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Lions Roar : July 2018
that takes in so much more of our world. And where we need to maintain great awareness, lest we trip and fall. Our journey through life is one of peril and possibility—and sometimes both at once. How can we stand on the threshold between suffering and freedom and remain informed by both worlds? With our penchant for dualities, humans tend to identify either with the terrible truth of suffering or with freedom from suffering. But I believe that excluding any part of the larger land- scape of our lives reduces the territory of our understanding. Life has taken me into geographically, emotionally, and socially complex geographies. Organizing within the Civil Rights and antiwar movements of the sixties, working in a big county hospital as a medical anthropologist, founding and lead- ing two practice and educational communities, sitting at the bedside of dying people, volunteering in a maximum-security prison, meditating for extended periods, collaborating with neuroscientists and social psychologists on compassion-based projects, and running health clinics in the remotest areas of the Himalayas—all have introduced me to complex challenges, including periods of overwhelm. The education I’ve gained through these experiences—especially through my struggles and failures—has given me a perspective I could never have anticipated. I have come to see the profound value of taking in the whole landscape of life and not rejecting or denying what we are given. I have also learned that our waywardness, dif- ficulties, and “crises” might not be terminal obstacles. They can actually be gateways to wider, richer internal and external land- scapes. If we willingly investigate our difficulties, we can fold them into a view of reality that is more courageous, inclusive, emergent, and wise—as have many others who have fallen over the edge. Edge States Over the years, I slowly became aware of five internal and interpersonal qualities that are keys to a compassionate and courageous life, and without which we cannot serve, nor can we survive. Yet if these precious resources deteriorate, they can manifest as dangerous landscapes that cause harm. I called these bivalent qualities Edge States. The Edge States are altruism, empathy, integrity, respect, and engagement, assets of a mind and heart that exemplify caring, connection, virtue, and strength. Yet we can also lose our firm footing on the high edge of any of these qualities and slide into a mire of suffering where we find ourselves caught in the toxic and chaotic waters of the harmful aspects of an Edge State. Altruism can turn into pathological altruism. Selfless actions in service to others are essential to the well-being of society and the natural world. But sometimes, our seemingly altruis- tic acts harm us, harm those whom we are trying to serve, or harm the institutions we serve in. Empathy can slide into empathic distress. When we are able to sense into the suffering of another person, empathy brings us closer to one another, can inspire us to serve, and expands our understanding of the world. But if we take on too much of the suffering of another, and identify too intensely with it, we may become damaged and unable to act. Integrity points to having strong moral principles. But when we engage in or witness acts that violate our sense of integrity, justice, or beneficence, moral suffering can be the outcome. Respect is a way we hold beings and things in high regard. Respect can disappear into the swamp of toxic disrespect, when we go against the grain of values and principles of civility, and disparage others or ourselves. Engagement in our work can give a sense of purpose and meaning to our lives, particularly if our work serves others. But overwork, a poisonous workplace, and the experience of the lack of efficacy can lead to burnout, which can cause physical and psychological collapse. Even in their degraded forms, Edge States can teach and strengthen us, just as bone and muscle are strengthened when exposed to stress, or if broken or torn, can heal in the right circumstances and become stronger for having been injured. In other words, losing our footing and sliding down the slope of harm need not be a terminal catastrophe. There is humility, perspective, and wisdom that can be gained from our greatest difficulties. In her book The Sovereignty of Good (1970), Iris Murdoch defined humility as a “selfless respect for reality.” She writes that “our picture of ourselves has become too grand.” This I discovered from sitting at the bedside of dying people and being with caregivers. Doing this close work with those who were dying and those who were giving care showed me how serious the costs of suffering can be for patient as well as caregiver. Since that time, I have learned from teachers, lawyers, CEOs, human rights workers, and parents that they can experience the same. I was then reminded of something profoundly important and yet completely obvious: that the way out of the storm and mud of suffering, the way back to freedom on the high edge of strength and courage, is through the power of compassion. Futility and Courage I have a friend who was a dedicated and skillful psychologist, but after years of practicing, he had caved in to futility. In a conver- sation with me, he confessed, “I just can’t bear to listen to my patients anymore.” He explained that at a certain point in his career, he had begun to feel every emotion his patients were going through, and he was totally overwhelmed by their experiences of suffering. The constant exposure had eventually dried him up. At one point, he couldn’t sleep, and was overeating to relieve stress. Gradually he had moved into a space of helplessness and emo- tional shutdown. “I just don’t care,” he said. “I feel flat and gray LION’S ROAR | JULY 2018 70