In this artwork by Ukrainian sculptor Alexander Milov, which was on display at last year’s Burning Man festival in Nevada, two adults sit back to back. Both are in pain. Both are curled up, turned in upon themselves, absorbed in their own suffering. But in trying to deal with their hurt in this way, each must turn away from the other.
Within each of the adults, though, children stand upright. They are open. They face one another. They reach out, uniting through touch. It’s not obvious in this picture, but the children are translucent and radiant. At night they glow, symbolizing the light of love.
This isn’t an allegory along the lines of “adults bad, children good.” The adults are the children, and the children are the adults. Both the man/boy and the woman/girl are simultaneously dealing with their own hurt, and responding to the other. The children are alive to their own tenderness and vulnerability, and also that of their partner. Their suffering unites rather than divides them.
I think there’s always a part of us that wants to reconnect when we’ve hurt another person, or been hurt by them. There’s fear and pride and hostility too, which may stop us from reaching out, but there’s also that deep need to return to a state of harmony. There’s a need to forgive and to let go of grievances. There are these two tendencies, and we choose between separateness or connection.
An awareness of our own “frailty and error” will help us choose to connect. When we think we’re perfect, it’s hard for us to tolerate imperfection in others, and so we become hard and judgmental. When we forget that we make mistakes, have flaws, and fall into bad habits, we become intolerant of those things in other people. We need to connect with our own vulnerability if we are to forgive others.
“What is tolerance? It is the prerogative of mankind. We are all formed of frailty and error; let us reciprocally pardon each other’s folly; this is the first law of nature.”(“Qu’est-ce que la Tolérance? c’est l’apanage de l’humanité. Nous sommes tous paitris de faiblesse et d’erreurs; pardonnons nous réciproquement nos sottises, c’est la premier lois de la nature.”)
“What is tolerance?” Voltaire rhetorically asks in his “Philosophical Dictionary.” “It is, he replies to himself, “the prerogative of mankind. We are all formed of frailty and error; let us reciprocally pardon each other’s folly.” To Voltaire, tolerance is the “first law” of human nature. Without it there is no connection.
Often, of course, we do not connect because we cling to our grievances. Our response to hurt can be to separate, and so the part of us that longs for connection is ignored. We polarize against ourselves and against the other, perpetuating conflict and hurt.
Less often, we identify more closely with the desire to forgive, and ignore the part of us that is hurt. This course of action is scarcely less destructive, since it leads to painful and damaging self-sacrifice.
In order admit to our frailty and error— in order to forgive—we need to learn to take care of the part of us that is hurting—with genuine compassion rather than indulgent wallowing—and as we address our own suffering in this way, see that the other too is hurting, and reach out to them. Through connecting with our own frailty, we learn to care for the frailty in others. In dealing with our own suffering, mindfully and compassionately, we naturally turn toward others.
They too, just like us, are hurting. They too, just like us, need compassion. Their being, just like ours, is woven through with “frailty and error.” Only if we recognize that can we let go or resentment and forgive each other.