We are all so fragile. We are, first of all, so fragile physically. When we are born, we can’t even feed ourselves or survive without continuous attention. And throughout our lives there are so many things that can go wrong, but mostly do not. It is actually amazing that the incredible intricacy of body and mind function so flawlessly for so long. This is the fundamental blessing of our life and all life.
We are also so fragile emotionally. We are complex beings, with complex needs—most importantly, the need to love and be loved, and the need not to be alone. It is easy for us to be wounded emotionally, and some of those wounds never fully heal. And yet we abide, as William Faulkner liked to say. We are fragile but we abide.
We all seem to have some kind of equipment, some neural circuit or switch, that keeps us from recognizing how fragile we really are. This switch is called “denial,” and recent research has discerned that it really is a neural circuit, or structure in the brain that censors or blocks painful memories. Denial actually makes painful memory neurologically inaccessible. As a psychiatrist friend of mine likes to say, “Never underestimate the power of denial.”
Denial is a kind of gift, too. Otherwise the level of pain that human beings sometimes have to endure would be truly unbearable and we could not continue to be.
I like to think of meditation practice as an intentional willingness to reach past the blocks of denial, and to open everything up—to face the actual suffering of ourselves and others. This was Siddhartha Gautama’s first insight and path; everything suffers, he saw that, and he wanted to actually face it and understand it.
Whether or not we are meditators, whether or not we are Buddhists, the process of aging does this too. When we are children or teenagers especially, the denial circuit blocking the fact how fragile we are seems at its strongest. That is one reason young men can be trained to be soldiers. They’re able to block out what it is they have to do. As we get older, and we have a lifetime of experience to hold and reflect on, denial becomes more difficult to sustain; the truth of our individual and common fragility becomes more evident.
And then there is the last truth, the final fragility, which we deny as long as we can, but eventually cannot—the truth of our inevitable end.
As with most things, fragility can be seen two ways—either as a burden, or as a gift. It is actually both. Fragility causes fear, but fragile things are also beautiful and precious, precisely because they are fragile and may not last. Fragility can open us to the treasure of mutual care and universal compassion.
We are all so fragile.