It is a truism that no one person suffers in the same way as another. The African-american song lyric made famous by Louis Armstrong puts it like this: “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Sometimes I’m up, and sometimes I’m down, Yes, Lord, you know sometimes I’m almost to the ground. Nobody knows but Jesus.”
To listen to the songs of the poor is to hear the voices of hope and longing. Somehow faith is fuelled in the deep struggles of daily life. This could be the reason the only place the church is still growing is in the poorer third world. Sadly, in many cases religion has done little to remove the suffering of people in their present situations and has rather deferred the solution of life’s problems to another lifetime. Heaven is promised to those who faithfully bear the pain of the present. Listen to the words of slave hymns and you will hear the delayed gratification for current injustice. “When the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there” “Oh when the saints go marching in.” A favourite Xhosa hymn is “Jerusalem Ikhaya lam” the first verse translates as “Jerusalem,my home, that which I love; when will you hear my striving, so I may rest in you.”
It is this delayed reward for current wrongs suffered that led Karl Marx to observe, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people”.
Despite questioning the justice and ethics of substituting future salvation for current reparation, it cannot be denied that these promissory songs have the power to enable their singers to bear the unbearable. It never ceases to amaze me that the deepest joy is to be found amidst the most abysmal human conditions. The starving child smiles, the penniless widow sings, and the overwhelmed single parent opens her heart to care for others in her community.
Contrast that with the attitudes of the affluent whose entire lives collapse at the smallest inconvenience. A chipped finger nail, not finding a parking space for the flashy car, or the shirt on sale but not in your size. Despite our complete conversion to materialism as the object of our devotion, we seem unable to synchronise our wealth with happiness and contentment. Is there more joy in Motherwell than Mill Park? More satisfaction in Sidwell than Summerstrand? (See note)
How can those with so little of the material have such soulful contentment?
The error materialists make is a simple one. They look in the wrong places. Peace of mind is exactly what it says. If we cannot convince our minds of the intrinsic joy of life in any circumstances we will never be satisfied. Buddhists have known for centuries that suffering exists when we keep resisting the changing nature of reality. Peace arises when we allow the impermanence of life to bring us to that place of non-attachment to anything or anyone.
Note: In Port Elizabeth South Africa, Motherwell and Sidwell are poorer housing areas, Mill Park and Summerstarand are theelite suburbs.