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.