Be prepared. This is a meandering, philosophical sort of post.
Once, a very long time ago, I walked out of a church where the sermon had been on the joy of suffering: I remember it very well. I don’t mean that I got up and walked out in the middle of the sermon, rather that when I left church that day something in me had turned a click–and it’s never exactly clicked back. Moreover, ever since that time there have been occasions where I find myself reconsidering the relationship between joy and suffering.
It happened again this morning. I came upon a quote by Frida Kahlo–about love, actually–but that’s irrelevant. It’s what she said and how my mind immediately juxtaposed what she said to some bit of grit inside me that hasn’t yet become a pearl. She said, “To my way of thinking, everything has its natural compensation.” She pointed out that the banks of a river don’t suffer because they let the river flow: of course the banks of the river may suffer if the river overflows, and she didn’t say that. She pointed out that the earth doesn’t suffer because of the rains . . .
You see, it was Ms. Kahlo that first assumed that somehow anything compensatory to something else might be seen to involve suffering.
Now, I’m not sure that human suffering can, or should, be explained by anthropomorphized rivers or planets. But it surely did get my attention. It does seem true that a vessel can hold something without suffering–that seems okay for milk jugs, toothpaste tubes, and the like; and some vessels allow safe passage to things–blood vessels, for instance. Thinking of the banks of a river as a vessel is interesting; the analogy seems flawed, but interesting. Flawed how? Well the river, for instance, created its vessel, the river bank. The river bank wasn’t just there waiting for the river. The river took the land and shaped it to its own purpose.
It’s unclear if Ms. Kahlo was thinking of herself as a vessel ready and waiting to receive; or if she was made into the vessel. Either way, she obviously believes that she did not suffer for her relationship with the great Diego Rivera or, if she did, not more than the banks of the river, and there were natural compensations. Suffering might never have been brought up except, of course, that she was the one who brought suffering into the conversation as she talked about her relationship.
I remember another time in my life when I wrote a poem, one that I no longer have but I remember it–not word for word, but the essence of it–and the essence of that poem, written when my world was about to change forever and I knew it, was that I was a vessel. That I was empty and wanted to be filled up: with knowledge, with the sort of knowledge that brought meaning to life. My version of the metaphorical vessel, at the time, was the sort that held things–the milk jug–and not the sort the allowed things to flow–blood vessels or rivers: interesting, that. It seems to me now that allowing something to flow unobstructed is preferable to keeping something contained. In that regard I definitely agree with Ms Kahlo.
Back to Kahlo’s quote: ” . . . everything has its natural compensation.” It’s hard to disprove. Or to prove. Still, there is a flow to things, to life. One thing does seem to beget another. Endlessly. And it’s a flow that makes hoarding a virtual impossibility–containing everything that comes along is not possible. It’s the word compensation that I have to wonder about. If you’re the river and not the banks, you like the idea of using the banks to get where you’re going. If you’re the banks, you’re not going anywhere anyway, so why not let the river flow?
On the other hand, how does the river know that the bank isn’t suffering? Isn’t eroding, losing itself, being washed away, diminished. Only the bank knows for sure. Not the river. Ms. Kahlo seemed to have a good feeling about being the metaphorical banks that contained a metaphorical flowing river, but does that make it a universal truth? I give it to Ms. Kahlo that she knows the truth for herself (which, by the way, she allows: that she speaks for herself).
So, I’m back to where I started: what is the joy in suffering? And, if everything has its compensation, what, if not joy, is the compensation of suffering? Does suffering take physical form, actually? Or, when I suffer, is that when I most surely know that I am more than a vessel?
And are compensations ordinarily thought of as things–things that exist in the real world; or are compensations–of the type the banks of a metaphorical river might expect–more likely to be ephemeral, emotional, the chemical response of nerve endings?
It would seem that the river might want to compensate the river bank in some tangible way–something the river could take to the metaphorical bank, maybe compensate the river bank its losses and not just tickle its sides as it flows on through. But, still talking in metaphors here, my own desire to fill up a vessel (myself, with knowledge that led to giving life meaning) was intangible. I was wanting to know what gave life meaning, when mine had become meaningless. I was not wanting knowledge to, for instance, pass a driver’s license test.
It’s safe to say, from this distance, that I still question the joy of suffering. And that I still value knowledge. There are definitely compensations that come with knowledge.With knowledge of the right sort you can pass a driver’s license test, get a Ph.D. in anything you choose; or you can choose to let those things pass you by, tickle the sides of your metaphorical banks in passing, and find meaning in another kind of life, secure in the knowledge that you have chosen well. And in the knowledge that you can always change your mind. The river flows on. And on. And on. Anytime you choose, you can jump off the bank and become one with the river. It’s finding a foothold to get back on the bank that can be tricky.
M L S Baisch