How to face Reality, with the help of stories

We turn to spiritual reading in times of need for reassurance and comfort. If we look at bestselling spiritual self-help books, we find titles like, The Book of Joy, or The Untethered Soul. These books show us how to be positive in the face of troubling life problems.

But this positive approach is also dangerous. Only pursuing comforting or pleasurable experiences can lead us into frustration. We practice positive thinking and wonder why our lives haven’t changed completely. Finally, we end up blaming ourselves for not being positive enough.

Facing fears

We’ve overlooked a crucial first step into a better world: facing scary truths. It is important to look at the things that make us uncomfortable. Things that make us want to run and hide — even though they are scary.

Why is it important? Because otherwise we’re living in a fantasy world. We delude ourselves into thinking we’re secure, but security is an illusion. Everything is always changing. We can either continue to hide our heads in the sand, or unbury ourselves and see what happens.

We’re not alone. We have maps to help us on our journey in the form of stories, legends, and myths. Well-known stories help guide us through the dark forest and into a brighter world. We’ll look at two of them — the Buddha’s story, and Job’s story (from the Old Testament) — and also consider our own. On the other side, we’ll be transformed, with a new freedom and personal identity.

The examined spiritual life

Why should we care? Why brave harsh reality? Because, as Socrates said (via Plato), the unexamined life is not worth living. We shouldn’t let popular trends dictate our spiritual choices. Nor should we accept reassuring advice because it makes us feel good. Looking at our own fears will transform us into more accepting, confident people. To be fearless we must first descend into darkness, before we return forever changed.

Where do we start?

Gustave Doré’s engraving, from the illustrated ‘Divine Comedy’ of Dante (1861–1868).

Part 1: Something’s wrong

At the beginning of our story, the hero is ignorant.

In the story of the Buddha, a protective king hides his son away in his enormous castle. The prince lives a life of ease and luxury, never lifting a finger, nor worrying about the future. The king keeps his son in a perfect state of blissful ignorance. But the prince can’t stay that way forever. He even senses that something is missing. Is this all there is to life? Soon, reality will come calling.

What can this story tell us? We must be on the lookout for our own ignorance. When I was young I thought that with my willpower I could do anything. I thought I was all-powerful. And yet, I was ignoring lots of truths that I would later face. Like death. We were invincible when we’re young. But were we? Of course not.

When we are young, we are like Job at the beginning of his story in The Book of Job. We think that because we are good, the world will be good to us. But the story doesn’t bear this out. Job is a fortunate and pious man. But bad things happen to Job. He loses everything — his wealth, his status, his health, and his family.

Why? This is a question we must look at, if we’re going to be spiritual people. Why do bad things happen to good people? These are hard questions, but they are the gateway to a happier life. As D’Angelo said, ‘to get to heaven done been through hell.’

We learn about our mortality with age and experience. We become responsible adults who know that each day we are closer to death, and so is everyone we love. We learn to treasure the moments we have.

Let’s descend further…

‘Departure of Siddhartha,’ Abanindranath Tagore (1914)

Part 2: Our world turns upside down

In the middle of our story, the hero catches a glimpse of reality, and it is scary.

The prince (Buddha), at the age of 29, sneaks out of his father’s castle to see the city. On his journey he sees four things he’s never seen before: an old man, a dead man, a sick man, and a monk.

Imagine if you didn’t know what death was, and you came across a corpse. Your whole world crumbles down around you. Everything changes in an instant, as you realize that people do not live forever. A profound realization — especially for someone almost thirty.

For us, this moment happens when we see that we can’t make everything happen the way we want it to. Events don’t unfold like a movie, where the story always works out in our favor. Something more complicated is going on. Something bigger than us. Realizing that we don’t have total control is the emotional equal of seeing a dead body for the first time.

We have to learn this the hard way, like poor Job. When Job loses everything, Job’s friends think that God is punishing him for bad behavior. They can’t believe that God would punish the innocent. But Job knows he is innocent, so he doubts God’s justice. He supposes that God must not be good.

Job’s world has turned completely upside down. He reconsiders everything he thought was true. This is what happens to us when we question our control. Why can’t we fulfill all our dreams? Why don’t our positive visualizations always work? How can we get ahead in life, when unpredictable events keep happening? We are like Job or the young Buddha, lost in confusion. What do we do?

‘Job and His Family Restored to Prosperity,’ William Blake (1826)

Part 3: We go out on our own

The young Buddha returns to his father’s castle — but not for long. His life has changed. He knows things he didn’t know before. A question arises in his mind: is there a way to overcome death and suffering? To pose this question, the Buddha had to exit his father’s castle. He had to escape his material prison to see the process of life and death. Like the young Buddha, we must first exit our castle to grow.

Buddha spends years trying to find an answer to his question. Finally he realizes that extremes are not the way. The middle path, the pathway between decadence and deprivation, leads to understanding.

Job, meanwhile, grows more and more bitter. He demands that God answer for his suffering, and God does. God appears in a whirlwind and asks Job a string of questions. God demands, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” What did Job ever do on his own, without God?

Job realizes that he was wrong. He thought he knew the intentions of God. He thought he knew how life worked. But he didn’t. Job says to God, “I know that thou canst do every thing, and that no thought can be withholden from thee.”

These two stories represent two paths. We may be like the Buddha, who faced reality on his own; or we may be like Job, who waited for reality to reveal itself. Either way, we come to an epiphany: we aren’t in control. We’re a part of something bigger.

These stories, and this process we go through, is not fun in the moment. But both stories end with miracles. Job’s family, material life, and health all return. The Buddha achieves release in the form of enlightenment. The story of Job endures for us to learn from, and the Buddha spends the rest of his long life dedicated to others.

We learned something important. We learned the truth of poet Robert Frost’s words, “the best way out is always through.”

Part 4: Welcome to a new life

What happens next in our story? We are in a larger world. We no longer harbor delusions or assumptions about reality. At last we are free to be ourselves, to go explore, and to give back to the world.

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