(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
If you have ever studied or read ancient Greek mythology, you likely know about the story of Atlas. He is the fictional son of the Greek god Titan. His family tried to take control of the heavens by fighting its rulers – the Olympians. The Titans lost that battle and Atlas was then punished. For all eternity he was to hold up, through physical struggle, the position of the sun, moon, stars and planets. He can never rest or sleep. His is an endless life of suffering seemingly devoid of meaning.
Ayn Rand is an author who is the darling of the contemporary Tea Party and conservative political movement. Writing about the age old question on the purpose of life, Rand believed that human meaning is solely found in the pursuit of happiness. Each individual is responsible for his or her own contentment. We either succeed in finding it or we don’t – but it is up to us. No government, organization or community is responsible.
In her famous novel Atlas Shrugged, Rand conveys this message. She also implies, through the title of her book, that we too should shrug off and scorn life’s challenges. There is no purpose or good in them. The mythical figure Atlas stoically accepts the sacrifice imposed on him by Olympian authority when he should, Rand claims, rebel. It’s pleasure and not pain that should define our lives.
She wrote in her novel, “It’s not that I don’t suffer, it’s that I know the unimportance of suffering. I know that pain is to be fought and thrown aside…”
For Rand, humans fight against powerful authorities who cause us to suffer. Society and government are our real problems, not pain. Authorities force us to alleviate the hurts of others and bear their burdens – even though they are not our own. Life, for Rand and her many admirers, is what we alone make it. It doesn’t take a village to raise a child. It’s sink or swim on your own.
Of course, I completely disagree with Rand’s perspective. Yes, pain and hardship are inevitable realities in life. As a minister, I see the pain that exists in the lives of every person I get to know. None of us are free from hardship – whether it be related to our health, age, relationships, state of mind or work. All we need do is look at the front page of any newspaper to see the widespread reality of pain. Violence and war cause innumerable numbers of people to suffer. The murder of innocent lives in this nation – from Orlando to Baton Rouge to Dallas – has caused many to suffer. Others are continually oppressed by racism, religious intolerance, sexism or homophobia. Millions are unemployed or underemployed and cannot provide for their families. Some of us recently saw the heartbreaking sight of a lunchroom filled with over a hundred homeless children – kids as young as five with no room or home to call their own, no yard in which to play, no place to feel safe. How many of those kids fall asleep at night in strange beds in strange shelters and cry silent tears of frustration at the unfairness of life? How many more kids around the world live in squalid refugee camps or slums and witness the hopeless despair of their parents? How many other kids are now in children’s hospitals wracked with cancers from which they will not recover? Pain and psychic hurt are terrible, terrible realities.
My message series this month, on the irony of paradox, will look at seemingly inconsistent truths that, instead of confounding us, can instead empower us. As much as we can and should avoid pain, I believe we must also embrace it. And therein lies one ironic paradox I want to consider today. How do we both try to avoid suffering while also embracing it? To embrace hardship is, for me, to understand its benefits: its distinctive ability to focus my mind, change my attitude, enlarge my heart, encourage my humility and, ultimately, enable my purpose for living.
In other words, embracing pain is first about acknowledging it is an ever present reality. Since that is so, I can either retreat into an ego-centric, arrogant and futile effort to put a bandaid on it through the selfish pursuit of pleasure……….or, I can embrace pain and use it to find my better self. Suffering is the window through which I find the meaning of life: to grow as a person and thereby help improve the world.
It may seem that the pursuit of pleasure is the only means to contentment but that, of course, is a false prescription, Such thinking is born from the human instinct to survive at all costs by stepping on or ignoring one’s neighbors. Sex, drugs, money, power and material things may stimulate the pleasure centers of my brain, but it is an ironic truth that I find my noblest self when I’ve been tested in the crucible of hardship……or when I’ve helped lessen the pain of another. That crucible of hardship often burns away my selfish thinking that I don’t deserve to suffer. It causes me to look beyond my hurt and see all the good in life. It leads me to see the more difficult struggles of others and it thereby calls me to soothe, love, give back and serve. Effectively dealing with challenges in my life and in others is a way to justify my very existence.
Ayn Rand’s viewpoint therefore offers me a stark choice. I can either focus on the supposed unfairness of hardship, or I can focus on what gives me joy, gratitude and meaning.
In that regard, I appreciated Michelle Obama’s recent comment that when critics of her husband and family get their loudest and most cruel, the Obama response is not to go low, but go high. When my own inner voices of lament get their loudest, I can either respond with self-pity and sink into a pit of despair, or I can embrace the opportunity to learn, appreciate and love.
Because of what I’ve just said, I hesitate to now talk about the primary pain in my life right now. To talk about it might seem self-indulgent and as if I solicit your sympathy. I do not.
I constantly think about my mother and the cruel disease that has caused the mom I knew to have passed away. Dementia has seemingly stripped her of the woman I loved – the mom who was my cheerleader, who soothed my growing pains, who stood by me in my failures, who accepted my coming out as a gay man and who smiled with pride about my work as a minister. If there is one person with whom I most identify, it is her. And now it seems I’ve lost her forever and that fact often fills me with terrible sadness.
To my discredit, I have too often succumbed to pity for her and me. I am like her in so many ways – even down to having inherited her hearing loss. I envision myself one day inheriting her dementia and that leads me to all sorts of selfish thinking. What is the point of my work and my life if I am to one day suffer her fate? Perhaps I should heed Ayn Rand’s prescription, abandon my work, my responsibilities, my sense of purpose and instead pursue a few years of simple pleasure.
I sometimes think that the Sunday messages I offer here are more for my own benefit than for all of you. When I think about what I want to say, when I research and write, I am convicted by my own flaws and inconsistencies. It’s so easy to tell others not to wallow in self-pity. It’s quite another thing for me to follow that advice.
But, after visiting my mom the past two weeks, after seeing her new demeanor, after considering this topic on the paradox of suffering, I had a small epiphany. My mom’s dementia and my thoughts about it are only painful if I allow them to be so. I do not suggest dementia is a good thing. What I do suggest is that this disease has happened and continues to happen to countless people. My mom and I are not special. Why should we not experience pain like anyone else – or any of you – many of whom I know are dealing with very difficult life challenges.
I can choose to tell the sad story of this so-called tragedy in my mom’s and my life. Or, I can choose to tell myself, and then believe, inward stories about the multitude of blessings and joys in my life – including that of being able to visit, hug, speak to and love my mom. If I do that, I will go high in my thinking. I’ll escape thoughts of entitled sorrow. I’ll see opportunities to expand my attitude about life. I have a long way to go to be more mature, aware, and humble, but this supposed hardship can help me. I’ll better see my life purpose as one of service – to my daughters, to my work as a minister, to you my friends and colleagues, to the community around me. Instead of trying to run away from this pain, I must run toward it, use it and embrace it. I cannot change the fact that it exists, but I can change my thinking about it. I can transcend it and see my mom’s dementia as strangely beautiful and empowering – for her and for me. Life is full of irony and paradox. Avoid pain. Embrace pain. As one anonymous commenter once said, “life is hard, but suffering is optional.”
These observations come after visiting my mom in her new residence facility in California. I traveled to see her these last few weeks with a lot of fear. I was concerned she would not know me and that she would be even more confused and upset away from the home she loved. Instead, I found a mom filled, in her own way, with the wisdom and grace she’s always had. She told me just before I left that she’s happy where she lives now. “This is my home”, she said. “I like it.”
Even though she does not remember much that happens in her daily life, she somehow has subconsciously remembered an enduring quality within her – to be happy, to smile, to make friends, to be considerate of others. I like to think that if I have any of those qualities, they come from her. And so I saw my mom not hurting, even though dementia is a difficult disease. She has chosen to be content. She has somehow transformed her attitude. She’s telling herself new and happier stories. She’s, in a sense, the mom I’ve always known – she’s kind to other residents, she tries to reach out to help them, she is grateful to the staff who assist and comfort her. She’s happy.
Experts report she has done what I must do. Many studies have shown that those who think within a box of sadness, depression, loneliness and suffering feel additional physical and emotional pain all the more acutely. It’s as if the brain becomes so conditioned to feeling like it suffers that any additional stimulus of pain, even one like a dull pin prick, is felt all the more.
But, these same studies show that those who think within a wider realm of contentment, joy and inner peace, added stimuli of pain are rarely felt. Their brains are the reverse of those who exist with a mindset of suffering. People who think they are happy have brains conditioned such that they remain happy even when hardships happen. That is the power of positive thinking, of being grateful for the blessings of life, and for literally choosing to go high and transcend attitudes of “why me?”
I find myself, along with you, on a continual journey to understand my existence. Since life is so difficult and often sad, what is the point of it? For me, life is, yes, about avoiding pain and seeking to suck all that is pleasurable about living out of the universe – to thrill at the beautiful lives of my daughters, to venture into the glories of nature, hike a mountain trail, or wake to a vibrant sunset. I’m also beginning to understand that my life is about embracing my hardships – to suck all that I can learn about meaning, kindness and grace out of them.
It is fascinating to me that these two different truths about how to approach life are both true, seemingly at odds with one another and yet are paradoxically not. For me, and perhaps for you, I want to both accept the reality of pain, seek to avoid it but also cherish its transformative power. Life is, indeed, very hard but it is also filled with glorious beauty and amazing ways to grow, serve and love. Such is a paradox of our existence: avoid pain; embrace pain.
I wish each of you much peace and joy…