“The tongue like a sharp knife . . . kills without drawing blood” ~ The Buddha

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Contemplation Too, by L. Liwag©

Death by a Thousand Cuts

Ling Chi

I was listening to the radio this morning on my way to the doctor, and I heard a quote that I had not heard in many years. John Mar, co-head of sales trading at Daiwa Securities SMBC Co. in Hong Kong was discussing the worldwide stock markets, and he likened the situation to “death by a thousand cuts.”

The quote itself is actually Chinese and refers to a form of torture and execution known as Ling Chi. The punishment, which was used for high treason, dates back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279). The cuts would usually be made on the arms, legs and torso of the criminal, the “thousand cuts” an exaggeration referring more to the humiliation the accused would suffer before the final decapitation (http://www.nationmaster.com/encyclopedia/Death-by-a-thousand-cuts).

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Of course, the Chinese were not the only ones to use this form of torture  and execution; their name for it just happens to be more poetic. The Inquisition was very big on meting out small measures of pain to the body in various ways before final decapitation. And who can forget the final scene in Braveheart in which William Wallace’s body is made to suffer various assaults in an attempt to make him confess his sins before his decapitation.

The “thousand cuts” have become a metaphor for any kind of slow, painful endurance, for anything from economics to failed business models to closing hospitals. It’s not just the one big thing that causes the death or collapse, but sometimes, lots and lots of small ones that, in the end, prove too be to painful to overcome.

The First Cut Isn’t Always The Deepest

Which leads me to my own interpretation of death by a thousand cuts. In pondering the phrase, it seems to touch much more on the soul than the body. By that I mean that the physical body can withstand pain, a lot of pain in various forms. But the psyche, the esse that makes us who we are, that is a different matter.

When asked to consider the source of pain to the psyche, most people would reach far back, to that first cut, the first cut that stays with memory, that has become so insinuated that it cannot be forgotten. Some of us have fewer cuts, some have more. For a lucky few, the cuts make no lasting marks, just faded memories of something bad, much like the wolf in the story that had teeth but never had the chance to bite.

For some, the cuts are a bit deeper, leaving reminders of troubled times, but no visible scars. And then for some of us, the cuts trail through our lives like a ribbon around a maypole: wound in and out and around, a leit motif to our lives, no matter how far we travel to escape them.

“The most unkindest cut of all” ~ Shakespeare

Amidst doubt, incertitude, and dismay, we may look back on some of our cuts—those we’ve received and those we’ve given—and realize that we have drawn nearer to the thousand than first we believed. We may wish that we could undo the harm we have perpetrated, or we may wish to exact our own harm upon those whose cuts have gone deeper than others before them. We may wish ill upon those we’ve watched who have cut others without a backward glance. We may wish we could enfold in grace those whose cuts are freshest and still bleed.

I have no answers to this conundrum. Perhaps the balm for these wounds comes in recognizing that they exist at all and then trying to leave the scars to heal. Perhaps not.

The unkindest cuts: why do you talk funny/your eyes look funny/chink/flip/who does she think she is/you’re not some princess/just think happy thoughts/why can’t you be happy like other people/it’s a brain tumor/you like to be unhappy/she taught me how to love/fuck you/it’s just not working out/I don’t understand what the big deal is/I didn’t lie I just didn’t tell you/you’re crazy/it was just something to do/I’ve never done it before/you are so uptight/it’s a tumor in the pancreas/about six months/don’t tell me that again/it’s always the same story with you/are you gaining weight again/I wouldn’t give you anything if you were dying/what’s going on with your chins/you have a tumor on your ovary/do we have to play with her/I only thought about doing it one other time/you are a lying bitch/she’s pretty in a different way/I told her I would tell you when you were old enough/you aren’t being a mother to your daughter/you look fat in that/what on earth are you wearing/I just want to die/don’t you want to know what’s on these disks/I’m not close to my mother/you are such a bitch/just do the paperwork/are you ever going to do anything with your life/your daddy would be so disappointed in you/I’m so glad that your father didn’t live to see this/I hate you/why don’t you look like everybody else . . .

More later. Peace.

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