When bad things happen

18 July 2019

We all have this conceit that life is supposed to happen on our own terms. When things go wrong, that conceit is violated and we feel hard done by. Disease, financial or natural disaster, deprivation of one kind or another etc. These are the things that can go wrong.

The Buddhist spirit says that we can only achieve some peace if we can come to accept that life does NOT happen on our terms. We can’t control the emotions we feel. We can’t prevent disaster. We can’t, as the saying goes, cover the whole world with leather to stop the stones from burning our feet.

The things that other people do to us and the ways in which they act that hurt us are just as much part of life not happening on our terms as hurricanes and cancer. I think we should look on them the same way. Someone’s abuse towards me is not inherently different (or shouldn’t be seen as inherently different) than getting cancer or having a tornado strike.

What makes the actions of people seem like they should be an exception is our notion of justice. It is unjust for them to act this way and our sense of justice demands that they not do so. A person is unjust, on this way of thinking, in the way that a tornado cannot be because the person chooses to act this way. The tornado cannot so choose. A person has agency (is an agent?). A tornado has none. 

There are many notions tied up with this idea of agency. The agent wills the action and can thus be held responsible for it.Maybe the desire for justice is a block to our chances for peace. OTOH, who wants to live in a world in which we do nothing to strive for it? BUT, we do not let the fact that natural disasters occur prevent us from responding with compassion to their victims. Nor do we (wearing our buddhist hats) fail to prepare for them. The point is, that we work to not take them personally.

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