Life is suffering.
This is not a pessimistic statement. It’s a matter of fact. Ask any Buddhist.
We westerners often think this is bullshit, that suffering can be neutralized by success. We think that if we can just acquire enough — things, money, blessings, self-improvement techniques, meditation books — we can defeat suffering in this life. Well, we’re wrong. Suffering isn’t something that needs to be defeated. It’s something that needs to be kept in perspective and understood. No doubt, a life of suffering is the price we pay for being human.
The problem is that most of us see suffering as a bad thing to be avoided. We group it together with other things we think are bad, like pain and grief and sorrow and anything we believe interferes with our comfort. But these things aren’t really suffering; they are just the most recognizable symptoms of our inability to understand it. Suffering is the great teacher. It helps us live a life worth living. Few of us realize that a “good life” is only as good as the lessons we learn within it, that without the hard parts, our lives are nothing more than superficial cartoons. This is why many of us find it difficult to believe that privilege is not a tonic for it. Everyone suffers — the rich, the poor, the powerful, the weak, the smart, the ignorant — everyone. Granted, it might be harder to accept the idea that a rich fat-cat suffers as much as a poor and starving child, but suffering comes in many forms, not just the traditional dirty, hungry kind.
And as it is often difficult for us to appreciate the suffering of others, it is even more difficult for us to appreciate how we personally impact that suffering. Fundamentally, the moment we interact with another person, regardless of the specific details of that interaction, only one of two things can happen — we either ease the suffering of the other or we add to it. There is no in-between, though it is possible to find a balance between the two.
I am not trying to tell everyone to be nice to each other. Sometimes being nice just adds to a person’s suffering. For example, leading a person to believe everything is okay when it’s not, is a good way for a nice person to add to another person’s suffering. No, I’m telling you to be aware of your impact on others and make it your goal to ease their suffering. Know that if your interaction is going to cause suffering, it is important that the overall impact of your interaction will result in an easing of that person’s suffering.
Keeping our own suffering in perspective is equally as important. There is no trophy for the “most suffering” life, so don’t try to win one. We all know those who go out of their way to remind us of how much they’ve suffered. They throw it up at us, almost demanding recognition by force. They want to make sure they get credit for it. What they plan on doing with that credit, I do not know. Perhaps they think it is the cost of buying sympathy. But be confident that the goal in interacting with these people is still to ease suffering…theirs and yours. Even if all you can do is categorize the sufferable interaction as just another opportunity to learn something about yourself — how much you can take, how able you are to let go of your ego, how well you can control your temper, etc. — the interaction will most likely end up easing your suffering more in the long run than adding to it in the short run. But don’t forget, sometimes easing the suffering of another doesn’t require staying quiet. Sometimes it requires telling the other person they are being an asshole.
People do different things to ease suffering. I write and paint and tell jokes and let people know I love them. These are to ease both the suffering of myself and of others. Hopefully, if you find that any of them — my writing or my painting or my jokes or my love — adds to your suffering, you’ll let me know.