My favorite-song-of-the-month starts like this: “My God is better than yours/ And the walls in my house are so thick/ I hear nothing at all.”
I’ve noticed that trend in the world, but I’ve noticed another disturbing trend:
“My suffering is worse than yours.”
Have you ever been in a pissing contest with someone over whose life is worse? Perhaps you had this conversation:
“You wouldn’t believe my week! My boss yelled at me, my idiotic coworkers didn’t turn in that report, my dog peed all over the carpet, and my kid had soccer practice every night!”
“Man, I know what you mean. My boss yelled at me AND made me work overtime, my coworkers turned in the WRONG report, my dog SHIT all over the carpet, and my kid BROKE HIS ARM at soccer practice in THREE PLACES!”
“That’s horrible! When *I* was a kid, I broke my arm in SEVEN places! I completely feel his pain.”
Folks sounds like they’re commiserating and being supportive, but each anecdote gets progressively worse and exaggerated until someone confesses quite matter-of-factly that they were anally probed by Venutians after running 100 miles in worn-out shoes last Tuesday.
Allow me to present a relevant song from Avenue Q:
So, I had a shitty day today such that I was fuming mad at everything when I got home. My poor desk didn’t know what hit it ( = my angry hands several times.) Things were awful. My life sucked. I was the most incompetent person ever to have lived. I should just quit before the misery multiplies. Once I’d settled that…
… it was time to turn on a dharma podcast because the mass-slaughter of pixellated monsters was not helping. As always, Jack had something to say that hit the pause button in my brain:
People become loyal to their suffering.
Oh yes. I love my suffering. I wear it like my favorite pair of undies. And my pair is cuter than yours.
I’m not going to turn around now and explain why life is miraculous and lovely and how we should appreciate it for fuck’s sake. (Even though it’s probably true, I don’t have the heart to say so tonight.) I’m going somewhere far more dramatic with this:
What if you knew you’d be the last
to touch someone?
If you were taking tickets, for example,
at the theater, tearing them,
giving back the ragged stubs,
you might take care to touch that palm,
brush your fingertips
along the life line’s crease.
When a man pulls his wheeled suitcase
too slowly through the airport, when
the car in front of me doesn’t signal,
when the clerk at the pharmacy
won’t say Thank you, I don’t remember
they’re going to die.
– Excerpted from “If You Knew” by Ellen Bass
We all suffer, and we all will die. We all have our stories, and each one is just as valid and contains just as much Life in the suffering it expresses. Someone else’s pain does not negate yours, and yours won’t negate theirs. It’s still there, and now it’s worse because that pain is suddenly Not Enough To Give A Shit About.
Buddhism teaches the utmost importance of Compassion–as does any other religion or ethical system worth a damn–for a reason I’ve yet to hear discussed at length. One quality of compassion often noted is its ability to take on the suffering of another. We take on the sufferings of the world with an open and vulnerable heart etc. etc. and so forth.
Here’s the interesting part about that: if we take on and share in the suffering of another, we take away the ability for their suffering to become their identity. Your pain is not *you* if it can be taken on by another. (Don’t sass me with the “The Self Doesn’t Exist” precept because it’s entirely useless to those so caught up in their personal miseries that they can barely form an identity separate of the suffering alone never mind dissolve the identity altogether.)
Offering compassion offers someone the opportunity to see themselves in a larger capacity than the one to which they have confined themselves.
A quote from Eliot’s Middlemarch:
The presence of a noble nature, generous in its wishes, ardent in its charity, changes the lights for us: we begin to see things again in their larger, quieter masses, and to believe that we too can be seen and judged in the wholeness of our character. That influence was beginning to act on Lydgate, who had for many days been seeing all life as one who is dragged and struggling amid the throng. He sat down again, and felt that he was recovering his old self in the consciousness that he was with one who believed in it.
For the person unloading their sorrows, don’t whip out the measuring tape to show them how small it is. Some of us still live alone in our Misery Mansions.
And our mansion is bigger than your mansion.
For the Love of Metta,