The Tragedy of Is vs. Ought

As an alternative title I was thinking of “The Is and Ought of Tragedy,” since it seems to me that the relationship is, well, tragic in both directions.

I cannot be too sure about this, but I intuitively perceive that the source of much of the tragedy humans experience lies in our mental misconception of the purpose of pain.

Whenever something happens that causes pain in our experience, we seem to be focusing on the cause of pain with the intention of eliminating that cause. And it may seem that, for some practical and everyday events, this can “work” — to the extent that the pain then goes away (at least for the moment).

What I imagine does not happen is for the ultimate cause of pain to (ever) go away. If I look deeply enough into my soul, I can see that the cause of my pain is related to the nature or reality of my own being as limited, both temporally and with respect to how much I can actually make a difference.

One of the most common aspects that I sense people connect with this experience of limitation is death as the temporal bracket that, from the perspective that fears that limitation, is the end of our life.

Becoming aware of and contemplating this limitation (as well as others) is — at least initially — very painful. And there seems to be a great deal of energy humans exert on a path towards overcoming (all kinds of) limitations.

One aspect of tragedy is that, no matter what we do, the limitations will not go away. It then may seem that, regardless of whether we accept limitations or work to overcome them, we are stuck with pain — how tragic!

In the reverse direction, I see that people may feel there are only these two options: accepting pain, suffering, and tragedy — as unwanted as they are, in essence believing that “there will always be tragedy, so best not to care too much about it.” Or, on the other hand, they may get stuck in thinking that they have found a way to overcome the tragedy after all, and then develop a kind of messianic missionary attitude, wanting to fix the whole world.

I intuitively sense that both approaches — sticking one’s head in the sand in the face of tragedy as well as getting addicted to the idea that there is a way out of tragedy — are ill suited to lead to something we might consider “success”. Put differently, I believe that this kind of doubles down on the original tragedy, making things much, much worse.

If I had to take a shot at what I might consider a strategy that is at least somewhat less likely to produce even more disaster and pain than already exists, it has to do with the nature of pain itself.

The intuitive perspective on pain, presented above, is that it is to be eliminated or, if that’s not possible, ignored. The short-hand of that perspective might be called “pain is (a source of) torture.”

Instead, I want to paint a different image. The title of that image would be “Pain is a Teacher.” And similar to a teacher in school who you might come to fear and either wish didn’t exist or who you might want to hide from, a good teacher will, in time, provide the lesson necessary to learn.

What this requires, particularly not to get stuck in detention all the time, is to attend to the teacher, and to listen to the teaching. What is it that pain wants us to learn then?

As I spend time within states of pain — the feeling that things aren’t going well — I become intensely aware of the underlying energy. There is a sense that something wants to come into existence, but that the path necessary for whatever it is that wants to exist has not been found yet. There is a lot of frustration, even impatience in that feeling. A kind of hot, bubbly sense that, at times, would like nothing better than to yell out (in pain).

What is it that it wants? I strongly suspect it wants space, it wants recognition, it wants an experience of equanimity — precisely the states that it does not experience before being attended to.

And by now I have had several moments in which, when I pay close enough attention to that part of my soul — the source of pain, which really is the source of all energy and motivation — that feeling then changes. The experience I have is that of approaching a wild animal that initially snarls and growls, seemingly only moments away from pouncing and devouring me. So, no wonder that people would either want to ignore it or make it go away…

If I can remain calm and composed, and approach that wild animal with a sense of “I understand — there is so much pent up energy and frustration about wanting piece and recognition, and no-one ever wants to look at you and give you some space,” then there opens up a chance of an encounter.

An image that comes to mind is from one of my favorite books. In a story-within-a-story, J.K. Rowling tells the “Tale of the Three Brothers.” In it, Death attempts to take the three brothers, and all three of them want to escape Death. Two of them think of strategies that fail miserably, wanting to either conquer or cheat Death. The third brother does, temporarily at least, escape Death. But he seems to use the time he gains, at least in part, for one purpose: getting prepared to meet Death:

“And then he greeted Death as an old friend, and went with him gladly, and, as equals, they departed this life.”

It is this image that, I believe, is the way out of the tragedy of pain and limitations. It paradoxically requires to accept limitations, but not in a way in which the limitations are an ought — as some kind of irrevocable burden we feel we must accept. But to accept limitations as a friend, something offered to us as a teacher and guide.

If we can “walk with death” (as it were), recognizing the pain that it brings, but also the meaning that it gives life, we can face that which otherwise makes us turn away our attention.

We can look at homelessness, drug addiction, old age, people suffering in wars, the chance that our planet may not always be as hospitable, gun violence, abortion, and any other aspect of life we wish didn’t exist — not with the immediate intention of making it go away (think of the two brothers…), but simply with attention, and accepting the pain we feel as a teacher.

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