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What to Do About the World’s Suffering

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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.

Parallel Suffering

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

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rusty December 2, 2010 at 2:43 am

better dayz.. thinking about better dayz….

i cant change the world right now, but maybe i can change mine….
Dusty Helgason

thanks DC

David December 2, 2010 at 5:14 pm

Good to hear from you Dust. That’s what it boils down to. He was right on the money.

Gerrit December 2, 2010 at 8:21 am

There is a saying that pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.

Either way, the question is if the pain or suffering in the world can be relieved. We live in complex and complicated interdependencies. At least to a certain extent some of are so well off because others are not.

I remember a lengthy discussion (or should I say argument) with a friend over dinner in how far everyone is responsible for their own fate.

In the end, I think it’s a mixture of both: responsibility for oneself and responsibility – or possibly empathy – for others.

There is no quick fix, and generations of philosophers may have thought this through without finding the ultimate solution.

For me, it results in the question how do I need to live so that I can still look at myself in the mirror.

David December 2, 2010 at 5:24 pm

There is a difference between pain and suffering, and I deliberately avoided getting into it in this post. There’s a lot we can learn about how to contend with pain such that we don’t create suffering out of it, but I think both are inevitable. Ideally, we are all responsible for our own fate, but I don’t think we are always capable of being responsible, particularly when we’re suffering. So it can be a real gift to someone just to stay centered when they aren’t able to.

Gerrit December 4, 2010 at 10:31 am

I’ve signed up for “Don Miguel Ruiz’s Daily Inspirations”. Look what I got yesterday:

“Today use your awareness to see how this message is true in your life:

Love is responsible for its actions. Everything you think, everything you do, has a consequence, and you are going to experience the consequences of your actions in one way or another. All human beings are completely responsible for their actions, even if they don’t want to be.”

Murali December 2, 2010 at 8:21 am


What a wonderful way to start my day. I have struggled with this for a long time, and thanks to your many posts realized that I had to first start seeing things as they are without interference from my own preconceived thinking. In the few moments that I have managed it, my actions have been so much more effective than my “typical” reactions to those settings. Thanks for articulating this so well.


David December 2, 2010 at 5:24 pm

I hope you can put it to work for you. :)

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) December 2, 2010 at 2:55 pm

Great post~ yes, just being there with another, can be exactly what they are wanting during their suffering.

I seek to appreciate what I have out of respect for those who have not~ my body, my garden, stuff around the home etc~ I reflect on how those in poverty would make the most of what I have, and see potential which is ignored by me.

http://www.afrigadget.com is a site that inspires me and shows me how to see things in ways I’ve not thought of before.

David December 2, 2010 at 5:25 pm

Afrigadget is great! Thanks Char.

Chris December 2, 2010 at 4:22 pm

i think there are only two acceptable ways to deal with people suffering. either you are aware of it and don’t care enough to do anything or unaware, or you’re aware and are doing something about it. anything else is a massive cop out. if you care but don’t do anything, you don’t really care (see if the election mattered you’d do more than vote). it’s ok not to care but it’s not right to pretend to care.

David December 2, 2010 at 5:36 pm

It’s a tricky question. Is it fair to say we don’t care if we don’t act? Each person only has so much time and resources with which to act, but I don’t know if that limits their capacity to care. With elections, I do care about the results, but perhaps the results aren’t important enough for me to invest much time or effort in them, with a whole world of other concerns also asking for my attention.

It’s also not easy to discern which actions are helpful and which aren’t. We all have different ideas about how to reduce suffering. For example, some people respond to the plight of their people with terrorist attacks. I think these kinds of misguided responses to suffering are all based on a sympathetic approach to suffering. Empathy, even without any further action, is still helpful IMHO because it is what allows for a conscious response in the first place. If by “caring” we mean cultivating empathy, I wouldn’t call it a cop out.

Beth Owens December 4, 2010 at 1:46 pm

Your are true David,It doesn’t mean that we are evil if we didn’t took any action, But still i too had a feeling of missing something when i never act on things i see on day to day life.

Wonderful Post David


John January 9, 2011 at 8:20 pm

i see no contradiction between what you’re saying and what David is trying to say. isn’t listening an action? that counts as doing something. most people who come to me with a problem usually don’t want me to solve their problems for them, they really just want someone who will actually take out the time to listen to what they’re going through. they want to know that they’re not alone and that someone actually cares.

sometimes, of course, people genuinely want advice, in which case i find that they’ll ask for it. in that case, in addition to listening, i try to give the best advice as best that i can.

But anyway, my point is that listening is often times the best, and sometimes the only, thing you can do. I believe that, in a more simplistic way, that’s what David is trying to say

Mike December 2, 2010 at 4:45 pm

“if you’re talking…you’re probably not being receptive.”

I have found in the past, as wonderful as awareness and mindfulness is while encountering another’s suffereing, in situations where there is immediate suffering of a friend/loved one in front of you, it may need to be put on hold…even if just for a moment.

I agree with most everything you say, but I think it’s important to note how comforting a quick response to a friend in need can be. I think your piece is a great opportunity to show the difference between saying something like “I know you’ll find another job” to someone who was just laid off vs saying “I know it must be frightening to have lost your job right now”. The first would be an example of a sympathetic response and the latter an empathic one.

Whether or not you are taking the time to be aware of the truth of the latter and cultivate empathy within yourself is not quite as pressing as letting your friend at least know that his feelings are validated and understood. Both can be done, and the order doesn’t really matter if you are able to cultivate the empathy relatively quickly but I think it can be extremely helpful for the sufferer (in some situations) if their feelings are read via their expressions and relayed back to them with understanding of their legitimacy…Bringing true awareness of your own empathy is beneficial to both parties, but can be put on hold for a moment if need be.

David December 2, 2010 at 5:42 pm

For sure, and I didn’t mean to imply that talking is counterproductive. What I mean is that in any moment where we are expressing a thought, we cannot be receptive. Input mode and output mode — listening and talking — can’t be engaged at the same time. Sometimes we don’t know what to do but console someone verbally, and while we’re talking we cannot observe their suffering. It’s easy to get stuck on “output mode” while we’re in a sympathetic state.

mike December 4, 2010 at 8:04 am


nrhatch December 2, 2010 at 6:31 pm

We cannot alleviate the suffering of others by suffering ourselves. We must allow ourselves to feel their pain without drowning in it.

Peter Ryan December 2, 2010 at 11:02 pm

Enjoyable post David, I am a big supporter of empathetic response to the broader tribe – as we are now a global tribe. And helping and supporting in whatever way we can that is right for us.

You are right though, in that we can’t suffer through everything we become aware of and fight all the fights.

I am reminded of this piece of wisdom:

‘Compassion and love are not mere luxuries.
As the source both of inner and external peace,
they are fundamental to the continued survival of our species.’
His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama

Dhiresh December 3, 2010 at 2:34 pm

Hi David,

I haven’t read your blog for a while so I thought I’d stop by- and I’m glad I did.

Whilst I was reading, a thought that really struck me was the way in which we determine whether a person or situation is suffering or not.

Isn’t odd that when someone or something is suffering, some of us tend to look for a person responsible for the suffering? If someone is sleeping rough because they are an alcoholic, some would be less be inclined to feel any form of empathy.

I guess the who, what, how, when, where and why doesn’t really matter- because sometimes searching for the reason straight off causes us to suffer even more. It reminds me that acceptance is always at the root back to sanity.


David December 6, 2010 at 9:07 pm

You are right on here. Our responses to suffering are often very much wrapped up in moral judgments. The way drug addicts are talked about and treated, for example, is often smug and cold. As you imply, empathy can only be voluntary, and our moral culture often tells us not to bother to be empathic when it looks like the person caused the suffering themselves. Causes are never cut and dried, and so it doesn`t make sense to withhold empathy based on a quick assessment of whose `fault` it is.

whyyoulittle June 2, 2013 at 3:17 am

A good case to look at is the treatment of returning soldiers from Vietnam. There was very little empathy for them because they were seen as being at fault for “participating” (being consigned by law to serve in the military, mostly in order to help South Vietnamese from the invading Northern Vietnamese army, who then slaughtered the South after we left.)

Dinah December 4, 2010 at 10:46 am

Suffering. In my mind there has to be a reason why such a thing exists. Not to mention that it exists in such huge and small ways. The thing is it exists. It needs to exist because there is a huge potential of learning and growth involved.
As a child I suffered a hole in my head and medications that changed my personality and constant pain. But I have to tell you right now I would not change it for the world. It taught me empathy at a relatively young age and made me the person I am now. I compare myself to the Shaman of a tribe. The wisest person of a clan was the person who suffered a debilitating experience in his life, they were thought to be closer to the spirits or gods because of their affliction. I think it is because your perspective turns from the selfish to the empathetic. By knowing suffering you are capable of understanding suffering. Think of the world we live in and how we as humans would behave if we didn’t respond to the suffering of others? I personally would find it a little scary. There is so much to learn and so many avenues for growth, would you honestly take that away from someone?
And you are correct its not about anger or righting the wrongs its about understanding and compassion. I don’t think those things would exist without the suffering.

Gerrit December 4, 2010 at 11:21 am

Beautiful insights, Dina.
I might have been through less (or at least different) suffering than you. But as bad as it is while we are suffering, the realization that this has made us the persons we are today, and that it has is benefits is just great.

David December 6, 2010 at 9:11 pm

I think you are absolutely right. Many esoteric teaching characterize suffering to be not just valuable, but to be the driving force behind our evolution. Samsara is nirvana. Suffering begets enlightenment.

G December 8, 2010 at 11:42 am

That’s not what it means – it means the same as ‘form is emptiness, emptiness is form.’

On the subject of definintions:

Sympathy = affective agreement

Empathy = affective resonance

Sympathy is like agreeing with someone’s politics or feeling sorry for them when they suffer. Empathy is mirroring what you think their feelings are. You can be wrong. I felt bad for someone who was bereaved then I realised he didn’t feel bad at all – my empathy was a wrong projection of my own beliefs. You might feel empathetic joy to see someone skipping along the beach until you realise he has ants in his trunks.

Brigid December 4, 2010 at 6:40 pm

My job is to work with peoples pain and part of that is to find out why its there, how it is impacting their lives and what they can change to heal themselves. Empathy is essential here, to be with them, listen and hear clearly what they are saying between the lines. My response isn’t necessary, I offer no solutions except other ways to look at the ‘problem’, they offer their own solutions.
Some people consider the most horrific thing that has happened to them as being inconsequential – simply because noone listened, others have huge life stopping problems from an inconsequential situation (often because too many solutions were offered).
Empathy is the gift of being there, sharing, respecting and not judging.
This is important in all situations, even hearing of world events, its not my job to judge, but to understand there are many ‘unknowns’ in all events.

mike December 7, 2010 at 2:21 pm

..its not my job to judge, but to understand there are many ‘unknowns’ in all events” ..Great comment Brigid…to me..as an recovering Alcoholic..this sounds within ‘the program’ so to speak…

Cole Stan December 6, 2010 at 9:50 am

I know I can change the world in my own little way. However, if others are not willing to participate. It will be a difficult task for me to do it so. Especially if the people I want to help don’t have the willingness to help themselves too.

Dinah December 6, 2010 at 1:27 pm

Believe in the ripple effect brother. It only takes one stone.

David December 6, 2010 at 9:17 pm

Your influence is always going to be limited to your own actions and your own state of consciousness, so it doesn`t really matter what would be different if you could control other people. Work from your own angle, there`s no need to do any more.

whyyoulittle June 2, 2013 at 3:13 am

Amen, brother.

mike December 13, 2010 at 8:30 am

…very interesting subject…i think one should take the idea of empathy even further and explore the phenomena of “emotional contagion” which seems to me to imply that we can be somhow subconsciously ‘connected’ to another individual and feel what they are feeling without a word being spoken and even at times in their absence…

Dinah December 13, 2010 at 10:05 am

Emotional contagion? Now that is interesting. And it resonates with me. Sometimes there is this great knowing, an absolute certainty that has nothing to do with the physical boundaries.

Mike Ramsey December 19, 2010 at 8:32 am


thanks for the steps towards those who are helpless and can’t help others.

I highly appreciate your effort towards this.

One thing I have realized that there is lots of terror in the world on the other hand, there is also lots of programs to make the world calm and teaching the way of living meaningful life whether it is in the form of religious activities or other social activities.

If these positive activities don’t exit then it is impossible to live on the earth, I think all these positive activities are controlling and telling us the way of living meaningful life.

Maria Pavel February 1, 2011 at 3:43 am

I always to try to help others and not dwell on the negative emotions. I stay positive all the time. I believe it’s infectious. As per experience, one of the greatest benefits of being positive is that you get friends to help you accomplish tasks in record time!

Aloys Jacobs February 25, 2011 at 3:31 am

That’s right, you can’t undo all the suffering in the world, but you can try to alleviate the suffering around you. And that not blindly, but try to find the source of suffering and address it at the root. One will probably soon discover that most problems are stemming from the pleasure-pain conundrum, much in the Buddha tradition :)

James Bath March 16, 2013 at 8:30 am

I was very relieved to find this compassionate article about how to deal with the suffering of “other” people. Most of what I’ve found so far deals only with how to manage one’s own “selfish” suffering. I personally have been worrying about my wife’s welfare “after” she has passed away.

The following will help explain what I mean by this, if anyone is interested and wishes to add their thoughts:

My adored and crippled wife of 30 years recently died. She was everything to me and I don’t believe her soul died with her body. I believe that our love is grounded in eternity, so we will survive this sad, temporal dream.

I do not believe a love as strong as our’s can die. I am working to reunite with her, no matter what it takes; and I will continue to work at this for all eternity until we are in each other’s arms again. This may sound crazy but I don’t care — we live in an infinite universe which includes infinite possibilities and we are in eternity which means, at the very least, eternal recurrence will bring us back together again in the exact life mode we were in when she dropped her old physical body and transcended to a new level of being.

Garrett April 14, 2013 at 11:10 am

Thanks, David, for a thought-provoking article. This is just what I was looking for when I did a Google search on ways to reduce suffering. I’m admittedly filled with a great deal of anger over all of the dehumanization in its many forms. I’d like to think I’m both angry and empathetic, but perhaps I’m merely sympathetic. I’ve been thinking recently about ways to further reduce my consumption so as to have more resources at my disposal to reduce suffering at the local, face-to-face level. Intersections are populated by persons in need. Instead of an anonymous gift of a few dollars (or no transaction, which is the case 99% of the time I pass a sign-holding individual), I could chat with the person and either offer to bring food from a nearby store or restaurant or invite them to accompany me into said store/restaurant where I could treat them to a meal and conversation (it’d be understandable, though, if the person didn’t want to leave his or her post at that time–I could return when he or she plans on moving on).

Now, I want to address the issue of knowing suffering from a distance. Maybe it comes down to what exactly it means to “know” suffering, but I would think video, photos and even detailed writings can allow someone to know suffering from a distance. I try to consume less and consume with a conscience (these are actions meant to reduce suffering), and I often use the Better World Shopper book as a reference. The book contains a list of the 10 things that most need changing, and on the list is chocolate. This inspired me to do some research, which led to the discovery that non-fair trade chocolate is the product of human trafficking and child slaves. I then saw a documentary titled The Dark Side of Chocolate. Was I not then able to know suffering from a distance? It certainly led to an action, the action of not consuming chocolate that isn’t fair trade or, at the very least, organic (since organic growers are supposedly held to higher standards than are non-organic growers). This raises another issue, dealing with changing others. If I were to post flyers at work (even just on the wall above my desk) and public places that explain why it’s important to not eat slave chocolate or coffee or tea (or, as another example, to reduce consumption of electronic gadgets manufactured using what are known as ‘conflict minerals’), does that constitute awareness-raising or preaching? Does it all depend on the content and tone of the flyers? Is it not important that an individual make some effort to both increase awareness of suffering (in the US especially, I’m quite certain a lot of people fail to grasp the extent to which billions of people suffer) and make suggestions as to how suffering can be reduced?

Your article being as old as it is, I may try contacting you via email.

whyyoulittle June 2, 2013 at 3:11 am

I need help because I keep putting myself in a chicken cage like the North Vietnamese did to the South Vietnamese and American POW… just knowing that I will be stuck like this forever and there is nothing I can do about it. No wonder those vets that survived have flashbacks. But unfortunately not a lot of people have empathy for the Vietnam vets as in other wars because of the nasty “hippy” movement (not the original real hippies but the anti war protestors who hijacked the movement) that blamed the soldiers for the war…

so what do I do to help the guy in the chicken cage… I mean that is shear hell

Brenda August 17, 2013 at 10:58 pm

I’ve been looking for articles that talk about this, because I’ve been struggling with this so much. This article didn’t really help me but I didn’t think it would, it was still a very really good and well, it just introduced me to this website. I just can’t understand how I can be happy and live a peaceful life knowing about all the suffering in the world. I really, really can’t.

Garrett August 18, 2013 at 2:57 am

You can start by taking Gandhi’s advice to “live simply so that others may simply live.”

Jules November 18, 2013 at 9:30 am

I’m with Brenda… I don’t feel able to be happy with all the suffering in the world. I’m looking for a nugget to cling to that would free me from this burden. Like the opening line that started this thread… how can I even enjoy a bagel knowing that in that moment so many beings are suffering? Everything I see has suffering attached to it.. the products that are made with slave labour, orphans living on waste tips and getting snapped up by child traffickers, the plight of refugees, the products that are tested on animals, the products that contain harmful chemicals, our food that’s full of chemicals, the animals in the bush that are dying of thirst because humans are using the groundwater for their lawns, the way animals are treated – intensive farming, inhumane farming/slaughter practices, live export in horrendous conditions to the hands of barbarians, the plight of refugees, the treatment of laboratory animals, logging of beautiful trees and virgin forest, the loss of habitat for orangutans, polar bears etc, the trawlers raping the sea, the miners raping the land, puppy farming, vehicles/airplanes/factory farming emissions that are polluting our air and water, the loss of biodiversity… this is just the tip of the iceberg that springs to mind… there is so much to be sad about and mourn… how can anyone with a conscience and compassion go about living with a light heart and positive spirit? I so wish I were able to.. I even am filled with contempt for happy people because I feel like ‘How dare they be happy when there is so much suffering all around’… are they blind, unfeeling, numb, self-centred and self-indulgent, ostriches? I also feel contempt if they are too lazy to stand up for a cause… they would rather self-indulge than help others. And I am contemptuous of people that thoughtlessly consume products from the above e.g. puppies, harmful cleaning products, food flown in from the other side of the world, furniture from unsustainable sources, toiletries tested on animals, gas guzzling cars, retic guzzlers and people who waste water in general, factory farmed animals etc. This contempt adds further negativity to the feelings of grief, burden and guilt that I feel about being unable to right the wrongs that surround me. I try to play a normal part in society and put on a happy face but just under the surface is a deep well of sadness and I don’t feel I can ever be truly happy or enjoy human company because I attribute all of the suffering to humans including myself. Anyone else feel this way or used to feel this way but have turned a corner to a happy outlook?

Karen December 17, 2013 at 10:25 am


You summed up my thoughts. It is so difficult to feel happy in such a greedy, consumer-oriented humanistic me, me, me society. Why am I one who cannot avert my eyes to the suffering? Why does torture for self gain seem to be the norm? And, on this planet, my eyes see that those who torture ultimately gain. Is there truly good anywhere? Happiness eludes the soft at heart and rewards the wicked.

David Cain December 18, 2013 at 8:44 am

There are a lot of other norms too, aside from “torture for self gain”. Why are you preoccupied with that one?

Jules January 21, 2014 at 8:16 am

Hi David and Karen, thank you for your responses. It is the nature of unconscious humans to put their desires and needs first with little thought for the consequences. And even when the consequences are obviously detrimental to others (people, animals, the environment), those humans still plough ahead if they are going to gain from it. Most people just bury their heads in the sand and deliberately stay in ignorance so that they can carry on self-indulging and living the way they want to without a guilty conscience. Or, they are informed but they can’t be bothered to do anything about it. For 30 years, I have been campaigning for a variety of causes environmental and animal (though human poverty and despair moves me just as much) and things have got worse. What I notice is it is the same small percentage of people – maybe 2% that are trying to make things better while the other 98% sit on their arses and say they can’t change the world. Yes it is true that all significant changes have been driven by the few- ending of slavery, emancipation of women (although slavery and oppression of women is still very much alive) but why must it be this way? I resent carrying the burden for the lazy/apathetic. And in truth, I am emotionally exhausted from fighting against the Machine. Please David – how does one feel happy and positive in this world? I am an intelligent, successful person who functions normally in society – I am not into drinking excessively or drugs or smoking – I have a partner and a full time job, I work out, I am just normal – But the pain I feel is just under the surface and a slight scratch and I sob with sadness at all the suffering – all the images of suffering flood me. To cut off the branch we are sitting on is the definition of insane and that’s what most people are doing. I think the sane response to the suffering in the world is to agonise over it and try to fight against it… to ignore it is insane. I am beginning to think I am insane as my response is destroying me. The irony of it is that I don’t even have children – I made the decision when I was about 18 that I wouldn’t want to bring someone I loved into this world and inflict it upon them. Many of the people responsible for destroying our planet have children… how do they reconcile their money-making decisions with doing irrevocable damage to the world as we know it? Maybe they think living in space stations or other planets is an option when we have destroyed this one. I have always maintained that I don’t care if man destroys himself – we deserve that but what I can’t abide is how we are destroying every beautiful innocent being (including trees/plants) along with us.

Someone May 26, 2014 at 2:28 pm

I’m in a bad place right now. It’s not even solely about human suffering; it’s the suffering of life that tortures me. There’s a bird’s nest on our backyard porch with two nestlings. Their heads popped from the shelter, and all I could see was their heads, eyes closed, mouths open, waiting for their mother to return. But my parents have a party of five out there right now, so the mother most likely won’t return until the party is over, which could go for at least five or so more hours. Meanwhile, the chicks are starving.

Then I think of the worm or other such creature that will be fed to those chicks so they can live (if they don’t die in the next few hours), and how that living being will be torn either by mother or hatchling, sometimes slowly.

So much pain, and I am powerless to stop this cycle of life and death. Changing these thoughts won’t change the reality, either :(

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