The past five weeks, I have had the privilege of teaching a class on Greek Mythology. This experience followed several months spent with a five-year old friend who became totally immersed in these stories and with whom we explored many ways of looking at them. Revisiting these ancient stories, with their many layers and rich imagery and symbolism, was a profoundly moving and enlightening experience. We came to see that the many gods and goddesses, heroes and heroines, and the vast array of stories about them were expressions of real forces of nature and real feelings in people, and of the many kinds of energy that flowed within and from them.
Hestia and Hermes together, for example, expressed at once the need for a home, a place to feel safe and cared for, and also the need to move beyond where we are now, to cross boundaries of thought and feeling and activity. The perilous journey of Odysseus, paralleled by the largely untold journey of Penelope, his wife, suggested that it was really an inner journey. In the words of Dag Hammarskjold in Markings, this is the longest journey, the journey to the core of one’s being. It makes possible, in the word of the poet Rilke, “the love that consists of two solitudes that protect, border, and greet each other.”
In looking at these stories through the lens of the sacred worth of the person (and actually of all that is), which implies an equality, mutuality, and interdependence, one theme especially emerged for me: there can be much suffering, great and small, in a person’s life, but this suffering need not be permanently destructive. It need not take away the meaning of our lives, but can, over time, and with the help of one another be the source of inner strength and wisdom.
The prolonged and seeming endless time of pandemic has, for many, occasioned a weariness of spirit, an undercurrent of continuing irritability, a sense of enforced isolation, and even a tension with those with whom we may have become even closer. As we listen to or watch radio or television, we may find strong feelings of impatience, annoyance, or anger at those who seem to us to have uninformed, wrong, and hurtful opinions. The uncertainty of the future, not just for ourselves, but for younger generations, may also weigh heavily upon us. We may also have an uneasy sense that our own difficulties seem somewhat small when compared to the overwhelming hardships faced by many on our fragile planet.
In the midst of all these events, I have been struck by an underlying theme that seems to run through all the ancient Greek stories, whether men like Oedipus or Odysseus, or women like Penelope or Psyche. It is the theme of wisdom through suffering that flowers in love, echoed in the words of Oedipus: “Love can transform all pain.” That theme if find echoes in more recent authors, such as Rainer Maria Rilke, Viktor Frankl., Sharon Salzberg, Wayne Muller, and so many others.
Sharon Salzberg, who co-founded the Insight Meditation Centre, suggests that we recognize the whole variety of feelings, including the more difficult ones, and allow them to be there. At the same time, we can regard them as visitors, and not let them have the run of the house or see our identity in them. She writes “It’s because of visiting forces that we suffer. … greed, hatred, jealousy, fear. They’re not inherently, intrinsically who we are, but they visit. And they may visit a lot, they may visit nearly incessantly, but they’re still only visiting.“ She often says that some things just hurt and there is no denying that fact of life. As a result, she says that we need to have compassion for ourselves rather than judging ourselves–or others–so harshly.
Wayne Muller adds that suffering blows either as a gentle breeze or as a strong wind through our lives; that is, either in a lesser or greater degree. It is important to recognize the hurt, and to allow ourselves to feel it in a safe place, either by ourselves or with a caring other. Then he says that it can be a resource for growth rather than a paralyzing force. Viktor Frankl, even out of his horrendous concentration camp experiences, says that meaning can be found in the midst of unavoidable suffering. Rilke adds a similar theme. He writes that even our sadness, uneasiness, pain, or depression may well be accomplishing something in us that we do not yet realize. Frankl also recalls experiencing the beauty of a sunset and thoughts of his beloved wife and the surge of inner joy they brought.
There are many joyful experiences, large or small that can evoke a thankfulness in us that counters our sadness. Theologian Karl Rahner observes that if suffering and anxiety call into question the meaning of our lives then the experience of joy, truth hope, and all the positive things in life give a yes answer to the question of meaning.
Daniel McGuire says we “see the bird in flight, the rose in bloom, the infant blessing us with smiles,” and “the complexities and the beauties of our setting,” and reflect that “there is more to this than meets the eye..”
In sum, the little everyday experiences that occasion a smile, or call forth a tinge of gratitude in our hearts, or lift our spirits, can remind us that life is a precious gift. They instill the conviction that it is worthwhile to be alive even if it sometimes hurts.
May all of you experience today and every day moments of joy and gratitude that lighten your heart, deepen your compassion, and bring hope to those with whom you are in touch.
Norman King, October 18, 2021