Eating and Crying
“If you’ve never eaten while crying you don’t know what life tastes like.”
As I was gathering my thoughts to write Christmas cards over the weekend, I came across this quote by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the German poet. Somehow it seemed to fit with the news about the elementary school shootings in Connecticut. The dreadfulness of what happened made food seem quite irrelevant. And still, we need to eat – at least if we want to stay alive and functioning.
I also found this quote by Goethe:
“A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul.”
For whatever reasons, drawing on music, poetry, or art was apparently something the attacker at that school in Connecticut could not do. And this, it seems, is also the beginning of much other misery – that we humans so easily forget our place in the world, as part of all that is beautiful. So often I find myself saved from frustration, or just from everyday discouragement, by beauty – a piece of music, a poem, a beautiful picture. At these times I can see again that what sometimes makes me feel cut off from the rest of the human family is not a concrete wall, but a thin veil. Most of us at some point or another feel abandoned, lost, powerless, or attacked. Fortunately, most of us don’t feel this way all the time, or even most of the time. Fortunately, at times when we do feel that way, most of us can still remember some basic rules of civilized society, so that we don’t turn our frustration and anxiety on others.
Still, the line between these two ways of being is not as clearly defined as one might wish. Indeed, turning my frustration and anxiety on others is exactly what I do, albeit in a more limited way, when I hit back verbally at someone who upsets or criticizes me, even when the other person intended no negative message or is clearly more preoccupied with themselves than with me. And exactly that might be the kind of moment where I could remember that we each project our own movie about what is going on, and that the other person is just expressing their version of reality, rather than attacking us. To actually remember that is where music, art, and poetry come in – by helping us out of our temporary confusion and letting us feel ourselves as part of a greater whole. Even when a beautiful picture, a poem, or a piece of music is not within easy reach, we can to call to mind one that has touched us in the past – or say something kind and encouraging, to ourselves or the other person. Perhaps this is what Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche has in mind when he tells us that enlightened society is built one conversation at a time.