I have long believed, in theory, that patience and non-attachment were complimentary and essential virtues and that I would do well to cultivate both of them. In practice, both are difficult, elusive, and have not always felt desirable or worthy of recommendation to others, particularly to those who suffer injustice. I have been thinking about these virtues lately, in part because of technological frustrations I’ve experienced lately.
A few weeks ago, I took a few hours from my day and devoted it to writing poetry. I don’t do this as often as I’d like, and I wrote a few short fragments and the bulk of a long poem in a simple txt document using a program called Notepad++. Satisfied with what I had written and ready to move on to other tasks, I pressed Control + S to save the document. My computer froze and no amount of cajoling or three-finger saluting could rouse my computer from its freeze. I had to restart the laptop, and in the process lost the entire document and the whole of my poetic output from that day. I felt acutely and deeply that the document was truly lost, and lamented briefly that I was neither Pierre Menard nor Funes the Memorious. It was a terrible feeling, and clouded my mood for several minutes afterward. I was irritable, grumpy, and cross, and had a hard time choosing to think about other things, or to experience joy and pleasure again. It seems, in hindsight, that I was experiencing a form of tanha, or craving, for the vanished poem, for the mental energy and the creative output that would be forever unrecoverable because it the poem was singular and unique and unsaved.
This experience got me thinking about Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, in particular about attachment and all the ways that it can lead to suffering. While I did feel better after I was able to release the poem and the time and labor I had invested into its creation and development, I continued to feel some nagging grumpiness and sorrow over its loss. I resolved to save drafts of my work earlier and more frequently, and to be more vigilant in backing up important or precious files, both on an external hard drive and in the cloud.
Sadly, I had another remarkably similar experience this weekend, only this time it was with the blog post that eventually became my most recent post (about Mark Nowak). I spent about an hour and a half on Saturday evening on the post, and just before publishing it decided to save the draft and preview it to see how it looked. I clicked save draft and waited for the page to refresh, but to my horror the page reverted to the way it looked more than an hour before when I had made my last save. Thousands of words, dozens of links, and all of my writing and reflection were gone and irrecoverable. Again, my first thought was frustration and anger, feelings that I felt justified in and initially nurtured. I’m not sure why this was my impulse or inclination, but it was, and I again found myself feeling grumpy, cross, and short tempered for a few minutes. I tried to recover the file but quickly determined that I could not recover the lost post, labor, or time. I closed the computer, put it away, washed my face and moved on to other things, trying to clear my mind, to restore tranquility, and to place this loss into a larger perspective. After all, it had only taken an hour and a half, the writing was probably not exactly reproducible, but it didn’t have to be–I could do it again on another evening, so why let it’s loss ruin the present evening, I thought. I returned to the room where a friend was waiting, the same friend who had earlier overheard me swearing and grumbling at the loss of the document. She seemed surprised at the sudden change in my mood and commented, “You’re good at letting things go.”
This felt really touching to me, and I was happy to have produced this impression and to have been so adjudged by someone whose opinion I value highly. I thought of a story from the Old Testament that has long been meaningful to me, and in which I find behavior at which I marvel I seek to emulate. It comes from 2 Samuel 12 and tells the story of the Israelite king David and his illegitimate son with Bathsheba, a woman in his kingdom who had been married to Uriah the Hittite, a man David had ordered killed in battle so that he could cover his having seduced his wife and conceived a child. Here is the story as it is given in the KJV:
1And the LORD sent Nathan unto David. And he came unto him, and said unto him, There were two men in one city; the one rich, and the other poor.
2The rich man had exceeding many flocks and herds:
3But the poor man had nothing, save one little ewe lamb, which he had bought and nourished up: and it grew up together with him, and with his children; it did eat of his own meat, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a daughter.
4And there came a traveller unto the rich man, and he spared to take of his own flock and of his own herd, to dress for the wayfaring man that was come unto him; but took the poor man’s lamb, and dressed it for the man that was come to him.
5And David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan, As the LORD liveth, the man that hath done this thing shall surely die:
6And he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.
7And Nathan said to David, Thou art the man. Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, I anointed thee king over Israel, and I delivered thee out of the hand of Saul;
8And I gave thee thy master’s house, and thy master’s wives into thy bosom, and gave thee the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would moreover have given unto thee such and such things.
9Wherefore hast thou despised the commandment of the LORD, to do evil in his sight? thou hast killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and hast taken his wife to be thy wife, and hast slain him with the sword of the children of Ammon.
10Now therefore the sword shall never depart from thine house; because thou hast despised me, and hast taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be thy wife.
11Thus saith the LORD, Behold, I will raise up evil against thee out of thine own house, and I will take thy wives before thine eyes, and give them unto thy neighbour, and he shall lie with thy wives in the sight of this sun.
12For thou didst it secretly: but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.
13And David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against the LORD. And Nathan said unto David, The LORD also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die.
14Howbeit, because by this deed thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme, the child also that is born unto thee shall surely die.
15And Nathan departed unto his house. And the LORD struck the child that Uriah’s wife bare unto David, and it was very sick.
16David therefore besought God for the child; and David fasted, and went in, and lay all night upon the earth.
17And the elders of his house arose, and went to him, to raise him up from the earth: but he would not, neither did he eat bread with them.
18And it came to pass on the seventh day, that the child died. And the servants of David feared to tell him that the child was dead: for they said, Behold, while the child was yet alive, we spake unto him, and he would not hearken unto our voice: how will he then vex himself, if we tell him that the child is dead?
19But when David saw that his servants whispered, David perceived that the child was dead: therefore David said unto his servants, Is the child dead? And they said, He is dead.
20Then David arose from the earth, and washed, and anointed himself, and changed his apparel, and came into the house of the LORD, and worshipped: then he came to his own house; and when he required, they set bread before him, and he did eat.
21Then said his servants unto him, What thing is this that thou hast done? thou didst fast and weep for the child, while it was alive; but when the child was dead, thou didst rise and eat bread.
22And he said, While the child was yet alive, I fasted and wept: for I said, Who can tell whether GOD will be gracious to me, that the child may live?
23But now he is dead, wherefore should I fast? can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.
24And David comforted Bathsheba his wife…
The part of this story that first struck me as deeply significant was David’s response both to his son’s sickness and later, to his subsequent death. Like his servants, I too would have been surprised to have seen someone so deeply involved in grief and supplication while a child suffered through illness undergo such a dramatic change following their death (he washes himself and breaks his fast AFTER the child has died!). David’s response is startling, and yet has a certain admirable wisdom in it. He says: “While the child was yet alive, I fasted and wept: for I said, Who can tell whether GOD will be gracious to me, that the child may live? But now he is dead, wherefore should I fast? can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.” This to me is a hard but beautiful saying–David’s acknowledgment that many of the things which are taken or removed from us cannot be returned, that many of the wounds we receive or give in life are irreparable, incapable of reversing. David’s fatalism (“can I bring him back again?”) seems less nihilistic and less defeatist when it is followed, as it is, by something that resembles a declaration of faith, however stoic or resigned (“I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.”). For me, David’s wisdom is demonstrated by his awareness of the limits of his power–throughout the child’s illness, he did all he knew how to do to save the child’s life, always realizing that the ultimate power to make live was not his, and following the child’s death, he bluntly recognizes his inability to reverse the inescapable fact of mortality, however cruel it may appear. In this story, David seems to have a deep grasp of what he is able to do, as well as what he is unable to do, and does not readily confuse his desire with his actual power, which is a lesson that nearly all of us would do well to consider. Furthermore, while I may be guilty of some selective editing and deliberate decontextualization which probably alters the intended meaning of the phrase, I think David’s wisdom and awareness of his capabilities is further demonstrated by his subsequent action. After strengthening and gathering himself, his next action is to comfort the other aggrieved party, Bathsheba, the mother of the recently deceased child. This seems a similarly important lesson, that we are very rarely alone in our grief or our suffering, not in the sense that there are others who are there to comfort us and who are willing to aid or assist us, but in the sense that we are not the only sufferers–that quite often there are those that we have wronged (in the framework of this story, the child’s death is attributed to David’s sin) or whose suffering equals or exceeds our own and who are needful of some succor or comforting which we ourselves, no matter the weight of our own grief or suffering, might provide. David’s recognition of this fact can be read to his credit, though if we continue our reading of the verse, his actions appear far less beneficent and far more suspect (which is why, for my purposes, I cut off the cited passage mid-phrase).
My point in telling this story is this: our lives are full of suffering, some deserved, but much seemingly without good cause. Whether or not we accept the premise that this suffering is a consequence of attachment or desire, and that there is a path we can follow that leads to the cessation of that suffering (either through the extinguishing of that desire or through a being swallowed up in healing grace), it seems to me that we must acknowledge that our suffering, though singular, is not unique. There are things that we cannot do, lives we cannot prolong or save, choices we cannot reverse, pain we cannot prevent others from experiencing, and losses that we cannot salvage or restore. I think this knowledge ought to be painful, and ought to be acknowledged and remembered, but only to a point, since our obsessions with grief and the memories of injustice or false accusation can cripple and disempower us like the unfortunate Maitre Hauchecorne in Guy de Maupassant’s masterful story “The Piece of String” if it becomes the great obsession of our lives, if it embitters us so deeply that we become attached to grief or outrage as our sole mode of being. In Maupassant’s story Hauchecorne spends “each day adding new proofs, more energetic declarations and more sacred oaths, which he thought of, which he prepared in his hours of solitude, for his mind was entirely occupied with the story of the string.” The disbelief of others “preyed upon him and he exhausted himself in useless efforts.”
What is notable here is that Hauchecorne’s energies are spent entirely in pursuit of things which he has no power to affect–namely, others’ perceptions of his guilt or innocence, rather than on something which may have been more constructive, like the question of how to obtain justice for others who have been falsely accused, only with more serious consequences. Hauchecorne’s attachment to a tale of innocence leads to the deterioration–the unraveling–of his own mind, and I think that similar fates (though usually on a smaller scale) await us when we resort to habitual impatience or unnecessary attachment to all manner of things beyond our control. It is certainly good that our desires exceed our powers (remember Robert Browning’s famous couplet in “Andrea de Sarto”: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what’s a heaven for?)–think of the terrors we would wreak were it not so–and it is similarly good that our memories are permeable, porous, and terribly riddled with weaknesses–think of the horror of hyperthymesia or eidetic memory. Such things being as they are, my hope is that I might become better at letting things go, by which I mean that I want to become more careful about the degrees of attachment (and feelings of proprietary ownership) I develop in relation to impermanent things and to strive for greater sensitivity to the ways that my own losses and sufferings make me kin to the larger clan of sufferers, each of whom may enjoy or be entitled to some measure of comfort and consolation from me, provided that I am alert and present enough to give it. May it be so for each of us, in our hours of clarity and joy as in our hours of confusion and sorrow.