In all the emails I receive from readers, perhaps the most common theme is a question in this vein: how can a person be at peace with the world when there is so much suffering going on?
I don’t think I need to start rattling off specifics here — virtually every story in every newspaper is a tiny, nominal record of horrendous suffering for someone somewhere. Crimes. Deaths. Famines. Wars. Fires. Floods.
How do we live with so much suffering going on? How can I do so much as enjoy a bagel with a clear conscience while so many people are enduring unspeakable suffering?
I never really had a satisfying answer for that question most of my life, and so my only strategy was distraction. Get into something more immediate, more consuming, and those thoughts go away.
But it never really sat right with me until I began to question the usefulness of those thoughts. I think the key lies in understanding the difference between two oft-misunderstood responses to suffering.
Sympathy and empathy are often used interchangeably, and though they are definitely not the same thing, I can’t really say my definitions are the right ones. But I think if you read on, you’ll understand why it’s so important to make a distinction.
Both are related to feeling the suffering of others. The more common reaction is sympathy, which is essentially feeling bad because someone else feels bad. It doesn’t require an understanding of the nature of the other person’s suffering, only a mental acknowledgment that they are suffering. When you react to the suffering of another with sympathy, it means you are suffering over their suffering. However, as we suffer we become less conscious. In a state of suffering, wisdom disappears, reactivity takes over, and you begin to feel helpless.
Empathy is more subtle. It is not a reaction, but rather a capacity to be aware of the suffering of another. In sympathy we can be aware that another person is suffering, though we remain preoccupied with emotions and thoughts about the suffering, making it impossible to stay keenly aware of it.
To cultivate empathy requires that you remain receptive and stable — able to listen without judgment, to stay aware without getting indignant. Above all, it requires that you do not make their suffering yours.
Sympathetic reactions to suffering are actually creating more of it. Becoming furious towards the supposed perpetrator of the suffering, for example, undermines the possibility of empathy with the sufferer. As soon as you notice you’re slipping into revenge fantasies or wishes for better days, you’re creating your own suffering, and are liable to cause more suffering to those around you.
The wiser response to the suffering of others is to cultivate a keen awareness of their suffering in the moment. Turn towards it, not away. This is the opposite of the initial impulse for most of us, which is usually anger or grief.
Accepting the reality of somebody else’s suffering can be almost unbearable, particularly if the sufferer is someone close to you, or the sufferer is defenseless, such as in the cases of children, the poor, or mistreated animals. In particular, parents have a powerful urge to try to bear the suffering of their children, as if by suffering in parallel they could spare their child the burden.
It often even feels just plain wrong not to suffer when someone else is suffering, and sometimes we effect or even create suffering in ourselves as a response to feeling guilt about someone else’s plight. I remember more than one instance as a kid, when I’d accidentally hurt somebody in a schoolyard soccer collision. I always felt the impulse to get up limping too, even if I was fine. I guess it always seemed more attractive to be in a situation where we were both victims. To just get up unhurt and have to watch some kid crying because of me was so awful, I’d find myself acting out some plight of my own just so I didn’t feel so callous.
Even in situations where we aren’t the cause, it’s easier to bear the suffering of someone else when we suffer too. That way we feel we can be responsible for it; we can do something about it. But we’ve lost track of their suffering, because we’re really attending to our own.
To simply be present and aware of the suffering of another person, without deflecting it with your own angst, is a remarkably scary proposition. Even witnessing minor suffering, like watching someone crash and burn in an oral presentation, can easily make our bodies and faces cringe. It can be awful. We have a strong impulse to suffer over the suffering of others, and like so many other human impulses, it can make train wrecks out of our behavior and states of mind if we are not aware of it.
We do it out of self-defense. By suffering sympathetically, by distracting ourselves with blame for the apparent perpetrators, by entertaining the notion of vowing to cure cancer/end animal cruelty/get drugs off the streets/achieve world peace/feed the starving children, we can momentarily defend ourselves from facing a universal truth about reality: that living beings do suffer and we can’t always fix it.
I’m not saying that there’s nothing we can do about disease or poverty, but the emotional urges we feel in the presence of suffering serve only to distract us from accepting the fact that it is happening right now. Smarter, more helpful action can be taken when you’re not running from the reality of suffering. As long as you’re hot with rage or weak with despair, you’re closed to the suffering of others.
Suffering alongside another does no good, though it is usually our primary impulse. When you collapse into a reactive state where you cannot get past your own suffering, you cannot help the sufferer.
Empathy, which really is no more than an aware, unconditional acceptance of the suffering of a living being, takes practice. The sympathetic impulse and all of its offshoot emotions — rage, denial and despair — is so strong, you must stay aware of it or risk losing awareness of the suffering itself.
Action comes second
So what can you do about the world’s suffering? Before anything else, be wary of sympathy and its spinoff mentalities: despair, anger, hatred, “wars” on terror, drugs, cruelty or anything else — and instead practice empathy whenever you can.
We all know that action is the only thing that can change circumstances such to relieve suffering or prevent future suffering, but we are way more effective at creating change when we’re conscious. Sympathy is an unconscious response to the suffering of others. Empathy is a conscious response. Until we’ve truly grasped the reality of the suffering, no action can be taken, only reaction. Action must be the second step. Acceptance is the first.
Sympathy, at its heart, is a turning away from suffering. It’s an impulsive way of losing oneself in thought and emotion, averting one’s eyes mentally, so to speak, from the reality of somebody’s plight. Thoughts about relief, revenge, and justice are attempts — well-meaning maybe, but ineffective — to deny the sufferer the experience they are actually having. We wish we could fix it, and over time perhaps we can, but we hate that we cannot relieve it in the present moment, so we tend to escape into fantasies about relief or restitution. When you allow yourself to hate someone else’s suffering, you suffer, and now you’ve made yourself a victim too.
Many people are completely unwilling to accept suffering, even for a moment. Empathy requires a real-time, unconditional acceptance of suffering. Not an endorsement of it, not a resignation to it, only the sober recognition that it does happen and it is happening. Only from this point of acceptance can anyone respond to suffering with wisdom and compassion. Anger and wishing are dead giveaways that you have not yet accepted it.
Any time you witness suffering, you have a chance to practice empathy. Remember, suffering isn’t always something dire. A job interviewee squirming under tough questions is suffering, a bride worrying it will rain is suffering, a teammate hoping your team can tie the score in the remaining four minutes is suffering, your friend discovering that his PVR didn’t record the right show is suffering, and all are opportunities to practice empathy.
When you take those chances to appreciate the suffering of someone else, you may notice it feels completely different than the normal sympathetic reaction of getting upset, or consoling. You may discover at that point that those reactions are self-important ones, because they ignore the other person’s suffering in favor of your own parallel distress. In empathy you can’t help but feel for them, but you don’t let your reactions obscure the reality of their suffering.
You can’t know suffering from a distance
Much of the suffering that distresses us is suffering we aren’t really there to see. We know, for example, that behind walls and over horizons, food companies are testing toxins on animals, children are dying of malnutrition, and women are being abused. Here too it is tempting to fall into despair or resentment, and neither is helpful.
Coming to terms with distant suffering can be hard because it’s only an abstraction until we actually see it unfolding in front of us, and many of us never will. Perhaps if we were present, for example, at a typical day in a factory slaughterhouse or a homeless shelter, we’d be able to be more conscious in our responses to the suffering we associate with them. Until we do, we can only react to our thoughts about far-off suffering, and that gets us nowhere.
We cannot accept suffering until we really have a chance to know it, and that’s what empathy is: a conscious act of getting to know another’s suffering, the best you are able. This is where sympathy interferes.
Turn towards suffering when you notice it. Look for it in their eyes and posture. If there is some action to be taken, you’ll know it intuitively, but often the most helpful thing to do at that stage is to stay aware of the suffering, and simply be there for the sufferer. If you’ve ever had a rough time and someone was trying to comfort you, you may have noticed that you didn’t really want them to try and fix it by explaining it away, giving you advice or telling you that things will get better. To simply know that somebody is willing to appreciate your suffering — not to indulge in it themselves — that is a rare gift.
Can you stay aware while someone is suffering beside you, whether it’s a friend’s tantrum about a bad customer service experience, or the death of a family member, without becoming resentful, wishful or angry? Here’s a hint: if you are talking, either out loud or in your mind, in that moment you are not being receptive. You may understand that they are suffering, but you’re not really seeing it.
You probably noticed I didn’t tell you what to do about starving children in Africa, or flood-ravaged villages in Pakistan. I don’t know what you should do. But I do know that if you’re stuck on suffering over their suffering, you won’t either.
Photo by luigi morante