Repossessing Virtue: Sharon Salzberg on the Humiliation of Suffering
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Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
I saw Kate immediately after she interviewed Sharon Salzberg for our series on the economic downturn. Kate was awestruck by her simple profundity. And, after I listened, I understood why.
The Buddhist teacher sees the plight of suffering in the U.S. as a source of shame for most people, a kind of humiliation. We are ashamed of losing control. We fear uncertainty.
This burden denies us the right of being human. We’re vulnerable and so we isolate ourselves. So, instead of reaching out to others and finding comfort and strength in our families and communities, we hide. This point gave me pause and, I hesitate to write this, an unsettled feeling — of shame and embarrassment.
In 2002, I was laid off — honestly, I still think of it as being fired — while my wife and I were living in Oxford. The dot-com company I was working for was hemorrhaging money. My boss back in the States called the head of the London office. She ushered me in to her office; over the phone, he said the company needed to cut salaries and positions and had to “let me go”; I was then told to pack up my items and be escorted out of the office immediately while the office manager observed me.
Talk about humiliation. It’s difficult enough being axed. Being the only American in the London office, being chaperoned and escorted out of the building because of standard HR policy (I still cringe at the thought of this type of inhuman treatment.), being left with a mortgage on a home thousands of miles away while your wife’s a graduate student in a foreign country — and then having to tell her about it, well, it is completely humiliating. I rode the Tube for a good part of the day avoiding the inevitable. Classic stuff I’m sure.
Of course I eventually told my wife that day. She was everything I knew she would be. But the pain didn’t lessen; it staked a larger claim. Her magnanimity and compassion were so pure that I couldn’t return the gesture in any form. I couldn’t, and she didn’t expect me to utter transcendent ideas or practice life-coaching skills, to be zen and thoughtful.
My shame increased. I avoided telling our friends taking care of our house for days, my family and other friends for weeks and months. And then feelings of inadequacy and fear and anxiety increased with each day I couldn’t find a new job. My community was completely supportive; it wasn’t enough.
I know no way around it. I know Sharon Salzberg’s suggestions of conscientious breathing and meditation are wise and helpful. That reaching out to ones close to you is the social safety net we all need. But, despite all that, I do wonder what happens once that practice ceases to embrace the reality of the situation. I’m merely a man, an ambitious American who was canned and feared he couldn’t make his mortgage.
So, where did I find community and ultimately respite? In music. I don’t recall the songs that I repeatedly listened to then, but, surprisingly, the music I’m listening to now transported me back in ways I couldn’t have predicted when I started writing. I’m posting them here because listening to them may be as telling as the paragraphs above. And, check out some of the haunting titles. Strange coincidences persist.
“Roshi’s Very Tired” by Philip Glass from The Book of Longing
“Running Scared” by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
“Rooftops and Streets” by Thunder in the Valley
“Vartani Mor Vort” by Yuval Ron
“The Romance of Wolves” by Roma di Luna
“Road to Somewhere” by Goldfrapp
“Robots” from Flight of the Conchords
“Rise” from the Into the Wild soundtrack
“River Man” by Nick Drake