The Russian Ballet, A Native American Rug, and a Squirrel: Why Suffering Isn’t Really Suffering At All

Picture yourself at the ballet. But instead of everyone being dressed up and seated in gilded red velvet seats about to watch various performers with tights, slippers, and Russian last names – the audience members were all red haired, toothless farmer hicks wearing snorkel masks, and instead of being handed a program, we were handed a small, infuriated squirrel. Everything that our standard reference points had learned from previous knowledge of the ballet would be noticeably absent. Our usual insulators gone, and us on our own amongst the plaid-and-overalls wearing carrot tops, with a very confused look on our faces.

So, you’ve all heard the parable of the prodigal son. But when he returns to his father’s welcome-home party, that isn’t the end of the story. In fact, the parable is never resolved: we never find out what his older jealous brother actually did in the end. It’s not a Hollywood ending, but a Hollywood ending isn’t how it always goes, is it? Some brothers never join the party, some fathers never throw one, some brothers never even come back. Lots of parties are missing somebody.

And honestly, we try to resolve things too quickly or pretend that everyone is, in fact, at the party when they most certainly are not. Offering hollow, superficial explanations isn’t honest, nor right, nor real. It’s not how life is.

I’ve heard people (and myself) trying to be helpful during a difficult situation or tragedy by saying, “That’s just how God planned it since everything happens for a reason,” and I find myself wondering now, “The god who planned that isn’t really a god I want anything to do with.” Others, with far more wisdom than I have, attempt to tackle the ‘why’ of suffering. But really, I’m just interested in one question concerning the whole matter: Not “why this?”, but rather, “what now?”. It’s not even just the ‘what’ but the ‘where’ too.

A phrase we all use when we’re describing something we consider new, fresh, and unexpected is “out of the box”. Asking “what now?” implies that you’re out of the box and facing something new, fresh, and unexpected. This is what suffering is: we’re jolted into a new reality that we never would have brought about on our own. We’re forced to imagine a new future, because the one we were planning on is now gone. However, the problem with this phrase, “out of the box”, is that it assumes that “the box” is still a primary point of reference for judgment. We’re still operating within the prescribed boundaries and assumptions of how things are supposed to be. So in reality, “out of the box” is just another way of being in the box.

So, there’s being completely out of your element and in a brand new reality, as in my Squirrel Ballet I mentioned earlier.
And there’s finding disturbances within your element that create a new, fresh, and unexpected reality.
And there’s “out of the box”, which is often merely a variation of the same thing.

But then there are those who think, feel, live, and create from a different place (…”there’s a box?”). They’ve had their boxes smashed and their insulators dismantled until they had no other option but to totally imagine a new tomorrow.
I would call this “the art of disruption”.

Catherine of Aragon once said, “None get to God but through trouble.” This reminds me of the phrase, “You can’t know light until you’ve been in the darkness.” And the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami has said, “It’s precisely because of the pain, precisely because we want to overcome that pain, that we can get a feeling, through this process, of really being alive.”

Couldn’t have said it better, Mr. Murakami. We all want to feel alive, important, like we’re making a difference. And even though we live in a world of facades, pain has a way of making us all far more honest than we would like to be. We suffer, there’s a disruption, our boxes get smashed, our insulators removed, our pretenses shattered, and this empty place inside of us opens up.

I think this is where greats people and true artists come in – they put into words/art what so many others are thinking, feeling, and wondering, and affirm that “you aren’t the only one having this experience, so stop pretending like it’s okay and embrace this empty space you feel inside of you.” We hear something born of suffering and adversity and we are moved. Why? Because it’s honest. It’s real. It means something. It’s the art of the ache, the art of disruption. And this ache is universal; it reminds us that things aren’t how they’re ‘supposed’ to be, cutting through all the pretenses and reassuring us we aren’t the only ones feeling like this. Suffering unites. Perhaps that’s why people across the religious spectrum continue to identify with the cross. It speaks to our longing to know that we’re not alone, that there’s someone else screaming out alongside of us. Sort of like God saying, “I know how you feel.”

Still on the same note speaking of great artists, any good artist will tell you that it’s not about what you add to the art; sometimes the most important work is knowing what to take away. Removing clutter, excess, and superfluous elements while finding out via the process what’s really been in there this whole time. Sculptors shape and form and rearrange, but at the most basic level, they really just take away to reveal what’s been inside of their stone block all along. Mark Twain said once that if he’d had more time, he would have said less. I find this fascinating.

I’ve found that suffering compels us to eliminate the unnecessary, the trivial, the superficial.
It’s certainly changed my perspective to my family, my friends, the ones and things that I love the most. On what truly matters. On what’s really inside of me: courage, desire, virtue, compassion, loyalty, love. It’s all in there in all of us – somewhere. And sometimes, it’s takes suffering to get at it. But it’s in there. Suffering is an opportunity to grow, expand, learn, love. Even through the art of failure. Like Paul, from the Bible: a man who wrote about his troubles, hardships, distress, beatings, imprisonments, riots, sleepless nights, and hunger. This is a man who clearly suffered, yet doesn’t end his life in despair. In his words, his life is, “…Having nothing, yet possessing everything.”

How profound.

My final analogy: Native Americans have a tradition of leaving a blemish in one corner of the rug they are weaving because that’s where they believe the Spirit enters. I can relate to that rug. I want DESPERATELY for things to go “how they’re supposed to”, which is another way of just saying “how i want them to”, which is another way of saying “according to MY plan.” And we all know how that always turns out :). In that disappointment and pain in confusion at life’s different routings, I come to the end of myself and the end of my strength, only to find in that place of powerlessness a strength and peace growing and flourishing that certainly weren’t there before. I keep discovering that through my blemish, through my weakness, that’s where this strength comes in. Like the Native American rug, I feel my spirit coming through via my faults – not the rest of the rug that I’ve worked so hard to perfect.

We are all going to suffer at some point. And it is going to shape us. And we have the opportunity – to become Bitter, or Better. Closed, or Open. More Ignorant, or More Aware.

I choose to reuse, recast, and reshape the things that go “wrong” in my life and give it meaning, so that in the end of the day, nothing is wasted and nothing is without significance and nothing ceases to be precious, special, and highly interesting to me. Especially if it involves squirrels at the Russian ballet.

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