For those who suffer

Shaky Skaters, by Rev. Jane Rzepka:

Roller World is a typical roller rink that rents foul-smelling skates with fragile laces, and then pounds your ears senseless with hard-driving rock music. Roller World caters to people with no standards, no taste, no class. 

Like my family and myself. 

I love Roller World. No one was born to skate, but there we all are, a roomful of unlikely skaters, doing our best. A few of course are hot shots, whizzing around on one foots, backwards half the time, breezy as you please. And another bunch, sad to say, is hopeless – their eight little wheels completely ignoring mission control. But round and round the rest of us go, steady and solid, one foot then the next, in careful time to the Beastie Boys or Twisted Sister. 

Folks look pretty darn good out there. I suppose I do too. No one knows that if even one word is spoken in my direction, I will lose my concentration and the floor hard. No one realizes that if they come up behind me too fast I will panic and crumble into the wall. 

No one can see that this steady skater is so precarious that the act of skating, just skating, takes everything. 

As we roll around the rink, uncertain of our stride and rhythm, may we yet see the instability of those who surround us. May we help when we are steady, holding those who falter; may we calm the reckless and urge the timid forward; may we keep gentle company with the skaters at our side. Let us move with the spirit of love, and may some quiet presence help us with our laces at the end. 

An interesting observation from congregational life: when people are struggling the most, they often disappear from church. 

I know that seems nonsensical on the face of it. When times are tough, isn’t that when we need our community the most? 

It is, but we have a lot invested in looking “pretty darn good out there.” I wonder if it’s an evolutionary remnant – knowing that a predator or a competitor for social standing will notice our weakness and take that opportunity to strike. It happens throughout the animal kingdom – sick individuals invest what little energy they have in looking good even though it saps their strength for healing. And if they’re too ill to fake it, they hide themselves away. 

And if you’re thinking – “wait, does this mean that other people are not feeling quite as secure and confident and together as they look?” – if you’re getting the notion that maybe it’s not just you who feels like you are barely keeping from falling to pieces sometimes – then, you are absolutely right. 

The minister’s role offers an interesting perspective on human existence. Imagine a movie set with buildings that look real, but behind the beautifully painted, realistic looking facades is nothing but a bare framework of flimsy scaffolding… From a front view, it looks great. But stand where I stand – taking an aerial view – and you’ll see the truth. And the worst of it is that each building, if it could feel, would feel that it was the only one that was empty amid a street full of lovely, functional, structure. 

There is probably nothing so universal as the suffering we all endure in life. 

We suffer in so many different ways – or at least they seem very different on the surface. 

We suffer with fear – of the diagnosis we await, of the stranger on the street, of the war we are sure will come, of death, of pain, of rejection… there is no shortage of reasons to fear

We suffer with envy for what we lack and others do, of the looks and abilities of others… 

We suffer as we diminish ourselves and torment our spirits with harangues about our own failings and inadequacies. 

We suffer of loneliness, aching for another soul with whom we can share a life or even an afternoon. 

We suffer in pain, physical and psychic… pain that medicines and professionals seem unable to ease. 

We suffer of guilt, for what we have done or what we haven’t done – what we could have, should have done. 

We suffer with our wounds – our hurt places made unbearably tender by the assaults – physical and emotional – that have bruised and scarred us. 

Oh, friends, we have many ways of suffering. We can even suffer from happiness as when it arrives we begin to fret with the knowledge that it will surely pass. 

At Buddhism’s core – the four noble truths – is the reality of suffering. The Buddha taught that life is filled with suffering, sought to explain it, and then built his system as a means to bring suffering to an end. 

In Buddhism, the focus on suffering is perhaps more central than it is in other religions, but ever faith has had to grapple with the question of suffering. 

The monotheistic faiths, of course, put an all-powerful deity at the center of things. They are presented with the challenging question: if there is an all-good, all-knowing God that can accomplish absolutely anything, then why do we suffer so? 

The Hebrew Scriptures see suffering as a punishment for something that we – either individually or as a society – have done wrong. God punishes for unfaithfulness, for committing injustice, for failing to follow God’s law. Christianity later developed the idea of original sin – that we all suffer from the burden of sin we bear simply for being born into the human family. 

Religions explain and then offer paths to the relief of suffering. In monotheism, we turn to God. God, the loving, forgiving, grace-bestowing power of love can take away our suffering. If we give ourselves to that source of all goodness and love, we will be bathed in God’s joy. If we love God and follow God’s ways, this reality can be ours – if not now, then in a better future world. 

Buddhism approaches suffering in a strikingly different way. One of the most compelling Buddhist Teachers today is Buddhist Nun Pema Chodron. She has described the first Noble Truth of Buddhism as simply as this: “when we feel suffering, it doesn’t mean that something is wrong.” Buddhism’s message is to stop grasping – stop holding on – release your attachment on feeling this way or that. Let go of the idea that life should be one way or another and welcome what comes. Her teaching is to greet your suffering – and indeed everything you experience – with a compassionate acceptance. Be present to your experiences and non-judging of yourself. 

A 19th century philosopher/poet put it this way: “You desire to know the art of living, my friend? It is contained in one phrase: make use of suffering.” 

Do not approach suffering with hardness – you will be softened. Do not approach with softness – you will be hardened. Know that suffering can change you and that you are not separate from suffering. Like coffee beans, your richness can be released. 

The other night, with thoughts of Pema Chodron in my mind, I did something that – for me – was frightening and brave. I attended an ecstatic dance event at Unity. 

I am not – not by the farthest stretch of the imagination – a dancer. No one who ever saw me try to move to music would say I was – not even my kindest and most charitable friends. 

My non-dancing runs very deep. It is not just my body, but my mind that will not dance. When it’s time to move to music in public, I become once again a short, fat kid with no friends -- I am frozen. I want to be invisible. Please, let me be invisible. 

And there I was amid a sizable gathering of people – mostly young, fit and attractive. I felt as flexible as concrete. Instantly – flash! – I had become short, fat, and deeply unpopular. 

The story I wish I could tell is that – over the course of that evening – I became lithe and agile, un-self-conscious… that my spirit was healed and I would never again feel as I had always felt -- that I danced with abandon and joy. 

Well, that’s not the story I can tell. 

What I did was stop pushing away what I was feeling. And what I felt was not good, but I was able to welcome it, view myself with compassion rather than anger or disgust. It made a difference. 

There was no magic in approaching the experience with openness and compassion – I did not have a miraculous recovery from feelings that have stuck with me since childhood. But, for moments, here and there, I found myself willing to, and able to just feel what I was feeling and see those feelings for what they are. I walked away from that event with a far greater understanding than I took into it. I came away with less fear and more insight. 

I would not be able to tell you about it – speak of this – if that were not the case. 

We can indeed make use of our suffering. 

But there is something I have seen to have more power, more magic, and more healing than even this. That is to learn that we are not, after all, alone. 

You do not suffer alone. It may feel like you do, as you and everyone around you tries to look pretty darn good out there. But they, like you, are shaky skaters. They like you are hoping to get through the day – hoping that worst will not come to worst – hoping that no one will notice them teetering. 

You – we – are not alone. Support one another when you are strong. Lean on each other when you are weak. We are not alone.