When I was a boy growing up in Africa we had a Pawpaw tree in the garden which refused to fruit. The gardener, Kimberley, suggested hacking a large hole in the trunk of the tree and stuffing it with a house brick. He assured my mother that this brutal treatment would have the desired effect.
She was horrified and refused to go along with the idea. In time the tree withered even further. Short of chopping it out entirely she eventually agreed to Kimberley’s extreme plan. The hole was duly cut with a fearsome looking panga right through the trunk of the scrawny tree and a house brick jammed into it. The tree perked up and within a year bore a crop of impressive fruit.
What induces growth is sometimes counter-intuitive. Providing the best of all possible environs is not necessarily going to yield results. Sometimes what is actually required is adversity.
The pawpaw wasn’t fruiting because its life was too easy. Its comfort made no demands of it. It was being watered, mulched and excessively tended. Life was good for the pawpaw. Too good. Kimberley’s solution was to threaten its comfort zone in order to improve its motivation, to give it a ‘now or never’ ultimatum and the pawpaw duly rose to the occasion.
Are we so different? When did you ever achieve anything soulful when all your needs were being taken care of? When was your last, most productive period? What were your circumstances at that time? Most of us will identify with the pawpaw. Paradoxically we tend to fruit when times are toughest, when we seem to have the least resources.
Under difficult circumstances we are compelled to transcend the cultural and family safety nets that normally keep us safe but also limit and constrain. When we are happily living off the fat of the land we have enough to satisfy ourselves. When times are abundant there is no pressing need to embark on difficult adventures.
From this vantage point hardship and evolution itself are interlinked. Recent studies show that the further away from the cradle of infancy in the Alduvi Gorge humanity roamed, the more complex our DNA became, culminating in the most complex genetic codes in the people of South America who travelled furthest. In other words there is a direct link between genetic evolution and facing the unknown.
It’s as though the Psyche were compensating the hardship of life by flowering into it. Nature is self regulating. If circumstances don’t boom then consciousness will. You may wish for an easy life but the consequences for your inner world could be potentially disastrous. In the music business it is a standing joke that second albums are second rate. Their initial success can rob the performer of the hunger upon which genius feeds.
Without struggle there is no fruit. We cannot help wishing for someone to step in and relieve us of the burden of having to deal with the world but if the longing to be rescued is granted it…
‘sterilizes the inner process’. (Von Franz 1986)
You need only look at the fate of figures like Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse and dozens of others who lived the dream to see what a nightmare it actually turned out to be. There are just as many examples from history: writer Jakob Boehme who deteriorated under the protective wing of Baron von Metz, abstract artist Roger Hilton who drank himself to death, Mark Rothko who blew his brains out at the height of his career and Tchaikovsky who drank infested water and died after being feted for writing his greatest symphony, the 1812 overture.
All this gives rise to a very real problem. Since creative endeavour wants to be ‘out there‘, bringing success and ease in its wake, how are we to sustain it when the fruit of our labour has a way of killing the tree that bears it?
Perhaps you could say by analogy that the creative principle is like a jealous lover who makes us endure a great deal for her attentions. She will tolerate our being friends with Success and Reward, but if these others become the focus of our attention, if we flirt with them too much, she will storm off in high dudgeon.
The lived sense of an inner relationship is what helps to prevent the creative fruit from rotting on the tree. Humility is a dynamic quality that acknowledges its sources. I saw this best put by Elizabeth Franklin in a Ted talk. She’s the author of ‘Love, Eat, Play’, and was speaking about how to avoid the disease of success. The trick, she says, is to recognise that genius has its own life.
In ancient times ’genius’ was recognised as a daemon that inspired, literally, that we breathed in. It was other, not-me, but helped co-create the project at hand. Nowadays we are tempted to view genius as an aspect of the personality, which is to remain in an arid, unconscious identification with Sublimity.
When we do this we suffer the fate of Adonis who didn’t know the true identity of his lover, Venus. He has a night of passion but then goes swiftly to his death. Suffering and meaning are indivisible from one another. Struggle is necessary to growth without which meaning withers. We learn the lessons that life has for us through these experiences of suffering or psychic discomfort.
‘Pain, grief, loss and ceaseless frustration of every kind are there for a real and dramatic purpose; to wake us up, to enable and almost force us to release our imprisoned splendour.’ (Sogyal Rimpoche 1996).
We may rarely understand what is being invited of us at the time, but if we resist our suffering on account of this we can only multiply our misfortune.
‘Our suffering is [as much] produced by an attitude of intransigent
rebellion to the circumstances at hand as by the circumstances
themselves’. (Martin Israel 1998).
The sages agree, that which banishes suffering is none other than itself consciously embraced, or, to quote the Tao te Ching (1993),
‘only if one suffers from this suffering, does one become free of
So long as we try to escape our suffering we cannot be free. Why? Because freedom is the experience of unconditional participation in life, all of which occurs in the here and now. Any attempt to escape from suffering means also the attempt to escape from or avoid what is happening in the moment.
This is not to say that we then find meaning in suffering by the trite formula that ‘everything happens for a reason’. Such a mechanistic rendering simply echoes the archaic beliefs in a vengeful god punishing us for indiscretions we have yet to confess. It also presupposes a childlike wish that we can keep tragedy at bay simply by being good.
As such it is no more an evolved philosophy of life than refraining from stepping on the cracks in the pavement so the bears won’t get you. It is a way of thinking about life devoid of chaos where we can continue to play at reflecting upon life for as long as it is uncomplicated. I much prefer the rendering of Joel ben Izzy (2005),
‘I still believe that things in this world do, indeed, happen for a reason. But sometimes that reason only comes after they happen. It is not a reason we find, but one we carve, sculpted from our own painand loss, bound together with love and compassion.’
Wanting to be free of suffering or feeling we’ve deserved it somehow is mostly what suffering is made of. There is no escape and no blame to be had. Any attempt to escape or explain just makes it worse. If you would diminish suffering you can only let it be. It is through suffering that one may begin to gain some semblance of self knowledge that may then throw perspective on the experience. Suffering actively embraced can help us cultivate compassion and empathy for self and others. Our wholeness hatches in some strange nests.
Consumer culture has so conditioned us to experience any frustration of our desires as something to be surmounted without delay that we find it almost impossible to attribute adversity with value. There is an apocryphal story about Jung who one day had a man come and see him in a terrible crisis. He had lost his job and his wife in the same week. Jung excused himself from the room but quickly reappeared with a bottle of champagne and two glasses. ‘What are you doing?’ asked the man. ‘Celebrating,’ replied Jung, ‘You’ve just been given the opportunity to completely reinvent yourself.’
This article is an excerpt of my new book, ‘Abundant Delicious’, http://andywhiteblog.com/