“The wounds and harms that arise from falling over the edge into moral suffering can have positive value …”
Editor’s Note: Joan Halifax’s new book, Standing at the Edge: Finding Freedom Where Fear and Courage Meet, is packed with powerful stories and deep wisdom. One story is about a “street retreat” “where participants sleep on the street, beg for money and food, eat at soup kitchens, walk and talk with whomever they meet.” In a separate piece, Halifax helps us frame the difficulties that can easily lead to altruism burnout.
Walking into Moral Suffering
For the 2016 San Francisco Street Retreat, Kosho Durel and Joshin Byrnes arrived early to scout out the soup kitchens and safe places on the streets where they could sleep. Kosho wrote that walking through the Tenderloin District, he “was shocked by the number of people living on the street, the drug use, the litter and pollution, the crumbling buildings, the crumbling bodies of people.”
Kosho and Joshin decided to visit the soup kitchen run by Glide Memorial Church, a historically progressive Methodist church engaged with race, class, and LGBTQ rights. The soup kitchen was not what they expected. Kosho describes its basement cafeteria as a room with concrete floors, metal furniture, and 30-foot-high walls “painted a sanitizing yet unclean pale blue like a waterless swimming pool.” He wrote that between 50 and 100 people were eating on their meal ticket shift; they ate silently with their heads down and then were pushed along so that the next shift could eat.
He and Joshin “emerged shaken” from their experience, with probably a significant dose of empathic distress and moral outrage. Then they made their way to the United Nations Plaza in the Civic Center area. “There, people smoked crack by the fountain, disabled people moved along in wheelchairs or took rest, and disabled people with mental illnesses wandered aimlessly. Others just sat on the concrete, chatting.”
Kosho noticed a pillar in the plaza that is engraved with the UN’s Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world, / Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts …” (and so on).
The contrast of these words with the reality of the San Francisco streets was a big wake-up call for Kosho. “Young professionals, mostly men, walked by with headphones plugged into ears, plugged into smartphones, without the slightest recognition of another person, and I thought, This is it, we’re doomed. This is chaos. This is so, so sad. The tech firms have headquarters literally right across the trolley tracks from the Tenderloin. … I imagine that these young men are making six and seven figures. To the south, block after block is being redeveloped with new glassy, plastic, metal, and blandly modernist apartment buildings to house the privileged. The people on the street in the Tenderloin have witnessed housing costs skyrocket. To have shelter in this unwanted neighborhood, people have to pay $3,000 per month for an efficiency apartment or be fortunate enough to have government assistance.” Then Kosho remarked, “Maybe you’re feeling a bit of my moral outrage.”
He went on to say, “And yet, in the ethical sphere of my spirituality there’s a vow not to hold on to resentment or rage. There’s a vow to be aware of all the feelings, thoughts, and sensations that come up. There’s trust that allowing all experience—the whole plaza—to penetrate me will transform me. This is the work of uncovering and releasing my biases and prejudices.”
“And yet, in the ethical sphere of my spirituality there’s a vow not to hold on to resentment or rage.”
The Golden Repair
In these complicated times, we have plenty of opportunities to transform moral suffering into moral resilience, what the ethicist Cynda Rushton defines as “the capacity of an individual to sustain or restore their integrity in response to moral complexity, confusion, distress, or setbacks.” When we have moral resilience, we are able to stand strong in our integrity, even in the midst of moral adversity.
There is a Japanese practice called kintsukuroi, meaning “golden repair.” Kintsukuroi is the art of repairing broken pottery with powdered gold or platinum mixed with lacquer, so that the repair reflects the history of breakage. The repaired object mirrors the fragility and imperfection of life—and also its beauty and strength. The object returns to wholeness, to integrity.
I am not suggesting that we should seek brokenness as a way of strengthening integrity, though some cultures do pursue crisis in their rites of passage as a way to develop character and open the heart. Rather, I am proposing that the wounds and harms that arise from falling over the edge into moral suffering can have positive value under the right circumstances. Moral distress, the pain of moral injury and outrage, and even the numbness of moral apathy can be the means for the “golden repair,” for developing a greater capacity to stand firm in our integrity without being swayed by the wind.
Over my years of traveling to Japan, I have held several of these exquisitely restored vessels in my hands. I have seen that the “golden repair” is not a hidden repair: It shows clearly a vessel’s undisguised damage. It combines ordinary stuff and precious metals to repair the crack but not hide it. This, I believe, is how moral transformation happens and integrity opens—not by rejecting suffering but by incorporating the suffering into a stronger material, the material of goodness, so that the broken parts of our nature, our society, and our world can meet in the gold of wholeness.
Adapted from Standing at the Edge: Finding Freedom Where Fear and Courage Meet, by Joan Halifax. Just published by Flatiron Books.