Life can be a punishing experience, and difficulties often happen without advance notice. Aging, sickness and death await us all, the foundational elements of myriad forms of suffering. When things get really bad, inevitably the question arises: is life worth living?
I am physically materialist, intellectually non-materialist, and emotionally both. These aspects of self vie for attention moment to moment, producing a constantly shifting reality punctuated by material physical sensations such as hunger, pain and warmth, non-material thoughts both troubling and pleasant, and emotions of worry or contentment.
Material pain and discomfort, the deterioration and entropy of the body, gets our attention most directly. Pain is sometimes mild and an aspirin or two suffices, but the constant ache of a severely arthritic hip or lower back with a slipped disc can produce relentless misery. This direct experience of suffering, the wordless, thoughtless physical materiality of being, craves relief at any price.
Thought is non-material, the contrivances of mind, but in its own way can be just as painful. The human imagination is boundless, and as if the material world isn’t punishing enough, we add our own forms of psychological torment: anger, fear, jealousy, envy, greed, lust, gluttony, deceit, and a thousand mixtures and variations of these all, culminating in personal behaviors and social systems intended to contain, but often enhancing, the worst of our ideas. Yet at the same time, thoughts can heal and ease suffering.
When I was a boy, my father used to tell me we live in a dog-eat-dog world. “Nobody is waking up today,” he’d scold me, “thinking ‘what can I do for Larry Barnett?’” He believed in ambition and self-reliance, but his thoughts and feelings were those of a scrappy Brooklyn boy who grew up during the Great Depression. His ideas did not reflect my own about companionship, love and care.
Caring thoughts are powerful and transformative; when married to action, caring radiates in all directions. There are scales of caring of course, from the simple kindness of smiling at a stranger to changing the soiled diapers of a dying father; when it comes to caring for others, it’s all good.
Caring is a form of generosity, the first Bodhisattva activity Buddhists call the Paramitas, a term which roughly translates as transcendent action. Bodhisattvas are somewhat like the Buddhist version of Catholic saints, those who place the needs of others ahead of their own, but it’s not really complicated or exceptional. Caring for others, even ever so slightly, is Bodhisattva activity on a small scale. The life-saving care and actions of nurses, orderlies and doctors – that’s Bodhisattva activity on a grand scale.
It’s easiest, of course, to be generous and caring with those we love, but Bodhisattva activity can extend to anything (the whole of the material world, after all, is recycled stuff), anyone or even entire communities. Herein we find humanity’s excellence: the great work of generosity which may (or may not) be returned. My father was dead wrong about how some of us think.
Whether or not life is worth living is an intensely personal decision. When painful suffering is unremitting, and relief impossible, life may not be worth it and I respect that choice. Generosity includes caring for oneself, and for some of us that might mean letting go. On the other hand, you can’t do the great work if you’re not here.