The suffering of humanity is inescapable.
Everywhere we look, we see each other in pain. Flicking through a newspaper or television channels, we can regularly find a striking example of someone bearing one of the many crosses we are forced to carry in our lifetime.
None of us can escape the suffering that is the human experience. Our lives will be defined by those struggles which we have found the strength to overcome. All of us the phoenix, our individual suffering our ashes.
And yet we insist on turning these struggles into an issue of race, gender, sexuality, class, religion, or culture. We relate to these issues not as humans, but as a colour of skin, a possessor of certain genitalia, a sexual preference, a place in society, or a zealot of a certain God or Goddess.
We continue to break ourselves apart into smaller and smaller pieces until we fit into tiny, exclusive boxes. We are a black, upper-class, Protestant, heterosexual female. We are a white, blue-collared, atheist, homosexual male.
We restrict our empathy when we latch onto these exclusive groups; they become the only ones who can understand the vastness our individual suffering.
We live in an age where we are surrounded by comparison and competition and, whether we’re conscious of it or not, we’ve started to live for it. We revel in it. We waste so much time in our self-comparison with others that giant online industries such as Facebook and Instagram were partially founded – and partially depend – upon it. The desire to compare our lives has literally become a multimillion dollar industry. Even our suffering – unique to our own journey – has not escaped our thirst for comparison and competition.
The problem does not lie in our desire for comparison. Our lives are inherently different from one another, and comparing differences in ourselves provides a means of recognizing and accepting one another despite our superficial differences.
There is also nothing inherently evil in a thirst for competition. I think of the teachings of various martial arts which insist on competition being a vital aspect on the path to self-awareness, self-respect, and personal growth.
Comparison and competition become issues when they are applied to our individual suffering. It arises when we invest in the idea that our suffering is somehow greater and more valid than the suffering of others.
This notion segregates us. It divides and ranks us based on an assumption we do not have the power to confirm or deny – unless someone eventually learns how to experience the lives of two different people, with different issues, simultaneously in order to compare them.
Who’s to say those of us who were born without fathers – whether we’ve lost them to death, jail, or another marriage – suffer more acutely than those who grow up with fathers who leave for work before the sun rises and come home after their bedtime, the fathers who are never around? The suffering for each is rooted in the same longing for paternal affection. Both examples are kids who just wish they could throw the ball around with their pops.
The examples are endless. Who are we to assume those that have lost a spouse to cancer suffer more deeply than those who have lost theirs to infidelity? That the little brother who loses his big brother to drugs suffers more than the little sister who loses her older sister to the popular group in college?
That the pressure to be of a certain sexuality is more excruciating than the pressure to pursue a traditional career? Both are instances of the person being pressured to live unhappily in a lie in order to please others. Both people are too terrified of social or parental judgements to be true to themselves. Both have somehow been convinced that who they are as a person is wrong.
We could spend an unlimited amount of energy arguing for one case or the other, but it is this exact determination to separate and rank our suffering that is driving us apart.
Instead of a division of suffering, I see the gay male – afraid to come out to his orthodox Christian parents – and the daughter of two Harvard law graduates – who wants to be an artist instead of a lawyer – as two people who are fighting the same battle of identity. I see two people struggling, in different ways, with who they are and the expectations about who they “should” be. I see two people who can show compassion and empathy for one another and who can unite in their suffering under a common thread.
The truth is we don’t know if our suffering is any greater or less than any one else, because it is not in our capacity to understand suffering that we do not know intimately ourselves. Our individual experience and perception only leads to assumption.
The truth is, we all have a different observable universe and our individual suffering is unique to our own story. Our suffering is different, yes, but it can never be assumed that we know what those differences feel like. We certainly cannot presume to know how those differences rank, no matter how obvious it seems.
It’s not about the differences themselves. It’s about the acceptance of those differences. It’s about doing our best to understand those differences. It’s about mutual respect. It’s about loving one another.
Every life history is the history of suffering.” – Arthur Schopenhauer, Manuscript Remains – Volume 3.
The one thing we know for sure is that we all are suffering. We suffer through battles with our identity, image, ego, and our place in the world. We all suffer heartbreak. We all struggle with self-love and acceptance. We suffer through unhappiness and the restlessness of our spirits. We’ve lost loved ones and lovers. We’ve felt alone and unworthy.
Why then, must we compare this suffering? Isn’t it enough to know that every person we pass in the street is fighting a battle of their own? Isn’t it enough to know we’re all in this together? Suffering is the one thing that connects us all.
To be human is to suffer. Instead of using our suffering to separate and rank us, let it unite us. There is no “I”, “me”, or “you.”
There is only “us”.
Be good to each other,