Printed in the Spring 2022 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Grasse, Ray, "Suffering and Soul Making on the Mean Streets of Planet Earth" Quest 110:2, pg 35-36
By Ray Grasse
Call the world, if you please, “the Vale of Soul Making,” then you will find out the use of the world.
—John Keats, in a letter to his brother, 1819
I had an astrology client who had enjoyed a short-lived career on Broadway many years before, strictly doing bit parts as an extra in various theatrical productions—an office worker in one play, a soldier in another, a street thug in yet another. He never landed a major role in any of those but still valued that period of his life because (in his words) “even the smallest part in those spectacles was an amazing experience. Everyone wanted to get in on the action,” he said.
Hearing that, I couldn’t help but wonder if that’s not comparable to the situation we experience down here on earth, in terms of souls clamoring to land on this planet and get in on the action—no matter how small or mundane the part.
In fact, there may even be something of particular value in those seemingly small parts that’s quite different from the more extravagant lead roles. Let me explain what I mean.
On a number of occasions, I’ve watched a celebrity interviewed who talks about coming up from humble beginnings, whether that be growing up in poverty, working for years as a dishwasher or waiter, or having survived on the mean streets of Chicago or Detroit. Intriguingly, those celebrities generally seem quite proud of coming from those hard backgrounds and having paid their dues in a way someone raised with a silver spoon in their mouth wouldn’t have experienced.
In some cases, it later comes out that the person exaggerated or even lied about that early “hardship”: in reality they hailed from a perfectly middle-class background. They just wanted everyone to think they rose up from those lowly quarters.
Think about that for a moment.
Why would anyone do that—that is, lie about how bad they had it and how much suffering they endured?
My guess is it’s because there’s a certain belief that dealing with hard circumstances and surviving early struggles builds character or gives one a certain toughness or depth which those who grew up in easier circumstances might not share.
It reminds me of the time as a kid when I watched two older gentlemen discussing their battlefield experiences back in World War II. It was almost as though they were trying to outdo each other with the hardships they endured and were practically bragging about the suffering they’d experienced. (“Yeah, but you should have seen what I went through at the Battle of the Bulge!”)
I find that fascinating. We clearly dislike suffering and try to avoid it at all costs. Yet once we’ve gone through it, we’ll sometimes look back on it with a certain pride at having survived it, wearing it almost like a badge of honor. Like those veterans I overheard as a kid, we might even brag about it when comparing notes with others, with an attitude of one-upmanship: “You think that was bad? You should see what I had to deal with!”
I think this has something to tell us about the role and value of earthly existence itself, in terms of the role it plays in our spiritual evolution.
I’ve sometimes conjured up the image of two angels sitting on a cloud somewhere high up on some astral plane, their harps alongside them. They’re swapping stories about their past sojourns down here on planet earth, comparing notes about what they went through and endured here in these nether regions.
One angel says to the other, “Boy, in my last lifetime I was sick all the time, poverty-stricken and completely deaf to boot, and in the life before that one my parents and I were refugees in a war-torn country. You can’t imagine the hardships we endured.”
The other angel says, “Oh, don’t get me started! I was sold into slavery in my last lifetime and beaten up daily by my master; and a few lifetimes before that one, I was trapped in a house fire during my childhood and suffered third-degree burns all over my body, which plagued me my entire life. So shut your mouth!” They argue back and forth like that, each trying to outdo the other over what they did or didn’t endure during their physical incarnations.
Then another angel comes along, one who has never descended down into an earthly body and thus never experienced either the joys or sorrows of living down here in this pit of physicality. This neophyte angel is a very pure soul, a proverbial babe in the woods (or clouds, as the case may be) but also lacking in a certain awareness, and in turn a certain depth. This angel never had to “leave the garden,” as it were.
The two veteran angels look at each other and roll their eyes over this innocent, who they know is relatively inexperienced and has no idea of what existence is really about, not in its fullness. They also know that there’s something substantially different about their own souls as a result of having spent those thousands or perhaps millions of years down here on earth, a quality not just of depth and complexity but also one of compassion and empathy, which can only come from having suffered and dealt with great struggle and resistance. That’s because the soul grows its spiritual muscles by pushing up against obstacles, against resistance, and contending with “friction.”
That’s one of the subtle messages of the ancient “Hymn of the Pearl.” A passage from the apocryphal Acts of Thomas, it tells the tale of a boy, the “son of the king of kings,” who is sent down into Egypt to retrieve a pearl from a mysterious serpent. While on his mission, he is seduced by Egypt and its ways, and consequently forgets his home country and family. The king sends him a letter to remind him of his past and his royal heritage, at which point he remembers his mission, retrieves the pearl, and returns home.
Symbolically, “Egypt” in that tale signifies worldly, mortal existence itself, in which we can likewise easily become lost—and will forever remain lost until we receive that message from our higher Self reminding us to complete our mission and return home again. Thus our sojourn in this realm is not a waste of time, nor is it meaningless; there is a treasure to be gained from enduring this mortal existence, which is symbolized by the pearl.
That choice of objects by the author (as opposed to a treasure chest or crystal statue, say) is significant, when you consider that a pearl’s beauty arises from the interaction of a rough irritant (like a grain of sand) with the oyster it’s found its way into. In a similar way, one’s soul is in some sense polished as a result of its sojourn through this rough world. That’s not to say that one seeks out suffering, because even the mystics say the wisest option is to learn without it, if at all possible. But as the Buddha himself pointed out, that’s not always possible: suffering is, to some extent, part and parcel of mortal existence, with its rounds of life and death, beginnings and endings.
Let me toss one more idea into the mix to help round out this picture a little more.
One summer between freshman and sophomore year of college, I worked a summer job to earn some money for a trip through Europe, a kind of pilgrimage where I’d visit as many of the major art museums in Europe as I could within a four-week period. I didn’t have much money, so I purchased a Eurail pass, slept on the trains at night, and went from city to city, a new one each day, to study the great masters up close. The chief focal points of my study were artists like Leonardo, Velázquez, Ingres, Vermeer, Caravaggio, Van Gogh, and Rembrandt, although there were many more I found inspiring.
When I got to the great Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, I had an interesting thought while standing before Rembrandt’s large canvas, commonly called The Night Watch, completed in 1642. The work is essentially a military group portrait painted in Rembrandt’s inimitable style. In a way that almost prefigured the later Impressionists, the Dutch master was notable for his depiction of figures and forms with richly textured swabs of color along with atmospheric plays of light and dark.
When I stood up close to the painting to examine it in detail, I saw that some of those splotches of brown or black paint were nothing particularly beautiful when seen up close—taken strictly by themselves, they could even be considered somewhat ugly. But when you stood further back, all of those splotches and dabs of paint, both light and dark, colorful or drab, became part of a larger tapestry, and the result was majestic.
Some time later, I thought: if we indeed experience thousands or perhaps even millions of lifetimes over the course of eons, each lifetime might be like one of those little dabs of paint on Rembrandt’s large canvas. A given lifetime might seem dreary or even painful as experienced up close and in isolation, but might play an integral role within the larger canvas of spiritual evolution—and that would become clear if one stood back far enough. I could imagine that even a lifetime spent wasting away in a medieval dungeon could play as important a role in that evolutionary arc as any dab of black or brown paint did in Rembrandt’s painting, complementing the rich gold and white highlights right alongside it.
So I do believe there is something profoundly important about surviving the mean streets of planet earth. It is often a life filled with disappointments and seemingly endless struggles, right alongside great beauties and awe-inspiring wonders; but whatever you may think about it, it certainly doesn’t seem meaningless.
At least not if you stand back far enough.
Ray Grasse worked on the editorial staff of the Theosophical Society in America during the 1990s. He is the author of several books, including The Waking Dream: Unlocking the Symbolic Language of Our Lives (Quest, 1996). This essay has been excerpted from his forthcoming book When the Stars Align: Reflections on Astrology, Life, Death, and Other Mysteries (Inner Eye, 2022). His website is www.raygrasse.com.