On Suffering and Compassion

One of if not the most important behavior affecting the quality of our life is how we react to suffering, our own and other peoples’.

As for ourselves, there are four basic models of how to react to suffering (IMHO):

1. The child/dependent model, which assumes there is another person, people, omnipotent being, anthropomorphized totality, whatever who has ultimate responsibility for our emotional and physical welfare. This model asks: How can I get someone else to take responsibility for my suffering and making it go away?

The basis for this model is the relationship of a child to hir parent. In this model it is this parent-like other who is the vehicle by which we can escape our suffering. As such, the emphasis is placed on making our suffering visible and convincing; the former requiring a willingness to forgo self-restraint and the later requiring manipulation, whether conscious of not. The fundamental reaction to suffering for this model is the preverbal wail.

This model becomes increasingly dysfunctional as one ages out of infancy. In adolescence and adulthood it leads to self-destructive, self-defeating behavior that uses one’s body and mind as a canvas and one’s life as a play for illustrating one’s suffering to the parental figure, partner, friend, community and society in radiating degrees of decreasing intensity

I’ve observed this model as a dominant reaction to suffering among people who have experienced a sustained heightened level of subjective (felt) suffering since early childhood. This effect is mediated by the amount of access a person has (or had, the earlier the interactions the more effective) to authority figures who react to suffering in more mature/enlightened ways.

2. The adolescent/revenge model, which conceptualizes the world and one’s relationship to it as a mediated/judged/refereed arena with universal rules; the ideal type sporting events, a zero-sum game on a level playing field. This model asks: How can I get redress for my suffering?

The basis of this model is the relationship of a pupil to hir teacher or other non-directly-ego-involved authority figure. The fundamental reaction to suffering for this model is, “that’s not fair!”

This model has been the most basic functional model of adult relations to suffering for at least as long as there have been nation-states. The dominance of this model is greatest in societies with a long history of authoritarian rule/systems of control (authoritarian cultures). It seems to me that up until the middle of the 20th center this was the dominant model of Europe, the United States, and other heavily settled colonies of European expansion, which is not to say that it doesn’t exist elsewhere. Since that time this model seems to be increasingly superseded by modes of relating to suffering with higher degrees of personal responsibility. This is at least in part a reaction to the devastation reaped by authoritarian regimes and their wars of expansion in the first half of the 20th century.

I’ve observed this model as a dominant reaction to suffering among people who are raised in exceptionally rigid, authoritarian environments with agreed upon rules that are more or less consistently enforced. Caveat: many people are raised in or at least heavily exposed to these environments are able to progress to modes of relating to suffering with higher degrees of personal responsibility. Whether or not someone makes this progression seems to be a matter of disposition and degree of exposure to the following models.

3. The independent individualistic liberatory model. This model asks: What can I do to free myself from this suffering?

The basis of this model is the modern conception of the individual; specifically, the citizen: An independent actor who is responsible for hir own welfare within the framework of a State and society that organizes the collective endeavors necessary for the survival of the individual. This model is strongly tied to the political philosophy of liberalism. The primacy of the individual versus society and the State varies widely depending on the version of liberalism employed, ranging from libertarianism–the minimal interference with the individual necessary to ensure hir’s potential for survival–to the various models of socialism whereby the individual is encapsulated in a State that ensures, at the very least, the survival of a society containing the array and extent of collectivities necessary for individuals to have access to food, housing, healthcare and education.

IMHO this model is a good one as it minimizes the impact of our own personal suffering on others.

There is an incrementally more highly evolved version of this model. The life lesson version, which on top of asking: What can I do to free myself from this suffering? Also asks: What did I do in the past that led me to this suffering? And: What can I do in the future to not experience this suffering?

This life lesson version of the independent individualist liberatory model is different than the other version and previously discussed models in that it sees suffering as both a default condition of the human experience and as a potentially transformative tool for escaping this condition.

In my personal experience this particular version was the most common model of relating to suffering explicitly taught; implicitly, I often learned the first and second model by example. It is still the most common model I hear expressed when the people in my life speak of their own relation to suffering (often not in so many words) or give advice as to how to relate to my own suffering. IMHO this model has a lot of merit as it not only minimizes the impact of our own personal suffering on others but also encourages the reduction of unnecessary (neurotic) suffering through accumulation of wisdom. However, as with all aspects of our accumulative ideology, it lends itself to permanent dissatisfaction as the end goal can never be met, in this case, the continued reduction of suffering in perpetuity. No matter how much one learns, no matter how much one grows, one can never escape suffering. In fact, as one grows old, even if one is able to reduce the level of unnecessary (neurotic) suffering through accumulation of wisdom, one will continue to suffer from loss–of health, physical and mental ability, friends, and autonomy.

4. The compassionate transformational model. This model asks: What can I do to transform this suffering into self-knowledge as well as understanding and compassion for other people’s suffering?

This model is fundamentally different from the previous three models as it sees suffering as a necessary and beneficial aspect of life, not for the ultimate escaping of suffering, but for the creation of compassion and actualization via the transformation of suffering.

The basis of this model is the concept of interconnectivity. In this model human beings are temporary aggregate articulations of the ultimately irreducible whole. This model is not concerned with the elimination or minimization of individual suffering, but rather the capacity for transforming suffering into compassion and in doing so help ourselves and others become more fully actualized, in turn helping to transform society into a more humane, compassionate being, and through society reduce the unnecessary suffering of all humanity and other sentient beings.

This is the model utilized in Buddhism. However, I don’t believe this model can only exist within the framework of Buddhism. All that is required to utilize this model is the decentering of the self as a unit of measurement [see “There is No There There”]. Unfortunately, that is a lot easier said than done. But if you can do this, even every once in a while, then you may find peace of mind is waiting there. And the more you do it the easier it gets.

I think we all contain a bit of each model in our psyche and react to our suffering with varying degrees of each model depending on the extent of suffering and our level of self—awareness, discipline and restraint, and the physical and psychic reserves we have to employ these tools.

I was going to try and cover models of reacting to other people’s suffering but this wound up being a much more involved, time consuming explanation than I had anticipated. So, seeing as I have lots o’ stuff to do today and I’m not getting paid for this–except by the sense of satisfaction in sharing my thoughts and maybe helping other people in their exploration of these issues–that will have to wait until another time [warning, don’t hold your breath]. In the meantime, these basic models of relating to our own suffering go a long way in explaining how we relate to other people’s suffering.

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