Among the few pieces of art I’ve purchased over the years, perhaps my favorite is a print of a golden Labrador retriever with golden wings and a red collar, flying through a deep blue sky, looking up at a star. The artist is Stephen Huneck of Vermont, a man whose career has been the prolific celebration of both dogs and life. In his way, Stephen Huneck is like George Bailey in the Frank Capra film, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the perennial Christmas classic. The number of people whose heart 60 year-old Huneck has warmed is immense––going by the worldwide sale of his paintings, woodcut prints, books, sculptures, t-shirts, greeting cards, coffee mugs and who knows what; not to mention visitors to his Dog Mountain farm and its human-size Dog Chapel, complete with steeple, stained glass windows and a sign out front that reads: “Welcome all creeds, all breeds. No dogmas allowed.” Like the fictional George Bailey in another way, Stephen Huneck has faced a crisis of the soul that stemmed from business going bad in tough economic times. George Bailey, in a pit of despair at the pain he felt was about to be visited upon his customers, friends and neighbors, thought about ending it all by jumping off a bridge into a freezing river. What stopped him was an enterprising angel named Clarence who showed George what a sorry place the world would have been if George hadn’t lived. Sadly, it seems no Clarence visited Stephen Huneck recently. After having to lay off nearly his entire staff, the man whose art creates countless smiles, put a gun to his head and killed himself.
Though he and I never met, since first encountering Mr. Huneck’s art more than a decade ago, I have felt a kinship with him. And not just because I am usually shadowed everywhere except the shower by at least one golden retriever. My own creative offerings––various writing, photos of my stone sculptures, pen-and-ink drawings––reflect my romance with the ocean of possibility I experience on my better days as the essence of life. Artist-wise, compared to Stephen Huneck I’m just fooling around. But, like him, I’m attempting to do so in a manner that is playful, kind-hearted and a gift to others.
Today our kinship has another dimension, for I too have contemplated ending my life. And while, so far, mine has been the contemplation that leads not to death but to a deepened awe at existence, it isn’t because I’m unfamiliar with the black hole of inexplicable pain: the pain of the world, and the pain my own choices have caused me and others.
Perhaps the desire to live with an open heart, which many of us share with Mr. Huneck, demands an ever-increasing wherewithal to manage pain, a skill unfortunately not all that developed within the human family to-date. I’m blessed to have loved ones who are relative masters at it. Their example and coaching gives me tools (and hope) in moments that, otherwise, might seem unrelenting in their despair. I’m also partial to the metaphysical perspective that, incarnation by incarnation, we are on a path of eventually embracing everything. No matter how circuitous our route, we’re all headed for enlightenment. We may postpone certain lessons, but we can’t escape them. Death is mostly a change of clothes. Or so it seems to me.
Still, I’ve never been so depressed that self-destruction was my best or only option, and I’m pretty sure the universe has ways of teaching that are beyond anything I can anticipate, so I’m not foolish enough to say with certainty what I will or won’t do. Over the past 60 years, China’s “glorious peaceful liberation of Tibet” has resulted in the violent deaths of well over one million Tibetans, many of them under almost incomprehensible torture. At least 10,000 Tibetans have taken their own lives, despite suicide being forbidden by the tenets of their Buddhist religion. Who knows where the depths of pain may lead us?
It has taken me the six decades of this lifetime to begin to wake up to how essential managing pain is to cultivating happiness. And by “managing” I obviously don’t mean denying or rationalizing or playing other mental games, but rather embracing, feeling, freeing. Without that, forgiveness and compassion are just ideas, not actions.
Indeed, my own experience leads me to wonder whether our inability or unwillingness to manage pain creates just about all the harm we inflict on ourselves and one another––beginning with all manner of convictions, righteously held, about how we and others should behave.
Which makes pain, the fear of it, and our dance with it, one of humankind’s most powerful teachers. Not unlike dogs, those great exemplars of loyalty, goofiness and unconditional love (speaking of qualities no healthy person can live without). Especially dogs with wings who fly through a deep blue sky, looking up at a star named Stephen Huneck.