Dead People’s Goals

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with Rev. Clay Nelson

Dead People’s Goals
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Follow this shortcut to the bottom of the page for the Welcome, Spirit of Life, Opening & Closing Words, Postlude, Links shared during the chat.

Clay Nelson © 3rd May 2020

This week I’ve been musing on suffering. Cheery stuff, I know. The problem is these days it is pretty hard to avoid. We are all aware of the incomprehensible number of heartaches involved. Suffering is a boat we all share.

So yes, I think I can be forgiven for musing on suffering. In my line of work such musings lead me naturally to religious thought about the subject, for all religions have something to say, but I resonate with Buddha’s teachings most. He acknowledged, “All I teach is suffering and the end of suffering.” Suffering in his teaching does not necessarily mean only grave physical pain, but rather the mental suffering we undergo when our tendency to hold onto pleasure encounters the fleeting nature of life, and our experiences become unsatisfying and ungovernable.

But before I could begin fully laying out for you Buddha’s take on suffering I listened to Derek Handley’s conversation with Dr Susan David, who is a psychologist on the Harvard Medical School faculty. I hope you have got to know Derek, one of our newer members and a worship associate and a wannabe astronaut. In fact, next week he will be our “muser”. So, I hope I’m not stealing his thunder.

Susan has become well-known for her TED Talks and her best-selling book, Emotional Agility. What I took from the conversation is our suffering is a source of data about who we are and to what we are attached. But we live in a time of hyper-positivity, which she deems to be an artificial enabler of false happiness. Perhaps she is a Monty Python fan. The end of The Life of Brian makes her point brilliantly.

Monty Python – Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life

As an antidote to false happiness, Susan asks three questions:

  • What happens when we pretend to be happy when we are not?
  • What happens when we pretend we don’t hurt when we are dying inside?
  • What happens when we say we are okay but our current version of “okay” is no one’s dream of the ‘new normal?’

What happens is we end up pretending to live as only a dead person can.  No pain, no anguish, no challenges.  As Susan sums it up, “Only dead people never get unwanted feelings or inconvenienced by those feelings.”

Her conversation with Derek about Dead People’s Goals triggered a significant life-altering memory for me. I was in my mid-forties and I was in extreme emotional and spiritual pain. So much so I overcame my strong reluctance to do so and sought out a therapist.

The first couple of sessions were pleasant enough. I kept the conversation on a safe intellectual level far away from feelings. I’m sure the therapist was used to men using this strategy, but it must’ve been frustrating all the same. Their vocation is not to be pleasant conversationalists. So, the third session he suggested we do some role-playing. I hope I didn’t visibly roll my eyes as I groaned internally. But not wanting to be judged uncooperative, I said with as much false positivity as I could muster, “Sure, why not?”

He suggested that I be my younger self explaining to my present day self what my life was like. Without much thought I seized on how difficult it had been for me moving so much. It seemed like every time I turned around I was going to a new school. My newness stood out, as much as I tried to stay hidden. I wore a lot of beige to be invisible, because when spotted I was often bullied, sometimes even by my teachers and coaches. The only place I felt safe was at home, but that is where I felt most conflicted. My fear was the bullies were right about me being a loser worthy only of disdain. I certainly didn’t want that revealed to my parents who might not have noticed this about me before. So, I suffered in silence and every morning went off to school for another day of abuse, trying to convince myself I could endure it…and, to some degree, I did…but at a price. My older self was very judgmental about my younger self. He had bought into the bullies’ view of who I was and swore he would not be so weak and vulnerable again. He convinced himself he could endure anything, even an abusive partner. He only had to look at the bright side of life. Of course he couldn’t, which is what brought him to the therapist in the first place.

The turning point was when, with a few well-placed questions from the therapist, I saw my younger self in a new light. Instead of weak, I experienced his vulnerability as bravery and courage in the face of adversity. Yes, his survival strategy was what you might expect of a child. And yes, it had created some problems for my older self. But, he did survive so I could become an adult capable of choosing healthier strategies that did not require denial of my suffering or convincing myself I could endure anything alone. I remember being totally immersed in the role-play. It ended with tears and me embracing my younger self with admiration and gratitude as well as forgiveness.

It was this moment that made me appreciate Buddha’s wisdom. Unless we are dead, we suffer. Or to counter Descartes’ head trip, “I suffer, therefore I am.” It is what we do with it that matters.

It is human nature to seek permanence and stability. It attaches us to a false reality. All is transient and impermanent. Even the Buddha dies. His final words were “Impermanence is inescapable. Everything vanishes. Therefore there is nothing more important than continuing the path with diligence. All other options either deny or short-shrift the problem.”

At some level we know this, but that does not stop us from trying to convince ourselves that if we just fix this or fix that, tweak here or there, we can avoid it. We think that if we were smarter, prettier, wealthier, more powerful, living somewhere else, younger, older, male, female, with different parents — you name it — things would be different. But things are not different; they are as bad as they seem! Since it is unrealistic to hope for a stress-free life, and that would not be all that good in any case, it makes more sense to learn how to deal with the stresses that inevitably arise.

Suffering is the result of our attachments. Yet, even some of Buddha’s monks revealed that they had not escaped their attachments, grieving deeply at his death. Attachments in themselves are not something negative. When we love someone, we are attached. When we care about justice, we are attached. When we strive to live healthier lives, we are attached. When we are swept away by beauty, we are attached. When an unexpected memory results in a tear drifting down our cheek, we are attached. When we seek connection with something greater than ourselves, we are attached. While ultimately my attachments mean I will suffer, I would not give them up to avoid the pain. My suffering is a sign of my humanity and as we are all in the same boat I need not endure it alone.



Welcome – Louis Armstrong – Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child
Spirit of Life by Carolyn McDade – performed by the Virtual Choir, All Souls Church Unitarian DC, USA.

Opening Words are We Can Never Know By Jay E Abernathy, Jr

Closing Words are ‘Be Revered’ by Margaret Fuller, an early Unitarian Transcendentalist, journalist, editor and activist for women’s rights.

Postlude:- My Life Flows on in Endless Song – performed by The Chancel Choir of First Unitarian Church, Oakland, CA, USA.

Shared Links

Links were provided by church members for discussion purposes, inclusion in this list does not signify endorsement of the linked content by Auckland Unitarian Church.

From Martin :

Carolyn McDade’s Spirit of Life