Function and Value in Suffering – For Whom?, For What Purpose?

Function and Value in Suffering – for Whom, for What Purpose?

Dear Readers!

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


About maggieannthoeni

A description once given of me was "rooted in the earth while roaming the stars" - and this has felt 'right'. I believe in something akin to this for each of us. I am a passionate supporter of discovering the autonomous self while serving the whole as primary intent. I believe in discovery of innate principles, clearing the overlay of socialization that obscures this from us. I believe it is our responsibility to leave no one behind - most particularly to respond to suffering as best we can whereever we find it, whenever we are made aware. I believe in this for the insect as well as the most magnificent form of humanity. I believe in brother/sisterhood without boundary. I believe in righteous indignation when it is appropriate, but do not believe in an enemy. I believe in consciousness, in intelligence, in logic, in rationality, in emotion, in transcendence - and am convinced until we generally practice explore and honor all this in ourselves, we remain profoundly immature. (I believe real maturity is known and practiced by many young children, and not enough adults!)
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2 Responses to Function and Value in Suffering – For Whom?, For What Purpose?

  1. Pingback: Anonymous

  2. Isadore says:

    Recently on a busy highway in Quebec a woman driving her car observed a family of ducks crossing the road in front of her and acting on a ‘spontaneous outburst of compassion’ suddenly stopped her vehicle on the inside lane of the highway to avoid running them over and caused a serious accident resulting in the deaths of two unfortunate motorcyclists following in the pack of vehicles behind her. This poor woman was in a ‘no win’ situation, whether she stopped,or not, there was bound to be some suffering incurred, for the ducks or the motorcyclists and in either case, for herself. Suffering does indeed seem to be inevitable in some situations and one would hope serves some higher purpose. There is no better feeling than the first few moments of relief from the pain of a killer tooth ache. Suffering enables the ordinary to be sublime . There are even some that believe suffering is a means to spiritual growth and others that get some perverse satisfaction by inflicting it upon others.

    The question (? value in suffering?) has been around for some time and even a few have attempted to answer it.
    In the words of C.S. Lewis, (The Problem of Pain),”….when pain is to be borne, a little courage helps more than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of the love of God more than all.”

    This is wonderful – thank you! I’m going to have to figure out how to make comments show at end of posts instead of as a ‘link’. I want people to read this and other comments – to find comments appearing on ‘same page’. I’ll see what I can do. In meantime, some of what you say here fed into my thoughts while writing today’s post, which, alas, is NOT ‘brief’ as I so proudly thought I’d achieved yesterday!
    What I would like to ‘achieve’ is for people to give real and lively thought to what it might be like IF we shifted social/political/economic policy to continue supporting individual initiative and creativity while also “bringing in” intentional policy to support each of us in most fundamental and basic needs. Safety nets for when we need them – based on valuing one another instead of grudgingly offering out of fear (it will reduce ‘my’ wealth) and/or in spirit of anger and cynicism (some lazy so and so will gain from this at ‘my’ cost). I don’t want to ‘win’ an ‘intellectual’ argument on this. I mean to point out we carry innate urge to see to this, it is in our very natures.–Thank you so much! -MA

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