Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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I agree with Richard Mehl [Correspondence, October 2002] that it was harsh of D.T. Suzuki to humiliate his student in the name of teaching him a lesson [Sunbeams, July 2002]. What I don’t find helpful about Mehl’s letter, however, is the assumption that this kind of teaching is inherent to Zen Buddhism. Clearly, Zen has no monopoly on stories of teachers whose primary tool seems to be shame.
What we observe of a religion’s practices often has more to do with the culture in which the religion is being practiced than it does with the actual teachings of the religion. Would a Protestant American observing the day-to-day activities of Christians in Africa recognize those practices as belonging to the same religion as his or her own? For that matter, would an alien observing Southern Baptists, Midwestern Lutherans, and Boston Catholics recognize that all these groups consider themselves Christians?
To disregard the role of cultures — often patriarchal cultures — in shaping religious practices is to accept their distortion of religion as the thing itself. Humans are flawed, and so they carry out spiritual teachings in flawed ways. But no matter what behavior Buddhists or Christians might exhibit, Christ said, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” and Buddha said, “Cease from evil; do only good; and do good for others.”
Cheryl Strayed’s essay about her mother’s death [“The Love of My Life,” September 2002] reminded me of the death of my beloved grandmother in the midseventies.
The day of her funeral was breezy and sunny. The minister from the local funeral home, who clearly had never met my grandmother, delivered a canned eulogy. I wished that I could have spoken instead of him. As I stood by her grave and watched them lower in the coffin, I thought, There goes my little grandmother. And suddenly I wanted to throw myself on top of her coffin. I wanted to lie down in the dirt and pull my hair out and shriek. I wanted to make sounds I’d never made in my life, sounds I couldn’t even imagine.
Instead, in the reserved way of my family, I let the tears roll down my cheeks and sobbed only after I got into the car.
I don’t know why people think grief is supposed to end. Our culture wants us to follow a set of rules or take some kind of pill for grief and relabel it “depression.” But despair is not depression. The pills are useless when these feelings arise from real causes, not just a chemical imbalance in the brain. No one has a pill for grief. Grief simply has to be taken on its own terms and lived through. No one ever said that life was supposed to be painless or that we will know exactly how to deal with every feeling that comes our way. We do what we do, and sometimes we do very self-destructive things without understanding why.
Most of us just put one foot in front of the other and, somehow, we survive. But advice to “let it go” and “move on with your life” should be banned from polite conversation. Let go of the most important and powerful relationship in your life? Of course, one does move on, one way or another, but that doesn’t mean the grief is any less or the pain somehow magically cured. As Strayed says, life isn’t like fiction. Losing something priceless doesn’t make everything right again. One simply feels the grief less intensely as time passes. But the grief never really goes away.
In March I had to put down my thirteen-year-old dog because she had bone cancer. About two weeks later, I dreamed she was living in Ohio with my grandparents. She was three again, her best age. I hugged her and rubbed snow into her fur, telling her she was my “snow doggie.” When I woke up, I wanted to be with her more than anything. I wanted to be dead, because I know when I die I’ll be with my dog and my grandmother again, and I’ll be twelve years old, my best age. I can’t imagine anything more comforting. I miss my dog every day. I don’t want a new dog, a different dog; I want my Molly.
I have been a psychotherapist for more than twenty-six years, and I can confirm that Cheryl Strayed’s essay details the reality of grief, of our culture’s denial, and of true healing. “What does it mean to heal? To move on?” she writes. “It is usually said and not done, and the people who talk about it the most have almost never had to do it.”
It is horribly sad when psychotherapy gurus promote a coping strategy that denies us our grief and promotes the cultural mystification of it.
I will share Strayed’s essay with many of my clients in hopes that it will help them to face the real problem: that of refusal to see, to be aware, to experience life as it is.
Is The Sun becoming the Journal of Dead Relatives? I’ve done no scientific survey, but it seems you’re publishing too many dead-people stories. It stinks. Damn it, I want something fresh. Enough with these introspective mopers!
In response to John Raley’s letter [Correspondence, September 2002] about the violence of the “antiglobalization” movement: Ours is not a singular movement with a unified agenda and a shared book of tactics. It’s a tragedy when isolated acts of vandalism, such as the broken Starbucks window in Edis Jurčys’s picture [June 2002], attract disproportionate attention and criticism while the peaceful majority stand ignored. Perhaps if we stopped glorifying violence and gave more attention to the quieter voices all around us, activists wouldn’t feel compelled to resort to destructive means of gaining attention.
Furthermore, countless peaceful activists suffered concussions, broken bones, and pepper-sprayed eyes at the Seattle protests. Within this context, it seems ridiculous to call a broken window “violence.”
I just read the Correspondence section in the September issue and felt the need to disagree with Christopher Noble’s and Thomas Radwick’s viewpoints. Their negative interpretation of Sy Safransky’s writing is certainly much different from mine. I appreciate his mental process and his talent for putting into words the more weighty matters of life — issues that should stimulate self-inquiry and reflection.
Bravo to Christopher Noble and Thomas Radwick! My feelings exactly. If I want the opinions of various gurus and experts, I can tune in to any radio or TV talk show for free. And Sy Safransky’s self-effacing Notebook musings detract from what is otherwise an excellent magazine.
It has become commonplace to find in the pages of The Sun hints of a strong dislike for certain government agencies, such as the FBI, the CIA, and the U.S. military. There is nobility in being a watchdog on the lookout for abuses or misguided policies within powerful government organizations, but when only the negative side of these organizations is presented, it discourages liberals from even considering a career in government.
When liberal people choose to stay away from government organizations, they should not be surprised to find the ranks of government slowly filled with those who have different viewpoints from their own.
Institutions can and do change over time. Imagine what the FBI would be like today if, thirty years ago, thousands of liberal young students had chosen careers there.
I agree with Duane Elgin [“Peril and Promise,” interview by Arnie Cooper, August 2002] that as a culture we are rebelling against nature, that we don’t think about the long-term future, and that we are a materialistic society consumed with appearances. But I do not think it’s wise to associate these negative characteristics with teenagers.
“Teenager” is an artificial category created by our economic system and reinforced by the educational and mental-health systems, among others. There are patterns in the way many teenagers react to the distress of living in our culture, but these patterns are a product of society — not a natural stage of development.
Teenagers are naturally loving, caring, and full of spirit. As with other marginalized groups, they aren’t expected to contribute much socially or economically. Rather, they are seen primarily as students or trainees for the workforce or are targeted as consumers.
Teenagers don’t need us to reinforce negative stereotypes about them. If they rebel against the insanity of the system they’ve inherited, that’s a good thing, because the system is so complex and so fraught with denial.
Like many, I was at a loss for what to do in the days after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Everything seemed either trivial or impossible — there was no middle ground. When I read the special Sunbeams supplement in The Sun’s October 2001 issue, I was inspired by the quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: “When will our consciences grow so tender that we will act to prevent human misery rather than avenge it?”
I’m not the bumper-sticker type, but that quote was perfect. So I got an old sheet and a can of paint and made a banner with the quote written on it. Then I hung the banner on the side of my house.
I’ve lost track of how many times since then that total strangers have stopped by to say how much the quote means to them. It gives them some small measure of hope.