“Taking The Edge Off Vulnerability”

Andrew Sullivan —  Jan 4 2015 @ 3:31pm

Todd May questions what he calls “invulnerabilism,” the approach of philosophies like Buddhism, Taoism, and Stoicism that teach, in his words, that “we can, and we should, make ourselves immune to the world’s vicissitudes.” He argues instead for a particular type of engagement:

As far as I can tell, the way to think about these things has less to do with the invulnerability promoted by the official doctrines, and more to do with, one might say, using these doctrines to take the edge off of vulnerability, to allow one to experience life without becoming overwhelmed or depressed or resentful or bitter, except perhaps at the extremity of loss. There is some combination of embedding oneself in the world in a vulnerable way and not being completely undone by that vulnerability that is pointed at, if not directly endorsed, by the official doctrines.

It seems to me that Taoism, Buddhism, Stoicism, etc. work not by making one invulnerable but rather by allowing one to step back from the immediacy of the situation so that the experience of pain or suffering is seen for what it is, precisely as part of a contingent process, a process that could have yielded a very different present but just happened to yield this one. This, of course, is not the official doctrine either, especially for Stoicism, for which the unfolding of the cosmos is a rational one. (Buddhists will periodically refer to the contingency of the cosmos’ unfolding; however, the concept of nirvana bends that contingency toward something more nearly rational, or at least just.) But it does seem to me to capture their common insight that there is so much about the world that we cannot control; seeking to master it is an illusion. We must learn instead to live with the process in all its contingency, even where we hope to change it for the better.

And we must understand that for most of us suffering is inevitable. We can recognize all this and take solace from it without having to take the step of removing ourselves from the desires that lead to suffering.