It’s difficult to write a celebratory note during a time of hardship. From Antarctica to the Northern Hemisphere, there is no escape from the virus. In my city of Sydney a newly imposed lockdown on the northern beaches makes for a sombre ending to a rough year.
Much of the pain of this moment is invisible, existing only inside our interior worlds, as we ache for lost loved ones and those who are stranded miles away.
If 2020 has taught us anything it is to be wary of the illusion of control. Modern civilisation makes it easy for us to be overconfident in our ability to shape our own destinies. We schedule trips months in advance on calendar apps. We make three, five, sometimes 10 year plans for our careers. We chart progress towards our goals with precise detail. But as this year has shown us, our best laid plans can be swept away in a matter of seconds. How do we make sense of it all when this happens?
Our contemporary society, with all of its luxurious comforts and technological advancements, does not give us much of a framework for dealing with hardship. Often the moral quest of our society seems to be the avoidance of hardship altogether. While a quest to reduce suffering for the greatest number is good and worthy, it doesn’t help us much on an individual level when tragedy does strike.
And that’s a problem. We are a meaning making species. We crave understanding, and we crave narratives which simplify a chaotic world. This is surely one reason why faddish political ideologies have become so popular in the West. As the influence of organised religion recedes, alternative belief systems have surged to fill the void—from the narratives of oppression young people learn at university, to the wild-eyed theories that their parents find on Facebook.
What worries me about today’s ideologies is that they are quick to blame human suffering on an out-group, and slow to offer inner peace and restoration. Whether it is blaming one group for systematic oppression, or another group for pulling strings behind the scenes, there is always some group or other to scapegoat in times of trouble. In contrast, if one looks at the ancient wisdom of traditional religions, we see that followers and believers are encouraged to endure pain and suffering, not blame others, and not pretend that it doesn't exist.
Saint Augustine taught early Christians that suffering was universal to all humans. In the 16th century, Martin Luther encouraged his followers to empathise directly with Christ in his suffering, imagining the physical pain of crucifixion, and then imagining his forgiving and restorative love.
It’s not just Christianity which promotes such spiritual practices. Tibetan Buddhists regularly meditate on their own death. Theravada Buddhists encourage a practice whereby one actively visualises the slow decay of one’s own corpse.
While this may sound grotesque to our modern Western sensibilities, the psychological effects are far from it. The point of such contemplative practices is twofold: First, they promote the radical acceptance of reality by forcing us to look at what we’d rather turn away from. And second, they create gratitude. After sitting and contemplating our own pain and death, our gratitude for being alive is renewed, and we become thankful for the smallest of everyday experiences; watching a leaf falling to the ground, a soft breeze on the skin.
When we think of the world, and of our own lives as being a linear march of progress towards material comfort, status, and a total absence of suffering, we can be unprepared for hard times when they inevitably arise. Meditating on and contemplating that which we are afraid of, with a willingness to feel uncomfortable emotions, can paradoxically strengthen us. The Christians teach us that even in our darkest moments of despair, we are still loved by God. The Buddhists teach us that when we feel pain, we are part of an interconnected web of humanity.
This Christmas, whatever your spiritual background, let us find meaning in our own suffering, in our own way. Let us also remember that this year will soon pass and we will have been made stronger because of it.
Wishing you a peaceful Christmas and a brighter 2021.