flying so low over buildings that catastrophe seems imminent,  and i cowered in the water that had a moment ago been refreshing and was suddenly horribly cold, and i was being pushed by waves and shivering.

back on the beach in the sun, suddenly tired, wiped out by the temperature change, my feet regaining feeling, i closed my eyes and thought about evaporation.  i thought about it very hard.  i wanted right them to rise like steam into the cloudless blue sky and not be anyone or do anything again except be in the light.

the past few weeks it’s seemed that the world is ending.  which sadly, rationally, i think that it is – the world as we know it, at least.  i felt like this coming back from india, when reverse culture shock was tremendous and i couldn’t seem to cross the uncanny valley into the lifestyle that everyone in america thought was completely normal, and which is so simply impossible…




it feels like acceleration.  even between horrific mass murders, the refractory period feels shorter.

i know a lot of this is my own state of mind.  pareidolia.  a hefty pinch more is reading ray bradbury.  i finally have read the illustrated man, and it’s beautiful and eschatological and heartbreaking.

there’s a story that made me sob audibly, current sad sack that i am – The Last Night of the World.

He sat back in his chair, watching her.  “Are you afraid?”

“No.  I always thought I would be, but I’m not.”

“Where’s that spirit called self-preservation they talk so much about?”

“I don’t know.  You don’t get too excited when you feel things are logical. This is logical.  Nothing else but this could have happened from the way we’ve lived.

“We haven’t been too bad, have we?”

“No, nor enormously good.  I suppose that’s the trouble – we haven’t been very much of anything except us, while a big part of the world was busy being lots of quite awful things.”

emphasis mine.  i don’t know if i agree with everything in this particular passage.  the characters speaking are presumably american, and that last sentence is… not exactly an excuse.  but it is a way of saying, ‘well, we directly didn’t do what will end the world… we just let it happen.  we didn’t police hard enough.’

which isn’t the case.  we as a nation have done so much to build the trap our species is now caught in.  by using electricity generated by waterpower (damn dams) or coal, a computer made from heavy metals shipped across the ocean, i am building the trap too.  it is no longer a very viable option in our society to not be building the trap.  living ‘off the grid’ is an option but not a realistic one.  and probably not one that will make enough of a difference, this late on.  to be horrible and blunt, even suicide exacts an environmental cost – transportation for funerals, burial procedures, etc.

i don’t do well with problems that feel unsolvable, on either the global or personal level.

there was a period tonight when i reached the chemical equilibrium that suddenly made recent events not matter anymore, no longer have a weight in my bones.  it’s temporary and already fading.  i don’t know how to feel about it.  it happens often now that when i look at my reflection or reflect on my life that i’m just bored.  sadness is monotonous.  we like our sadness to be passionate and tragic, and sometimes it is in glints and flickers.  but after a while it’s dull.  i’m still stuck on the play i’m writing.  i no longer have a source for ready projects with the carrot of them becoming a reality, the stick of someone caring about what i wrote.  not that that was always enough.  i don’t know what i want to do with my life, if i should be looking for another job, if anything will grab me again as roughly as i need.  and this ambivalence is boring!  things are only interesting if they are specific, and with the raw exception that erupts sometimes these days and is maybe worse, most of what i feel is a banal generality.

i thought that i was better than this.  i thought that i was stronger than this, that i had grown more, and learned more.  that somehow i wouldn’t get knocked flat on my ass like i was after the first time, the beginning of freshman year of college, when my first boyfriend broke up with me.

i thought that i’d have more dignity this time.