Connectedness

Suicide, particularly the suicide of young men, is something we have all become aware of lately. I have been reading Paul Lebeau’s book on Etty Hillesum and came across this quotation which seemed very appropriate.

Je vous ai dit ce que je pense d’une mort qui l’on s’infligerait volontairement, et je vais maintenant vous dire ce que je n’ai jamais exprimé jusqu’ici. Ensuite nous n’en parlerons plus jamais. J’ai moi-même, vers l’époque de votre naissance envisagé cette éventualité, que je dois aujourd’hui rejeter. Je considère qu’une telle fin est une injustice métaphysique, une offense a l’esprit. C’est un manque de confiance vis-a-vis du Bien éternel, une infidélité à l’égard de notre devoir le plus intime: celui d’obéir a une loi universelle. Celui qui se tue est un meurtrier, non seulement de lui-même, mais aussi d’autrui. Car l’homme ne se divise pas. Une telle mort, j’en suis profondément convaincu, n’est pas une libération, comme peut l’être une mort naturelle et innocente. Toute violence commise en ce monde prolifère, comme chacun de nos actes. Nous sommes ici pour porter une partie de la souffrance de monde, en lui offrant notre coeur, non pour l’aggraver par un acte de violence. [Walther Rathenau, Lettres à une amante, quoted in Paul Lebau, Etty Hillesum: Un itinéraire spirituel Amsterdam 1941 – Auschwitx 1943 Albin Michel, Paris 2001 pp. 98f]

The idea that we are all members one of another goes back a long, long way. I must look up what Paul had to say, and John Donne was very eloquent. But it is an idea that does not fit easily into our individualistic and consumerist society. We cannot bear the thought of any infringement of what we consider our freedom to live and be as we wish. Apart from the obvious attachments which bind us to family and friends there are also the hidden bonds which link all of humanity, a link that is not just between humans but with all of nature and, of course, with God himself.

 This is why Rathenau calls suicide a ‘metaphysical injustice’, an offence against the spirit. Of course, terms like links or bonds are very inadequate and imply that the individual elements in the chain of being have an existence prior to, or independent of their incorporation with others and that this incorporation is something in addition to their individual existence. Something added on. Something, in the case of we humans, that is optional and from which we can withdraw or, tragically in the case of many, something unknown and unsuspected. In fact, this relationship is not something in addition to our being but constitutes being. D. W. Mann expresses it very well looking simply from the level of material existence.

With bodily birth the self is born.  The universe of self-experience comes into being through the severance act of birth.  But the resultant separateness, which I have said lies at the heart of the self-experience, is from a biophysical perspective more illusory than real.  While the body lives, it remains a standing wave of active earth, gathered and propelled by the happenstance channelling of genes into an amnesic emissary from the mineral world.  We are of earth but not within it, moving ever so slightly beyond it but always in its outstretched stream, borrowing and returning, dust to dust. Into this fabric each of us weaves, from earth, through man and woman, man into woman, out of woman aloft into life, and finally back into earth, our single stitch of life.  The generations quit the earth, like ragged seams.  In all but ecstatic moments we feel separate, but in physical fact our bodies join us to the earth, to one another, and to the seemingly separate universe that envelopes us.[Mann D.W., A Simple Theory of the Self, W.W. Norton, New York, 1994 p. 42f]

I love this idea of the self as a standing wave. It is powerful and dynamic and fits very well with Buddhist ideas. It connects the notion of unity and continuity with the image of movement and constant change. So, if this is a description of the self at a material level how much more does this unity with all being apply at the psychological, social, and, above all, spiritual levels. 

One of the things to be regretted about our modern society is the atomisation of the individual. Impersonal urban society with its anonymity and lack of a sense of community militates against a sense of belonging. Many welcome this and the feeling of freedom it gives them. Many more are damaged by it and find it difficult to sustain interpersonal relationships, let alone have any sense of connectedness. But, even for a person with strong family ties and a network of friendships, great suffering can reduce the parameters of their existence to the pain wracked contours of the body. So it is difficult to blame someone who is terminally ill and locked into a private world of suffering for wanting to end it all. For them, perhaps, there is no apparent connectedness, not at a physical, or a social, or a spiritual level. Maybe there is a malevolent connection at the physical level which has caused the disease or whatever is making them ill. Not only do they see no future, they see no value in their present life and certainly not in suffering. 

It is difficult for anyone to see virtue in suffering – a mother in labour, perhaps, will welcome suffering, not for itself but as a means to an end. So where does this idea that suffering can be salvific come from? As far as I can make out this idea is found only within the Christian context. For atheists and agnostics suffering is not problematic. It is simply the result of the three brute facts of existence – contingency, powerlessness and scarcity.

 The more control one can achieve over these the more one can avoid suffering, at least for a time. For Buddhists there is no question that suffering is evil. Their preoccupation is in overcoming it. Ultimately, they say, this can be achieved by attaining complete detachment (nirvana) from the illusory self (anatta). For Christians suffering presents a twofold problem. If God is infinitely powerful and infinitely good why does he allow suffering? And secondly, how, in what way, is suffering redemptive? Perhaps it isn’t. Perhaps it never was and that it wasn’t by his suffering that Christ redeemed us, but by his refusal to allow the prospect of suffering to divert him from his mission. 

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