Imagine a choice between two life paths. They are different, and they diverge from one another, but they are also complimentary, and they are paths that we all follow in one way or another.
The first —you are given a process, and you are given a responsibility, and the outcome that emerges as they collide is pure satisfaction. The only catch? You are alone on this path. The second — you have this same path in front of you, but the process and the responsibility don’t ever fully merge, so there is never any pure satisfaction — no escape from dissatisfaction. Instead, what you have are other people in your life to share that dissatisfaction with, and that dissatisfaction eventually becomes infused with a deep sense of meaning that your life would otherwise lack.
In Mahayana Buddhism, there is an ideal archetype known as a Bodhisattva. The general Buddhist doctrine argues that life is full of suffering. It also promises that by following an ancient process of meditative techniques laid out by the Buddha, this suffering can be overcome and a blissful state of pure joy and enlightenment can be achieved. Now, a Bodhisattva is a figurehead who has taken the responsibility and done the work to follow this process to enlightenment but then decided to walk back on it, towards suffering, so they can help other people still stuck in the cycle.
The first of the hypothetical paths is the path of wisdom — it’s the path that anyone who is seeking to understand their life and the problems in it is following, and it’s a path that can only ever truly be pursued alone; the path of the enlightened ones. The second of the hypothetical paths is the path of compassion — it’s the path that anyone who is seeking meaning in their life is following, and it’s a path that is forced to embrace suffering and dissatisfaction due to the complexities that arise when other people are in the picture; the path of the Bodhisattvas.
In the day to day lives of most people, these paths intersect and interact, and they challenge and contradict each other. Sometimes, we find ourselves looking inwardly, at our wants and needs, cravings and aversions, trying to satisfy or resist them, working on ourselves at the expense of the outside world so we can move a little farther along. Other times, we feel a responsibility towards others. Their problems become our problems, their joys our joys, and often, we work on them at the expense of ourselves because without these people all the inward work would feel hollow.
If this is still a little abstract, let’s make it more concrete: Life is ultimately a single-player game, but the only thing that truly makes it worth living has something to do with our relationships to other people, and this paradox sits at the core what it means to be a human being.
No matter how direct or indirect, any of the deeper problems we face emerge from conflicts that arise due to our sense of self. Beyond bare necessities like food and shelter, when we want something, the need is less because that’s what the laws of physics dictate and more because our deeply conditioned self either craves a thing or is averse to it. Now, by deconstructing this self and reconstructing its habit patterns, we can hack away at the problems that come up. This happens naturally through experience and awareness, and it’s also the goal of most meditative practices. In this sense, life is problem-solving — and it’s full of problems nobody else can solve for us because they are internal problems that require a change in perception. Others can help, guide, and encourage us, but at its core, the game is still only ours to play.
At the same time, the more we deconstruct this self, the further away we move from other people; other selves. This is because the self is a social construct — it’s born at the intersection of our relationships to our cultures, our tribes, our families, and other spatial and temporal affiliations that constrain and condition us at each and every moment of our lives. And the more internal problems we solve, the further away from this conditioning we get, and the further away from other people we get, and the more alone we feel on the path ahead of us. It would seem that other people are both the cause of our problems, and paradoxically, the final, redeeming solution.
There is a scene in Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace in which a group of characters that attend a Tennis academy for gifted children is commiserating after a long, arduous training session. They have been pushed and pushed and pushed, practically to the point of needless suffering, so they can improve their skills and uphold the reputation of the academy.
At one point during their collective commiserating, they begin to wonder why they are always allotted this time to sit together after they have been pushed so hard. Surely the organizers know that they have made them suffer, and they also know that there isn’t much these kids can do about it besides sit and complain together. Why, then, do they always get this brief time-window in an otherwise brutally efficient schedule, made only to turn the kids into machines, so they can just sit around and moan to each other?
The answer, they eventually realize, is to build a sense of community — a shared purpose. They may all be going through hell, and they may all be doing so individually, without any one of them being able to lessen the other’s burden, but at the same time, deep in this lonesomeness, they have a shared experience they can come back to, and this experience adds a deeper layer of meaning where there otherwise isn’t one, and that — maybe, perhaps — makes it all a little less lonesome even if they are still fundamentally alone.
Problem-solving is individual; meaning is collective. With problems, there is suffering. Without them, there is no meaning. The self, then, is both the ultimate problem and also the ultimate solution, and this dance that we find ourselves in the midst of hits its edge right at the point where we, individually, solve our problems and then share the answers the best we can with others who are going through same motions in different ways.
One of the key things to note about the Bodhisattva archetype is that it’s not about blind giving or blind compassion. They aren’t just figures who are mindlessly dedicated to other people and their suffering without understanding what it is, where it comes from, and what exactly they are working to help. No, their first and foremost concern is to pursue the path — as the Buddha did — to gain wisdom for themselves and only then do they go back to relate to others. They may make sacrifices, and they may put outside interests before their own, but they only ever do that if they are ready to do that — if they have done the work required to earn the right to give.
In the same way, the target of our individual responsibility still lies within each of us — we still have to play the game for ourselves, and we have to learn to get good at it. That said, once we have beaten parts of this game, rather than forcing our way forward right away — even if problems persist — it’s worthwhile to stop a while, to take a breath, a moment, to share those experiences with others. It’s fine and well to accept that life is a single-player game, to keep moving to higher levels, but if we don’t make compromises in-between to focus beyond that, we neglect meaning.
In most relationship between people, especially romantic ones, if the individuals share a lot their time and space with each other, they begin to merge their selves, and that’s another extreme. Rather than placing their own path as the top priority, they rely on another to fill a void that they have left open. This removes a lot of the aloneness that is inherent in any individual journey, and it can and does create meaning, but it neglects the fact that there are an increasing number of problems still unaddressed, which sooner or later overpower and destroy whatever meaning is shared.
The balance, then, must lie somewhere in-between: to pursue what you must pursue for yourself first and foremost, accepting that it is only you who can do that, and then, as you progress, share bits and pieces of this with others so you can combine one whole and another whole into something greater, something a little more complete, realizing and acknowledging that it will still always remain somewhat incomplete.
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