Recently I have worked with several individuals who expressed the belief they have failed in their lives. This belief generates enormous self-doubt and suffering. As we spoke, I was reminded of a vision that was given to me many years ago. I have mentioned it in a previous post, and wish to revisit the vision in more depth now.
The world is complex. We live at the intersection of innumerable interactions, connections, and relationships. Yet, we are tempted to imagine we can control the outcome of all events we encounter. How often do you hear yourself or a friend being self-critical about the outcome of a series of events apparently triggered by a well-considered action, or even an action we now consider a grotesque mistake?
In my early twenties I had a vision in which I was visited by a very old, wise, immense being. The being created before me a panorama of my life experiences to date, then expanded the frame to briefly explore recent human history, Finally, I was presented with an apparently unending line of people, several across. Mostly these were just everyday people, but occasionally I recognized someone. Some, mostly individuals who had done great harm (like Mao, Stalin, and Hitler) were pointed out to me. As the procession of people continued to pass before us, the being simply said, “Here are all the people who ever lived.” I had the sense there were also people who had yet to be born.
As I watched, I realized in my very core that each of those people had done their very best. Each and every one had lived the finest life they could manage, no exceptions. This was a startling realization, one that even now, more than forty years later, I wrestle with. How could it be, I questioned, that doing one’s best could cause so much suffering? Again the spirit being spoke, remarking that each was simultaneously caught up in circumstances beyond his or her control, yet responsible for their actions. As if to illustrate, I was shown many instances where I had acted hurtfully, yet was doing the best I knew at the time.
This vision was filled with paradox. I saw that we are responsible for our lives, yet live in a matrix over whose impacts in our lives we have limited control. We are called to live good lives, yet invariably cause harm. We live among large forces, perhaps another way to see karma, yet can do much to create happiness or suffering in our lives, and in the lives of others. Just before the vision ended the being turned to me and said, “You cannot control all that befalls you, but you do have choice in how you relate to what comes into your life.” In that moment I knew I had the freedom to learn to respond with courage, equanimity, compassion, even gratitude, to life’s experiences.
Decades have passed since that memorable moment of vision. Truth be told, I have managed only intermittently to remember to stop and breathe, then actually choose my emotional and physical response. I’d like to think I am getting better at this as I age, a way of both being more skillfully in the world and expressing gratitude to that energy being who brought me to vision. I’m not sure I am doing that much better though. I am forever reminded of my shortcomings by the intense inner critics who insist I am failing to do my best and deserve all misfortune that befalls me. From the critics’ point of view, I deserve whatever suffering comes my way, even though I would seldom think that of others.
Still, I practice reminding myself I am doing the best I am able. I like to hope that by stopping, taking a breath, and forgiving myself for my lack of knowledge and accomplishment, I will respond more skillfully to the experiences I face, and perhaps learn something useful, maybe to be applied the next time I face similar circumstances.
The memory of the vision sometimes returns with great urgency as I work with people who are determined to live good lives, even as they suffer. I witness as they deride themselves for their lack of knowledge, skill, and success in life’s tasks, their loneliness in or out of relationship. In such moments I am reminded of one version of the Buddha’s last words, “Do your best.” I look back into the vision and know we are each doing our best, and paradoxically, that if we can muster compassion for ourselves and one another, we might do better, might experience more love and joy. In the moment both are true.