And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God.
— Romans 8:28
[Character Neville Aysgarth speaking] “The correct translation of that passage is actually: ‘All things intermingle for good to them that love God.’… It gives a better impression of synergy — the process where two different things are put together and make something quite new. If you just say, ‘All things work together for good’ — as if the good and the bad are all stirred together like the ingredients of a cake which later emerges from the oven smelling wonderful — then the man who’s dying of cancer will want to punch you on the jaw because he knows damned well you’re understating his pain and playing fast and loose with the reality of his suffering by implying that his disease is in the end a good thing. But if you say: ‘All things intermingle for good,’ you’re implying that the good and the bad remain quite distinct. There’s no question of well-mixed cake ingredients which emerge from the oven smelling wonderful. The bad really is terrible and the good may seem powerless against that terrible reality...”
— From Absolute Truths by Susan Howatch (bold emphasis mine)
I rarely read fiction these days, which is saying quite a lot when you majored in Comparative Literature. But recently I re-read the Starbridge series of novels by Susan Howatch — Glittering Images, Glamorous Powers, Ultimate Prizes, Scandalous Risks, Mystical Paths, and Absolute Truths. (She wrote three later novels involving several of the characters, but they are considered a separate series — The St. Benet’s Trilogy.) I like them because they are superb studies of people in the middle of spiritual crisis — mostly clergy officials from the Church of England, which adds an interesting twist. What we find in these novels is that a spiritual vocation doesn’t guarantee you’ll be any more able to find your faith when you need it.
I don’t know about you, but that is comforting to me. I like knowing that there aren’t any spiritual superbeings around here… that we are all learning lessons in our lives. Some are further along their paths, some very much so (like the Dalai Lama), but that doesn’t mean they’ve transcended humanity; scratch them and they struggle with their reactions just like the rest of us do. Actually, in many ways the protagonists in the novels have an even harder time, because of the career implications. They have a lot on the line if they admit grievous fault, such as drinking, affairs, or wrecking others’ lives through their own hubris. Their self-expectations even get in the way of normal human processes, such as grief. They hold themselves up as superbeings, and that brings them more trouble than ever.
So I’ve been thinking lately about a spiritual conundrum that keeps coming back to me which the quotation above addresses directly. I have several friends who deal daily with chronic illness and pain, and as I witness their struggle, I wonder why it is this way. Because while I believe that we in some way choose our lives, I also believe that doesn’t mean we deserve whatever comes down the path. Nobody asks for chronic fatigue, pain from disease or aging, accident, injury, abuse, or disability. But these things are given to us to deal with. Nobody’s exempt from the possibility.
After all, we all have our own spiritual paths, and they are usually strewn with a few boulders somewhere. There is no such thing as a trouble-free life. So why is it that some of us have paths that are nearly impassable? What are the lessons that come with such a struggle, and are all the lessons for those who are in pain and agony? And what about the suffering that comes with the very real evil that is done in this world — torture, war, genocide?
I’ve seen quite a few holier-than-thou New Age viewpoints repeating the mantra about “you chose to go through this”, implying that the one who hurts should remember that moment consciously. It’s blaming the victim, and those who indulge in it invariably assume a superior attitude, as if the one in pain is somewhere “lower” on the spiritual path. But to me, that attitude is unbearably smug, not to mention rude and condescending. And probably just plain wrong. Not spiritual at all.
As I’ve revealed before, I suffered abuse as a very young child (not in my immediate family). This trauma affected my behavior in so many ways, I can hardly number them all. And few knew what had happened… most didn’t suspect something terrible had. I didn’t even know until I entered my late 40s and had finally grown enough emotionally where I could begin to process the memories and re-enter the nightmare in order to fully heal from it.
While I have evolved spiritually enough now to understand that this whole process — abuse, effects, and finally healing — was actually a full curriculum in building compassion and self-awareness, it took years before I could acknowledge that. In fact, I would have cold-cocked anyone who suggested that I asked to be traumatized in that manner as a baby. And I would have had every right to react that way.
For if I did “ask for it”, it wasn’t at any time I could remember, nor was it in any form I could acknowledge as myself as a human being. And while I believe deeply in accountability, I draw the line there. It doesn’t mean I am irresponsible; far from it. The only one suffering from those choices was me. But that doesn’t give anyone else the right to chide me for my own pain. That really is “playing fast and loose” with the reality of suffering.
Because even though some folks claim they can remember past lives or back to their own births, those memories are not accessible by the vast majority of us. To me, there are spiritual reasons why we have no memory of anything in our early lives or before. Even if we remembered the events that triggered them, the decisions made have no reality in this world. All we can do is deal with their effects and outcomes as we experience them in the present moment. When you are suffering, even yesterday is the distant past. What is important is now.
It doesn’t really matter in the end whether a soul asked for the lessons received. If we have not learned to support those we encounter on the paths we take, then the lesson we will receive at some point will be to need support from others. Giving and receiving are part of the same cycle, and one cannot clutch any part of that cycle without experiencing kickback. How long you clutch it is what determines how much kickback you get.
What we can control, in our everyday reality, is how we react to another’s fate. In the end, we’re all in this together. Humans are designed to build and maintain community. But if we don’t make efforts to understand one another, true community isn’t the result — instead, walls and fences appear. Prejudice grows. Injustice flourishes. And suffering ensues. But compassion, the fruit of love, breaks down walls, builds human community, and brings justice to the front.
The real road of spirituality is compassion. I don’t care how long you can hold a downward dog, how many hours you can stay in deep meditation, how many miracles you can manifest. If you cannot hold compassion in your heart for human suffering, you ain’t nowhere near where you are supposed to be spiritually. If your heart does not ache for those in pain, if you are not outraged by starvation in the midst of plenty, if you do not offer kindness and generosity of heart — at least — where you see sadness, loss, and deprivation, then you cannot claim to be enlightened. What we give in times of trouble, and the spirit in which we give it, determines how much love we receive in the end. What we withhold from others, we withhold from ourselves.
We will all suffer at some point in this life. Many will do so needlessly in silence, holding their stories inside and never letting them see the light of day, because they cannot bear to be seen as imperfect. But imperfection is the human state. Chaos is required for growth. A seed must self-destruct to germinate and a caterpillar completely dissolve to become a butterfly. So suffering is built in to growth, which is the change that brings us back to ourselves and makes us a new whole, in a new state that we never knew would come.
Joy is interwoven with the woe that brings the transformation. From the life we gain after suffering or after learning to live with our pain, we may find the reward of peace and compassion. From our griefs and our traumas, gifts emerge that we can never predict, but only if we keep our hearts open to ourselves, those we love, and our communities — especially the community of humankind.
Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine.
Under every grief and pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.
— William Blake, from Auguries of Innocence