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Issue #53: Belonging and Suffering
"Suffering, if it is accepted together, borne together, is joy." — Mother Theresa
Hello old friends, I know it's been a while since I’ve written or the blink of an eye depending on your sense of time these days. I wanted to take this opportunity to return to this space and subject of belonging now that I’m seeing a bit of light at the end of the tunnel for what has been the most difficult year of my life. And as saddening as that statement is, I find a bit of solace in knowing that I'm not alone in that sentiment.
Even if 2020 didn’t shake you up and turn you upside down, 2021 has left many of us in a state of “Hot Mess Express".” I know this sounds flippant, but in all seriousness, you don’t have to look far beyond the bridge of your nose to see multitudes of grief, loss, misery, and distress.
The weird spaces and emotions that we find ourselves in whether languishing, incensed with pandemic rage or creating new cultures around death or navigating liminality, all have one thing in common with what many religions and philosophies have aimed to explain for centuries. Human suffering is pervasive and universal. And in this universality, we can find comfort if we come together.
Given the ways that our lives have shifted throughout this pandemic, safety measures have distorted our ability to be able to understand and feel that universality.
But I hope that this brief message is an opportunity, or rather an invitation for you to extend compassion to yourself and those around you. And more importantly, this could be a wake up call and reminder that you were not meant to suffer alone. I love the movie Inside Out. [Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen it yet, skip to the next paragraph.] One of the central messages of the movie is the function of sadness. The suffering induces sadness to get use to pause and reflect while the tears it generates creates a literal cry for help and support from others.
Suffering makes us members of a club that no one wants to belong to or patronize. No one wants to suffer, and yet we all do, in our own ways, in our own times and for an infinite variety of reasons that could be more common or specific to who we are as individuals.
I was talking to a friend about suffering and she told me about history and etymology of the word sincere. Sincere comes from a Greek phrase that means without wax. The word originated from marketplace merchants in ancient Greek markets selling marble statues. Marble isn't the most durable material in the world, so as the statues sat outside exposed to the elements, the marble would crack. Vendors would fill in those cracks with wax to maintain the perfectly carved exteriors. But like many other things that change with time, so did the wax that filled these cracks. Over the years, the wax yellowed, creating unttractive streaks in the formerly beautiful statue that many consumers felt found worse than the cracks. To address this consumer demand, merchants began advertising marble statues as sin cero or sincere to indicate a lack of wax and future discoloration.
When we think about suffering, we can center than same desire for authenticity and integrity. No one wants to be broken or hurt, but we all are in some way. Rather than trying to rush to fill in the cracks with wax, masking our suffering fake positivity or small talk, or forcing ourselves into isolation and loneliness, we can soothe each other by letting vulnerability be a sign that we see humanity in others.
If you’ve never listened to Solange’s album A Seat at the Table, stop reading now and go do that. Her song Cranes in the Sky describes the myriad of ways humans mismanage suffering and cover the cracks with wax:
I tried to drink it away
I tried to put one in the air
I tried to dance it away
I tried to change it with my hair
I ran my credit card bill up
Thought a new dress would make it better
I tried to work it away
But that just made me even sadder
I tried to keep myself busy
I ran around in circles
Think I made myself dizzy
I slept it away, I sexed it away
I read it away
If you haven’t already, find someone that you can show the cracked up version of yourself to. Be an example to those around you that they can also be authentic versions of themselves. Although suffering feels disempowering because it is not chosen, we have a choice in how we chose to move forward. Gathering and sharing is where we find belonging, making meaning of what happened to us in our past, and find healing to make sense of what it means for our future. Leonard Cohen, no stranger to the darkness of the world said this of his song, “Anthem”.
…there is a crack in everything that you can put together: Physical objects, mental objects, constructions of any kind. But that’s where the light gets in, and that’s where the resurrection is and that’s where the return, that’s where the repentance is. It is with the confrontation, with the brokenness of things.
Learn from what happens to the wax over time. The cracks will still show themselves over time. We might cover up suffering but it still emerges to affect ourselves and those around us. As a collective society, we are seeing the impact of covering systemic suffering and oppression with the wax of “That is not who we are” and telling people to stop playing the race card or that they should just get over it. There is a cost to attempting to bypass the reckoning that suffering calls for.
One of my favorite quotes that I've heard recently is “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience,” which comes from the French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. When we try to make our human experience too perfect, it deprives our spiritual being of its purpose: to enjoy the full breadth of the human experience.