Our country is in its next stage of social evolution toward a greater good. Perhaps not surprisingly, the process can be a source of suffering for people. In the past two weeks, I have had several conversations with people wrestling with their reactions to what is happening. One person was in anguish about how terrible our society is. Another was feeling guilty about not feeling guilty enough. Another was feeling powerless and helpless. Does it help to bring about change by suffering in these ways?
I don’t think so. Indeed, if you examine them carefully, I think you will find all of the various ways people suffer to be extensions of ego, even if well intended. In this piece, I offer some reflections based on my years of non-dualist study and what role suffering has in helping or hurting change.
When we feel guilty, we are locking ourselves into a view that the past could have been different than it was, and that I could have acted differently. I don’t see how that’s possible. Your system acted in the only way it could have in the circumstances in which it found itself. How do we know? Because that is how it acted. All ideas about acting differently and what would have happened are fantasy.
That does not mean we cannot learn from what happened. We can. And if I see that I wronged someone, I can make amends. Learning and making amends do not need to involve suffering. They represent right action, as the Buddhists would say.
The suffering only happens when I add the story that I am a bad person. It is easy to get to that view. Most people I have met in the course of this work have some base negative beliefs or concerns about who they are and being bad is frequently one of them. Guilt, shame, and self-loathing arise quite readily.
What about the argument that if I am not suffering, I am not feeling others’ pain, or not joining them in solidarity? The question is: to what end do I wish to suffer? Is suffering a way to feel better about myself? I think the egoic basis of that effort is readily apparent. Is suffering a way to identify myself more deeply with a certain group, or with “the good people?” Again, what needs that identification? (Hint: it’s a three-letter work starting with e.)
There are lots of stories being offered by the media these days, and many of them inflame suffering. Some narrative tendencies stay awake around:
- Generalizations: usually presented about groups of people. Generalizations are lazy thinking at best and gross misrepresentations at worst. Reality is nuanced. Generalizations attempt to create a simple story that we can be comfortable with. The problem is that these simple stories are not true.
- Good guys and bad guys: narratives that have one side as all good and the other as all bad are particularly nasty versions of generalizations. Human beings are complex, and individuals are different from one another. There are police officers who risk their lives to protect black people, and there are black protestors who put their bodies on the line to protect cops. Fear and resentment seek bad guys and enemies, and the media gets more of our attention by playing to these dimensions. Stay awake and seek the common humanity that is deeper than these divisions.
- Feeling bad is the correct way to feel: it shows solidarity or penance. But by itself, as shared above, feeling bad achieves nothing and gets in the way of productive action. We can be committed to positive change without wallowing in pain or guilt.
We care about helping others and making the world a better place, and that’s wonderful. The question is what best serves that intention: How can we best support that change? It is my experience that our ability to see solutions, to act, and to influence others all lessen when we are suffering. The suffering actively impedes effective action. Free ourselves of our suffering and better action will follow.
I believe that what is happening right now is good for society, and long-term positive change will result. The process will be ugly at times and injustices will happen in the short term (to all sides). What results will not be perfect, but it will be better in significant ways. We can best support the process by staying awake to the ego-based narratives that generate suffering and get in the way of right action.