Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Culture of Co-Suffering, Part Three: Personal Powerlessness

In my previous articles, I have been exploring the root causes and possible solutions to violence in our world.

Inspiring my reflection is Gil Bailey’s book, Violence Unveiled, which argues that the rising tide of violence in our age is largely due to our increasing inability to use violent means as a cure for violence.

In past times, Bailey says, societies would sacrifice scapegoats to establish social unity and end the forces of anarchy and destruction that threatened to tear them apart from the inside. This social mechanism, he argues, is no longer functioning as intended because of the Gospel event, when an innocent scapegoat of social, political and religious violence was resurrected and exalted as the “King of All.” Since then, all societies touched by the Gospel message have had greater and greater difficulty repressing their compassion for their victims and scapegoats.

While the Gospel may be the cause of our current cultural meltdown, it also offers a solution. By identifying God as the One who co-suffers (literally, “has compassion on us”), we are able to define our own identities as co-sufferers; that is, we can come to see ourselves as ones who suffer with others. And if we can learn to relate to each other in this way, then we can find a way to go beyond the use of violence as a means to define and build our communities.

Co-suffering as a way of life may sound rather gloomy, but only if you think of suffering as meaning nothing more than pain. In reality, suffering has a larger denotation. It is being subject to things beyond our control.

Understood in this sense, suffering is integral part of being human, because as human beings, we are subject to (at the very least) the four dimensions of time and space. I could be enjoying a bowl of ice cream on a sunny day, with not a care in the world, and still be suffering, simply because even when I am blissfully happy, I cannot prevent the clock from ticking or the world from turning.

Suffering, then, is not just about pain or misery. It is a condition of our existence. But it is not a condition that we like very much. Indeed, it might be said that the whole of the western secular enterprise rests on a belief that we can and should escape from suffering through human ingenuity.

What is the impetus for modern science and technology except the impulse to free us from nature’s control through greater knowledge? What is the sign of a healthy economy but “growth,” by which we mean the increased power of consumers over their spending limits? What drives politics except the acquisition of power to control the destinies of nations? What motivates social, religious, and others trends but our endless quest for self-determination?

Our society’s most precious if unspoken ideal is that if we can just learn enough, get rich enough, healthy enough, powerful enough, or just happy enough, then all poverty and suffering will cease. We will finally be free. We may even reach the point where we do not need to die…

I am not here to argue with those who passionately uphold this belief. I will say that the arrogant compulsion of scientists and technocrats to discover at all costs, of market economies to grow and prosper at all costs, and of the individuals and nations to “get happy” at the cost of other individuals and nations, are even now tearing our world apart. Glorious as the secular humanist vision may be, I am not sure the world will survive long enough to see it fulfilled…

A culture of co-suffering offers a radical alternative. It begins with a conscious acceptance that suffering is an inescapable fact of life and that there will always be realities beyond our control.

This decision—which 12-Step addicts call “an admission of powerlessness”—is a profound act that initiates a genuine faith in God and fundamentally reorients the ways in which we choose to live our lives.

Consider how our spending choices might change if we collectively refused to buy into the commercial deceit that this or that product will enable us to escape the unsatisfactory lives we now live and attain a “better” destiny. We might well see the end of growth based market economies and the beginning of something else. What else, you might wonder? How about a steady state economy that organizes its activities based on sustainability and ecological responsibility?

Consider what might happen if science and technology were no longer driven by the impulse to improve on the human race, regardless of the expense. We might well see a considerable slowing of our breakneck development in many fields, but really, would that be such a tragedy? If Bach composed and Michelangelo painted in a society afflicted with the plague, without electricity and running water, would it be so terrible if we were deprived of yet another version of the iPad?

These are just two implications of the choice to accept personal powerlessness. Rather than asking ourselves, “What else is there to get or become?” and then pursuing our answers at the expense of others and our world as a whole, a culture of co-suffering challenges us to pray what you might know as the “Serenity Prayer”: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

On the basis of this personal commitment, we can take the next step in implementing a truly compassionate culture.

A final word about that next time.

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