How do you respond to others’ suffering?

November 10, 2012 by Joshua
in Blog, Freedom

A reader raised the question for me of how to respond to others’ suffering. She wrote about my recent posts about the aftermath of the storm:

You may want to show some empathy at your blog for those hardest hit who have been displaced from their homes with children, not knowing whether to stay or go, not having many options at their disposal, worried for the safety of their children, getting by on no heat, no clean water or any water at all, and felt out of the loop while the local government seemed most focused on Manhattan where most of the young people were walking around like nomads happy they had off from work or little work and looked to it as a huge slumber party. Circumstances do skew the reality. Let’s hope FEMA truly helps such folks sooner vs later, because these are the people who sorely need it. They had their lives and income invested in their homes and have no home to return to or so seriously damaged have no estimate on how long it will take to repair.

This is a challenging issue. People will probably write me about this post.

I want to say first of all that, like everyone, I recognize people have difficult problems after this storm. That I wrote I was quick to solve mine doesn’t mean I don’t recognize others have painful and difficult situations that will take longer to resolve. I empathize with them like anyone. Also like anyone I want to help. My natural first way to help is to think of what would help me in such a situation. Since, as far as I know, relief efforts are working as best they can to alleviate pain and difficulties, the best I can think to do is to offer ways to alleviate suffering — which I distinguish from pain — by showing you can face pain and difficulties while decreasing suffering. (Maybe those efforts aren’t working optimally, but my experience with government bureaucracies suggests I won’t be able to improve things.) What I wrote before and what you read below would help someone like me more than anything else — it comes from applying the Golden Rule.

I think most people’s first response to someone’s suffering is to help them if possible. You feel for them. Especially when something that hurt them could just as well have hurt you except for random chance.

You certainly don’t want to prolong their suffering. You want to help them decrease it.

How the media propagates information and water cooler conversation give suffering people loud voices. It’s odd to see how this plays out. In the case of this storm, my greater neighborhood — the New York City metropolitan area — got a loud voice because people here were so much affected. Within the city, some parts were hardly affected and some, like mine, were affected more than most. We lost power, water, internet, phone, subways, etc for several days. The media therefore showed people in this neighborhood complaining about their difficulties.

Not far away, some people lost homes. People died. Speaking of just their material condition, months or years may pass before they return to how they were materially, to say nothing of their non-material conditions like the losses of family members and other loved ones, jobs, businesses, and more.

These more affected people seem to suffer more than people in my neighborhood, though you can’t say for sure. An elderly person here could be as strongly affected as someone else elsewhere. That happened in my building, where a man on an upper floor was stranded, unable to handle so many stairs, and needed help from neighbors, including me, to stay alive.

In any case, the question arises, how do you respond to people who suffer, but not as much as people who are suffering more? Do people in my neighborhood deserve less of a voice for having suffered less than others suffering more? The news I saw covered a lot about people in Long Island struggling to get gas for their cars, which seemed to me frivolous compared to people here who didn’t have plumbing — except that people here found ways to solve their problems whereas some guy in Queens was “Arrested For Allegedly Pulling Gun In Queens Gas Line During Sandy Fuel Shortage.”

But what can I say about how different people value different things, since one reader described how people in my community felt “happy they had off from work or little work and looked to it as a huge slumber party“? This reader felt more empathy for people who were suffering than for those who weren’t, which I understand, but we don’t yet know that those who weren’t suffering overcame similar problems. For all we know, the storm affected them more but they found ways out of their suffering.

And that’s my point. Some people value people’s suffering over other people’s solving similar problems so they no longer suffer. In fact, they may belittle people who solved problems over people who exacerbated them.

I’ll write below about a friend in New Jersey whose life was disrupted as much as anyone’s (short of losing a loved one), and remains so, and will remain so for months, but if you saw him you’d see someone thriving, not suffering, for this disruption.

What’s going on — the big picture

An odd thing happens that suffering can lead to others’ attention, which gives sufferers voice and ability to influence. Ability to influence is what I call power.

This situation creates a perverse incentive that people who suffer more get more voice and power. It motivates people to show that they suffer. (Please note that I’m speaking about the general case here — the existence of this incentive — not the current situation. I’m not implying anyone is acting on such an incentive, though I’m sure I’ll get a few emails by people who don’t distinguish between my saying an incentive exists and saying someone is acting on it.) The incentive exists even for people who don’t suffer, and we all know cases of people who weren’t suffering yet claimed to for the power it brought them.

It creates situations where people dismiss others by claiming they didn’t suffer while others did, implying they have less or no ground for influence. It motivates people perpetuating problems instead of finding solutions. It motivates dwelling in misery instead of finding ways to alleviate it.

Principles

I like to live by principles that help me understand my world, improve my life, and help others improve their lives to the extent they want my help. An important principle for me has been that

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.

I understand this principle to mean that you can’t do anything about your body’s response to circumstances, at time causing you to feel physical or emotional pain, but that how you respond to that pain, you can control. In the context of someone asking how to improve their life, teaching this principle gives them power to do so. This is the opposite of blaming the victim — it empowers people not to be victims, though they have to relinquish claims of suffering.

It doesn’t alleviate pain. It doesn’t get water out of your basement. It doesn’t bring back loved ones. It doesn’t give you food when you’re hungry. For things like these, as I said above, I empathize with people. Perhaps I could have stated it more clearly, that I am aware of their pain. I just don’t want to contribute to motivating increasing suffering. I want to help show them a way out. And I didn’t want to take away my appreciation for and solidarity with people who faced comparable challenges and found ways to thrive in them.

It’s a tough balancing act the media doesn’t need to do. They can just show suffering, knowing it will attract viewers. The media and water cooler conversation follow “if it bleeds it leads.” For someone who wants to help people relieve their own suffering, you want to discuss both.

For me, the storm affected me and my neighborhood as much as almost any in the city. As you know, I responded with

No power? No complaints.

and

No power, no internet, no phone, no water… no problem.

They’re supposed to restore those things in a week or two. In the meantime I can walk to midtown, like now.

For me, in my life, I long ago chose to live by the principle that pain is inevitable but suffering optional and found it improved my life. I faced adversity and found overcoming it connected me more with my community and family, increasing my ability to respond with resilience to other pain.

I guess I can’t help others perceiving my response as lacking empathy. The people I know who feel as I do responded with

Josh – Amazing spirit :)

But some people will see not suffering as lack of empathy or concern and imply that others suffering more should have greater voices. Personally I find this perspective counterproductive. Not that I think it matters, but I was affected more than most this time. I don’t see how my choosing to see this situation as an opportunity to flourish instead of suffer contributes to anyone else’s suffering. I expressed my response to show that you can live by that principle.

But I can’t decrease anyone else’s suffering. Only they can. Some will say they can’t help but suffer. They’ll accuse someone saying that suffering is optional as blaming the victim, insensitive, or so privileged that they don’t understand how others feel.

Obviously from what I wrote above, I disagree. I think my view empowers people to relieve their own suffering, which is why I shared it. Of course I can’t help someone who doesn’t want it. I empathize with people in pain, but I don’t know what to say about people who feel they are suffering when other people affected similarly found ways not to suffer.

Touchstones

Here are two eminently relevant cases from my life and one from history.

I’ve been in touch with a good friend in Bayonne whose whole neighborhood was flooded. At least a lot of it was still under water as of yesterday — no electricity still, etc. He lives with his family, so they were all affected, and they have at most modest resources to handle the material situation.

I doubt many people have been affected by the storm as much as him. He looks at the situation as an opportunity to thrive. Not persevere or make the best of it. Thrive.

If you want to call this situation bad (if you’ve internalized good thing bad thing who knows you don’t), he’s got it as bad as anyone, yet he’s not suffering by conscious choice and experience handling suffering. Note I’m not saying he can get the seawater out of his house any better than anyone else. He knows how to make his life about thriving independent of such circumstances. He doesn’t see them as problems. He sees them as challenges to help his life. He has the same resources to do so as anyone else — his mind — and nothing more.

A little over a year ago a friend’s five-year-old daughter died accidentally while swimming. No one could have foreseen it or helped it.

He and I are close. We don’t see each other as often as we’d like, but when we do we speak openly and candidly. I don’t have to tell you he’ll think about his daughter every day for the rest of his life.

He told me nearly everyone he spoke to for months after expected him to show tremendous suffering. He loved his daughter. He loves his wife and other kids. I don’t know what can bring much more pain than losing a daughter.

He also tells me he chose not to suffer. As best I could tell, he just couldn’t see how suffering would help or honor his daughter. Nor could he imagine his daughter would want him to feel bad. Using the causes of his initial suffering into areas of growth was challenging but rewarding, as I understand it. He came to realize living his life optimally honored his daughter more than continuing to suffer. The greater challenge was learning how to respond to people so they wouldn’t confuse his choosing to love life with not caring about his daughter.

He even thought about writing a book about dealing with loss in our culture, in part to show people you don’t have to suffer even with as great a loss as the life of your five-year-old daughter when society nearly forces you to act like you do. He wanted to write the book to help change that situation, to help support people who lost loved ones and who society motivated to suffer, or at least to express it.

He recognizes that as long as society values suffering over solutions, his position as someone who society would privilege with tremendous influence — that is, power — could help anyone whose life was affected less. He recognized you don’t have to experience a loss to know pain doesn’t have to mean suffering and that society perversely motivates people to continue suffering, so anyone could write the book, but publishers probably would only touch it coming from someone society agreed had some right to suffer.

He’s the closest to me with such a great loss. The most important touchstone for me on how to respond to suffering is Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning, about his experience finding meaning for life in Auschwitz and other Nazi camps — among the most, if not the most, painful and torturous environments humans created for other humans. He lost his wife and the rest of his family to them.

I don’t feel qualified to talk about such an environment, so I won’t. I’ll quote him.

… We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor’s arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: “If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.”

That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way – an honorable way – in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory….”

All I can say is that of anyone I’ve come across, he seems to have faced as much pain as anyone. I see him talking about pain, but not suffering. He writes about his wife, her smile, wisdom, truth, love, his beloved, bliss, fulfilment, and more.

I have chosen to use him and his experience as my main touchstone for handling difficult situations. I hope never to face situations like his, but I hope in whatever situations I do face to conjure emotions and meaning as he does. I tried to do so in this case. While I empathize with people affected by the recent storm, I hope they don’t suffer but are able to find meaning, wisdom, truth, love, bliss, and such in their experience too.

Not only do you not have to face pain like his to realize what you can get from life. You don’t need any pain at all to infuse your life with smiles, wisdom, truth, love, bliss, fulfilment and more. You can do it now and anytime. At least I believe if he could than I can. I also believe anyone can.

Tomorrow: a word from my friend in Bayonne I described above, whom I asked to review this post before it went up.

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