I’m all for a person’s right to choose
Fourthly, pain is real; reactions are natural; mistakes are inevitable. But suffering is a choice; responses are a choice; putting things right is a choice.
It’s apt that when I come back to write about this truth, I have just spent the sickest month in my existence…where sickest does not have the positive connotations with which my son would imbue it (you’re the sickest dad). Over the last week and a half, I have been engaged in a battle with viral invaders. Against my wishes (I would have just sat down and talked them to death), my body opted to boil them to death. Slowly. Over a week. It is almost inevitable that some of my friendly bacteria (as I believe the advertising industry calls them) fell in the battle. It is to the memory of these little guys that this blogpost is dedicated. May their rebirth be glorious.
Right. On with the business at hand…discussion of truth #4. Truth #4’s main role is to provide a go-to defence for those arguments that would otherwise stump me. The Zen crowd have a story about a zen master who sets a puzzle for an enthusiastic novce. Much torment, much struggling, blah-de-blah. Then the young ‘un gets it. He goes back to the Zen Master and proclaims his true experience of what it means to have no Self. At which point the irascible old git smashes him in the nose and asks who’s feeling the pain then? If you are a teacher who has just become lost in a flight of fancy, STOP IT AND COME BACK HERE.
The point about Truth #4 is that there is no bad experience which the mind cannot make worse. The logical corollary of this is that there is also no bad experience which the mind cannot make better and as we are interested in looking for ways to happiness and peace of mind, we should probably think about toddling off down this track rather than the other.
So pain comes. It hurts. Most recently, my legs hurt, my head hurt, my lower back hurt, but my chest won the gold medal for hurting like %*@!. If I moved, it hurt; if I didn’t move, it hurt; if I breathed, it hurt; if I didn’t breath…well, I would’ve died, so that wasn’t a viable option. At the same time I needed to cough. As I timidly tried to cough, the pain erupted through alll of the other already-heightened pain channels that were running through my body. In order to stop themselves from falling out, my eyes closed and amid the red and black background, each cough seemed to result in a photoflash of white that made me think each time of a death’s head skull. Obviously, the initial cough would be the scout for a whole posse of coughs that would then come riding up over the canyon, each having the same effect, each with the ability to summon up the skeletal features of Lord De’ath. That was pain.
Or rather…that was the experience of having a cough when you are suffering from a viral infection and the over-the-counter medicines can’t suppress the whole unpleasantness.
Because in moments of lucidity (thank you, Mr Codeine and Mrs Paracetamol), I reflected on those words I had seen in books where Prisoners of War were tortured and then put to heavy labour, all the while suffering the chills and horrors of dysentery or fever or whatever. No pain killers for them; no 18 hour marathons of sleep. I thought about the horrors of the death camps in Europe and how people had gone through far worse than I could even begin to imagine, all the while with temperatures that were presumably higher than my piffling 38.9 (my highest and proudest). I thought about the people around the world right bastard now who were chained up in prison cells, dying in tents, sheltering amid rubble, lying in huts, lost in deserts, lain out in council flats, hiding from the authorities…and suffering from the ravages of whatever disease that might have hold of them and yet probably dealing with it with much more resilience than me. I sighed. Muttered something about, I don’t know how we do it…inject me with a dose of flu and I’m running at the wire in the hope that they shoot….and then got back to the reality of mysuffering.
Incidentally, future dictators of the world, let me just state for the record, don’t be whisking me off to interrogation camps for brutal tortures. I know nothing worth knowing, but will readily give up everything you need if you approach me with the civil words, “Look…we know you have a thing about teeth and nails. We will hurt your teeth and nails really bad, then we will inject you with flu. Repeatedly. And continue to attack your teeth and nails.” I promise you that I will tell you everything that I know, everything that you tell me you want me to know and then you can just shoot me. A’ight?
Back to work: I’m not sure quite how coherent I’ve been so far and reading back what has already been written is never a sensible use of time, so…summation time: I don’t dispute that pain comes. But I do distinguish between pain and suffering. Pain is a physical thang; suffering is more cerebral. My fever floored me. The fevers of the camps were an irritation that had to be lived with in order to…well…live. We can choose not to suffer. We can choose to focus on the pain and to study it: how does it manifest itself, where, for how long, with what consistency etc etc etc. But we do not have to bemoan it, nor to wish that it would end (it is going to anyway), nor to demand that life be otherwise.
When someone calls us a conceited knob (not that this happens often…well…define often…), we don’t have to consider ourselves a failure if we react by wanting to rip their pulsating heart out of their chest and force feed it to a passing Siamese cat. I had an email from a person the other day that really twisted my melons, man. Being the conceited knob that I am, I had no rest from anguish until I sa down and composed the most cutting, condescending, wankery response I could, stuffed with more passive aggression tham you’d find in a nest of tired out rattlesnakes. This was my reaction. Reactions are natural But then I deleted the thing and sent an email that was polite, humble and accepting of my shortcomings. This was my response. Responses are choices.
[Parental Advisory…the language may take a turn for the worse here…]
Mistakes are also the source of much suffering. We don’t want suffering. So we have to look at our mistakes again. Is there anybody (apart from the Venerable Luis Suarez, May His Feet Be Praised And His Footballing Skills Guide Us To Glory Once Again) who doesn’t make mistakes? Of course not. So how fecking typically human is it to take this defining characteristic of the species and use it to judge ourselves (negatively) by? I am prepared to guarantee that by the end of the day (or tomorrow if you’re reading this at 23:55), you are going to fuck up either monumentally or inconsequentially. It may be one of those fuck-ups that leave you thinking that you are a bad partner, teacher, manager, human, player, yaddayadaddaya. OK, I’m a Liverpool fan, but even still…look how much grief there was when Steven Gerrard slipped on a grass pitch. WHOGIVESASHIT? He slipped on a pitch that had been sprayed with water…who would have seen that coming? And it gets turned into a discussion of footballing skills…as if earning an astronomical salary means that somehow you have to make sure that the laws of physics don’t apply to you…only the laws of footballing genius! You can get up, think “That was unfortunate!” and then get on with your life. You might commit a mistake (commit???) at work and really suffer for it. It’s embarrassing, humiliating, public. It stops you from sleeping; it preys on your mind (or your mind preys on you); it causes you stress. OH FFS- it was a mistake! You didn’t know everything that you were supposed to; you got it wrong; people suffered as a result; you looked like an arse; people are talking; fingers are pointing; meetings are taking place. FUCK IT! FUCK THEM! What does it really matter?! Look outside: are there clouds of grey radiation rolling through the decimated streets of the city? Are children being impaled on the railings of churches? Have you caused Armageddon? So…what is wrong here? You made a mistake; you recognise that; if you hurt people, make sure that they know just how regretful you are…ask them if there is anyway you can help them now. Take action to avoid future iterations of the mistake. Move on…it’s still a beautiful world.
We are caught up in a culture that says that people have to be punished for their mistakes or have to “accept responsibility” (which invariably means take the blame) for their mistakes. Why? It’s a bit confused to punish somebody for something they didn’t mean to do. And accepting the responsibility does not mean taking the blame. You send a poorly-worded email; it causes mayhem. You are disciplined and shown the door. Why? As far as I can see, because the organisation that pushes you into the wilderness is saying that it is so inept that it cannot work with you to avoid any future scenario like this. The focus should be, in my arrogant opinion, on putting things right. Or at least on making things better. It should be on learning. It should be on expecting mistakes to happen and seeing mistakes as blips in a practice of otherwise mistake-free living. People should not be defined by their mistakes. If you really need to define people, try looking at how they respond to their mistakes.
OK! Enough! What I am really trying to say here is that the mind is quick to put forward the argument that there isn’t always a choice. People get hurt; it’s natural to want to kill the person who poisoned your poodle; you can’t get it right all of the time. But this is because not everyone distinguishes between pain and suffering; or between reactions and responses; or between making mistakes and making mistakes educational. And this lack of distinction gives rise to guilt, to anger, to self-hatred, to feelings of failure, to despair, to giving up and giving in. But the distinction allows you to look at your illness and see it for what it is; it allows you to accept your ugly reaction, but choose a constructive response; it allows you to get it horribly wrong, but to avoid having to give explanations…who cares why you got it wrong…let’s deal with how you’re going to make it better.
Go easy on yourselves…