Everyone suffers. In fact, the “first noble truth” of Buddhism is just this, that we all experience pain. According to one commentator, “Some people who encounter this teaching may find it pessimistic. Buddhists find it neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but realistic.”
When I was in my teens, I experienced my first bout of severe depression. I saw no point to life and was sad all the time. This was in the mid 1980’s, before Prozac, and awareness regarding mental health issues was limited. My Dad’s response to my depression was to tell me to snap out of it, stop navel gazing and to focus on getting stuff done. Of course, this only made me feel worse about myself, because I felt completely incapable of being productive. I blamed myself for being depressed, and for not being able to shake it.
When we suffer, we have a choice; acknowledge the suffering, or deny it. Often we are told that if we don’t ignore our suffering, we are weak and lack character. “No pain, no gain,” as the saying goes. “Quit being a baby!” “Man up already!” There’s no shortage of ways to tell people to disregard their pain. There are many reasons for this, psychological as well as cultural. But I’d like to focus on the result of denying suffering, both on an individual and societal level.
As individuals, if we’re taught that our suffering is shameful, we feel like there is something inherently wrong with us. How often do we seek sympathy or compassion and are told “Just get over it”? If this is our normal experience, we no longer expect compassion and we stop sharing when we’re feeling bad. And if we hold the pain inside, it diminishes our ability to feel anything. So in order to tamp down the pain, or feel something close to joy, we will do anything we can. We drink or take drugs, we engage in affairs and compulsively seek sex, we watch TV all day, we work to excess, etc etc – there is no shortage of ways to deny or assuage our pain.
If our approach is to deny, we are also more likely to tell other people to “just get over” their own pain, and to similarly shame them. Most of us do this with our children, but even if we don’t have kids we can ignore the suffering of our partners, spouses, parents and friends.
At a societal level, when we disregard the suffering of our fellow citizens we become a callous and cruel nation. We look with disdain on our neighbors who are down on their luck, we deny basic rights to others which we ourselves enjoy, and we do things like putting migrant children in cages. Meanwhile, we sit engrossed in the never-ending stream of entertainment on our phones, and we work, or we work out, and turn our attention elsewhere. Suffering is hard to tolerate. But if we don’t learn to do it, we sacrifice our ability to treat each other with kindness and compassion.
Acknowledging our pain is the better route, for many reasons. When we allow ourselves to feel, it can be painful but it also allows us to feel intense joy as well. We open up a wellspring of suppressed emotions, many of them positive. And if we are conscious of our own pain and sadness, it’s a small step towards being compassionate not only to ourselves, but to others as well. Kind people make up a kind society.
It isn’t pessimistic to admit that we suffer – it’s realistic. And as Buddha would no doubt say (if he lived in 21st century America), “Let’s keep it real, y’all.”
From “How to Be Unsuccessful” – Beto G.