Contemplation of Suffering and Compassion

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Think about your past and try to remember the time in your life when you felt the greatest pain and suffering. How long did it last? Did the meaning of everyday life seem any different to you? Can you remember how you thought differently about the future?

There always is a possibility that you have been lucky in your life so far and had no major pain or suffering. However, many, if not most, adults have experienced either physical or mental anguish from the death of a very close friend or a hospitalized grandparent. Didn’t their suffering lead you to want to do something compassionate for them? Chances are that if you suffered a lot at some point, people acted compassionate toward you. This is consistent with psychologist Dacher Keltner’s research in his book The Compassionate Instinct.

From a sociological perspective, suffering deserves our attention because reducing the suffering of others is the most human act possible. What makes us more advanced than all of the other earthly beings is our ability to take the role of others (take on the thoughts and feelings of others) and from that build very complex societies in which the needs of the individual and all others are in balance.

Since alleviating suffering is so important to human wellbeing, the contemplation of suffering serves as essential ground work for compassionate action. As evolved humans who care about and actually alleviate the suffering of others, we necessarily have to understand the severity of different kinds of suffering and to develop abilities in detecting suffering and how best to respond to it.

Perhaps best of all, caring and caregiving in the sense of reducing suffering is the most meaningful and gratifying ways to live our lives. Research increasingly shows that altruistic, compassionate, and caregiving actions tend to result in greater happiness and life satisfaction. If we act having first attained self-compassion, altruistic compassion is the activity that can give us the most gratification and satisfaction in life.

There are many different types of suffering discussed in the literature on human suffering. However, from the standpoint of personal decision making there are two main suffering: one type of suffering is the loss and hurt felt from having been subjected to major physical pain; the other type of suffering is the agitation or dis-ease produced from negative emotions like anger, anxiety, fear, and worry. Buddhism describes the source of these negative emotions and the suffering that remains as “craving.” Several spiritual traditions describe the foundation of this type of suffering to be self-centeredness. Thus, the two types of suffering can be said to be pain-centered suffering and self-centered suffering. Pain-centered suffering included mental illness where the source of the pain appears to be mental rather than physical. Both types of suffering many yield a similar mental condition such as depression.

People, who want to improve the human condition, must necessarily be concerned with both types of suffering, pain-centered and self-centered. But the latter is treated with mental therapy or a change in values and practices. The former, pain-centered suffering, must be attacked with social and political policy and well as individual acts of compassion.

With regard to policies that reduce pain-centered suffering, it is most helpful to contrast preventable from unpreventable suffering. In the latter category are “acts of God” like natural disasters of all kinds. But a huge share of pain-centered suffering results from acts of human beings or communities of all sizes. Preventable suffering causes include wars, intentional killings of every kind, defective technology or practices, e.g., oil spills or operator-produced transportation injuries and fatalities. Preventable suffering also includes chronic illness and any other major illness for which a cure is known but for a variety of reasons, the cure is not accessible or available for the victim.

In fact, many types of preventable suffering are not 100% preventable. For example, a cure for a chronic illness may be known to be only 50% effective. In such instances, there are both preventable and non-preventable components of the suffering. Never-the-less, for purposes of setting feasible goals for the reduction of suffering, it is possible to categorize suffering as preventable, unpreventable or mixed. A careful examination of calamities or traumatic events will find that most major causes of severe pain and suffering are in fact preventable. Humans have known methods for eliminating most severe pain-produced suffering. People have figured out ways to stop all of the following suffering-producers: war, road fatalities, maternal deaths at birth, HIV illness, impure drinking water and hunger. The problem is that most societies consider the saving of all life from these types of life-threatening situation is not worth the cost of doing so.

The principal impetus behind the investigation of suffering is its vast global prevalence and the burden this places on human progress. Interest in suffering also is driven by its implications for compassionate caregiving and its link to meaning and purposeful living. Compassion by definition is a human response to suffering. Without suffering, compassion becomes the equivalent of kindness.

The argument is made that suffering offers a potentially more effective paradigm than poverty, public health and even development for commitment to humanitarian goals. It is the depiction of severe suffering such as the catastrophic events of Hurricane Katrina and the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11/01 that releases mass waves of empathy and compassion, followed by widespread relief assistance and monetary donations. If the world’s poverty and problems of health and lack of economic development were cast in terms of suffering, people around the world would be more likely to compassionately share their resources so that severe, preventable suffering would be dramatically reduced.

In modern societies, where resources are scarce, people have discovered that communities feel fewer obligations for the severely suffering, if their condition is described as hunger, under-development or even poverty. If those who suffer greatly are defined merely as poor, then it is easy to argue that they are poor because they are lazy. Whereas, it is much hard to convincingly say that a person feeling intense, prolonged pain is suffering because he or she is lazy.

Suffering unfolds an array of deeply human ironies. Every major religion calls for compassion and aid for our fellow humans who suffer, yet the number who struggle with severe suffering continues to enlarge. Some argue that suffering is necessary in order to achieve spiritual growth. Arguably, the noblest human emotion, compassion, cannot exist without suffering.

It is useful to be aware that the definition of suffering varies across communities and cultures. For example, in end of life care, called palliative or hospice caregiving, suffering is synonymous with the dying process. Suffering is not limited to the dying person but encompasses those who mourn or feel deep loss, distress, or sorrow. Palliative care seeks to minimize suffering by techniques directed at all of the possible needs of the patient and family such as physical, emotional, and spiritual suffering. “Spiritual suffering” is not just a matter of religion or morals but includes any loss of meaning emerging from the death process.

Several major religions teach that suffering did not exist before evil, for which humans are partially responsible. And some teach that a time will come when evil and suffering will go away. The problem with this doctrine is not the mythology upon which it is based as much as the belief that we cannot do much to get rid of suffering. From that belief, it logically follows that alleviating suffering is not a high priority human value.

Psalms 41:1 says “Blessed are those that consider the poor or helpless…” In all of the variable translations of this text from the Old Testament, the emphasis is on the poor or the helpless. The message is clear: a moral obligation exists to relieve the suffering of others.

However, the word suffering is so mixed up with notions of evil and rewards for sin, that the humanitarian obligation for those of Judean-Christian-Islamic faith can all too easily become forgotten.

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