It’s said, debate arose among Churchmen of Medieval Europe regarding the native language of man. Greek or Latin? When prayer, the study of scripture, Plato and Aristotle failed to address their question, the learned Clergy devised a scheme which, a millennia before the Renaissance, became a hallmark of Science: an experiment.
A group of newborns was isolated as never to hear human speech. Anticipating what researchers would label “extraneous variables,” the subjects would be fed, diapered and clothed but otherwise experience the barest minimum of human contact. The hypothesis was, uncontaminated by hearing human speech, the subject would reveal humankind’s native tongue. The outcome was indecisive. The little subjects never spoke. Denied meaningful human contact, nurturing, they just died.
A millennia down the road, economic and societal meltdown lead Bulgaria’s child welfare system to conditions eerily reminiscent of that–I hope apocryphal–Dark Age experiment. In 2007 BBC exposed “Bulgaria’s Abandoned Children” to the world. Vacant-eyed infants peering through steel cribs bars, rows of naked emaciated bodies nodding silently on cold plastic pots, legs barely able to support skin-and-bones frames, orphans scraping spoons in metal bowls, frantically competing for a last fragment of potato. Overshadowed by the graphic horror of this disaster is, despite being warehoused cheek-by-jowl, total absence of physical contact, touch, talk, nothing resembling play. Of course, the mental and emotional impact on these victims is profound. In the “Daily Mail” Rosa Monckton reports, “Because of a lack of interaction, children in Bulgarian institutions grow slowly mad.” With the tragedy exposed, organizations and individuals rushed to foster and adopt.
A documentary recounted the challenges confronting American families having the love and courage to take in these profoundly damaged little people. Of many physical and emotional encounters between adoptee and adoptive parents, for me one stood out. An out of control boy threw objects, broke pictures and mirrors, punched holes in walls. When a desperate Mom tried to placate him the six- or seven-year-old punched her in the stomach, “See how it feels!”
For some time this ignominious act and exclamation puzzled me. Here was a woman who, surely knowing life would be significantly impacted if not turned upside down by the gesture, knocked herself out, jumped through bureaucratic hoops and over hurdles, went to significant financial expense, and overcame unforeseen obstacles and challenges to rescuing a profoundly physically and emotionally stunted child, rewarded with a punch to the gut! “See how it feels!”
See how what feels? Lady in the big house, see how it feels to stare through steel crib bars for days on end. Lady in the bed with its sweet-smelling comforter and half-a-dozen pillows, see how it feels to lie in a moldering nightshirt on a dank mattress day and night. Lady with cupboards, refrigerators, and freezers stocked with food to feed an orphanage for days, see how it feels to experience constant gnawing hunger, to fight over a handful of spoiled beans. Lady on the gleaming white toilet in her antiseptic, porcelain and chrome bathroom, see how it feels to squat for hours on a plastic pot amid naked, emaciated, near-zombies swaying slowly back and forth. See how it feels Lady! See how it feels really to hurt! See how it feels to suffer!
The Buddha taught life is suffering. My life, and from my perspective other people’s, seems to bear this out. What we do with suffering makes all the difference. Mostly, we suck it up. We’re Heroes. We suffer in silence. We’re patient. To be “patient” is “to suffer.” It’s why doctors have patients. Sometimes the pain seeps out through passive-aggressive or vicarious means; we can be sneaky, mean. A popular outlet for suffering is addiction. To “addict” is “to assign or surrender.” When life is too much we assign or surrender our pain to alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, heroine, work, money, success, relationship.
See how it feels is the tap-root of abuse: child abuse, spousal abuse, elder abuse, colleague abuse, employee abuse. As if through perverse, crazy thinking we feel we can be rid of our suffering by giving it to someone else. When the pain seems unbearable we punch somebody in the gut. Sick, tired, injured, insulted, frightened or had a really bad day, some if us come home, curse, kick the dog, shout at the spouse, beat the kid. Driven by madness some walk into a school, church or synagogue with an AK47! See how it feels to hurt inside!
See how it feels America. In your grand cities, with your skyscrapers, your streets crowded with cars, your sidewalks crowded with shoppers, your homes with electric power, hot and cold running water, heating and air conditioning, see how it feels to live for generations in tents, mud huts, and refugee camps. In your automobiles cruising streets and highways paved with asphalt stolen from beneath our feet, see how it feels to walk barefoot down rutted tracks. In your Super Markets, shelves loaded with so much food a quarter is wasted, see how it feels to suffer from hunger, to die from starvation! See how it feels to be marginalized, exploited, humiliated.
When we fly aircraft into your World Trade Center, see how it feels to have our city, one of the oldest on Earth bombed without provocation, its infrastructure destroyed, its citizens murdered, leaving us in perpetual economic and cultural chaos behind!
See How it Feels has a corollary: Misery Likes Company. In the former case we let others, if not feel, at least know our suffering. The latter offers prosaic if not perverse relief knowing others suffer. The paparazzi and tabloids, “National Inquirer” and others capitalize on this. Waiting at the checkout counter, with a sick kid and spouse just laid off, about to charge another weeks groceries to a nearly maxed-out VISA, a shopper finds fleeting consolation reading of “Hillary’s Breakdown,” “The Pope’s Love Child,” “Obama’s Porno Addiction,” “Tom Cruse Dying of Aids.”
Misery Likes Company found creative outlet when, in 1935, Bill W. and Bob S. expanded peer support from church, synagogue, Elks, Rotary and Masons to the broad world of suffering. Over ensuing decades their Alcoholics Anonymous model was adopted by folks suffering from other drug addictions, mental illness, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, suicide prevention, those impacted by suicide and violent death, grief, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Parents of Murdered Children and more.
With all of the above said, it’s important to point out we really don’t hurt others out of malevolent intent. Whether we suffer in silence, find relief knowing we don’t suffer alone, or beat up on the next object or person in sight, for better or worse, the lion’s share of human behavior has unconscious roots. We act out of unconscious motivation, we don’t want to hurt others; we just want the suffering to stop. Even the horrors inflicted by sociopaths are rooted in profound mentally illness.
It is important to know all is not lost. There is hope. One key to managing suffering, a hallmark of the Buddha’s teaching, is “Mindfulness.” Thick Nhat Hanh puts it succinctly, “Practicing mindfulness I can recognize what is happening in the present without grasping or aversion. I can practice mere recognition of what is going on within me and around me without judgment or reaction. This helps me to keep stability and freedom alive within myself.” Touching the Earth (P.22)
Two and a half millennia after the Buddha, Sigmund Freud defined the purpose of psychoanalysis, if memory serves, as “to make unconscious process conscious.” It seems not too much of a stretch to call this “mindfulness.” Over the ensuing century psychiatry, psychology and counselors have helped millions find, if not total, significant relief from mental and emotional suffering. Psychiatrists Dr. Eugene Chernell and Dr. Patrick Freehill saved my life.
Eastern practices of Tai Chi, Yoga and acupuncture have helped Westerners experience mind-body connection significantly effective in relieving stress. Today in American homes, groups, schools, and hospitals, meditation gains significant traction.
If we screw up our courage and confront the ghosts who, for decades, have grumbled and stirred in the attic, if we are brave enough to climb the ladder, push open that little door in the ceiling and shine a light up there, what do we see? Dust and cobwebs. What we thought were ghosts are imaginary, parasites with no power. The only power they seem to have is the power we choose to give them. They never existed!