To my 20 year old friend

William Waldron recalls his younger self, giving his own unique account of the four noble truths.

On the way back from the post office, I passed a young man, skateboard in hand, on the sidewalk. He looked away from me, uncomfortable in his youth. That was me many years ago; shuffling down the street, hat pulled down low over my face, not just to block out the cold wind that never stops, but more to block out the cold, uncaring stares that never cease. Somehow, I inherited a deep sensitivity to human frailty and can’t quite muster the obligatory optimism that says we’re supposed to smile. What, after all, is so wonderful?

Apologies. That is a terrible way to start, I didn’t mean to spoil your day. Better put this essay down right now. Or better, be sure to read to the end.

What can I say to my many sensitive young friends? Yes, your perception of the problems facing us is so true. Your sense that our political structures are run and owned by the corporations, by the wealthy, who care little for the welfare of the many; that our social structures define and confine us in neat little boxes that dampen our joy and kill our creativity; that these macro forces are enforced and inscribed in our hearts and minds, bringing the war within, a battle between our urges and impulses and intuitive insights against all the voices that urge us to deny our bio-wisdom, our innate sense of wonder and love, which every child is born with. Why have we built up such structures that deny and belittle such healthy, holy impulses? What happened in our so-called ‘Fall of Man’? Where can we go from here? It is all so confusing.

Fortunately, a few folks here and there have had the courage and insight to speak up and call a spade a spade. ‘The minds of all beings are deranged,’the Buddha said. R. Crumb’s ‘Mr. Natural’ concurs: ‘the whole universe is completely insane.’ So this is a kind of starting point, or at least an affirmation of our negative intuitions.

But maybe if we start with our own experience we can get some kind of handle on this. I feel bad and confused. I am confused about the world and why it is so messed up, I am confused about myself and why I am so messed up. I am confused about this and so feel even worse. It is an endless cycle of angst and inner dialogue between contending voices.

But why? I don’t like feeling bad and so I work to push those feelings away, push them down, push them aside, cover them up, or somehow distract myself with momentary delights. The feelings by themselves are too much to bear by myself.

Luckily, I have like-minded friends who feel similarly, though none of us can quite say why or how. But our distracting pleasures are similar and we implicitly understand; we form a refuge from the world for each other, a safe zone where we can escape to and live our imaginary lives without having to think about global warming, terrorist alerts, lying politicians, scolding school marms and clueless moms. We make, in short, a refuge for ourselves.

For this refuge to be really safe, though, to be truly secure, it needs to be above the fray, beyond the reach of our desires, fears and fallibility. It needs to be independent of all that. So we build up emblems or symbols of our belonging, of our identity, symbols that transcend our particular time and place – clothes, songs, signs of all kinds, even flags – which we share with each other to convince ourselves of our reality, of our existence. Such images, emblems or symbols help us cohere both as group and as persons. Rather than feel the pain of our inner fractures, reflecting and reinforcing the fractured world around us, we seek refuge in the lifeless transcendence of a symbolic realm, a realm forged out of fear and desire.

Such illusions, of course, cannot last. We both intuitively know and deny that. Our groups, bound by fear and desire, last only as long as we continuously and mutually re-create them. But rather than admitting and accepting this painful, precarious truth – as an additional promise broken, another illusion shattered – we work all the more to convince each other of its implicit promise, its imaginary security.

And those outsiders who threaten our peace, who challenge our symbolic identities carved so carefully out of a rapid world of flux and frustration – they are threatening to destroy everything we have so painstakingly put together, everything we rely on for social and psychological stability. How ironic: while promising to provide safety and refuge, our identities further our fear and lead instead to antagonism and its attendant anxieties.

Luckily, we can see all this too. We can return to our starting point and come to see that suffering, fear and disease are natural for beings like us, who depend on food, water, shelter and friends. Just like the budding Buddha, Siddhartha, who woke up from the slumbers of his pleasure palace, the gated community dedicated to defending his fragile sensitivities, and finally learned to feel the suffering of others around him, who was similarly wracked by fear and confusion and the poignant intuition that all is not right with the world.

We live and then get sick, get old and die. Nothing we do can prevent these unpleasant realities of life. But it is not necessary to hide from them and fabricate falsely imagined refuges. We can instead recognise our mutual fragility, our fellow human fate to live and die and be fully aware of it. We can see that instead of clinging for dear life to imaginary symbols of immortality, we can let go of our never-never lands, our defenses against our biology, against the need to eat and sleep and dream and breath, and learn to embrace all the other beings who similarly suffer, similarly fear, and similarly cling to their own imaginary images in one sad, extended exercise in utter futility. The cry of anguish and the cry of hope – which once so disturbed and frightened us – is now an evocation to action, to caring and compassion for all our fellow beings.

In whose service is perfect freedom, a holy book once said:

Suffering and frustration are the doorway to our common humanity, to letting go of our self-centered fears and desires, to the freedom to love freely and selflessly in spite of it all, because of it all.


William Waldron

Professor William Waldron teaches courses on the South Asian religious traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism, Tibetan religion and history, and comparative psychologies and philosophies of mind. His publications focus on the Yogacara school of Indian Buddhism and its dialogue with modern thought.

Learn more