Recently, I watched on PBS a film on anxiety in America--part of a series I caught by chance. Much moved, I learned something of great importance. What I learned confirmed my thoughts about what makes us suffer. (I’m not talking about physical suffering, but even there the mind comes in.)
What I learned all came back to one thing. The small group of courageous folk that shared their stories on screen were from all walks of life, all degrees of education, and roles in society. This one cause of our inward pains turns out to be nothing esoteric or hard to grasp. Most striking is that virtually every person understood what that cause was, namely, their own minds. They in fact saw that their fears and obsessions and compulsive behaviors had life only in their imaginations; and they all saw through them, recognized they were the fictions of their own anguished selves. But they couldn’t help it. They even saw the humor, the absurdity of their fears and obsessions.
The first to begin to tell her tale of self-inflicted angst was a woman we see doing two things, washing her hands compulsively while at the same trying to get her hands into tight-fitting transparent gloves. What creates her all-consuming, life-paralyzing anxiety is her fear of germs. She rightly imagines these invisible agents of ill-health, pain, and even death may quite possibly be anywhere. She very well might casually and innocently encounter some unknown and perhaps lethal germ—and make skin contact with it. Hence all the soap and the gloves.
In order to wipe out that truly horrific possibility, this harried germophobe has constructed her own safe universe in her loving mother’s home, and retreats to the one couch and coverlet where she feels safely cut off from the entire universe where germs can run wild. We see her with her spotless, gloved hands under a carefully germ-vetted coverlet. She’s completely ensconced in her couch;in her compact fortress, she is able to breathe easy—at least for the moment. The plain fact: she has done all this to herself.
I’m happy to report that the film extends over some years and in the end we see a happier person looking well, her lips aglow with lipstick, which previously she would never use for fear of possible infection. She now understood there was no good reason to live cloistered from reality, and has made strides in seeing that her obsessive fear of germs was in no way warranted, so that she could therefore stop torturing herself. The analogy to many of our difficult situations seems obvious.
To see and then act in accord with the insight that we are injuring ourselves, that we are feeding the ideas and beliefs that make us suffer; that we are distorting our selves and our lives, is anything but easy. When we suffer we’re always enmeshed in some concrete context, and feel surrounded by overpowering forces. But the more closely we look, the closer we get to seeing how we are making ourselves suffer. We don’t intend or want to play that role; but we can’t help it. I know; it’s hard to admit that the cause lies in ourselves.
The point is not to abandon each other to our own misery. On the contrary, we need to help each other discover ourselves. This is especially true for all the human beings whose sufferings have been imposed on them by agents of oppression, military aggression, racism, genderism, colonialism, and on and on.
Addendum: The night I wrote the foregoing paragraphs, three innocent, beautiful young men were murdered in my town. Many people are suffering from this fact, this latest sacrifice to the god of the gun that a good part of America worships. Yes, it is through my mind that I feel the hurt, the sorrow, the horror of this cruel loss; and yes, it is through my mind that I feel the indignation, the moral revulsion of the gun lobbies, profiteers, and phony patriots.
But thank goodness for the mind and heart that enable us to feel sorrow for our neighbor, and opposition to the cause of so much unnecessary misery on earth. This mind, this inner reality that we all possess, is proof that we are not soulless matter. We feel, think, dream, remember and anticipate, laugh and weep. We love and we hate. It’s the price we pay for not being blocks of stone.