Joy and suffering seem to be opposites. You can’t have one and have the other. If we are suffering, we are bereft of joy. If we have joy, we have avoided suffering. Right? The world around us has conditioned us to think this way and we spend a great deal of time trying to avoid suffering, pain, grief, and anything that makes us feel less that on top of the world. In our world, joy and suffering are mortal enemies, locked in a competition for our very being.
I was taught that the “golden rule” was “do unto others as you would have them do to you.” Jesus says this. The Buddha does too. In fact, this rule is part of nearly every spiritual tradition known to humanity. There is a cynical rework of this rule I learned later in life: “The one with the gold makes the rules.” While it is cynical, it is also true. Money and wealth are not just possessions, but power. Those who have vast wealth have lots of power.
“I just don’t understand.” These are perhaps the most frequently used words spoken by loved ones in the wake of a suicide or suicide attempt. They are wise words. The fact is, we can’t understand the pain, despair, weariness, or hopelessness that leads to suicide. Each struggle is unique and takes place in isolation. From Willie Loman in Arthur Miller’s The Death of a Salesman, who becomes convinced his family is better off without him to Robin Williams who could not sustain his struggle with his mental health; from the retiree who suddenly lost his investments and was overwhelmed with a sense of failure and shame to the teen who just cannot take another day of bullying, shame, and despair; from the LBGTQ+ person who has been rejected by family, friends and seemingly, the whole culture to the newly diagnosed cancer patient who is terrified and cannot imagine healing, we can only understand in part, at best.
“I’m spiritual, but not religious” is a mantra for many. Studies tell us that each successive generation becomes less and less affiliated with a religious community. Along with a host of other indicators, we are moving farther away from communal expressions of faith and embracing internal, individualized ideas of faith. It seems like we are all on a quest to privatize spiritual life to the extent that it has nothing to do with anyone but ourselves. The result is that we are more lonely, depressed, and fragmented than ever.