Unhappy, events like accidents and difficulties happen to everybody rich or poor. We may try to shield ourselves and loved ones from misfortune, but we soon find out how futile that is.
You may be familiar with the experience of the youthful Gautama Buddha. His father was a powerful tribal king in South Asia. He knew that the young Gautama was destined to become a great king or a great spiritual teacher. The king wished for Gautama to inherit his kingly office and carry on his dynasty. A wise sage had warned the king that if Gautama witnessed any misfortune, then the son would desire to help mankind by becoming the teacher.
The father showered luxuries and comfort upon his princely son. No indulgence was spared. But one day, Gautama wished to see the world beyond the walls of the palace grounds. Provisions were made for a special procession to keep Gautama from witnessing the suffering out in the world.
On his first trip away from the palace grounds, Gautama saw an old man. Gautama asked his driver about this individual. The Charioteer explained that people become old. During subsequent trips away from home, Gautama encountered a diseased man, a corpse and an ascetic wise man. These events depressed the young prince. Thus, the Gautama began his spiritual quest to deal with the unhappiness of the world.
You have doubtless encountered many instances of unhappy events in your own life. All of us have come upon disease of some sort. We’ve looked in the mirror and have seen our aging, changing faces and bodies. Loved ones have died, leaving us bereaved. We’ve likely been told stories or were brought up in belief systems that are designed to explain away tragedy and offer up some modicum of comfort. Still, there is no getting away from the basic facts of every single life.
It is becoming fashionable, these days, to pooh, pooh the bad things that happen to us. It almost seems as if we are being discouraged from going through the catharsis of unfortunate events.
Some self-appointed advisors tell us that we should welcome misfortune with open arms. An unfortunate incident or tragedy will prove to be our wisest teacher. I agree with much of this reasoning, to a point. Certainly, I can look over mistakes that I’ve made, meditate and think things over and, hopefully, learn from those mistakes. This is sound, reasonable and spiritual teaching.
Where I part company with this line of thought is where contemporary advise givers leave out catastrophic tragedy and suffering. To tell a starving woman in Sub-Sahara Africa that her malnourished, skinny children and her sickness came about because she doesn’t have a positive attitude is harsh and unrealistic. To tell a kid who is being bullied at home and at school that he only needs to be positive when looking at his problems and regard them as learning opportunities is horrible wrong-headed thinking.
Misfortune is not only an individual problem, it is a community malady. Misfortune is where the rubber meets the road. It’s when you try out those mental tools in the real world. Does the belief system come forth with concrete help? Or does it take a fatalistic approach and leave things up to a higher authority? Are we encouraged to point fingers and blame the victim? Or do we acknowledge the victim’s humanity and act with compassion and empathy?
That’s another thing. We are told not to harbor a “victim mentality”. But is that a good thing to do in every instance? Might it be helpful, under watchful guidance, to allow victimhood right after a traumatic event? If a flood washes away your city should you just paste on a smile and say to yourself, “I refuse to be a victim”? Victims often get a bum rap.
However, in a round about way, even catastrophic suffering can become a great teacher. Major suffering is when we all come together and look for ways to help one another.
Sometimes the suffering is just suffering and not a teacher.
Sometimes, we become our own teacher as we learn from our own misfortunes and good fortunes. We can do this best without sugarcoating anything.
As a species, we have a lot of lessons to learn.
The Blue Jay of Happiness recommends personal and social awareness as very effective tools in dealing with misfortune.