My mom has a strange trait. She has a habit of getting all worked up about little things that are going on in her life. She’s very easily ruffled when it comes to planning a party or working out where to go given two invitations on the same day, for example. Get her into a situation where the proverbial feces is truly hitting the fan and she’s a rock. She’s great in a real crisis, like when my dad needed coronary bi-pass surgery. How funny is that?
I’ve noticed that in general the magnitude of suffering does not appear to have a direct relationship to the magnitude of the thing that is causing the suffering. Suffering appears to be perceptually relative. There also appears to be a disconnect between overt and internal/silent suffering that belies the truth of the degree of suffering that people are experiencing. It’s so darn convoluted and counter-intuitive.
One time, when I was visiting Minnesota, I needed to go into a convenience store. Being from the Boston area, where people are notoriously mean (sorry to my fellow Bostonians, it’s true…), I was wary of seeing a homeless guy heading in the same direction. I expected some kind of confrontation. We ended up getting to the door about the same time and given the configuration of the area we kind of bumped into each other. Instead of being all cantankerous, he and I both chuckled and did the old “whoops, dancing!” thing. Despite his overt level of general suffering in his life, he was able to have this moment of levity. Another person, with different baggage in their life I believe might have seen me as just another “wealthy” person who didn’t care enough to look where I was going. Then the interaction would have been much different.
My 8-year old daughter has a thing about mosquito bites. Every time she gets one, it’s a major event. Get two? She’s gonna die. Oh, the itching is such suffering to her and she can’t think of anything else. Okay, she’s still a kid. We were probably all that sensitive once. Right? Maybe not. This is the same girl who can speak with a straight face about the night that police officers came to remove her from the home of her biological family. Am I to assume that because there is not a flagrant display of distress that this does not cause her to suffer?
Considering myself, I have been pretty fortunate in life. My family is nearby. I have many close and real friends. I have never experienced a fire, flood, tornado, or devastating earthquake. I have never been homeless or out of work for a lengthy period of time. My business is currently surviving this economic crisis – it’s hard, but we’re still here! I have not truly had anything to complain about. Things happen. Sure, but notreally. Not like other people I’ve encountered. Yet, still my temperament causes me to struggle with anxiety and melancholy. Things that happen to other people always make me suffer because somehow I always feel, “If it could happen to them, it could happen to me.”
The flip side to that compassion response that makes me suffer is a hefty dose of cynicism. Despite the fact that I am very connected to the people I know and encounter in a personal (and even sometimes cyber) way, I suffer from the delusion that “people” in general cannot be trusted. This comes at me in a way that can make me feel very isolated in the world. More suffering.
As someone said in the Facebook community, “The irony of life is that we’re put here and nobody/nothing will tell us why.” I endlessly revolve similar thoughts in my head, perhaps revising like this: “The irony of life is that we all suffer and nobody/nothing will tell us why.”
I can speak only for myself, but I do find the buddhist practices to be helpful. They’re not a cure all. They’re not going to change my fundamental personality, which it would appear is somewhat wary of life. But they do provide me the opportunity to open up my perspective to new possibilities of how to approach challenges. Not to deny the suffering. Not to suppress the suffering. Just to admit the suffering and forge ahead despite it.
It is a lifelong journey. May it turn out to be meaningless in the end? Yes. But if working with the practices helps me cope, even just a little bit better, in the now, then it has been of immeasurable benefit.
Now buy the Book!