Birth and Reincarnation
While looking through my books for a story about birth and rebirth, I came across one from Laos that I’ve used before to talk about love and justice.  This time, as I read the tale’s sequence of birth, death, and reincarnation, I was reminded of what it’s like to struggle with addictions, illness, and bad habits.
Two spirits, Orphan Boy and Yer, are deeply in love. Before they are incarnated, they agree to spend their lives together. However, as they wait to jump into the pool that will take them from the spirit world to Earth, Orphan Boy becomes so eager and excited, he runs ahead and leaps in before Yer can reach the water’s edge. Thus he is born as an ox, while she is a mare. They cannot mate. In despair, Orphan Boy jumps off a cliff and kills himself. Seeing this, Yer runs full speed into the sharp part of a fence and dies.
They go through this pattern twice more before Orphan Boy figures out he needs to hold Yer’s hand so they can reincarnate together. Becoming birds, they mate, and Yer lays a nest full of eggs. For a long time, they are happy.
Betrayal and Loss
Then one day, a forest fire breaks out near their nest. The couple wonders if they should fly off, leaving their eggs to perish, or stay with their babies, taking the chance the fire might spare them?
They decide that no matter what happens, they will remain together. While Yer stays with the eggs, Orphan Boy will fly above the trees to keep an eye on the fire. He promises his wife that when the flames get close, he will fly down to the nest so they will return to the spirit world together.
Yet when the flames do sweep their way, Orphan Boy can’t bring himself to fly back to the nest. He hadn’t realized how hot and scary the fire would be. Helplessly, he watches the flames engulf his family. For the rest of that life, he wanders around the world, disconsolate.
Forgiveness and Mercy
Many lifetimes pass. Yer is now a talented and beautiful young daughter of a village chief, known and loved for her kindness. The problem is, she refuses to speak. Desperate to hear her voice, her father offers her hand in marriage to anyone who can make her talk. Word of this challenge gets around to a poor laborer named Orphan Boy, who happens to play the xim xaus, an instrument whose variegated pitches can be used to tell stories.
Back at the village, many suitors try to make the young woman talk, but they all fail. Finally, Orphan Boy, who recognizes his beloved Yer as soon as he sees her, is given a chance. Using the xim xaus, he tells the story of their bird life together. When he gets to the end, however, he claims that he had been in the nest while Yer had flown away.
“That’s a lie,” Yer cries out. “You’re the one who betrayed me!”
Getting down on his knees, Orphan Boy begs forgiveness. He explains how afraid he’d been of the scorching flames. He admits he was a coward, apologizes, and promises never to do such a thing again. Yer smiles. Her father, seeing that his daughter loves this poor, young man, blesses their union. “After all,” he says, “a moment of fear shouldn’t ruin a man’s life.”
Yer and Orphan Boy live a long, joyful lifetime together.
Life’s Little Deaths
Just as the two lovers had to try again and again before they could live together, so we in recovery start, make mistakes, and start over again. For a while, we are successful in our sobriety. Then we get hurt or offended, and deep layers of pain, bitterness, and cravings surprise us. We betray ourselves, break promises, and, even if we don’t relapse on our drug of choice, we lose our way, act out of anger, or say something stupid. Our inner work is never done.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. All the little deaths we experience in life – the loss of dreams, friendships, beliefs, jobs, homes, money, and health – can be opportunities to learn and mature. Without tension, trauma, and loss, our lives would have no meaning. Without death, there would be no life. But that doesn’t mean we’re eager for those deaths. Indeed, we tend to do whatever we can to avoid them.
According to Buddhist wisdom, suffering comes because we want the world to be different than it is. We cling to what is impermanent and try to avoid things we don’t like. Whether we refuse to let go of a job or a grownup child, or we run from physical hurts and emotional distress, we seek relief from our pain through drugs, distractions, and rationalizations.
Recently, I met with a patient who is questioning her faith. Born into a conservative Christian denomination, she learned to take the Bible literally. Church leaders taught her that you have to behave just right and believe just so to get into Heaven. Her parents cautioned her to watch out for doubts or questions, for those came from the Devil.
Now God seems cruel and punishing, because she knows she’s not good enough to go to heaven, and she can’t read scripture without feeling traumatized. Although her faith isn’t working for her anymore, she’s terrified that if she renounces her childhood beliefs, she’ll go to Hell for sure. She feels incredible anxiety; her soul feels threatened. She’s trying hard to tolerate that anxiety, to move forward through the suffering, because she hopes that on the other side, she will find a faith that sets her free.
Getting Through to the Other Side
Part of what hurts her so much is the fear that she will lose her community. Our beliefs, whether religious or political, bond us to others, make us part of a family, a church group, a circle of friends. As long as we can find a group of like-minded cronies, it doesn’t matter if our beliefs are based on reality or not. What matters is that we feel at home, safe, cared for.
As Julie Beck explains in her article “This Article Won’t Change Your Mind,” we feel close to those who see the world like we do, and we’d rather ignore the facts than risk losing our friends. If we think about it in evolutionary terms, it makes sense that “having social support . . . is far more important than knowing the truth.” 
Nonetheless, sometimes life turns upside down, our world shatters, or our doubts just won’t leave us alone. Then we get anxious. Some of us retreat to our old ways and our old beliefs because the discomfort is more than we can bear. Others of us have higher emotional and spiritual pain thresholds, so it’s easier for us to through to the other side.
Birth and Rebirth
What does this have to do with birth and rebirth?
There are so many ways to be born and reborn. In evangelical Christian terms, being “born again” means to accept Jesus into one’s heart. Assuming she continues to seek a truth that works for her, the patient I talked with will die to her old religious self and grow into a new one, but this rebirth is likely to take a while. Although some people have startling and unsettling experiences that suddenly transform their hearts, more often change is slow. Doubts nag at us. Family members model new ways. We hear a song or read a story, and over time, the new ideas begin to make sense.
However it happens, to be reborn, we must first die. To gain something, we must lose something else. One belief fades away before another can creep in. We break off our love affair with our substance so that, over time, we can find a real freedom. Relationships end, and new life arises. Over and over, we die and are reborn.
Dying to Ourselves and Our Beliefs
It took many reincarnations before Orphan Boy and Yer got it right. Or, at least, before they started to get it right. When Orphan Boy apologized and Yer forgave him, they reunited, but they still had a lifetime to make mistakes, offend one another, and nurse grudges.
To find peace and love in our relationships, we need to die to our resentments, our self-righteousness, and even our needs. Neither marriage nor friendship is easy. Hopefully, over time we learn to get along with another imperfect human being.
To do this, we must let ourselves be tested, be uncomfortable, ask hard questions, forgive, and be forgiven. To be born and reborn, we must relinquish cherished beliefs, surrender addictions, and become curious about, open to, and understanding of those around us. Along the way, we will mess up. We will retreat into old beliefs and habits, succumb to old addictions or new ones, and retreat from questions and doubts because they make us too anxious.
Like Orphan Boy and Yer, we will also keep trying. No matter how many little deaths we experience, we have the opportunity to pick ourselves up, acknowledge our wrongs, and commit to love and forgiveness. May we continue to be born and born again until the end of our days.
In faith and fondness,
- Story adapted from The Cow of No Color by Nina Jaffe and Steve Zeitlin, New York: Henry Holt, 1998.
- Beck, Julie, “This Article Won’t Change Your Mind: The Facts on Why Facts Alone Can’t Fight False Beliefs,” The Atlantic, March 13, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/03/this-article-wont-change-your-mind/519093/.
Photo by Katie Montgomery from Unsplash