I’ve puzzled over the Christian creation story since I was a kid. First when seeking inspiration for a confirmation art project, then seeking wisdom as a teenager at Bible school, then as an earnest University student seeking truth, and lastly as a conflicted Christian bookstore manager struggling to hold on to my faith. Somehow I missed seeing it as a commentary on suffering.
ITS A COMMENTARY ON SUFFERING!!!
31 minutes into his discussion of Marxism and Post Modernism, Jordan Peterson pauses to give a summary of the theory of suffering he found in the story. It was the answer I had been looking for but had given up ever finding.
It Goes Something Like This
Adam and Eve come to know the difference between good and evil by seeing their own nakedness and realizing others are naked too. Nakedness is a state of physical and psychological vulnerability or fragility. When any of us realize our own vulnerability we begin to think about how our vulnerability and fragility opens our eyes to the many ways we can be hurt. Then we think that if we can be hurt in these ways, so can others. This knowing what hurts us and what can hurt others, is the knowledge of good and evil. To torture others, we realize, we just have to do to others what we don’t want done to us.
The Knowledge of Good and Evil Leads to Anxiety
Once you know what causes pain to you and others, you start to think about all the things that can happen over time. Long period of time stretching into the future. So many opportunities for pain.
Thinking about all this potential pain allows us to avoid some of it, and this has tremendous survival advantage. But some of us are so good at it, it interferes with daily life. This thinking about future potential pain is called anxiety. Not only can we plan to avoid pain, we can set aside pleasure in the moment, for potential pleasure in the future. This is called delayed gratification. We can save for a rainy day, store up treasures, and invest in our own future. Much of our time, it turns out, is spent working to prevent situations in the future that will be unpleasant, painful, or disturbing. This is the curse of leaving Eden. We must work our plan and plan our work.
The Good we didn’t Get
When bad things happens despite our hard work, we wish it was different, and we are so good at imagining the “different possible outcome” we didn’t get, we are miserable. This is suffering. We suffer because we can imagine things being better AND worse. Imagining that things could be worse when they are good, and imagining that things could be better when they are bad, means our anxiety increases our suffering most of the time. Then we blame ourselves for not doing enough to prevent bad things from happening, and we criticize ourselves for being so anxiety. And then of course none of us can predict complex futures with much accuracy. And we can’t prevent a large number of possible random tragedies. And because we can’t prevent bad things from happening, at least not entirely, we can count on future pain. This realization, in all its wrinkles and iterations, is the burden of consciousness. Woven into the fabric of the universe is the inevitability of pain. We live in a hostile place full of threats and danger and we have an evolved brain that makes suffering a side effect of survival.
Suffering is a Part of Being
The lesson of this story is that suffering is built into self-awareness, and since self-awareness has occurred, it means the universe is structured to give rise to self awareness. The universe exists to bring forth both self-awareness and suffering.
We Get Attached
We are beings who evolved to attach to other members of our species, to members of other species, and even to places, objects, and ideas. Lover’s of wabi sabi often sit in places of beauty to let the place influence them.
We can easily imaging bad things happening to the people and places we love. We imagine how this would cause us pain. Our loved ones, our loved pets, our loved places, our loved ideas, can all come under attach and they can all die. To be human is to experience these two layers of anxiety and pain.
Peterson suggests that in the Cain and Able story, Cain is frustrated because Able’s sacrifice is accepted and his isn’t. Another way of saying this is that life isn’t fair because some people succeed and others don’t.
Cain complains to God who tells him that the problem is not that life isn’t fair, but that he wants to blame God for it instead of accepting reality and working to have a better life.
Cain could have just learned from Able and made a better sacrifice next time. Instead he chose resentment, and resentment is suffering.
Marxism, according to Peterson, blames suffering on oppressors. It is not too different from what Cain did.
Likewise, the radical right blames their problems on the slackers, welfare bums, leftist elites, and big government with all their pesky regulations. For them, these repulsive soft minded lazy dead wood are wrecking things for the rest of us.
Buddhism has a Different Interpretation
The Buddhist story tells of a young truth seeker discovering the truth he seeks in nature. The Buddha’s enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree involved seeing a way past suffering (dukkha) and all the things we desire but that are incapable of giving true satisfaction, to a kind of freedom through non-grasping. To achieve a state of non-grasping and acceptance, the seeker must follow an eight fold path. Follow is perhaps to soft a word. The eight fold path is a bloody hard discipline of moral uprightness and effort, including the practice of meditation and mindfulness.
Both stories focus on work and effort as a kind of curse that is based in grasping after safety, satisfaction, and fulfillment. The Christian story suggests that we can not escape the mind we wake up with, and are destined to repeat the pattern without the insight brought by Jesus. Jesus advised to NOT store up treasure and wealth, but instead to practice generosity, giving, compassion, and healing. The eight fold path is much the same formula.
The current wisdom, gleaned from a thousand hours of podcasts and audio books, seems to me to be that we need to fully see, as much as we are able, the predicament we are in.
- we are vulnerable in a dangerous world and others know how to hurt us
- We evolved to depend on other and form attachments, so we can’t avoid pain
- Our attachments can bring joy, but when they break, we experience pain
- We have to learn to let go, because holding on increases the pain
- We have to learn to not grasp in the first place
- We have to welcome the coming and going of all things
- Learning all this and practicing living with an open hand is hard work
- There are no short cuts but there is insight and enlightenment