Comparative Suffering

Yesterday I put up a video in which I tried to quote Zen teacher and author Charlotte Joko Beck. The way I remember the quote is, “We all have just enough suffering.”

I don’t know if Joko Beck ever actually said that. I’ve Googled everything I can think of to try to find that quotation — or, in fact, any quotation from Joko Beck about suffering — and I have failed to locate the one I’m looking for. Along the way I discovered three pages worth of pithy quotes from Joko Beck. Take a look. She said some good stuff.

Maybe Joko Beck never said, “We all have just enough suffering.” Maybe someone else said it. Or maybe nobody said it except me in that video. In any case, that quotation has been lodged in my mind for many years. And, in my mind, the key word in that quotation has always been “all.” We all have just enough suffering. Nobody is exempt from suffering.

But in that video I also spoke about comparing suffering. I said that it makes no sense to try to compare one form of suffering to another and to rank suffering. The subjective experience of suffering is impossible to rank. So some folks saw “just enough” as the key words in the quotation. And so they objected to that in the comments section.

I get that.

I’ve heard these objections before. I have even voiced them myself to my own teachers.

Listen. I’m 55 years old. When my mother was 55 years old she was already experiencing the advancing stages of Huntington’s Disease. She had lived with the disease for over a decade by then. She would suffer from it for ten more years before she died in her sleep at the age of 65.

I, on the other hand, have shown no symptoms of Huntington’s Disease. It may very well be that I did not inherit the gene that causes the illness. Normally people who have the gene start showing symptoms in their 30’s. It’s still possible I’m a late bloomer, but the statistical probability of developing the disease drops dramatically if you haven’t shown symptoms by the time you’re forty.

The point is, any sensible person would say that my mother at age 55 was suffering much more than I am at age 55. And I would have to agree. In fact, all things considered, I feel like I’m doing extraordinarily well in life. I have very little to complain about.

The common thing people do when they object to the Zen idea that you can’t compare suffering is to start by stating a case of some kind of extreme suffering. It’s either something they’ve heard about in the news or else they dream up the craziest case of suffering they can think of. Then they compare that extreme suffering to something trivial.

“What if a little old lady stepped on a rusty nail while trying to outrun a flood and simultaneously having a load of bowling balls dropped on her head from a police helicopter that happened to explode right above her while carrying the balls to a charity bowling event to help disabled veterans? Are you saying that you having a hangnail is just as bad as that???”

Only usually the people who make these comments are deadly serious. So they come up with horrifying scenarios that I would rather not even try to imitate. Anyway, the intention is to show that you damned well can compare suffering and obviously some suffering is worse than others.

And maybe it is.

But, even so, comparing suffering still makes no sense.

The subjective experience of suffering can’t be quantified. When I went to a hospital the first time I had a kidney stone, they asked me to rank my pain on a scale from one to ten. I was stumped by that question. I knew I was hurting really bad. But how could I know whether or not I had reached the very top of the objective universal scale of human pain? Maybe there was pain worse than that. I finally decided that the doctor didn’t know the answer to that one either. He was asking for my subjective experience. Recalling my memories of other pains I had felt in my life, how did this one rank? I said it was a ten.

But can we rank our own generalized subjective feelings of suffering against what we perceive others to be suffering? I suppose we can. But what real good does that do? Does it help them? Does it help us?

Let’s say I’m watching the news and I see that there’s been an earthquake in Rhodesia. They show me all sorts of images of broken buildings and injured people. Some of the people are screaming and crying and everything looks awful. Meanwhile, I’m slouching back on my sofa with a bag of Fritos and a joint from the local dispensary going, “Whoa. Those people are having way worse of a time than I am!”

And they probably are. I would not dispute that. But what do I do about it? I could log in to PayPal and send some money to a relief organization. Or I could even get on an airplane, fly to Rhodesia, and start digging through the rubble to look for survivors. I’m sure the people of Rhodesia would appreciate that. I’m sure it would give some of them a little relief.

But I can’t help everyone who is suffering everywhere in the world. Maybe there was a typhoon in Indonesia the same day. Maybe there was a nuclear meltdown in Afghanistan that wasn’t even on the news. How much money do I have in my PayPal account? Should I rank the disasters, make a chart comparing the suffering caused by each one, and try to come up with a figure that reflects each case of suffering? But what happens after I have drained my PayPal account and then I see another disaster on TV?

I’m not trying to make an argument here that we should be complacent in the face of suffering and do nothing at all because we can’t help everyone. But I am saying that the way we respond to these things often doesn’t make any real sense.

I think the best thing to do is to accept that I cannot make any sense of these things, but to try to help where I can help. I can’t possibly know all the suffering that goes on in the world. But I can see when those nearest to me need my help. The best thing to do, then, is to offer help to those who I can help. That’s important.

I will always feel shame and sadness that I did not do enough to help my mother with her suffering. At the time I felt like there was nothing I could do for her. And, in a sense, that’s true. I couldn’t heal her disease. But I could have been there more. I could have stayed closer.

On the other hand, during the worst of her illness I was in the most intense part of my Zen practice with Nishijima Roshi in Japan. Had I chosen, instead, to move back to the United States and live with my mother, would that have been better in overall terms?

Honestly, I do not know.

Hardcore Zen would never have been written if I’d moved back home then, nor would any of my other books. This blog wouldn’t exist. I wouldn’t be traipsing around the world leading retreats (see below for my tour schedule). My mom would still be dead. But maybe her final years would have been better knowing I was sleeping right upstairs every night.

Was it wrong for me not to rank her suffering higher than mine and attend her extreme suffering rather than attending to my own trivial existential angst? I really can’t say. I’m sure some of the commenters I hear from who think I’m doing a terrible disservice to Buddhism by talking about it would say it would have been better if I’d never written those books. And maybe they’re right. I cannot measure that either.

All I can say is that, after looking at the problem myself for a long while, I have decided that the Zen teachers of ancient times were right, that there is no real value in trying to compare suffering. It doesn’t seem to be useful in terms of trying to get at the real root of suffering.

I could be wrong, though.


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