I was telling my partner that I am suffering from an existential writer’s block: I cannot help but feel everything I write or tweet would seem frivolous at this point in time when people are violently oppressed for fighting for something they believe in or simply because of who they are. Imagine someone out there losing an eye or the only world they ever knew, and here I am, writing about how I want to live and how I’m processing my own struggles.
My personal struggles seem so small compared to people getting the shit beat out of them if not cruelly murdered. I watched an episode of Netflix’s “Comedians of the World” where an African comedian made jokes about privileged people making protests about saving pandas in contrast to the suffering people from his continent go through. It made me deeply uncomfortable. I understood his point, but do we stop working towards higher aspirations as long as there are horrors in this world?
The first time I went to my therapist, I told her that my suffering seemed so trivial compared to people who have been through much worse. She looked at me compassionately, telling me softly: “suffering, is still suffering”. In that moment, my world changed.
This is the kind of violence we do to ourselves. The comparison of who had it worse and who deserves what. Each time we invalidate someone’s suffering, we shut down a tiny piece of them. We lose the capacity to see another human and to be a human. We unconsciously devalue other people because we have been so devalued ourselves. We see everything as a hierarchy, even when it comes to suffering.
If having basic needs met equated to a reduction of suffering, you would think that first-world countries would be at the bottom of this ranking of countries by suicide rate per 100,000. But the picture is a lot more complex.
Yesterday I delivered food to people working in a F&B establishment. The distance was probably less than 100m, but they felt sorry that I had to carry their food, and gave me a tip. Their small act of generosity changed the quality of how I felt about the world in the next hour or so – the world and her people felt so expansive and warm.
“To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of the arts.”— Henry David Thoreau
A couple of hours later, I had another customer living in a swanky downtown condo felt like she waited very long for her food (according to the app, I was on time), so she vented her frustration on me. I knew I shouldn’t take it personally, but her energy rubbed off me. I felt so small.
It occurred to me through these experiences that it is important to learn how to be a wider container. The latter customer seemed she wasn’t intentionally unkind to me, but she couldn’t help but let her frustration spill. It reminded me a lot of my old self. I was constantly spilling.
If I wasn’t mindful, I would probably carry on that chain of reaction, venting my frustration of her frustration on the people I interact with next. It could be as simple as being grouchy to my partner even though she didn’t do anything to deserve it. Maybe she would retaliate and it’ll snowball from there.
But if either one of us was a wider container, we could contain that frustration there and then, stopping the ball from rolling further. If we were more intentional and skillfull about it, we could appease that frustration and turn it into something benevolent. It is not about passive acceptance when someone is being mean, but truly understanding another person’s inability to contain their frustrations is different from being a personal attack on us.
Unfortunately many of us are constantly spilling, so we participate in a giant network of agents passing along hurt to other beings.
We have learned to feed ourselves materially, but we are still deficient spiritually. Yes it is a fact of our existence that there is immense suffering everywhere. But it feels like our evolution has stunted somewhere, because we are still violent to one another even when all our requirements of physical safety are met.
Throughout my life I have multiple people telling me that they prefer to be nasty to others lower in the ladder because things get done faster and “it just works”. In places of supposed safety and peace, though we are not hitting people with our hands, we are still killing ourselves slowly, and softly.
Perhaps in a time like this, at first glance it may seem self-centred and frivolous to work on ourselves, or to work on art and literature. Yet in Buddhist and Zen philosophy, it is all about working on the self. Putting abstract philosophy aside, I can now argue that in times of loss, pain and violence, it is even more necessary to ensure at the very least, we are not trying to harm the people interacting with us. That we can learn to be wider containers to people who are in need of being held. For those who have sacrificed their lives to move humanity forward, the rest of us can at least be stable agents and facilitators to ensure that their sacrifices do not go to waste. On the giant shoulders of various philosophers, I argue further that it is our moral imperative to deeply understand what makes us suffer in order to have any hope of ending systemic suffering.
What about art and literature? Here, I’ll have to borrow the words of the recently passed Toni Morrison:
“Certain kinds of trauma visited on peoples are so deep, so cruel, that unlike money, unlike vengeance, even unlike justice, or rights, or the goodwill of others, only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorrow into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination. A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity.”– Toni Morrison, source
…and when words are not enough, only art can express the human experience, even in the worst of times.
I have chronic health issues, and I have an unstable psyche. Even when I am alone, I torture myself in my own head. I often wish I could be out there with others on the frontline trying to make the world better, but I think acknowledging one’s limitations and hence true potentialities is one of the most profound ripples of transformation we can make to the interdependent system we belong to. If we keep making fish climb trees we’re just making the fish miserable when they are beautiful fish in their own right. If everyone only wants to plant beautiful flowers, the ecosystem will fail. I think seeing a bright, alive, child grow up to be a zombie-like resigned adult is one of the saddest phenomena to witness.
The world is crumbling, but it is simply a symptom of us crumbling. My small hope is that my words here would bring some comfort to people like me out there, but if not, I wish my self would crumble a little less, just to reduce my debris in this complex brutal pain-ridden but yet still aspiring to be humane in the most unexpected ways – world.