The Nature of Joy

Compassion, generosity, and love for our fellow human beings. This is how I would describe joy in the sense that His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke of it. I just recently finished The Book of Joy, which these two coauthored with Douglas Abrams. In the five-day interview, the two holy men speak expansively upon the nature of joy, its obstacles, and how to attain lasting happiness. The book touches upon grief, temporary happiness, anger, envy, and myriad other related issues, but both leaders agree: to have true joy in life, one must simply look beyond himself. Caring for other humans and having true regard for their health and well-being is the key to the joyful disposition that nearly all holy men seem to have. This jubilation and happiness comes from their unconditional love for their fellow human beings, and it is because of their compassion, intimacy with grief, and generosity.

Compassion

From the very start of the book, the word compassion is almost inextricably linked to joy. When asked about what his hopes for the book are, the Dalai Lama says “[w]e need, ultimately, to have a greater concern for others’ well-being. In other words, kindness or compassion, which is lacking now” (30). His Holiness continues to speak about both compassion and joy together, as if they were a package, throughout the book. He blames much of people’s suffering today on the self-centeredness that modern society promotes, and he suggests the remedy to our suffering is an unconditional, unflinching love of our fellow human beings. “[Y]our enemies are still human brothers and sisters, so they also deserve our love, our respect, our affection. That’s unbiased love. You might have to resist your enemies’ actions, but you can love them as brothers and sisters” (78). Archbishop Tutu also spoke expansively upon compassion, saying “compassion is a sense of concern that arises when we are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to see that suffering relieved” (252). The Archbishop explains that when one is suffering and he focuses on alleviating others’ suffering, suddenly his suffering becomes easier to bear. The Dalai Lama is a man who has been exiled for over sixty years, who has seen countless friends and colleagues taken to Chinese work camps. Archbishop Desmond Tutu lived through apartheid in South Africa, from before the time Nelson Mandela was jailed until modern day. And both advocate for an unconditional love for all of our fellow human beings because they realize hatred is not the way. Hatred and anger have a tendency to hurt the one feeling these emotions the most, whereas love and empathy have the power to transform even the most negative feelings into a deep regard for the other’s soul and mortality.

Grief’s Role

Grief and sadness, though only one chapter in the book, played a large part in the message of the work as a whole. It is out of this grief that our compassion is born, and it is also through grief that we see the depth of our love. I recently tweeted a series of tweets about people lacking empathy having been through grief themselves, and the gist was this: if you have experienced the depth of pain that humans can feel, how could you ever disregard someone else’s suffering, which is invariably more serious. In The Book of Joy, “the Archbishop argued strongly, [sadness] often leads us most directly to empathy and compassion and to recognizing our need for one another” (110) and I would agree. Of all the developments that came from my father’s death, the most positive has been my love and empathy that I feel when other’s experience grief like I did. And all suffering for that matter. I was devastated when my father died, but I got to have him there for my first seventeen years of life; I never had to wonder where my meals were going to come from on the weekend, or had to hunker down in a house without heating in the winter. I have lived a blessed life except for one profound event of grief; it boggles my mind to see so much suffering just brushed aside in political discussion, disregarded by the same people who have dealt with grief in a very real way. In America, all too often it is accepted that suffering is just a natural fact of life when in fact “[a] lot of the problems we are facing are our own creation, like war and violence” (30). If they are made by us, these problems can be fixed by us too. We just need to care for our fellow man with actual compassion.

Generosity

The design of The Book of Joy was one in which the Archbishop’s and Dalai Lama’s commentaries upon joy were interspersed with scientific research upon joy that Douglas Abrams had found and included. In one chapter, he introduces research from neuroscientist Richard Davidson on “four independent brain circuits that influence our lasting well-being” in which he explains “that we had an entire brain circuit… devoted to generosity” (56). Basically, the brain has an entire system dedicated to rewarding a person with happiness when one is generous. This can be the giving of money or gifts, spiritual guidance, or refuge from fear. It is hardwired into our DNA to care for our fellow humans; upon this basis, generosity was established as the eighth and final pillar of joy.* Archbishop Tutu mentions the concept of Ubuntu, or “[a] person is a person through other persons”(270), throughout the book, and generosity is the embodiment of this in action. It is the expression “of our interdependence and our need for one another” (264). There is a reason charity is included in all five of the world’s major religions. It is a universal virtue, one that spans across societies and cultures.

*The first seven are: Perspective, Humility, Humor, Acceptance, Forgiveness, Gratitude, and Compassion

 

East of Eden & Timshel

For the last three weeks, I have been immersed in John Steinbeck’s masterful East of Eden. Determined after his release of The Grapes of Wrath, he set out to write one more classic novel of epic proportions. It took him twelve years, but by the end he released over six hundred pages of pure gold. East of Eden was released in 1943 and spent two years atop the NYT Bestseller list. The book is often simply described as Steinbeck’s modern-day retelling of the Book of Genesis. This is accurate, but perhaps simultaneously too broad and too narrow. First, the book truly only focuses upon the first four chapters of Genesis, the story of Cain and Abel. More than just a retelling, however, the book is a modern Epic, an offspring of Homer’s great poems. This intricacy allows for deep character development throughout generations. In no other book, besides Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, have I been so invested in so many fictional characters’ lives. Steinbeck’s writing was so beautiful that, when I finished the last line, I couldn’t help but shed a tear. I am straying perhaps too far from the biggest message in the book, but to understand this we must first know the story of Cain and Abel.

Cain and Abel

Central to the plot of the story, and the main lesson, is chapter four of Genesis. One of the world’s most well known stories, it says:

“Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.

Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.’

Now Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let’s go out to the field.’[d] While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.

Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’

“I don’t know,” he replied. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’

10 The Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. 11 Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.’

While reading this story, East of Eden‘s main characters ponder its significance. Samuel Hamilton points out that, since Abel died childless, we are all sons of Cain. The telling of the story prompts Adam Trask, the other leading patriarch, to comment on the fairness of God’s judgement; he thinks it wasn’t too fair for God to look upon Abel’s offering with favor, and Cain’s without. Samuel agrees that it may not be fair, but rationalizes God has a right to preference and points out that Cain didn’t have to kill Abel. Lee, a wise Chinese man less hindered by entrenched Western thought, decides to analyze verses 6-7 with elders, wise men in the Lee family whose only fault is a taste for opium. Nearly ten years later, Lee comes back with his discovery and the reason why Timshel is the most important word in the entire story.

Timshel

Lee, like many wise men before him, realized the value of any story that has been around for centuries. By his logic, if it has been around for that long and influenced that many lives, there must be a supreme truth hidden in it.His most important recognition, however, was that the original authors of The Bible did not write in English. His mission became to learn Hebrew and translate the story of Cain and Abel exactly as the author intended. He found that different Bibles had different translations for verses 6-7, with some translating God’s words to Cain as “thou must triumph over sin” and some translating as “thou shalt triumph over sin”. The actual word in Hebrew was Timshel, a word that when directly translated meant neither of these things. He presented his findings to Adam Trask and Samuel Hamilton one night, saying:

“‘Don’t you see?’ he cried. ‘The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?'”

In this passage, Lee minutely alters the translation of the story and the entire meaning changes. God is not demanding that followers triumph over sin, nor is he prophesying that no matter what, followers shall prevail. Instead, we see God’s gift of free will given to Cain. “Thou mayest” means that Cain has a choice to give in to evil, and he also has a choice to fight it, beat it, and be good. The fact that we are all sons and daughters of Cain is no coincidence. We are all imperfect beings, and we all have the daily choice to prevail over evil or give in to it. Timshel.

If I can give you one piece of advice, it would be to read East of Eden as soon as possible. It was truly an amazing book.

Forgiveness

The Initial Wrong

When one person commits a significant wrong against another, both souls are damaged by the same fire. People can be quite cruel, and some fires blaze long past the initial revelation of the wrong. If the friendship/relationship continues to hurt both people, the first step must always be to reach a healthy environment that is free of toxicity. Once that’s handled and raw emotions are allowed to quell, though, the next step must be figuring out how to get yourself to truly forgive the person who has wronged you. Many world religions preach forgiveness as a central doctrine; I will be pulling from The Bible and writings from The Dalai Lama in support of forgiveness, and to give suggestions on how to actualize it in life.

The Bible on Forgiveness

“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Almost all people reading this blog have at some point recited this line from the middle of the Our Father. An okay number of readers probably say it on a weekly basis at church. This line implores followers to emulate God’s forgiveness and grace, but it also warns the hard-hearted and unforgiving. How one treats those who have wronged him, those whom one has nothing to gain from and a righteous anger for, truly shows if God’s grace is within him. If one is kind and forgiving, she can expect that in turn from God. If one is condemning and violent in his anger, he can expect that in turn from God. In Matthew 5:44, Jesus says “[b]ut I say to you, love your enemies. Pray for those who hurt you.” In this teaching, Jesus asks the followers to go one step further and love those who wrong us; this prospect, without forgiveness, would be impossible. Jesus’ advice is the road map to grace and holiness; love all people, enemies and friends, and truly care for them. Rare is the undamaged soul that wrongs another, and plentiful are the broken who break others.

The Dalai Lama on Forgiveness

It is clear to see that God wants us to forgive. He not only wants this, but demands it of all those who wish to enter heaven. But anger is fiery and fierce, and it can crowd out many good intentions to forgive a person if your mindset isn’t properly altered. When putting the practice of forgiveness into action, it is wise to listen to the words of the 14th Dalai Lama. In his book How to Expand Love he expounds upon the topic of love at length. At the center of his teachings and meditations was the concept of rebirth. One was asked to imagine each person of significance in his life, whether it be friends, neutral persons, or enemies. In rebirth, each person has been all things to you at one point in the cycle. One is encouraged to meditate on the fact that all persons were at one time his mother, and he was theirs. All persons have at one time nurtured and raised you with the care and unconditional love of a mother. By proxy, you have felt the same love and devotion for all persons as your child countless times. In this way, enemies and neutral persons can be loved as if they are close friends. One can expand his circle of loving relationships to all humans, and eventually to all living beings since they are included in the cycle as well.

Putting it into Action

Once, through wisdom from religions and traditions, one realizes the freedom of living a forgiving life, another step exists. In order to remove all anger and bitterness from the process and allow one to be forgiving immediately after he is wronged, one must change his mindset about enemies as a whole. The Dalai Lama explains that one should be slightly joyful at having enemies. As his thinking goes, one must practice patience to reach enlightenment, and one must have enemies to practice patience. Therefore, one must have enemies to reach enlightenment. This is true also in Catholicism as one must have enemies to forgive in order to receive God’s grace and mercy. In Romans 12:21 it is said, “do not let evil defeat you, but defeat evil by doing good.” To allow anger to overcome ones self and to spite those who wrong you is letting evil defeat you. Instead, strive to defeat evil by showing God’s grace and forgiveness when trespassed against.