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The Ultimate Spiritual Bullshit Test
You’re on a subway station waiting for your train to arrive. A man you don’t know approaches the edge of the platform, ignoring all the calls to back away announced from the subway speakers. He’s nervously rocking sideways and breathing heavily. His face is turning red, his whole body is tense. What do you do? The train will be here in just 50 more seconds.
I saw this man in early March 2020. A few days later our whole country was under full lockdown. Was it the pandemic that awoke so much despair in him? At this point all I can do is guess.
I stood there completely paralyzed, desperate to do something but unable to make a move. What could I possibly do anyway? Any words that came to my mind at that moment fell short. Some woman tried talking to him, but unsuccessfully. As the train began approaching the platform, two strong men grabbed the guy by the shoulders and forcefully pulled him away. It didn’t feel like the right thing at all, but this was the best all of us could collectively do.
Watching this made me feel completely, utterly helpless. Was there any better way to respond in that situation? I’d read so many holy books, and self-help books, and psychology books, and other kinds of profound wisdom books, and yet not a single word in them was of any help to me at that moment. I began asking everyone I know: therapists, doctors, long-time meditators and spiritual seekers of different kinds. Not a single one of them could give me a satisfying answer. I was grateful that at least some of them honestly said they didn’t know.
A spiritual author I admired was doing an AMA on Twitter a few days later, so I described the whole situation to him. What would you do, I asked, what would you say to this guy? He said the guy was just a distraction from my own problems and suffering and I should focus on that instead. So you’d just stand there and watch him die, yes or no? Asking this question got me blocked from ever interacting with him again. It’s not like I wanted to do it anyway, all the respect I ever had for him disappeared right in that second.
What’s the point of accumulating profound wisdom if it won’t help you help someone in the deepest pain imaginable? What’s the point of freeing yourself from suffering if it won’t help you relieve the suffering of someone else? I started reviewing all the books I’ve read through that angle, and was shocked to discover how little of it stood the test.
I do think there’s a point to be made here that you can only effectively help someone to the extent that you’ve helped yourself first. It is certainly possible to run away from your own problems by trying to save a friend or a spouse, running in circles of codependency without ever moving forward. But if I waited with ever helping someone until I’m done with my own stuff, I’d be waiting forever. We are always a work in progress, and I’d never want this to prevent me from seeing other people in their pain.
Despite all the troubles I’ve had with my religion of birth, I must give them credit where it’s due. They take suffering much more seriously than most of the modern world. I have no doubts that most Catholic priests would try to approach that guy in some way. They might completely miss the point and upset him even more, but at least they wouldn’t wave away at the problem pretending it doesn’t exist. When everyone is all about good vibes only, just being able to notice someone in their suffering is already a lot.
My Facebook ads are full of fundraisers for yet another noble cause. A 14-month old I don’t know needs one million dollars for experimental heart surgery, otherwise she’ll die in two months. Another kid half her age needs twice as much for experimental gene therapy. An orphanage in Zambia needs food and medication for their children, you could feed all two hundred of them for a whole year for the price of saving these two kids. What do I do? Keep scrolling? Every time I decide to help one of these kids there are many more showing up in their place.
Life in the past used to be much more brutal, but at least nobody knew of all the disasters happening everywhere on the planet. Whatever misery might have struck upon you, all the people around you were likely going through the same. Now we’re sitting in our safe and comfortable homes watching an endless stream of one human tragedy after another. How can any single person know about all of this suffering and horror and still keep going on with their lives?
I don’t trust anyone who has a simple answer to this question. I always imagine them saying these words to the guy standing at the edge of the platform, or to someone living in Mariupol during the siege. Someone pushed to their very edge will always see through your bullshit. No spiritual platitudes will ever pass the test.
The man from the subway kept haunting me for the next few months. I was lying in bed for so many sleepless nights, seeing his back turned away from me and rehearsing all the different words I could say. I knew there was nothing I could do about that particular guy, but just in case I ever happen to see someone in this much acute pain again, I wanted to be ready.
Since then I’ve met some people who are much wiser than me, and having watched them in all sorts of situations gives me a clue for how I might want to react. “Hey bro, there will be more trains here today if that’s what you really must do. But right now I really need you to tell me what the fuck is going on. Come let’s grab a tea at the Starbucks upstairs, chat for a bit, and I’ll let you go free. It’s not like you have anything to lose here anyway, do you?”
Would this be enough to save him? I don’t know. The enlightened Twitter guy was right that there’s nothing I could do to possibly save anyone. But that’s no reason to turn away from his pain, to pretend that it doesn’t exist or that it’s none of my business. If that’s what enlightenment is all about, I don’t want any of it.
I need to be gentle with myself as I build the capacity to witness all the suffering in the world without flinching. It is a lifelong process and I know it will make me confront my helplessness many more times. But ultimately if there’s any reason to engage in some sort of spiritual practice, this is the best possible reason I could find.
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