The Buddha angel where I sit

“Suffering can be a lens through which you break and see the essence of humanity.”

I listened to Rabbi Tirzah Firestone yesterday talk about her latest book, Wounds Into Wisdom. The big attraction for me was to also hear the Canadian/Hungarian doctor and trauma specialist Gabor Mate speak there. I was deeply moved by him, but that takes another blog post.

Tirzah, whom I met many years ago both in Colorado and in Jerusalem, said essentially this: Suffering can be a lens through which you see to the suffering of all humanity. Or it can become something special, which leads to victimhood.

I thought about this in connection with Jewish perception of history and current events. There is no question in my mind about 2,000 years of exile, dehumanization, and persecution that Jews went through, culminating with the Holocaust. As Gabor Mate said, horrific genocides, not to mention enslavement, have occurred throughout the world, but not one was so coldly mechanical, dispassionate, and calculated, causing mass murder to transcend the realm of rage and passion and tumble into the land of logic, policy, and method. I’ve been to Auschwitz-Birkenau many times, and I still can’t get over how guards and soldiers could see little children, scared and holding on to their mothers’ hands while crying, march off to gas chambers.

No one can doubt the suffering. It’s the specialness of that suffering that is in question for me.

We refer to ourselves as a chosen people. This has lots of spiritual and religious nuance. The Dalai Lama, when asked what he thought about that, said that he wished all people felt chosen in some way. It’s when we combine specialness or chosenness with suffering, however, and develop our identity from that combination, that we get into trouble.

Suddenly it’s important to emphasize the specialness of our suffering, how no one else suffered like we did, becoming a race to see who’s the greater sufferer, who’s the greatest victim. Nowhere in the Bible is “chosenness” combined with suffering; instead, it points to obeying God’s wishes. But over history, chosenness or specialness have come together with suffering and become their own rigid identity.

Even the most prosperous American Jews, those who’ve attended the best schools and have the money they need to live well, scratch under the surface and immediately they become nervous and defensive, taking on the mantle of victimhood, as if saying: “We have always suffered, and we know it’s right around the corner at all times. It’s our legacy. It’s what it means to be Jewish.”

The Buddha said that everyone suffers, that in fact life is suffering. Obviously more or less depending on conditions, but there is no life without suffering and disappointment, even catastrophe. When you truly take that to heart, you are less shocked and stunned than others by reversals in health, family, work, or society. More important, you realize deeply that this is true for everyone. Everyone suffers, trauma lies hidden in many, many places, as Mate has pointed out over his lifetime.

When we take suffering as a lens through which to see others, it increases our empathy, our care, our sense of sisterhood and brotherhood with everyone. But when we make our suffering special, unshared by anyone else who isn’t of our nation, we’ve made a personal and national identity out of it, which leads to greater separation rather than less.

Even as a very young girl I was turned off by sayings like: Look at what happened to us and nobody else. The teachers in the religious school I attended went to great length to imprint on students the specialness and uniqueness of that suffering. The antidote to that suffering was to feel ennobled and unusual, to stand out among the nations. Not to mention building up an army as well as nuclear weapons, as Israel has done.

Suffering is at the essence of what it is to be human. Is it the only thing? Of course not. But I visit senior centers and see even the most successful and fortunate of men and women suffering from old age, illness, fear, and deep loneliness. Various forms of suffering fueled the Buddha in his search for enlightenment. We can’t run away from it.

When we see it broadly enough, bear witness to the slavery and genocides, the children dying of malnutrition even as I type these words, you see the common thread binding all of us. In Zen we’re warned against cutting that thread and finding relief in some version of nirvana, but rather always vowing to be with and among those whose life is hard and bitter.

“Get out of your specialness as the biggest suffering victim,” Rabbi Tirzah said at the end of the session. Don’t feel chosen in that way, unique, or exceptional. Take your place in line with all of humanity, says Rabbi Eve, for joy, change, transformation, and yes, suffering, too.

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