172: “Conscious Suffering” (Mahatma Gandhi)

                “I have ventured to place before India the ancient law of self-sacrifice. For satyagraha and its off-shoots, non-co-operation and civil resistance are nothing but new names for the law of suffering.
                The rishis, who discovered the law of non-violence in the midst of violence, were greater geniuses than Newton. They were themselves greater warriors than Wellington. Having themselves known the use of arms, they realized their uselessness, and taught a weary world that its salvation lay not through violence but through non-violence.
                Non-violence in its dynamic condition means conscious suffering. It does not mean meek submission of the will of the evildoer, but it means putting of one’s whole soul against the will of the tyrant. Working under this law of our being, it is possible for a single individual to defy the whole might of an unjust empire to save his honor, his religion, his soul, and lay the foundation for that empire’s fall or its regeneration.”
                -Mahatma Gandhi, Young India

                Well, we talked about fear last week. Let’s talk about tears. Tonight, while I was talking to someone I love, they said, “You sound like you’re soldiering on with sadness in your heart. We don’t need to talk about that, but I want to recognize it.” And I thought, “Yes. I am.” And I hadn’t really known that I was. I thought I was stressed at the work in front of me. I thought, because I’m often pretty silly, that my stomach was hurting after dinner. But it wasn’t my stomach, not really.
                There’s a scene in Firefly that keeps coming back to me. Shepherd Book, a kind of futuristic monk, has fallen in with a crew of noble outlaws. (“I call him religious who understands the suffering of others,” writes Gandhi). Book has tried, in whatever fumbling ways he can, to share his insight and courage; he’s also felt a world more complicated and confusing than the simple, black and white teachings he learned in the abbey. He’s hurt someone. He’s seen someone killed. Book tells another traveler, “I believe I’m just…I think I’m on the wrong ship.”
                “Maybe,” his new friend says. “But maybe you’re exactly where you ought to be.”
                Back at Amherst, Professor Mehta once told me that Gandhi was the most radical thinker he’d ever studied. In explaining why the little, smiling man was so different from the other voices around me, Mehta eventually said: “Gandhi believes in suffering. He believes in it as part of life, and not just as something to be avoided.” I listened, and didn’t understand. Now I think back to Shepherd Book. I read a little more Gandhi.
                Suffering hurts. That’s what it does. But I inflict a second wound on myself when I think that the pain is wrong, that I am wrong for feeling it; that it shouldn’t be this way. I don’t need that second wound. I don’t need to tell myself that I’m on the wrong ship because this ship has shaken me, because what I see frightens me, because there is sorrow in my heart; this is my world, and this is where I belong. And sadness–suffering–self-sacrifice–is a nurturing part of my world. Part of me has known that ever since my friend died, and I went on, still loving him, sometimes laughing with the memory of him, sometimes crying. The hurt of losing is part of the seeds he gave me. The sorrow is part of the joy. It’s all one, and I’ll keep it. Part of me knows that every time I see people hurting each other, or themselves, and choose to care. That hurts. Love has its tears. But this is my love, my ship. Once I stop telling myself that the pain means I’ve somehow chosen wrong, I stop cutting the wound deeper. Once I recognize Gandhi’s ancient law of honor, of non-violence, of self-sacrifice, I’m free to learn (as he tells me I must learn) how to bleed. And the truth is, for love, for this, when it is needed, I don’t mind bleeding.
                “Maybe you’re exactly where you ought to be.”

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