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The Spiritual is Political
Sorrow, Sufferance and New York City
by MICHAEL ROBESON

There are places in our hearts that do not exist and into them enters suffering in order that they may have existence.

A village at the foot of a mountain is beset by a torrential thunderstorm. For days on end, rain and lightning pelt the village and the mountain shudders. When the storm completes its task, the villagers are terrified to see that the rain has washed away all of the topsoil, revealing a labyrinth of deep crevices and ravines and mysterious caves that have existed under them and all around them for generations. They are terrorized by this, for it is as if they had never before had a dream and had just woken up from one. A few of the braver villagers set out to explore the labyrinths. For them, the terror turns to amazement and they bring back astonishing tales of what they have seen – depths that lead to horrifying darkness in which agonized figures, scarred and wounded and dragging chains are singing the most bittersweet music that makes listeners drop their hands and that brings tears to the eyes of snakes and wolves. Depths in which a pinprick of light brighter than the sun seems to dwell and is waiting to emerge. Most astonishing of all, they tell of the labyrinths as being a mirror image of what innately exists within their own bodies. The vast majority of villagers listen, between their meals, terrified by the stories. They then set out to their jobs and their activities and their daily sustenance. From this, a city is born. Its inhabitants pave over the crevices and bridge over the ravines and use the labyrinths as landfills. Scholars then begin examining the old tales as legends or myths and debate whether they should be studied as religion or as literature. The village is now full of modern urbanites who have kept the customs of their more sophisticated elders – that of surviving comfortably while not having an existence that includes a living mystery. Their greatest success is surviving in a make believe world, where the paved-over topsoil is the limit of their imaginations, and not feeling that they are missing very much emotionally.

Sorrow and suffering are the rakes and plows that the great spirit uses in order to open our spirits to unknown depths that our minds would otherwise fear to confront. We are raked and plowed mainly through and by others whom we want to love or whom we want to be loved by and who feel the same unconscious anger and enmity toward us. None of us knows why. We don’t choose those who we will make to suffer and who will make us, or others, suffer in turn. We are more often than not brought together by forces that we don’t like to admit exist.

We do not want others to know us too closely – they might see the fears and the sufferance that we have not hidden very well. We do not want to know others too closely – we might then feel for the sufferance they are enduring and be called upon to do something about it. For them as well as for those who we don’t at all know. When we hate those who show this to us, we are hating ourselves for being the emotion-laden humans that we think we are better than. An American friend told me that she thinks crying at funerals is ridiculous. “Funerals should be a celebration of life. People shouldn’t get so emotional over an everyday event.” Wanting to be more than human and to transcend the rotting of our sweating, stinking skin is a concession stand in a Nietzschean carnival. It is also a Darwinist’s strategy for ignoring the inner terror of having willfully set aside a belief in a divine that feels emotionally for us. The more than human we become, the more dehumanization becomes acceptable. Our hope for technology to provide us with automatic remedies cries out along with our need for the political and commercial cultures to provide us with our autonomic identities.

By enduring sorrow and sufferance as a positive influence like a visitation by angels (or, for those of a more materialist bent, an invitation to the Hamptons) we accept being raked and plowed so that a more heartfelt and compassionate spirit can grow. Its first task would be to reveal itself to our modern mind that wants only to die either without confronting a purpose beyond being a meal for worms or to receive a reward for not being as bad as we could have been. If we are not raked and plowed we remain smooth and unmarked like platinum and when we die we are among the shiniest corpses in the ashfield. We should start calling the producers of all forms of our popular and sentimental entertainment by their real name – Morticians. Portrait painters since Picasso have known this and that is why their abstracted or cartoonish portraits flatter the moneyed and are accepted as fascinating representations by academics who no longer need to convince the public that their emotional quality is not less profound than pre-modern portraits, but rather only different.

The night, like sorrow and sufferance endured, is a horrible blessing – it reveals the stars that fascinate us more than the sun and the moon and that guide us toward them – toward ourselves and those we should love, farther away than we could imagine traveling by way of maps or professional counselors. Sorrow and sufferance are blessed horrors for they reveal a source of consolation that frightens us to realize that it moves closer to those that we have spent much of our lives avoiding or considering ourselves superior to. Worse, it asks us to feel closer to them, both in the visible and invisible world. Enduring sorrow and sufferance as one of the necessary consequences of human experience and one of the most direct paths through the spiritual labyrinth means not expecting checks from the Red Cross, not participating in self pity media appearances and not demanding retribution or vengeance. New York City, in its response to September 11, showed itself to be a citadel of topsoil.

Sorrow and sufferance (may I call them the SS without making you laugh?) make us move more slowly and see with a clarity that only darkness can inflict. We are then not making decisions but are being decided upon by the force that allows us the illusion that we make our own decisions. (The SS, in this way, functions similarly to the World Bank or the IMF when they impose their financial reforms on economically beleaguered countries.) When we endure sorrow and sufferance we no longer feel stronger than others. Our steps are unsure and uncertain and they are surely leading us to a certain place where we will no longer walk with the same cleverness, nor with the same violence. We feel aches and pain where no microscope can detect a molecule. We look in other’s eyes and recognize the fears that we are finally facing in ourselves. We feel each movement of every agonizing moment. If you and I wish to maintain our comforts, we must avoid being subject to reforms and to be on the side of the reformers so that we can sleep in comfortable beds and upon awakening reach for the medication that helps us not to feel so damn much. The alternative is terrifying most of all for those who are well paid to remain machines at the service of other machines.

Sorrow and sufferance open us to unspeakable joys that could not exist until we have suffered unspeakably well enough to recognize them. Then, we don’t talk about them for most others would consider us nuts, or boring. When this is admitted on the Op Ed page of the New York Times, a corner will have been turned. Once opened, we can continue to take pleasure in the world of things, but they come to be seen rather as trifles. This is one reason why advertisers work tenaciously to come up with new auras to give fresh mystiques to the trifles they are shoving up our asses. We are grateful for their efforts. For more than things we need the idea of things, especially when they are wrapped in humor or irony. In this way, the inevitable feelings of sorrow and sufferance never really get a hold on our insides. For they have been already coated with the veneer of trifles provided by advertisers that seem more mystical and magical than anything dreamed up in Jerusalem, Lourdes, Mecca or Varanasi. It is much easier to laugh on an amusement park ride than to smile on a dark night under stars that are guiding you to places that your mind is telling you are career destroyers.

In truth, we are less terrified of enduring sorrow and sufferance than in facing the changes that will have to be made in their aftermath. The myriad of addictions from alcohol to drugs to gambling and pornography are not just signs of our weaknesses and failings, they are also strong indications that a shift is on the way. Only the resilience of our spirits is keeping our terrified minds from being completely dead to a normal life that could follow. But it is in these times that the terrified are at their most dangerous and inflict their worst devastations. Whether the Pakistani families whose children were decapitated by a drone attack will look upon Americans with more pity because of this, I cannot say.

Our bodies are physically subject to the law of gravity. Our spirits are subject to the law of lethargy, which is the courtesan of gravity. We work hard, stay busy and are stressed out so we wish for our spirits to relax, or at least to better cooperate with our minds in their continuous pursuit of stress and busyness. We also wish to feel good about ourselves while paying as little attention as possible to the relational and communal workings of an inner life that provide the only source of a genuine sense of goodness. This is one of the many reasons why we must not lose the belief in our exceptionalism – for what would happen to our plans, remedies and calculations if we acknowledged that our bodies and our spirits are subject to the same moral laws that govern the bodies and spirits of those we have been paving over? Including the gods?

Some force other than our own will and our boundless energy is required to simply feel the innate urge to reach for the unseen within our grasp and to plumb the depths of a darkness that is our only true light. What is that force? Ask a beautiful woman what she needs to no longer feel an urge to be desired, nor to act as if she didn’t have that urge. Would she, in that condition, be comfortable with herself on a city street wearing something closer to a bikini? Or to a burkah? Almost none of us want to need to feel an urge that can’t be quenched by something that can’t be put on a credit card, can’t be delivered by hand or can’t be felt by a desirous gaze. Therefore, sorrow and sufferance become not only the annoying neighbors we try to avoid, but the adversaries we cannot admit having. Where will we turn when our money is worthless, our homes repossessed, our careers obsolete as poetry and we wail and gnash our teeth before glowing television screens?

When we quiet our spirits with self-help books and pamper them by doing the right thing (as long as it doesn’t cost us our careers), our therapists pat us on the back and our friends nod approvingly, for like us they cannot admit that not only does misery love company, it also hates those who point it out, even more than they hate the SS.

When we, the modern urbane survivalists of hi-tech spirits and computerized protection systems, say we want to live a simple life and to be content with what we have, villagers in Africa guffaw. Iraqis and Afghanis and Palestinians sneer. Those of them who are unknowingly working for the CIA or Mossad try to take revenge by kicking the topsoil as hard as they can. Then, by their refusal to endure the sufferance that we have majestically provided them, they earn the sobriquet “terrorists” from us, whose lack of emotional depth renders us hopelessly terrified. And it is only fair, for, you see, in the purple haze at which our materialist mindset has arrived, we have a life, they only have an existence.

Michael Robeson lives in New York.