Sunday, August 6, 2017

Grief, Compassion, and Dairy Queen

Peanut Buster Parfait

My mom died 17 years ago today.  I usually commemorate this with what my mom liked to call "a recommended daily dose of Dairy Queen."  This year is no different: I had a Peanut Buster Parfait (that didn't look quite as good as the one in the picture above, but was pretty tasty).  Last year I wrote about reading one of my mom's favorite books, The Clan of the Cave Bear.  In 2015 I explained my Dairy Queen ritual of commemoration, and I encouraged others to remember their loved ones.

This year as I partook of my frosty maternal communion, I thought about how everyone deals with grief and how this should be a route to compassion for each others.  We're all in pain, and we're all in this together.  So we should give everyone a break.

There's a story from the early Buddhist texts of a woman whose son dies.  The Buddha asks her to visit every home in her village to bring him some mustard seeds from every family that has never experienced death.  Of course, she comes back empty handed, learning the lesson that as terrible as her suffering is, everyone else has suffered, too.  I don't think the lesson is that we shouldn't feel grief at all in the way that people misunderstand Buddhists and Stoics to be saying we should keep our emotions bottled up.  Rather, realizing that all beings also suffer should make us more compassionate.

There's another argument from the Buddhist philosopher Śāntideva that basically goes like this: Everyone agrees that suffering is bad.  There is no good reason to prefer the alleviation of my suffering over that of others (while the Buddhist denial of the self is at work here, this premise could also be true if you believe there's a self - that suffering belongs to your self is not by itself a good reason to only care about your own suffering).  Therefore, everyone's suffering is as worth alleviating as mine, and one should have compassion for others.

This is one of those points that's really compelling to me - almost obvious, in fact - not that it's always easy to practice what you preach.  To give just one example: Most people hate airports.  The lines, the rushing, the anxiety about missing your flight, etc.  A lot of people are really nasty to each other in airports.  Which is precisely why I try (but don't always succeed) to be as nice as possible to everyone at the airport (even the TSA agents, who are after all just human beings trying to do a job).  As in life, we're all just trying to pass through with as little pain as possible.

I often wonder, especially in the world that seems more hell bent than ever on deliberately cultivating callous indifference to others and where people are now proudly denigrating the worth of people who disagree with them, if people really sat and thought about the pervasiveness of suffering that is our lot as human beings, the fact that everyone grieves, everyone experiences loss ... if people really thought about that, I wonder if we could realize that we're all in this together and have a little compassion for one another.

This doesn't mean everyone would agree or get along, but maybe if we realized that each and every one of us is a suffering being, we could be a little kinder, realizing that we're all in pain and it's pointless to add to one another's suffering any more than we have to.

Anyway, these are my thoughts today as I grieve for my mom.  I hope she would approve.

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