When we encounter these words, we are faced with a task. That task demands something more of us than we are willing to give. Without embracing these words in our life vocabulary and experience, we will never grow into maturity.
We all have a fantasy of arriving at a conflict-free plateau or a sunlit glen without struggle, without the demand for increasing consciousness, without being pulled deeper and further than we wish to travel.
Interestingly, there is such a place—it is called Death. Without journey, risk, and conflict, we are already spiritually dead and are simply waiting for the body to drop away as well. Then we will have missed the meaning of our being here in the first place.
Beginning to embrace these seven words is changing my life. They embody my journey. They are full of risk and conflict…and they are helping me understand who I am.
1.) Suffering—Suffering is spiritual, for it inevitably raises questions of meaning. If we are free from suffering, we are less likely to engage with those questions that ultimately define who we are. Unfortunately, western civilization and religion brand suffering the result of a sinful life; suffering is to be pitied, not embraced. On the contrary, the rigor and depth of questions raised by suffering jar us out of the casual reiterations of untroubled life, and bring us to the daily dilemma of enlargement and diminishment.
2.) Guilt—One of those conflicts that frequently torment the sensitive soul is guilt. No one who is alive is free of it, although there are those whose souls are so damaged that they’ve repressed the capacity to feel responsibility for suffering they’ve brought to themselves and others. (You have probably witnessed those damaged souls doing their remorseless work in high levels of business, I’ve certainly encountered them in high levels of religion.)
For most of us, guilt is a ubiquitous companion, frequently interfering in our lives, and even making choices for us whether we know it or not. When we have brought harm to ourselves or others, it is a measure of maturity to assume responsibility for it. Only the strongest of us can face the damage we have brought to others, whether intended or not. Guilt denied will find some other way through which the piper will be paid. None of us have clean hands in this world; only the unconscious think so, and they are the most guilty of projecting their shadow onto others. Guilt paralyzes and always binds one to the past, and therefore there can be no future without a movement toward more honest action in its face.
3.) Grief and Loss—Loss seems to be the price of abundance, the counterpoise to the richness of life, and remains always, even in moments of attainment, its silent necessary companion. If we live long enough, if we subscribe to that fantasy of immortality in which so much of our culture is vested, we will inevitably be bought to the loss of all for whom we care, or they will have suffered our loss.
Grief is in due proportion to our commitment in life. The more we would soar, the more we are bound to the limits of this earth, the flux, the flow, and rhythm of attachment and loss. Natural as it is to seek to hang on, the inevitability of grief and loss rather asks that we treasure what we have, appreciate it for its precious momentary presence in our lives, and know that its gift to us is found precisely in its impermanence. Grief is honest acknowledgement of loss.
4.) Betrayal—Who has not betrayed another, and who has not been betrayed? We are such fragile vessels that we fall far short of the ideals we would affirm. Betrayal can sting us into maturity, just as it may lead us to childlikeness. Betrayal may unmask our hidden dependencies. What are we really asking of the other? What were we counting on them to cover for us? Where were we not grown up in expecting the other to protect us from life’s demands?
Holding the tension of opposites in any relationship—legitimate expectations of reciprocity on the one hand, and the assumption of responsibility on the other—leads us to maturity and more mature relationships. It’s important to realize the subtext of most relationships is dependency, rather than mutual support of the independence of each party.
5.) Doubt and Loneliness—Doubt is a profound and effective spiritual motivator. Without doubt, no truism is transcended, no new knowledge found, no expansion of the imagination possible. Those who are drawn to ideologies that promise the dispelling of doubt by proffering certainties will never grow. The suppression of doubt is the secret seed of fanaticism in all its forms, and therefore the secret drive engine in bigotry, sexism, homophobia, fundamentalism, and all other forms of contrived certainties.
Wherever belief reigns, doubt lurks in the background. Thinking people welcome doubt; it serves them as a valuable stepping-stone to better knowledge. Doubting threatens us by bringing us to our essential loneliness, the place without external validation, the place where we most risk being who we really are, and feeling what we really feel. Loneliness is not one of the greatest disorders of the soul, but the fear of loneliness is. When we are alone, we are still with someone; we are with ourselves. the question is, how are we with ourselves?
6.) Depression—No matter how successful we have been in the outer world, judged by standards external to us, if we are not living in accord with the intent of our soul, depression is likely to follow. The more I try to do what “I” wish to do, and the less of what the soul intends, the more depressed I will become. The potential value of depression comes, if we can ask a larger question than how to rid ourselves of the bad feeling—”What, then, is the summons of my soul?”
Because of the mind-set of our culture and the training of our physicians, many suffering from depression are just given a prescription and it all ends there. The therapeutic secret of a depression is not found by suppressing it with biochemical agents, but by asking its meaning. This investigative approach is enlarging, and the soul will not fail to offer direction if we are willing to be open. We may, in the end, be able to bless our depression, because it obliges us to become more conscious and to change our lives.
7.) Addictions—We live in a culture that breeds addictions. No one is free of addictions. No one. For addictions are anxiety-management techniques the purpose of which is to lower the level of soulish distress we feel at any given moment, whether we are conscious of the distress or not. For one person stress is relieved by a cigarette, for another food, for another a phone call to a friend, for another work, for another some repetitive activity such as cleaning the house, for another compulsive prayer.
These actions have a compulsive character, which means they have a life outside our conscious control or awareness, and at best they offer only partial soothing of the stress.
The less the life we have built, or the life we have received, or the life that is foisted upon us, serves our soul’s desires, the more we will suffer the anxiety that leads to addictions. The efforts of religion to suppress overt addictive behavior merely drives the anxiety into the underworld, where it has no choice but to find its outlet in child or spousal abuse, health problems, barely controlled angers, or the thousand other leakages through which any repressed emotion inevitably finds expression.
Usually one is only willing to face these disturbing feelings when one is forced to, in desperation, because the cost has become too much. The cost in money, the decline of health, the burden on relationships, the narrowed life—all cost us more than the core of anxiety warrants. To consciously acknowledge the anxiety will certainly require resolve, but it may be done if one understands the cost of the addictive cycle.
8.) Anxieties—At bottom, all of our problems can be traced back to the omnipresence of anxiety. Only the psychotic or unconscious are free of anxiety, and what a price they have paid. Philo of Alexandria is reported to have said, “Be kind. Everyone you meet is carrying a big problem.” If we can accept that about ourselves and each other, accept the normality of anxiety, seek the roots of identifiable fears in that anxiety, then simply do the best that we can and forgive the rest, we may at last become less anxious.
The common fantasy of our culture and religion is that we can avoid, or solve, such experiences as these words describe. Despite what popular culture and religion say, the goal of life is not happiness but meaning. Life is not a problem to be solved, finally, but a series of engagements with the world in which we are asked to live as fully as we can manage.Note: This post is my synopsis (but are the words) of James Hollis from chapter ten of Finding Meaning In The Second Half of Life.