Holding Back

Monday October 3, 2005


The world is a terrible place. Is it possible to say this without falling into despair, cynicism or defeatism? Because despair, defeatism and cynicism do nothing to alleviate the many sufferings of existence, and serve only to deepen these sufferings. Is it possible to say this, simply through a clear-eyed seeing of the realities in which we are immersed? I think of the beautiful passage from the Sutta Nipata:

Which is greater, the tears you have shed while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time – crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing – or the water in the four great oceans?

Of course, whilst admitting that the world is a terrible place, perhaps it should also be admitted that there are many wondrous and beautiful things in the world, more than can be counted. And to see that these are fragile, so very fragile, is to see that they are to be cherished and guarded with vigilance and care.

This is the challenge: without defeatism, cynicism or despair, to simply admit what we all know and fear, that the world is sometimes a place of the most terrible sufferings; and in the face of this knowing, to proceed to resist, with as much gentleness and care and kindness as we can muster, contributing to these sufferings; to refuse to be cosseted by illusions and fictions that block out the cries of misery around us, but not to be overwhelmed by these cries; to counteract the desire to take refuge in systems of consoling doctrine that numb us to the realities in which we are immersed.

Amongst the terrible things that beset us, the excess of human cruelty, a cruelty from which none of us can truly claim to be exempt, whether as victims or as perpetrators, is one of the most terrible. But often such cruelty is not rooted in the desire to cause harm but, strangely, in the desire for goodness. In seeking to spread the good, we can so easily generate further suffering. How often do we aim to protect the good, and in doing so betray it? The histories of the religions show us this, and they continue to show us this. How rapidly this desire to spread the good leads to misery and suffering, to division, dispute and acrimony!

To avoid such dangers, in the first place perhaps it is not so much a matter of doing good as of holding back from doing what is bad. I am reminded of Michel Serres:

“We should hold back, each of us, abstain collectively especially, invest a part of our power in softening our power.
He is human who does not always bring his arm down on the weak, as a matter of course, or on the strong, out of resentment, or even on those proven to be bad. Humanity becomes human when it invents weakness…”

Hold back, I tell myself: this is enough of a beginning. Simply hold back. Hold back, so that the world might become a little less terrible. Hold back, so that we might be able create fragile, temporary islands of beauty and gentleness amid the chaos. Hold back, because this is where humanity begins…

(Michel Serres The Troubadour of Knowledge, p. 120)


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