People Are Fundamentally Breakable23 Jan 2013
(This was originally posted to my personal blog. Al suggested it be reposted here.)
I didn't know Aaron Swartz. I knew of him, and admired his work. It turns out that a number of people I know did know him, and his suicide has hit the community hard, not only in terms of friends and friends of friends, but in terms of all of the people who were inspired by him, and were horrified by the governmental response... and all the people who were just horrified that he killed himself, for whatever reason. I'm there, on all counts.
Even more than I am saddened by the dead, I am frightened for the living. And yeah, while I personally see Aaron as someone who was fighting the good fight, and who went down tragically (and I think it's entirely possible to do this even if you don't entirely agree with someone's aims) what haunts me is the near certainty that just as he was not the first member of my community to take his life, he also will not be the last. There are also plenty of ways of running around and taking a lot of damage that don't involve death. I've been holding off on writing this post for a bit now, hoping that I'd come up with a good way of saying what I want to say. Lacking that, I guess I'll just pound on the keyboard some. This isn't really about depression or suicide. People have written about those things far more eloquently than anything I have to say on the subject. I wish I had more to say. Or something useful to say.
I'm going to start from a slightly different place: People are fundamentally breakable. I don't mean breakable in just one way. We can break to many degrees in an incredible variety of ways. Mostly we stagger on, recovering more or less, but also, yeah, we die. At different times, and for a lot of different reasons. This is what being people means. We don't get safety, we don't get immortality, either. (At least not in this world. And I'm not much of a theist, myself.)
We all have a lot of choices about how we live our lives. They may seriously not be the choices we want, but they're still choices. Some of these choices might help keep us our of harm's way. Though this is a pretty tenuous sort of thing - is it less harmful to have a safe life, or a meaningful one? There are trade-offs, and not just that one. For most of us, sometimes, it will be very hard. For some of us, it will often or usually be very hard. And sometimes, in whatever way, it will be too much.
This is a big part of why I practice. Let me digress before I follow that thought further and reassure you that this isn't Why You Should Be a Buddhist. Really, I care not at all whether you're a Buddhist, or are a member of any other particular tribe, for that matter. I'm a big fan of folks living good lives, and being good people, and I'm pretty flexible when it comes to what good means. Tribal identity of whatever sort is a lot less relevant. This isn't about believing in things. It's not even about doing particular things. It's... about structured methods of coping. Of learning to be, perhaps, a little more nimble in the face of the rigors of life. Maybe a little more resilient.
Those of you who know me know I spend a lot of time sitting on a pillow staring at the wall, and even more practicing martial arts. In another context, I'd be happy to go on at length why this is so and what I love about these practices. They're pretty great ones, I think, for me, for health in the broadest sense. But this isn't about those practices in particular. What I care about are the results. For me, hey, my life is better, most focused, productive, and joyful because of them. (Yeah, I get to define all of these things for myself. So do you.) These don't have to be the things traditionally defined as meditative. I can't say what it would be for you - tennis and the social bonding of one's writing group, perhaps. Music. Rock climbing. Family. Does it give you strength? Stability? Does it support you in being the person you want to be?
There is often a perception that meditative practice (not the only kind) is an escape from life, or a way of retreating from the stresses of the world. I guess that's probably true for some people, and really, if that's what keeps you going, more power to you. I really want people to keep going. But retreat is not why I'm in it. There are a lot of reasons why, for me, but the relevant one here is that I want to be able to engage more deeply, and more skillfully with the world. I want the skill to ride out the tumult, and the resilience to be able to to do more, to go deeper, work harder and survive it. Well, survive it until I don't, anyway.
I look at so many of the people in my community... and I feel like a wimp. Well, okay, not exactly, or at least, only sometimes. But so many people I care about are fighting many different very good fights. So many people are doing things that are really hard, and sometimes punishing. (I should mention, here, that though I use words like "fight" I don't limit the hard things that people are doing to causes and contention. Getting through and surviving to do the next thing is the good fight. So is finding that next thing.) And sometimes, people sound like they are on the edge of being overwhelmed by anger, sorrow and bitterness.
For good reasons. There is a lot of suck in the world. And often, if you're trying to work directly against that suck, it gets on you. Horribly. Or even if you aren't doing anything towards that particular suck, sometimes. I really, really don't want to minimize this. There are few things I hate more than folks who go on about how you just need to learn to be serene, and all the suck is in your head, anyway. Or any variant of that. No, suffering is real, and if you turn your back on that you're an asshole. (And we all do it, at least sometimes. Yes, you can learn to suffer less. But that doesn't just happen, and doing so doesn't remove the painful things from life.)
What you are doing is hard. Take care of yourself. Take the long view (at least some of the time). Find the things that nurture your spirit. Find the things that help you stay sane. Find the things that give you stability, perspective, and yes, serenity. And joy, and love, and hope. Because you need them, and cannot live long without them.
And keep in mind that resilience, of mind, body, and spirit (oh, hell, I don't really think these are separate things - and for the first two, that is a professional opinion) is, for most people, not just something you work on occasionally, when you are having a bad day. It's not just the random little things any more than health is about band-aids. Though the little things can help. It's something to build, over time, into the structure of your life. It takes a bit of time and thought. And... practice. It's called practice because none of us start out particularly good at it, and the only thing to do is keep at it.
I've been thinking about what I want to write here for the past week, and on Friday this popped up on the zendo's daily calendar:
As Layman P'ang was dying, his friend, the Governor Yu Ti Yu, came to visit one last time. P'ang put his head on his friend's knee and spoke his last words: "I beg you, see all phenomena as empty. Beware of thinking as real what is non-existent. Take care of yourself in this world of shadows and echoes." -Hsuan-chien
Maybe this is too Buddhist. All the emptiness and non-existance stuff can sound pretty nihilistic if you don't have context to place it in. But I love the thought of the nearly dead fearing for and giving comfort to the living.
I am not saying that you should walk away from the hard things, or even step back and take it slowly and carefully. (Unless, you know, slowly and carefully seems likely to do more in the end.) I'm certainly not going to tell you not to die. When it's time, die well. Choose what you care about and work for it with all the skill and strength you have.
But live, also, with all the skill and strength you have.