Function and Value in Suffering – for Whom, for What Purpose?
Suffering has been explored by humanity for as long as humanity has been conscious enough to explore it!
There are countless observations and “wisdoms” offered on suffering: “Every individual has experience in suffering”; “suffering can be as real to an individual with a dread disease, or even acute injury, as it is to one who suffers out of the social/political system in which they live“; suffering leads to courage”, “whatever does not kill you will make you stronger”, “suffering leads to justice”, “suffering will always be with us”, … the list goes on.
Books, lectures, poems, songs, stories – both real and imagined – explore suffering. The Buddha changed his entire focus to address suffering, spent a lifetime doing so. Jesus taught Christ principles toward understanding suffering. Both these teachers taught that the response to suffering in oneself is to “go deep and draw from within”; both also taught that response to suffering in another is the practice of compassion, and urged us to practice it.
I can’t possibly say anything “new” about suffering! So what I want to do, is to re-visit possible ‘value’ in suffering – value that, I believe, is often over-looked, given a pass.
I want to link our response, when we witness suffering in another, to our innate impulse to compassion. I want to consider both these, suffering and compassion, as functional. In the same way “flight, fight, and freeze” may be said to have pragmatic value and in this sense have function, I say we over-look functional, pragmatic, value of compassion in response to suffering.
I say then: One function of suffering is that it sparks compassion. The question is: where does the compassion, once sparked, lead us, (if anywhere?) Can we give functional value to suffering, as a trigger for compassion, in any way we have not yet explored?
I have witnessed spontaneous outbursts of compassion so much, especially in young children, that I take it as inborn. As inborn as any of our other ‘impulses’ that are recognized in lists of “unalienable principles” – justice, freedom, …, the list of Inborn Big Concepts by which (we claim) we govern human affairs.
It is easy to witness compassionate response daily in ourselves and others, even at ‘tiny’ incidents – incidents that cause us to “wince” when we see them happen to another. Someone hammers a thumb, stubs a toe, crashes head-wise into a low overhang, … Someone treats a person or animal roughly out of fear, anger, or frustration. We wince. We would like to help. We would like to “fix” the injury, the hurt, the cause. Why do we want to not honor our urge to compassion, by intention, in public policy?
The quick flashes described are experiences of: 1)suffering, 2)witness to suffering, 3)response in spirit of compassion. The string of “cause/effect”, “stimulus/response”, proves the “constant availability of compassion” as response to suffering.
We can lose capacity for compassion as a spontaneous response. We can make it less “available”. We can ‘temper’ spontaneous urge by developing ‘hardness’ against it, by “explaining” to ourselves that it’s “not our job” to deal with suffering. We go quite some distance to argue that suffering has nothing special to do with us unless it is within ourselves, or in someone we know and care for.
But innate urge to compassion never goes away. As inborn urge, as principle, it cannot. Even if our spontaneity to compassion is tempered, we still ‘wince’, at least some of the time, when witnessing suffering in ‘the other’, including strangers. We wish we could find a way to help, fix, or prevent. We see a stray or starving pet, and experience ‘being touched’ by the animal’s plight. We come upon a road accident already ‘being taken care of’ but our hearts go out to anyone suffering. (We may feel appreciation and gratitude for the ambulance crew who “function on our behalf”, who have training and commitment to “practice compassion for us”.)
So – what do we “do with it“, the capacity to compassion we carry around with us – this inborn urge that is part of our humanness? If suffering functions to spark compassion, “what next?” What is the function of compassion? If we are so keen to shape public policy to reflect “inborn spirit of freedom”, why not do the same with “inborn spirit to practice compassion”?
I believe ALL Big Inborn Concepts are inter-related, and of equally important functions. We cannot pick and choose which we will use to best fulfill our human potential. Why, then, do we hear far more “public” speeches about some of the Big Innate Concepts – freedom, justice, integrity, “rights”; and hear almost no public speeches about compassion?
Why do we “separate out” compassion as a concept, and assign any speaking on it to the “religious”?
Why is it not common to have picnics, marching bands, speeches and flag-waving celebrations, for human innate compulsion to compassion?
What’s the hang-up? What’s the resistance? I don’t think anyone would seriously try to argue that compassion is somehow a ‘lesser’ principle. So what’s behind the ‘lessening’ of its value, it’s importance, in how we conduct our affairs? (Including how we conduct our self-governance.)
As you might predict – I’ve got some “answers” to the questions I raise in this piece, which ‘flies under the title’ of a broader question: “What is the value in suffering – for whom, for what purpose?”
For once I’m not going to launch my thinking on this. I leave open the questions related to my title.
(Hint of my thoughts beyond any dropped into above writing: Is there a ‘purpose’, a ‘potential’, to be discovered about our innate urge to compassion that could help us shape a better world, better ‘politics’, better governance?)
My Best! –MaggieAnn