Pride, Despair, and Things That Are Wonderful

I keep thinking about something I saw recently: that pride and despair are two ends of the same spectrum and thus equally correctable. I realized I had thought that pride was something to overcome but despair something to endure: pride could be checked, but despair was unavoidable.

The idea that they are two sides of the same coin makes some sense. And if despair consists of the same stuff as pride, then I can counter it the same way: by seeing it as an overinvestment in a single set of changing circumstances . . . and reinvesting.

A zen quote I saw yesterday helped: something like, “To eliminate suffering, eliminate its cause.” Sounds simple and obvious, right? But when I really thought about it — when I applied it to the brutal “natural order,” which has plagued me for some time — I found something profound in it.

A few days ago, I watched a spider on my deck — or rather, above the deck, beginning a web. I marveled at how much silk can come out of such a small body, and how the spider could make such an amazing thing by instinct. A lot of the process looked random, like when the spider hung from a thread and waited for a breeze to blow it to attach a string to something. I wondered if it might run out of thread, and what would happen if it did. I watched for a while and then went inside.

The next morning, the web was complete: perfect and huge, glistening with rainbow colors in sunlight.

By that evening, the spider was gone but its web remained, squirming with insects caught and unable to die or break free. A beautiful terror. I tried rescuing a couple of them, but the web was too sticky. What a waste, I thought. What horrible suffering, for nothing, repeated in countless webs all over the world. My old despair welled up.

When later I saw the quote about suffering, I applied it to that situation. If I were God, tasked with eliminating suffering, how would I remove its cause in this case? The obvious response is to eliminate the spider, but then insects would get out of control and cause suffering to other creatures or cause their own resource depletion (and thus greater suffering as they starve en masse). It’s classic interdependence.

Were the insects even suffering, for that matter, or just having a bad day until they died? Did they achieve surrender and release as they eventually came to rest, tired of struggling?

Spiders and insects are one thing, but what about human suffering? Say we eliminate our predators and killers, many of whom act out of mental illness or instinct. That’s even harder to think about, because we’re us. But we are out of control, causing suffering to other creatures and depleting our resources.

I have a friend who lives outdoors. He fought with the cold this winter as though it were an enemy. But then one day he realized it was just cold. It had nothing against him. He stopped fighting it, and he was fine.

If you don’t take something personally, is it really suffering? Is pain necessarily suffering? I don’t think so. You just have to be okay with letting go of anything, including your life. It seems like that’s when you live most fully.

I’ve also been applying all this to my employment situation. I’ve been working six or seven days a week for three months, with three months to go before Ireland and no guarantee (though good indications) that I’ll gather enough funds to afford the year-long master’s program I’m slated to attend there. The old weariness is coming on — the feeling of merely trudging through life. Ireland seems so far away (though I carry it within me). Will it even be the same? My dreams for the future keep changing shape. Why don’t I cut away some of the work, if it’s so draining — keep from counterproductively running myself into the ground?

Well, I could scale back. It’s good to consider putting a stop to a devitalizing activity or association, to weigh the options. But it turns out I am doing what I want. This is just a spot of drudgery on my way to where I’m going, and I’ll be glad for it. I am glad for it. If I were to work less, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. I’d be exactly where I was before I decided to go to Ireland last year: stagnated and dim. I’d be permanently stuck in a temporary situation, which is a kind of hell.

There’s an end to this. I know it. I’ve seen it. Sometimes I get tired of the often-false promises of hope, and I forget how good this life can be . . . but when things are bad, they always do get better. Even at the very worst — say, if you’re in the grip of torture — at least eventually death or someone releases you. My employment situation is very far from the very worst — in fact, it’s quite good, because I get to spend time with my grandma through some of her last days, I have time to write things like this, and for my other job I make joyful mementos for people at special occasions. In the bigger picture, I’m doing all this for something. For someone. Somehow.

After so much intense introspection, I want to close on a lighter note: a special installment of “Things That Are Wonderful.”

Things that are wonderful: the singular peace encapsulated by sports playing on TV in the background while one’s grandma rests, sparrows, kittens, cats, cottage cheese, free food, living in a treehouse, sunlight on greenery, wind, hope, hot tea, caffeine, whiskey, four-legged (or six-legged, or eight-legged, or hundred-legged) roommates, being marked by an animal, dreams, life mysteries, music, good work, water, rivers, oceans, breathing easy, white things floating in the air, spider webs, tattoos, physical photos of loved ones, good relationships, possibilities, good food, rainbows, conservationists, clear progress toward goals, financial independence, fun clothes, hair colors, plants, trees, tying up loose ends, anticipation, Love . . .