Regardless of one’s station, there is little chance of making it through a lifetime without some amount of difficulty and pain. Acknowledging this fact is useful in potentially encouraging more plausible expectations and acceptance of the way things are. However, too often, this inextricable truth is misperceived and becomes an enabler for imposing needless suffering upon ourselves and others.
The other day I was parking my car. It was the corner spot on my street so I spent a few extra moments carefully backing up within inches of the crosswalk. Anyone who has to deal with alternate-side of the street parking rules on a regular basis knows the frustration of someone taking up two spaces, and can appreciate the common courtesy of parking as I did. But when I got out of my car, there was a woman sitting at the outdoor cafe there that took umbrage with me:
“Why did you park so close to the corner? You got plenty of room in front of you. You’re stupid. Now, somebody is gonna come around the corner and hit you.”
“Yeah, but I live on this street and I know how hard it is to find a parking space around here. This way, more people can park. I’ll take my chances.”
“What do you give a fuck about other people? Worry about yourself.”
“Well, I appreciate your concern for my car but I kind of give a fuck about other people. My life is better because of it. You have a good day.”
The encounter was profoundly ironic. The woman at the cafe sincerely believed that my interests were best served by taking proactive steps to prevent my potential suffering over a smashed car bumper, even at the expense of being inconsiderate of others. Consequently, she thought it was stupid of me to care more about how my actions might affect other people than to worry about what might happen if I parked closer to the curb. Yet to me, having consideration for other people and not worrying about myself so much are two specific attributes I have identified that actually alleviate suffering for me in a real, not imagined, way.
Only a few days earlier I was confronted by essentially the same disparity in world views concerning vastly more important matters than where I park my car. Endemic to my family are grudge-holding, dis-communication, and hurtful misgivings. For this reason, I have kept my family largely at bay for most of my adult life. Now that I am a father and I feel compelled to provide my daughter some relationship with her extended family, I lament the distance that has settled in over the years.
In attempting to reestablish connections, I find myself in dialogue with family members who are not able to be so with each other. Everyone is hurt and has legitimate reasons for feeling offended. There are no saints in our family and the dysfunction runs deep. In avoiding engagement, my past indifference makes me no less culpable.
The question is, as individuals, do we have it in us to change deeply entrenched dynamics of mistreatment and suffering?
Honestly, it’s a tall order. Given how few are accustomed to unconditional forgiveness and acceptance, there is good reason to be skeptical. But a most cruel paradox it is that the source of our deepest regrets is also where we derive the required facility to overcome the challenge. In pondering the nature of our discord, we potentially unlock a primer for alleviating suffering.
Even the most cynical of atheists can generally agree that there is some force or mechanism that causes a single cell to divide, multiply and develop into a heart and a mind and a spine and the complex system of experience and perception that we call a human being. Unfortunately, doctrinal and cultural persuasion has made our primordial origins into an abstract thing that seems separate from ourselves and our ordinary lives, something more for priests or scientists and not of everyday purview. This fundamental flaw in perception is what shapes the thinking and behaviors that constitute suffering.
When life is viewed through a cold or judgmental lens, we are invariably discontent and consumed with fear over what might come to pass. In this, we demonize others and have no choice but to search for a means of consolation where there is none. When we see ourselves and others as an expression of extreme intelligence, and life as a nurturing source from which our existence has come, small aggravations become less bothersome, and forgiveness and acceptance are more readily available.
As I sit here, I suffer from chronic inflammation, financial stress, and the heartache of an honest man observing injustice in the world. I have no certainty about what is going to happen, whether it regards my car or anything else. I experience fear in the face of all this. But these sufferings and fears will not stop me from knowing the joy of living out my life, with all its love and sorrow.
J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer and founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, NY. His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy in Practice, Yoga Therapy Today and the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. Visit his website at yogijbrown.com
Great great sentiment. I am reading this in the middle of a busy morning, so it’s a quick go-through. But there is so much in this article that speaks to me. I look forward to reading it again. Thank you.
Hello Mr. Brown,
On suffering. It is true that most sentient beings experience suffering. However, when we reach adulthood embracing suffering as a human necessity (what most people do) is not an obligation but rather (most likely) an unconscious choice. As all your inner experiences arise from you and none other, so suffering arises from you and so suffering can also be left by you, in case you choose too. Sickness, painful relationships, self-destructive habits, fear, guilt etc…
Health problems and their associated pain and discomfort and financial problems can be experienced as (negative) suffering or as an opportunity (positive) to learn a lesson, the quality is given by you, as with all other experiences, the experience is just an experience, the value is defined by the person experiencing it.
So alleviating suffering can be a conscious path, that involves identifying what creates pain (physical, emotional and mental) in our personal lives and finding ways to heal the pain or to let go of experiences that cause pain over and over again. For example letting go of unhealthy relationships and unhealthy habits.
The family we are born with is not our choice and we can’t choose how our family members react to us and behave and so we can’t be fully responsible of other people’s actions. But we can choose our second family, the circle of friends that supports us in our lives. This is each persons responsibility.
Letting go of the things that don’t work for us is our responsibility. Being sensitive to ourselves and feeling what works for us and what doesn’t work for us provides a reliable guide for future favorable actions.
Thoughtfully written. I also try to keep in mind how my actions may affect others. Kindness and empathy can go a long way. What I found ironic was the woman who claimed to not care about others…cared enough to tell you how to park. People never cease to amaze me.