Princess Diana, Mother Teresa, Victor Frankl
Today is the funeral of Princess Diana, and first of all let us begin by joining the millions who are today mourning her tragic death. Buddhism is fundamentally concerned with life and death, so it is altogether appropriate that we use occasions like this to look deeply into our reactions. Many of us her know what it is like to suddenly lose someone we know or love and how painful and traumatic that kind of loss can be. But as I listened to people talk about the Princess's death this week, I was struck how those who seemed most intensely affected by it were the ones who said things like, "It' so unfair; It's not supposed to happen that way." Of course the only real answer to that, is "Why not?" And if we really look into that why not, we often find that people who have suffered some terrible loss or trauma or disappointment early in life, try to cope with it by creating a fantasy around someone they consider special who they imagine will never betray, disappoint or leave them. Or perhaps some like the Princess who leads a life, that not without problems, is full of all the glamour and attention we sometimes think we want. And when the inevitable happens, and that person turns out to be human, and be imperfect, and suffer and die the way we all do, we have the opportunity to re-live and re-examine the initial sense of loss and pain that led us to set up the fantasies in the first place. And this time around, as aware adults, we may be able to face and experience directly the painful emotions that overwhelmed us and that we turned away from into fantasy when we were younger.
Mother Teresa also died yesterday. She of course spent her life working with those people whose lives no one envies. And for that, many idealized her, and some even wanted to call her a saint. But from what I've read, she was very impatient with such talk. We all wanted to admire her and what she did, but from a safe distance. We were glad there was this saint doing all the things we could never bring ourselves to do. So from what I could gather, she thought that idealizing her, while it might inspire some, but led just as many to avoid realizing she was just another human being, doing what needed to be done to help those who needed it most.
We all need role models and mentors, and idealizing such figures can be a healthy way to inspire ourselves and become clearer about what we believe and what we want to become. But real practice must always begin with a clear acknowledgement of who we actually are, what we're really feeling. On my way down here today, there was loud belligerent drunk on the subway, swigging from a bottle of vodka, muttering and cursing out loud to the world in general. What did I do? I got up and¬ moved into another car. I was a little bit afraid of this guy, wanted to read my book, and could think of no way to intervene that might not provoke more trouble. And that's where we all start most of the time. We're afraid and want to protect our little bit of peace and quiet. Now gradually practice may begin to teach us that all peace and quiet is temporary, and none of us is going to be able to hold to it forever, but our first reaction is always to try, isn't it? Sometimes in such situations, a smile, or a kind word, or just remaining calm can be helpful, other times, we simply don't know what to do. And for all the ways we want to be compassionate and idealize figures like Mother Teresa, in our own practice we must begin by acknowledging and experiencing our own fear and uncertainty.
Finally, another less famous figure also died this week, psychiatrist Victor Frankel. A survivor of Dachau and Auschwitz, he used those experience to fashion a form of psychotherapy that focused on how we fashion meaning for ourselves in the face of so much suffering and death. His writings were very popular in the 60's and 70's, but seem lately to have faded from public view. Which is what happens to almost all of us. We do what we do, it affects those around us for better or worse, for a while our contribution is remembered, but then in a relatively short time, is forgotten. From another perspective, our true self, which is nothing other than this moment, is inseparable from all of life, and has no beginning and no ending. But the self that has our name and that we identity with so much, that quickly passes away. Frankel's words however still carry force, and as we attend to the life and death of Princess Di and Mother Teresa, I would like to end with these words of his, describing how he and fellow concentration camp inmates learned to face their lives:
" We had to learn ourselves, and furthermore we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life but instead to think of ourselves as who were being questioned by life, daily and hourly.
Our answer must consist not in talk and medication, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual."