In January, the school watched and wept through the film Just Mercy together. Last Wednesday, Onyx and Essence, St. Andrew's black male and black female student affinity groups, treated us to a Chapel service celebrating Black History Month. In the words of Dean of Teaching & Learning, Elizabeth Roach, this service "...taught us—through song, dance, stories, poetry, and readings—about suffering, courage, resilience, the power of the arts and storytelling, and the importance of remembering the truth of our past and present as we strive for a better, more equitable, and inclusive world today." In such moments, suffering stirs compassion, which liberates the mind from its default-mode petty concerns, and we feel the vibrancy and vitality of living in a body, with a heart and a purpose.
Last summer, I traveled to upstate New York to sit for my first meditation retreat. I have been trying to understand the Buddhist concepts of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and no-self since I first learned about them at St. Andrew's a quarter-century ago. And, though I know my memory is fallible, I feel like I have been fascinated by these themes (especially impermanence and death) as early as I can remember. It is completely unsatisfactory that all of us will one day die. This fact is among the most horrific of all the facts that I know. And yet, paradoxically, this fact has so much to teach us about love, peace and happiness. Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh introduces a helpful analogy about suffering:
Everyone knows we need to have mud for lotuses to grow. The mud doesn’t smell so good, but the lotus flower smells very good. If you don’t have mud, the lotus won’t manifest. You can’t grow lotus flowers on marble. Without mud, there can be no lotus. Without suffering, there's no happiness. So we shouldn't discriminate against the mud. We have to learn how to embrace and cradle our own suffering and the suffering of the world, with a lot of tenderness.
It is only by looking at suffering and death that we get the beauty and vitality associated with life. By confronting the fact of suffering directly and often, it is possible to have a richer, happier, more compassionate connection with the living (and dying) amongst us, including ourselves. Unless we understand this at a deep level—unless we confront directly the suffering of all the rest of the world—there can be no true happiness. The single-minded pursuit of pleasure can, at best, provide an illusion of happiness; it is like trying to grow a lotus flower on a marble floor without the mud. True purpose—purpose worth living and dying for—comes from both witnessing and developing the compassion to respond to the suffering and setbacks of other people and concerns. Rhonda Magee, author of The Inner Work of Racial Justice, writes about this dynamic. We hope, she says, "to inspire the more heartful path of turning gently toward the particular and unnecessary suffering caused to so many and exacerbated by the very ways that we go blind to the operation of race and racism in our own lives and in those of our fellows in the world.”
Today, students left campus for Spring Break, and, in less than three months, the Class of 2020 will depart school for the last time. I once found it unbearable to dwell very long in these final moments of separation. I left parties without saying goodbye, and even silent pauses in conversations made me uncomfortable. Though I still struggle with life's mud, I have learned to turn toward these moments. They offer a priceless gift: when we contemplate endings, we are presented directly with the power, the immediacy, and the ineffability of our moment-to-moment conscious experience. How magical is it that we have life at all?
Over Spring Break and beyond, let’s seek out moments to turn toward the pain of racism, of separation, and of the innumerable deaths throughout our lives. For, in these moments, we get a glimpse of how full our lives can become. As we contemplate impermanence with compassion, we become a little less attached to ourselves and our wishes, a little less afraid and a little more free. In the process, we practice opening up to opportunities to remake the world.