A main goal of most (if not all) great spiritual teachers and traditions is the alleviation of suffering. I’d love to be part of this compassionate process in any way possible–and I feel that one of the most important steps in this process is to stop believing that suffering is a virtue.
Let me start by saying what I DON’T mean by this:
- I DON’T mean that virtuous people don’t suffer. We ALL suffer sometimes. And many virtuous people have suffered tremendously. (We all know many names on this long list–and I am by no means belittling any of these people, their suffering, or their achievements.)
- I DON’T mean that people don’t often suffer in the course of performing virtuous acts. Oftentimes, people will sacrifice and, yes, suffer, for the benefit of others.
- And I DON’T mean that you can’t learn, grow, and ultimately benefit from suffering. Lessons come in many forms, and sometimes suffering is a part of those lessons (although by no means a necessary part, I would contend).
What I DO mean is that the suffering itself is not what makes deeds, lessons, or experiences beneficial. Regardless of whether or not suffering is involved in virtuous acts and people, there is nothing inherently beneficial in suffering per se.
My suffering does not help you! In fact, rather than elevating you, it’s much more likely to bring you down.
- If I get the flu, it doesn’t make you healthier. In fact, if we’re hanging out together, it might make you sick, too.
- If I suffer from depression, it doesn’t make you happier. If you’re a compassionate person, it’s likely to make you feel bad–to feel sorry for me.
- If I punch myself in the face, it doesn’t make your face feel better. OK, so this is probably a ridiculous example–but hopefully you get my point.
Why do I feel so passionate about conveying this message?
First of all, because I don’t want to see you–or anyone–suffer, especially needlessly! I have tremendous sympathy and compassion for anyone who is suffering–so I certainly don’t want to feed a mindset that encourages and even rewards suffering.
Secondly, because my least favorite game in the world is “One-Downmanship” (the opposite of “one-upmanship”). Have you ever played (or even witnessed) this game? It usually takes the form of conversations where one person expounds on their woes, only to have the other person say something along the lines of, “You think you’ve got it bad? Ha! Let me tell you about how much my life sucks…” (No one ever wins a game of One-Downmanship; everyone loses.)
Thirdly, because I find it so disturbing when I see people use suffering almost as if it were a currency, like it entitles them to benefits–even if it’s just a reaction of, “Oh, you poor thing!” The most disturbing part about this is that I often find myself falling into this trap!
Yes, I admit it. As much as I consciously reject the notion that suffering is virtuous and/or entitles me to benefits, I still catch myself thinking things like, “I’ve suffered enough; I’ve earned…“ (fill in the blank), or “I deserve…”–as if my suffering entitled me to something! As if I needed to suffer first in order to feel happy or be healthy or experience abundance! As if I needed to suffer in order to not suffer!
Looking at it rationally, this seems ludicrous. I have to laugh at myself for falling prey to this attitude! But the attitude isn’t affecting me because of a conscious, rational decision. Like so many others, I’ve been infected by the “suffering-is-virtuous” (or “no pain, no gain”) mindset. It’s so prevalent in our society that it’s easy to “catch” it like a virus–to fall into this trap, to internalize this mindset, to assimilate it by osmosis, perhaps without even being aware of it at all.
But by shining light on this belief system, we can expose it for the infection that it is–for the lie that it is! And we can use this light to help us find the truth.
- The truth is that your suffering doesn’t help anyone. In fact, it probably hurts others (and it certainly hurts you).
- The truth is that your suffering doesn’t make the world a better place. It makes it a worse place. (It certainly makes your life–or your world–a worse place!)
- The truth is that your kindness, your goodness, and your joy DO make the world a better place!
And that’s what makes something virtuous–the fact that it makes the world a better place and helps us all suffer less!
So, by this measure, kindness is a virtue. Joy is a virtue. Enthusiasm for life is a virtue. Health is a virtue. Helping is a virtue. Wisdom is a virtue. Peace is a virtue. Freedom is a virtue. Compassion is a virtue. Happiness is a virtue. Love is a virtue.
These are the virtues that I want to feed, nurture, share, and spread.
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