IS ‘HAVING TO HAVE’ ONE OF THE ROOTS OF SUFFERING? by Carol P. Christ


There is a strong thread of fatalism in modern Greek culture that has been a powerfully healing antidote to my American upbringing in the culture of “I think I can, I can.”  When confronted with an obstacle, many Greeks throw up their hands, raise their eyebrows, and say, “What can we do?” This phrase is not an opening toward change, but a closing–an acknowledgment that there are many things in life that are not under our control.

In American culture we are taught that if we work hard enough, we can achieve our goals. This view can bring a light of possibility into fatalistic cultures. The truth, however, lies somewhere in the middle–between fatalism and belief in the power of individual or collective will.

In American culture the belief that we can “have it all” if only we work hard enough is the root of much personal suffering.  If things don’t turn out as we imagined they should have, we often blame ourselves. “I guess I didn’t try hard enough,” we say, or, “Maybe I need another self-help book, workshop, or therapy session to show me what I am doing wrong.”

Having found a “middle way” between fatalism and the power of will and work, I consider myself a “kind of a Buddhist.”  I am a kind of a Buddhist because—after long struggles with disappointment—I have come to realize that there are many things in life that really are not under my control. No matter how much I want something and no matter how hard I try to achieve it, there really is no guarantee that “I can” have it.

In my work life I learned the hard way that the academic system–which I naively thought was based upon the quest for truth—does not necessarily reward those who challenge its foundational assumptions.  I thought that I would be rewarded for seeking the truth. I was brought down to earth when a senior feminist colleague pointed out to me that no matter how brilliant Mary Daly’s work was, she was not offered an opportunity to leave Boston College. Nor, she said, had her own more “conservative” feminist work been rewarded.  She told me that no matter how “good” my work was (she considered it “very good”), it was unlikely that I would be offered a job teaching graduate students in the field of Religious Studies given that I was no longer Christian and writing theology.

In my personal life, I also had to face the “hard facts” of reality. No matter how many hours of therapy I had undergone and no matter how hard I tried, I did not end up finding my life partner.  In politics as well, no matter how hard I tried individually and with others, I have not seen the dream of a world without racism, poverty, and war, and in which women and men are equal in all aspects of life come into being.

All of these disappointments in life have left me feeling very depressed and sad at many times in my life.

In regard to all of these “disappointments,” I have learned that a good dose of fatalism combined with a kind of Buddhism is a very good antidote.  Some things really are not achievable even though we want them very much and work very hard to achieve them.

Buddhism teaches that “desire,” “craving,” “grasping,” or as I will translate it, “having to have” is the root of human suffering.  Buddhism teaches that the route to enlightenment and with it peace or contentment is giving up “having to have.”  I have found this to be true.

As soon as I gave up “having to have,” a whole world of possibilities and realities I had not seen suddenly became visible.  Instead of focusing on what I “did not have,” I began to see what I did have.  I do have the opportunity to write books that change people’s lives.  How many academics can say that? I do have lovely friends and colleagues and enough money to live very well as a single woman.  As soon as I gave up “having to have” what I didn’t have, what I did have revealed itself as “more than enough.”  I believe I learned the Buddhist lesson without ever practicing Buddhism.

Learning to accept “reality” is however a tricky thing.  If we are too fatalistic we give up too soon. If we are too pessimistic, we do not leave ourselves open to future possibilities. Most importantly, in relation to massive injustices in the world, unless we believe in heaven or a system of karmic justice (I do not), we should never give up trying to change the world.  And yet the strong desire to change the world can lead to the most profound disappointment– as the world does not seem to be changing for the better.

In regard to my desire to change the world, I also strive for a middle way.  I temper my pessimism about the state of the world with the reminder that I really do not know the future. At the same time, I no longer “have to” see results in order to justify trying to change the world—it is enough to know that it is worthwhile to try. I also remember Simone de Beauvoir’s warning to those who would change the world: if we do not love life on its own account and through others it is futile to seek to justify it in any way. This means that we should not feel guilty for enjoying life—quite the contrary, if none of us ever enjoyed life, there would be no reason to imagine that all people and all beings in the web of life could enjoy it more!

Twelve Step programs include a bit of Buddhist insight when they ask us to accept the things we cannot change, to change the things we can change, and to seek the wisdom to know the difference. As life is always changing, the relationship between what can be changed and what cannot be changed is also changing. Real wisdom recognizes this as well.

Carol P. Christ is a founding mother in the fields of women and religion and feminist theology. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.  One of her great joys is leading Goddess Pilgrimages to Crete through Ariadne Institute. She has worked all her life to create a world without racism, poverty, and war, a world where women and men are equal in all aspects of life.

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13 replies

  1. As a pagan, I leave a lot more room for the working of fate in my life than is usually accepted in modern, secular society or patriarchal religion. While not going as far as a belief in full re-incarnation, I accept what Jung taught when he said that we ‘must answer the questions our parents failed to answer.’ I believe the ancestors live in and through me, which is why they are able to help me so much, but also why my life is already determined in many ways.

    I wholly reject the monotheistic teaching about god, sin, fault and redemption. I am not a sinner. I live my life under the protection of the Goddess and with the guidance of the ancestors as best I can. If I ‘fail’ in some respect or another, well, then that is my fate. The Goddess loves me regardless.

    Each of our lives, with their sum of success and failure is utterly unique. No other life can ever be quite the same as our own. If we don’t live those lives, they are wasted. That means living our failure as well as success. Sometimes it just isn’t our fate to achieve a particular goal: it is our fate to live that ‘failure’. (Which is only a failure in the first place if we measure our lives as if they were units on an assembly line.) We have to live our failure as well as our success, for if we don’t, who else can ?

    I believe I should try to live my life according to the will of heaven, not according to what I think I want. If I live by the will of the gods (the will of heaven) my life will be fully realized, regardless of whether other people consider it ‘successful’ or not. ‘Success’ is something entirely determined by other people: we measure it by the reflection we see of ourselves in their eyes.
    In pagan practice, the ‘will of heaven’ is discovered through prayer and divination -The real meaning of which isn’t fortune telling, but a way to discover where our true path lies: in other words, what is fated for us – which may or may not include ‘failure’.

    At the same time as believing much of my life to be largely (but by no means entirely) fated, I also practice ‘magic’ which has, of course, absolutely nothing to do with demonology, and everything to do with realizing my own complete potential within what is already determined. Magic is about doing everything you possibly can to bring about the best result for yourself and those you love. But you cannot use magic against your own fate (which would be extremely dangerous) only within the parameters of that fate.

    Once upon a time, every woman practiced magic, but all that was stolen from her by the Religions of the Book: women are way better at magic than men – as the ancients recognized – so men forbade it. The practice of magic radically empowers a woman, and helps her discover and align herself with the fate which the Goddess dreamed into her soul before the beginning of time. Consciously or not, we tread the spiral of our lives and so return again.

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    • We obviously have very different Goddess metaphysics. In my view there are many things that are not under my control because there are many wills in the universe human and other than human that have made or are making decisions that circumscribe my individual freedom. Ancestors are among those. I do not believe that the Goddess is determining anything about my life, except insofar as she is continually loving, understanding, and inspiring me to heal myself, my history, and the world.

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      • I must have expressed myself inadequately, and you have misunderstood me. I don’t identify the Goddess with ‘fate’ in the sense of ‘determining things’ in my life. When I spoke of the Goddess ‘dreaming fate’ into a soul, I was using a poetic metaphor to express a truth which is too subtle and difficult for work-a-day prose.
        Familiar as you will be with Greek mythology, you will be aware of the concept of Fate as a manifestation of the Goddess; and also perhaps of the Anglo-Saxon tradition of Fate or ‘Weird’ where the concept is again personified as a goddess (three, in fact, as in Greek mythology) .
        And, of course, the ancient understanding of the Goddess (rather as in contemporary India,) was that every Goddess was a form of the one Great Goddess. Even so, I would not want to identify my own, personal, Goddess, with the concept of Fate.
        Fate, Destiny, Weird, is a profound metaphysical concept, which has its own, unique, set of personifications, symbols, and forms. Sometimes these are coincident with the Goddess, sometimes not.
        And the Goddess both mediates and realizes the Will of Heaven, and so guides our destiny, which is already largely fated.
        These are matters which it is not easy to discuss within the limits of a forum like this, but I hope I have made my position a little clearer.

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  2. Thanks June. You are right I probably misunderstood you. Sorry. Personally, I would not use words like “will of heaven,” but would prefer to speak of “chance” or “luck” to which I would not attribute any connotation of “it was meant to be” or “it was written.” I hold out for stating that some things really not “meant to be” even though they “are.”

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  3. Thank you for your wisdom, Carol.

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  4. Excellent! Screw what most of us take for reality. Let’s follow that middle way and maybe we can have happy lives and be glad for what we’ve got. Maybe that entails not watching TV commercials? Making authentic magic, which Dion Fortune (among others) defines as basically a change on consciousness, is one thing that can lead us to gratitude and happiness.

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  5. I love your thought process here and your ability to share your ideas through writing. Beautifully explained and explored. I’ve always said that I’ve never felt the need for religion or for the Goddess to explain the existence of “bad things” in the world–sometimes these things just ARE. It doesn’t mean we have to love them or even to acquiese to them, but we also don’t need to seek the “reason” behind them. I found Goddess most clearly and cleanly during a time of intense personal suffering–She didn’t intervene on my behalf, however, but it was then that I became intensely aware of her omnipresence. She’d always been there, holding the whole, but I hadn’t paid enough attention. It was a formative experience for me.

    I also appreciate your explanation in the comments of the multiplicity of wills at work in the world/impacting your life and the lives of others. I’ve chafed for years at the “you create your own reality” line of thinking (mostly because I spent years working in domestic violence shelters) and I really liked how you explored that subject in She Who Changes.

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  6. Hi Carol —

    Like you, I admire Buddhist psychology. And like you, I don’t subscribe to its “theology” or lack thereof. In coming to terms with my limitations — both those inborn and those imposed on me from outside — I have found what I call the “eastern Wiccans” very useful, namely the Taoists.

    Like Wiccans, the philosophical Taoists view all things in the world as interconnected. Looked at in the right way, I think this understanding ameliorates the pain I sometimes experience. When I did qigong (a Taoist practice) years ago, the instructor would often end with a little meditation in which she said, “I reach out and remember that at this moment there are people laughing and crying, being born and dying, experiencing tragedy and miracle. The full range of our human drama is expressed at this and every moment of life. And we are linked to it all at its source.” Of course, source for me is Goddess in the panentheist sense, the interconnection of all.

    I think you might have been misunderstood, Carol, because you used the word “fatalism,” which implies “fate,” a destiny that is foreordained. Fatalism in the larger sense has to do with knowing that as one individual among billions, as one human in a world of many creatures, our individual will power is limited. And even as a group of feminists in a patriarchy, our power is limited. I’m not the Goddess, after all. And even though I would like to think that altogether, we feminists are the Goddess, we certainly aren’t the allness of existence, my ultimate definition of Goddess. But I sure hope that we’re Her hands in some very important ways.

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    • Nancy, you said “I sure hope that we’re Her hands” and I believe this is a powerful and empowering Truth. Beautiful. I would enjoy exploring Taoism more fully; if you can recommend some of your favorite books, I would be grateful. Blessings.

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      • Actually, Darladiane, I do believe that we are Her hands. For me it’s a truth as well.

        Unfortunately with respect to Taoism, it’s hard to recommend a book. The original Taoist philosophy is cryptic (Lao Tzu, etc.), and the commentators I’ve read are philosophically dense. I’ve pieced my understandings together from many books and more importantly, I think, from my practice of qigong and Tai Qi. If you have a good teacher, you can learn a lot. One book I loved was _The Spirits are Drunk_ by Jordan Paper, but it’s a book about Chinese religion in general (since you really can’t separate out Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism in the life of the Chinese). Nevertheless, I think it’s worthwhile to read around about Taoism.

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  7. Truly beautiful, Carol, thank you. I love this: “I no longer “have to” see results in order to justify trying to change the world—it is enough to know that it is worthwhile to try.”

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  8. Carol, your posts are consistently thought-provoking and yes, as others have said here, filled with wisdom.

    When I learned the Buddhist concept, “All suffering is related to attachment,” I tested it for a long time before accepting it as true. Yes, when we’re attached to the outcome of anything, suffering comes when our expectations are not met. That seems to hold true in every single instance. Loving a child that you raise to adulthood doesn’t guarantee that you will be loved in return. Giving all that you have to a partner doesn’t guarantee a specific outcome. If I give up my very life for a cause, it’s because I assigned personal meaning to that cause.

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