“Even when I thought, with most other well-informed, though unscholarly, people, that Buddhism and Christianity were alike, there was one thing about them that always perplexed me; I mean the startling difference in their type of religious art. I do not mean in its technical style of representation, but in the things that it was manifestly meant to represent. No two ideals could be more opposite than a Christian saint in a Gothic cathedral and a Buddhist saint in a Chinese temple. The opposition exists at every point; but perhaps the shortest statement of it is that the Buddhist saint always has his eyes shut, while the Christian saint always has them very wide open. The Buddhist saint has a sleek and harmonious body, but his eyes are heavy and sealed with sleep. The mediaeval saint’s body is wasted to its crazy bones, but his eyes are frightfully alive. There cannot be any real community of spirit between forces that produced symbols so different as that. Granted that both images are extravagances, are perversions of the pure creed, it must be a real divergence which could produce such opposite extravagances. The Buddhist is looking with a peculiar intentness inwards. The Christian is staring with a frantic intentness outwards.”
Recently, I came across a related thought in the Viktor Frankl classic, Man’s Search for Meaning.
Some of his most interesting insights, I realized this time around, came post-incarceration. Being released from the Nazi death camps, Frankl immediately noticed, did not make for unadulterated euphoria.
“Psychologically, what was happening to the liberated prisoners could be called ‘depersonalization.’ Everything appeared unreal, unlikely, as in a dream…How often in the past years had we been delivered by dreams?…And now the dream had come true. But could we truly believe in it?”
The released prisoner ate ravenously, talked endlessly. “The pressure which had been on his mind for years was released at last. Hearing him talk, one got the impression that he had to talk, that his desire to speak was irresistible.”
Next, the desire for vengeance naturally arose. “Only slowly could be these men be guided back to the commonplace truth that no one ahs the right to do wrong, not even if wrong has been done to him.”
Expecting compassion and understanding, the newly-freed instead often found indifference. “When, on his return, a man found that in many places he was met only with a shrug of the shoulders and with hackneyed phrases, he tended to become bitter and to ask himself why he had gone through all that he had. When he heard the same phrases nearly everywhere—‘We did not know about it,’ and ‘We, too, have suffered,’ then he asked himself, have they really nothing better to say to me?”
If that wasn’t the cross, I don’t know what would be. Imagine coming out of Auschwitz and having people say, “Well boo-hoo, things were tough for us, too”.
But over time, Frankl saw that this tension between how we wish the world to be and how it actually is—and our consent to live in the tension—is essential to our humanity.
“To be sure, man’s search for meaning and values may arouse inner tension rather than inner equilibrium. However, precisely this tension is an indispensable prerequisite of mental health. There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions, as is the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life…
As for myself when I was taken to the concentration camp at Auschwitz, a manuscript of mine ready for publication was confiscated. Certainly, my deep concern to write this manuscript anew helped me to survive the rigors of the camp…
Thus it can be seen that mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become. Such tension is inherent in the human being and therefore is indispensable to mental well-being… I consider it a dangerous misconception of mental hygiene to assume that what man needs in the first place is equilibrium or, as it is called in biology, “homeostasis,” i.e. a tensionless state. What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather this driving and struggling for some goal worthy of him.”
Obviously, we don’t want to carry unnecessary tension. But the fact is that the more awake we are to the suffering of the world, and of our part in it, and of our desire to alleviate it, the more tension we’re going to carry.
Tension, however, is to be distinguished from the default state of constant outrage and hostility that characterizes so much of our culture. If we’re outraged, let’s embark on a project, says Frankl (and Christ). Let’s not put ourselves in a stupor of one form or another so that we get to pretend the suffering of the world is an illusion, or doesn’t matter. Alternatively, let’s not sit around in a state of high dudgeon pointing the finger at everyone else.
Let’s find a goal that’s worthy of us.
For Christ, that was to lay down his life for his friends. For Christ, that was to save the world. For Christ, that was the Crucifixion.
Crown him with many crowns. Hail, Redeemer, King Divine.