In the Face of Adversity.

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’,

Pandora, and the Tyranny of Hope..

I thought I knew the story of Pandora.

It is widely known as a theodicy, an explanation of why there is evil in the world.

Another Eve to blame.

which somewhat misses the subtle meaning of the story.

If the sins and vices are out of the box, like the cat from the bag, the game is up. The shadow of humanity is being made visible by the gods and becomes something we have to address. Each in their own way.

Pandora is raising consciousness. Her other name, Enesidora, means, ‘she who sends up gifts’, which is the propitious way to treat unconscious contents that inevitably make their first appearance in their worst moods. When the oracle says ‘know thyself’, it means the stuff in the box, which, without Pandora, would still be there.

The scam, is the angle we put on Hope being held back.

Oh, poor me, there is so much wickedness out there in the world beyond my gleaming picket fence, but at least there is Hope that someone might come along and do something about it.

As though it were a good thing.

Hope. Be passive. Wait.

What better way to control people than for them to have waiting be their holy duty?

and wait for tomorrow while you are fleeced today.

Which is what Hope becomes when its still trapped in the Box.

This Box is no ordinary thing. It was fashioned by Zeus as a retaliation against humanity for Prometheus’ stolen gift of fire, consciousness.

With consciousness comes…the shadow.

”You want to be conscious? Be conscious of this,..” says Zeus, and introduces humanity to its underbelly….

and its mortality.

but better out than in, hey? Pandora did for humanity the best she could, she let the shadow be visible, something with which to negotiate rather than being hidden away behind lock and key. Like Prometheus she helped us become aware of ourselves and returned the diseases that the old gods had become so that they could return home, to us.

She kept Hope back to be mean, to stamp her individuality on a situation for which she was only meant as a messenger, so that she too could decide her own fate and have a place in history.

Anything kept in the box comes to us as Fate. We idealise it, project it, become it’s tigerbait. And we forget that hope for tomorrow makes passive slaves of today, that hope can make the actual fear of a situation quietly bearable until fear and giving your power away become part of life.

Living in hope can be a way of living in fear or lack without actually doing anything about it. It implies you think you know what you need which is probably debateable.

‘Since when did people know what they wanted?” Morgan Freeman as God in Bruce Almighty.

It also gives the imagined redemption of the situation over to a further imagined other, a heavy burden for any would-be knight…

soon  be-nighted.

Living in hope can turn the refusal to live or grasp your destiny into a shining virtue..  a psychological sleight of hand that allows a person to live with the contradiction between who they actually are and a preferred, more polished version, with the landfill of wishing it were different. Such a trick carries a price and keeps us caught at the developmental level of wishing-it-were-so..

and sewing all kinds of pigs ears into silk purses

and prose into candyfloss…

”love is the voice under all silences, the hope which has no opposite in fear… e.e. cummings

Atop his crate of toffee apples, Cummings may speak of ‘hope that has no opposite in fear’, but what else is hope for than the wish to be delivered from something? Without having to be too conscious of what that something might be…

something with teeth, maybe.

Our hope to be saved from it allows it to roam about unchecked.

Zeus did not put Hope in the Box of Evils by mistake. The Shadow of Hope produced ‘Waiting for Godot’, a story of two men who spend their entire time waiting for someone who never comes. The play is excrusiating because you can see yourself in the roles so easily whilst wanting to wring both their necks for their pathetic helplessness at the same time.

Hope had sucked the life out of them.

Irvin Yalom calls it the neurosis of the ‘ultimate rescuer’, the wish to be defended and redeemed from responsibility and saved from the anxiety of being free by some powerful other.

Sometimes what it takes for transformation to take place is precisely for us to lose hope, hope of attaining prefection, of changing someone, of living without anxiety, of living forever.

The sign over the gloom arches of Diss, the gates of Hell in Dante’s ‘Inferno’, are inscribed, ‘Abandon Hope all ye who Enter Here’. Its a useful piece of advice.

Placing to much emphasis on hope is failure to accept your situation. If you are hoping overly for something then you are not in the moment or grounded in what’s actually happening.

You can be herded.

and forged into armies..

because Hope is aggressive, too. It arrogantly knows what it needs and from whence. Then, made a holy thing of it.

Hope is privately at war with what-life-is on account of what-it-should-be…

living, ‘if only’…and so not really living at all.

”Our suffering is as much on account of our resisting the circumstances at hand as the circumstances themselves.” M. Israel.

Something else should be happening.

I was once walking in Wales. I came across a small sign, pointing, ‘llwyber troed”.

It seemed like an interesting sounding place and so I took that direction despite it not being on the map.

..because it was not on the map..

In fact I faithfully followed the signs to Llwyber troed all afternoon, expectant at every bend, before I realised it was Welsh for footpath.

Living in hope is like that. You are looking for something you’re already on.