How is it best to be, think, or feel, when we are threatened by darkness, whether from external factors or whether in our own minds? I think this is a question which concerns a lot of people now. We look around and things are difficult, there is suffering everywhere, terrible ecological anxieties, political upheavals. It’s easy to feel disconnected, overwhelmed and hopeless. Many of the support mechanisms that would have been available to more connected societies in the past – for example in the form of extended families – are no longer available to us.
As we live in increasingly dysfunctional and disconnected societies. We look for something to pin our hopes on, try to obliterate the stress we feel with our busy-ness. We turn perhaps to self-help manuals, books about meditation or veganism, make New Year resolutions, go to the gym, write more, work harder, party harder, rush around keeping busy trying to blank things out.
Hands up if you’ve been there.
I don’t mean to imply there’s anything wrong with yoga etc but I’m not sure if these things on their own can combat the kinds of stresses we are struggling with in modern societies.
The term ‘stress’ itself originally comes from physics and refers to the deformation of a body that has been subjected to external forces. We talk about stress testing metals for car bodies. We do not talk about stress testing ourselves, torn as we are between our own excessive expectations and feelings of powerlessness. But just as some metals bear up under stress differently, so do people. We are not all the same.
We need to hang on to our dreams and we need to hang on to hope.
Elie Wiesel who won the Nobel Peace prize 1986 said in his acceptance speech:
“Just as man cannot live without dreams, he cannot live without hope. If dreams reflect the past, hope summons the future. Does this mean that our future can be built on a rejection of the past? Surely such a choice is not necessary. The two are not incompatible. The opposite of the past is not the future but the absence of future; the opposite of the future is not the past but the absence of past. The loss of one is equivalent to the sacrifice of the other.”
Wiesel was of course talking about a very specific past, the holocaust.
But how much suffering stems from past mistakes, problems, agonies, losses. We should not forget them, not even try. But sometimes forgetting seems like the only possible solution. How to cope with stress without resorting to harmful thought patterns and behaviours like blotting out activities? This I believe is one of the great challenges of our times. How to build a future that is not built on a rejection of the past? And though, yes, Wiesel was speaking at a societal level, what are societies but gatherings of individual people?
His speech continues with a personal memory:
“A recollection. The time: After the war. The place: Paris. A young man struggles to readjust to life. His mother, his father, his small sister are gone. He is alone. On the verge of despair. And yet he does not give up. On the contrary, he strives to find a place among the living. He acquires a new language. He makes a few friends who, like himself, believe that the memory of evil will serve as a shield against evil; that the memory of death will serve as a shield against death.”
In the reading I have done around this subject, two factors have emerged as important in maintaining hope in the future. Those two factors are keeping our eyes fixed on our own goals, and offering support to others. Self and others, the banner of a connected humanity.
Hope as Daisaku Ikeda says, is a decision.
“Hans Selye. Who pioneered the field of stress research offered the following advice based on his own experience of battling cancer: first, establish and maintain your own goals in life. Second, live so that we are necessary to others – such a way of life is ultimately beneficial to yourself.”
(Hope is a Decision, EG Press, 2017)
What Selye describes is what we call empathy. I think I am right in saying that of the major world religions, all place emphasis on empathy. Whether you subscribe to a faith or not, this is the gold vein in all that black granite of our suffering.
This doesn’t always feel logical or even possible. When we are suffering we want to curl up and lick our own wounds not be worrying about someone else’s. Nevertheless.
“The Buddhist sutras contain this well known parable: One day, Shakyamuni Buddha was approached by a woman wracked by grief at the loss of her child. She begged him to bring her baby back to life. Shakyamuni comforted her and offered to prepare medicine that would revive her child. To make this, he would need a mustard seed he said, which he instructed her to find in a nearby village. This mustard seed however would have to come from a home that had never experienced the death of a family member.
The woman searched from house to house but nowhere could she find a home that had never known death. As she continued her quest, the woman accepted that her child had died and began to realise her suffering was something shared by all people. She returned to Shakyamuni determined not to be overwhelmed by grief.”
( Daisaku Ikeda, Hope is a Decision, 2017)
We do not carry the burden of our grief alone. This is a good time to remember that.
Hope is a Decision: Selected Essays of Daisaku Ikeda Eternal Ganges Press, 2017
Elie Wiesel Nobel Lecture December 11, 1986