In this blog I come up with practical suggestions, serious and not so serious, for coping with the avalanche of suffering in the world at the moment.
The other day I was feeling totally despairing about the horror and sadness in the world. The beheading of James Foley, the violence in Iraq, Palestine, Syria, the humanitarian crisis in Sudan and other parts of Africa, the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, our own treatment of refugees. The litany of human suffering is seemingly endless and can be overwhelming.
Then I came across this passage in Matthieu Ricard’s book: The Art of Happiness: a guide to developing life’s most important skill. Ricard is the French scientist turned Tibetan Buddhist monk. People suffer, he writes,
at every moment throughout the world. Some die when they’ve just been born; some when they’ve just given birth. Every second, people are murdered, tortured, beaten, maimed, separated from their loved ones. Others are abandoned, betrayed, expelled, rejected. Some are killed out of hatred, greed, ignorance, ambition, pride or envy. Mothers lose their children, children lose their parents. The ill pass in never-ending procession through the hospitals. Some suffer with no hope of being treated, others are treated with no hope of being cured. The dying endure their pain, and the survivors their mourning. Some die of hunger, cold, exhaustion; others are charred by fire, crushed by rocks, or swept away by waters.
This is true not only for human beings. Animals devour each other in the forests, the savannahs, the oceans and the skies. At any given moment tens of thousands of them are being killed by humans, torn to pieces and canned. Others suffer endless torments at the hands of their owners, bearing heavy burdens, in chains their entire lives; still others are hunted, fished, trapped between teeth of steel, strangled in snares, smothered under nets, tortured for their flesh, their musk, their ivory, their bones, their fur, their skin, thrown into boiling water or flayed alive.
This sounds gruesome, but the point he is making, which is at the core of Buddhism, is that suffering is an intrinsic reality of our lives: death, the transitory nature of all things and suffering. It always has been.
But this is not cause for despair. If we take the broad sweep of history we actually live in relatively peaceful times. This is the argument of Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. The world is more peaceful than it was last century – think two world wars, Vietnam, Korea, Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Cambodia, Iraq – and centuries before. And if we scroll back through history to the Middle Ages all the way to biblical times, we realise that our lives are not nearly as short and brutish as they once were, to quote Hobbes.
Ricard goes on to explain the Buddhist four truths of suffering, which are:
- Recognise suffering
- Eliminate its source
- End it
- By practicing the path
He encourages us to actively engage with our own suffering and the suffering of others rather than be indifferent or turn away.
Now, not all of us want to be Buddhists and commit to the Buddhist path. So, I’ve come up with some practical ideas for alleviating suffering and making the world a better place that we can all do regardless of our spiritual preference or lack thereof. Here’s my list of actions, serious and not serious, in no particular order:
- be kind to yourself – don’t talk yourself down, dwell on faults and shortcomings
- see all relationships, with family, friends and colleagues, as opportunities to give generously
- when that annoying telemarketer rings at 7pm wanting to sell you a new energy or insurance package don’t just be pleasant, invite them to dinner –they are human too
- blend up the credit cards in a Nutri Bullet with kale, carrot, apple, beetroot, ginger and a squeeze of lemon – delicious, highly nutritious and calming
- don’t watch the Shopping Channel on a Saturday morning after Saturday Disney – Ever!
- don’t worry, recognize that things always work out in the end and if they are not working out then it is not yet the end – better said with a thick Indian accent
- delete all emails
- give a monthly donation to your charity of choice
- talk to the next homeless person you come across and give them $5
- give to the Salvos at the train station next time and every time
- volunteer your time and skills locally
- go on a life changing experience volunteering in Peru or Bangladesh with Cultural Connexions – excuse the shameless plug
- mentor a younger person
- get rid of the dishwasher, it doesn’t work anyway, and wash dishes by hand – also calming
- don’t shout at the dog when you come home to find he has ripped your best $120 shirt off the line and shredded it – accept that this is what lively, large puppies do when they are bored and reward him with a walk
- learn to appreciate the drumming of your neighbour’s teenage son
- take up the trumpet
- record your father/ mother’s story and discover things about them you never knew, in so doing better appreciate the sacrifices they made for you and love them more
- ring up a good friend you haven’t spoken to in months
- eat more dark chocolate
- eat less dark chocolate
- give up dark chocolate completely
- let people push in front of you in traffic queues and laugh – don’t wave it could be misinterpreted
- move over for a tailgater
- smile at strangers you pass in the street, maybe even say hi
- enthusiastically embrace your children’s taste in music and film – see the joy in watching Frozen for the 20th time and find ways to appreciate Miley Cyrus
- show an interest in colleagues – you can learn from them
- give blood
- accept that the Wallabies will never beat the All Blacks and your team, in all probability, will not win the grand final
- resist the powerful urge to say hateful things about our politicians, particularly our Prime Minister, Treasurer, Immigration Minister and Attorney General– somewhere deep inside there is goodness
- go on a pilgrimage to one of the great historical places in the world – Machu Picchu, Ankor Wat, The Great Wall or the MCG for the Boxing Day test match
- take up meditation, Yoga, Tai Chi or Zumba
- sing, dance, play music or write poetry
- go for a long bushwalk, swim, run or ride
- sit and stare at a scribbly gum for hours and realize life is a twisted, uncertain, meandering sort of experience
- don’t open utility bills and only pay them when the court summons arrives
- get engaged with the issues of our time- write letters to the paper constructively, or not, criticizing our government’s policies on climate change, renewable energy, foreign aid, Indigenous Australia, asylum seekers, the unemployed, single mums, pensioners etc
- don’t read the newspapers or watch the news – be blissfully ignorant of what’s going on
- join a political party or special interest group
- whatever you do don’t join a political party or special interest group
And finally, in the words of a former Zimbabwean student of mine:
Keep smiling it really improves your face.