Everybody suffers. We suffer through uncertainty; we suffer due to our relationships with others; we suffer from loneliness; and we suffer from our own insecurities. We suffer through illness, depression, boredom, procrastination, lack of purpose, pain, and growth. We suffer as a result of unrealized expectations or dreams that never came true. We suffer from the betrayals of others or by the friends that have disappeared. We suffer from rejection and loss of self-confidence; and we suffer most from our fears. We suffer from not having enough time or having too much time. Suffering is more “normal” than not suffering. When we see someone pass us on the street, we can be sure of only one thing – this person has suffered, is suffering or will suffer.
People who seem overly confident are suffering (such as the character that Matt Damon played in Good Will Hunting); people who are angry are suffering, people who are morose are suffering; people who are aggressive or shy are suffering and people who seem extremely happy can also be suffering. Suffering is an unavoidable characteristic of our humanity.
The only exceptions are people who have directly confronted their suffering and have learned to rise above it. These people have a calm, inner peace emanating from them. They seem extremely loving and compassionate and being around them tends to lift our spirits without any words being spoken. These people are the exception, instead of the rule. They are rare and hard to find.
Since anger is an “accepted” emotion, we may see anger more frequently than we see overt suffering. Yet anger is a form of suffering. If someone is angry with us, we need to understand that it is only because that person is suffering. The anger is not intended to cause us pain; but if we react with anger, then we are suffering too. The anger of a betrayal is due to the suffering caused by the betrayal. Anger over life’s inequities results because we suffer through similar inequities. Anger that results from pain is because we are suffering from the pain. Anger that is based on other people’s perceived inadequacies results from suffering from the same inadequacies or because we wish they were different people. Even if someone is annoying, the annoyance causes us to suffer.
The major problem with suffering is that it leads to more suffering. In many ways, it is a downward spiral. We want a magic cure to make our suffering go away, but we find that most people don’t want to be around us while we are suffering. They want us to be happy even when we are not. The loneliness and unwillingness of others to help us out of our suffering leads us to a greater form of suffering.
Suicide victims are caught in this downward spiral. There just seems no way out. They don’t want to impose their suffering on others and they can’t handle it themselves. Each year, there are more suicides than murders. These people have suffered greatly and most of their friends and family are shocked by the suicide. They had no idea that a loved one was in so much pain. We usually underestimate other people’s suffering. When someone commits suicide, more energy went into hiding the pain than into confronting it. We know that thousands of people commit suicide each year, but we cannot even begin to estimate the exorbitant number of people who are probably thinking about it.
A year ago, an acquaintance confessed that he had frequent thoughts about his own extinction during an extremely difficult period in his life. He said, “Every time I got on a plane, I had a secret wish that it would crash. I would dare cars to hit me and I never wore a seat belt. Even though I knew I would never commit suicide, I still hoped that my death would come. Silently, I would wish for death at least 10 times a day. I felt there was no way out of my suffering and I did not know how to survive it. The only remedies that got me from point A to B were escape tactics such as drugs or alcohol. I dreamed that someone compassionate would come into my life and help me deal with my suffering but my family was far away, I had no close friends and my acquaintances wanted me to be happy instead of sad. After a year of constant suffering I regained my psychological sanity, but only because I eventually learned that compassion for myself was my only savior.”
We need to have extreme empathy for the people who are stuck in the downward spiral of suffering. It’s easy to say that these people should know how to help themselves and if there is a problem, they just need to solve it. Many believe that if they can solve their own problems, then others should be able to do the same. These beliefs represent a condescending attitude toward others in pain and it is extremely naïve to assume that the relief of suffering has a neat and tidy solution. Life just isn’t that simple and sometimes individuals simply cannot tolerate their suffering without help from others. Most of the time, these people just need comfort and support to make it through the rough periods in life. Suffering is also accompanied by severe losses in self-esteem and extreme paralysis. If others are not empathetic, the person in pain can fall deeper into the downward spiral, which can be extremely dangerous for the person who is suffering.
Some people tend to judge others who are suffering by saying that they brought it onto themselves. Whether or not this is true is irrelevant. People need help, not judgment. As Michael Berg says in The Way, “What good does this judgment do? Instead, our first responsibility should be not to judge but to lend assistance. A person in pain needs relief, not moral reflection. A homeless man needs shelter, not philosophy, however well informed it might be. Unless we are certain that our judgment will help another person toward transformation, it is best to say nothing and to take positive action toward relieving the immediate distress. Often, the simple act of nonjudgmental listening is the best thing we can do for anyone. The whole purpose of spirituality is to become more conscious of the needs of others, more sympathetic, and more caring. So beware of the road that leads you in the other direction – toward judging others harshly. This is not a true spiritual path.”
Suffering is felt by the rich and poor, strong and weak, married or single, young or old. There is not one condition that frees someone from suffering. We thought Princess Diana had everything. We thought she had a fairytale life. Yet, while we thought that everything was wonderful, she was suffering from bulimia and had suicidal thoughts. She thought there was no cure for her suffering. Sarah Ferguson felt the same pain. She suffered greatly from her divorce and from the humiliation of the tabloids. She had debts she couldn’t pay. She could have crawled into a hole to hide, but instead she was committed to reinventing herself. The energy we have can be used for destruction or rehabilitation. The choice is up to us.
A bartender at our local bar is extremely judgmental. He thinks that other people are stupid (and he says he has no patience for stupid people), he has an argument against everything; he likes to be confrontational and even if he agrees with someone, he still disagrees with the person just to get a reaction. He accuses other people of being defensive and argumentative, when he is only describing himself. He insists that he has all the answers even though his answers conflict with each other. If someone challenges him, he attacks the person instead of the argument. We all know someone like this and many of us have some of these same characteristics.
Finally one day, I realized that this bartender was just angry. His anger was being expressed through discontent about things that seemed unrelated to himself, but his opinions and disagreements were just extensions of himself. I then realized that the bartender was simply suffering. His antagonism was an attempt to include others in his pain. Our natural tendency may be to stay away from people like this, but if we have compassion for suffering then we need to have compassion for these people. A person will only disagree with you if you let him. If you let him state his opinions with compassion about why he might have those opinions, the discussion can rest and the anger can be appeased. When the anger subsides, so does the suffering. These people can become our best teachers for learning compassion.
Buddhism teaches us that we suffer because of our desires. If we are grateful for what we already have, we will not suffer from what we lack. Suffering is often caused by focusing on what we don’t have. If we have money but we don’t have love, then the absence of love is the root of our suffering and if we have love but don’t have money, then the absence of money is the root of our suffering. Since we never have everything, we can always find a reason to suffer. Buddhism also teaches us that suffering is reduced by showing compassion to others and yourself. The best way to relieve your own suffering is by helping to alleviate other people’s pain.
In fact, the first noble truth in Buddhism is that everyone suffers. Without suffering, there could be no compassion in this world. When someone suffers, the pain gives everyone the gift of being able to show empathy; it is a subtle request from the universe to help others. Expressing compassion awakens the soul. This concept is represented in an old fable about a woman who goes to see her religious leader and asks for a magic cure for her suffering. The religious leader tells her to bring him a mustard seed from a family that has not suffered. She goes to the finest palace in the land and learns about their great suffering and pain. She then knocks on the door of the poor and finds great suffering. In her travels, she could not find a single household that was free from suffering but by sharing their pain and helping to console them, her own suffering was relieved. The magic cure for her suffering was achieved by having compassion for others.
Sometimes I have felt that my suffering had no release. These were the times I was consumed with fear or pain. I knew that if my fear was not appeased or if the pain did not subside, my suffering would continue. I eventually found release through faith, compassion for myself, and patience. I also had to be willing to surrender. Surrendering does not mean that someone has “given up;” instead, it is a form of humility. Surrendering requires a submission to powerful forces that can provide direction or grace. It is a form of inner peace, rather than weakness. Yet, surrendering cannot exist in a vacuum. Simultaneously, we need to believe that if we try to fix the problem, the solution will come. Whenever I have relaxed and had faith that my fears or pain would subside, they usually did. Miraculously, the problem seemed to find its own solution.
For example, in June 2003 (during the Great Recession), I was presented with this type of miracle. On the first of the month, I had no money for rent or food (and I was seriously in debt). I was consulting at the time and there were no potential clients in the pipeline (it usually takes 60 days to close a new contract). Instead of feeling fear and paralysis, I just had faith that something would miraculously appear (even though my friends accused me of living in a fantasy world). Intellectually, I knew the chances for survival were slim, so I placed ads to sublet my apartment and made tentative plans to move back to my parent’s house. As a backup plan, I rearranged the house and advertised for roommates. I had contacted a previous boss to sublet my apartment because I knew he was living in a temporary residence hotel. He told me that he did not want to sublet an apartment, but at the same time he said that his company needed to evaluate the regional distribution of their products. I immediately put together a proposal and he ensured that I was granted the project. In seven days, I received a check that allowed me to stay in my apartment. He threw me a lifeline just when I thought the “game” was over. Both of my partners left town that month due to the terrible business economy. Psychologically, I could have fallen apart but my faith in miracles allowed me to believe in a solution even though it was extremely unlikely. To my further surprise, a business associate called about a potential client during this same seven-day period. 24 hours after I received the miracle check, we received a commitment from a second client. This type of business activity was unprecedented during the recession. I was only a few weeks away from closing the business and moving out of my apartment but miraculously, I was saved. The unexpected business activity surpassed all my idealistic expectations for a solution. I was hoping for a small miracle but instead, I was given salvation. I remembered Michael Berg’s words in his book, The Way, “It’s not a matter of I’ll believe it when I see it. Instead, it’s When you believe it, you’ll receive it.”
Suffering is a great teacher. As Mother Teresa said to Diana, “To heal other people, you have to suffer yourself.” We learn from painful experiences, they force us to make major changes in our lives, we gain a greater understanding of pain and ourselves, and consequently, we can become a more compassionate comforter for others who experience pain. How can we understand suffering if we never experience it? Although it is difficult to see suffering as a gift, we need to remember that we are only given the pain because we can learn from it. A teacher will not give a calculus book to a 3rd grader because its content would be wasted. We would not be given suffering if it could not be used for our own spiritual evolution. Michael Berg says The “Kabbalah urges us to be aware that we are always being tested – and that the tests become more challenging as we move closer to [God]… if an enemy commander sees that our forces are strong, he will send more of his own troops into the struggle. When the positive side of our nature grows, the negative inclination also becomes stronger…When the test gets harder, it’s an indication that we are moving in the right direction.”
It is important to recognize that suffering is not the opposite of beauty and in many ways beauty is reflected through suffering. In the book, The 72 Names of God, Yehuda Berg says, “When we suffer, when we experience pain, when we undergo grief and heartache, the hurting actually purges ego and self-interest from our nature. The soul—our true self—shines brighter in that moment…Our true selfless, divine self shines through whenever our egos are battered and shaken to the core.”
Many people actually experience greater happiness after a traumatic event because they are given the opportunity to reevaluate their priorities. In the book, The Pursuit of Happiness, David Meyers says, “Victims of cancer (and other life-threatening events) often reappraise their lives, reorder their values and priorities, and renew their close relationships. Things they formerly took for granted, even the opportunities of each new day, they now pause to appreciate. As a result, many think they are better adjusted than before suffering cancer.” Lucio, a former gas station attendant, was another example of suffering turning to beauty. After a crippling motorcycle accident (that left him paralyzed below the waist), Lucio decided to transform his life. ”The tragedy somehow awakened a new resolve, challenging him to enroll in and complete college, and to become a successful tax consultant and regional archery champion.”
When we suffer, we need to understand that we are not alone. We may think we are the only ones who are suffering, but we all suffer from something. Some people think they look too old or too fat. Others believe that they are not attractive enough, or not happy enough, or not wealthy enough, or not secure enough. We can always find some measure that we cannot reach. We all are affected by other people’s opinions and it is easy to find people who think we do not live up to their expectations (including ourselves).
Some people have spouses who always find inadequacies with their partners. Both people go through life suffering. One spouse feels that the other is not good enough and the other partner feels inadequate. They don’t realize that they are creating suffering when suffering never had to exist in the first place. If we think we can marry perfection, we live in a fairytale world. Human beings are not perfect and never will be, no matter how much we want them to be. We say that someone may be perfect for us, even if that person isn’t perfect, but that perception is also an illusion. That person may complement us well and may understand us, but the concept of perfection cannot exist. The only perfection in this universe is in our concept of God (or a supreme being or nirvana). The good news is that a part of this perfection lives in every human being. Therefore, even if the person isn’t perfect, perfection is a part of them. We can reduce the suffering (that appears to be caused by others) by respecting the people who in are in our lives. There is always a seed of perfection that we can respect. If we show our respect for others, we are likely to find that our relationship with them improves. However, when respect is gone, so is the relationship. I once wanted to end a relationship with someone. Rather than ending it immediately (which I thought would cause him pain), I just stopped respecting him. My lack of respect caused the relationship to become antagonistic and mutually, we decided that the relationship was over. I never had to end it; I just needed to stop respecting him. The reverse is also true. If we want a relationship to continue without suffering, then we need to continually respect the other person.
Suffering may never go away but each of us can help someone who is suffering. Kind words or compassionate listening can make all the difference in the world. As a friend explained, “One day, I was feeling extremely distressed. I went out secretly wishing that someone would make me feel better. Yet, I experienced the reverse. The people who knew me were angry with me for not being my usual cheerful self. I heard comments such as ‘What is wrong with you? Did you wake up on the wrong side of the bed?’ I then felt myself slipping deeper into my own suffering. Instead of hearing compassionate words of support for my obvious sadness, I was alienated. I felt more alone around these people because of the hostility. I was not allowed to be sad. No one said a kind word or offered compassion. I was the villain because I could not put on a ‘game face.’ I even heard later that I was criticized behind my back to friends who weren’t even there. My only ‘crime’ was that I was sad. I wasn’t hurting anyone else and I didn’t say anything mean or negative.”
A colleague explained a similar story, “I once lost a friend because I was sad one night. I left a party early and was blamed for not being a good conversationalist. There was no compassion for what I might have been feeling; instead I was blamed for not being the life of the party. My suffering was exacerbated because I not only had to bear the pain of my current condition, but I lost a good friend as well. It was truly heartless.” People don’t want others to make their problems go away; they just want someone to care. A friendly touch, a kind word, or compassionate listening can significantly alleviate suffering. Is this really too much to ask? We cannot expect someone to be happy all the time when suffering is a natural part of the human experience. Why isn’t it okay to be sad?
This point was exacerbated one night when I was at a surprise birthday party. One of the guests was the mother of the host’s best friend. She was about 25 years older than all the other guests; and she was divorced and lived alone. To me, she was the most interesting person at the party. During the first few minutes of conversation, she kept saying how fortunate she was to be invited and how perfect everything was in life. She seemed extremely happy but the repetition of her “happiness statements” made me start to wonder. Something was wrong. I probed a little further by pointing out that most people are not happy continuously even though they may feel that they are supposed to act happy around others. Finally, her walls came down. She confessed that if she did not appear to be extremely happy around other people, she wouldn’t be invited to parties. For the first time, I saw the presence of sadness in her eyes. Yet, she must have felt very vulnerable after the confession, because her “happiness statements” immediately returned and they were more adamant than before. It became clear to me that she believed that it wasn’t okay to be sad in the presence of others. If she didn’t have her “game face” on, other people would not want to include her in their lives. I felt tremendous compassion for her and everybody else who believes the same thing. I looked around the room and wondered how many people were suffering under a mask of happiness. They were there but I knew I couldn’t break through the masks to find something they didn’t want me to see. Ironically, I was also suffering that night and didn’t know if I could keep my “game face” on. I had told myself that if “the act” became difficult, I would politely leave. After I met this party guest, my own suffering was transformed. Even if she didn’t know about my compassion, it provided a temporary release from own suffering. When you feel compassion for others, surprisingly, you also feel compassion for yourself; and once the compassion is felt, the suffering seems to drift away (at least temporarily).
Generally, we think that others should be compassionate toward us because we have all faced suffering at one time or another. The problem is that many people want to avoid suffering by pretending that it doesn’t exist. Even though these people may be warm-hearted individuals, they may not be able to offer support and compassion when we need it most. Our suffering reminds them that life can be filled with hardship and pain. If they want to believe that life is always happy or if they want to avoid their own suffering, they may tend to avoid people who are dealing with painful situations.
Buddhism teaches us that a detachment of “self” can help alleviate our suffering. By distancing ourselves from the outcome of the adversity and by recognizing that we are not separate from everyone else on this planet, we can rise above our suffering. When we see a stranger, we should try to connect to this person on some level. Even if it is a silent wish that the person will not suffer, it is a statement of compassion that helps both people rise above the suffering of humanity. Esoterically, we can feel these silent expressions of good will even if we don’t know where the feeling is coming from.
Expressing silent wishes for peace can often transform a hostile situation. In The Sermon on the Mount, Emmet Fox relates the following story: “A lady was annoyed by overhearing two men engaged on some repairs outside her window, who, unaware of her proximity, were indulging in very bad language. For a moment a tide of anger and contempt surged up in her mind concerning them, but…she instantly concentrated her attention upon the Divine Presence, which she knew to be within each of them – as it is within all men…Instantaneously the offensive language ceased. She said it was as though it had been chopped off with a knife.” After I read that passage, I tried the same experiment with my cat. Sometimes, she gets extremely agitated and starts to bite. I used to get angry at these expressions but I found that my anger increased her agitation and the biting became more severe. The next time she became agitated, I decided to express silent feelings of love instead of anger. To my surprise, the biting immediately stopped and she started purring. Within a few seconds, she started licking my hand instead of biting it.
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Compassion is easy to recognize if it is genuine. The Dalai Lama frequently makes other people feel better with very few words; he can reduce suffering because he radiates a special spirituality and genuine caring for other people. Even without knowing who he is, a person feels better in his presence. The effect of the Dalai Lama’s compassion was extremely obvious after one of his lectures. When he was leaving the room, he was approached by an antagonistic individual who said many cruel things in a very loud voice. In response, the Dalai Lama said nothing. He just looked into the eyes of this man with great compassion. The angry individual suddenly stopped yelling and to the surprise of everyone who was watching, he just broke down and started to cry. The Dalai Lama’s compassion instantaneously relieved the suffering that had precipitated the anger.
The Dalai Lama’s gift can exist in all of us. If we stop focusing on our own problems and recognize that other people are suffering, we can make other people feel better, which in turn makes us feel better at the same time. If we all could express sympathy for our fellow human beings, this world would be a much better place to live.
A moment of kindness is all that is needed to help alleviate suffering on this planet – and it is not a difficult goal to achieve. It only takes the expression of a few seconds of compassion for each person we encounter. Whether it is a stranger or a friend, the gift of compassion can lift a person’s spirits. The simple truth is that life is tough. Wouldn’t life be easier for everyone if we could just allocate a few minutes of our day to show someone that we care?