A marvellous quote about suffering; you MUST read this

Wednesday, 6. February 2013

I did not write this. I found it on Quora. The author has a beautiful gentleness that I wish I had….

“One of the reasons I started listening carefully to people was because I wanted to understand if others really were happier than me or if they were just faking it.  What I learned about first was compassion – which is WAY different than happiness.  Eventually I learned about a related something called sympathetic joy – which is a way to be happy most of the time.
First of all, it is hard and painful to be alive.  We don’t get what we want, we get what we don’t want and all the while things keep changing and fading away.

If you have ever had your heart broken or lost someone you love, you know the way emotional pain can move around inside you – shutting your throat, twisting in your stomach,  pressing down on your heart. This traveling pain is my definition of suffering – “emotion” comes from the Latinemovere, which literally means to move.*

Suffering is a scouring substance – it wears our protection away and gets at our raw nerve endings, but at the same time it expands or deepens our interior selves.  This concept is reflected in the description of people as deep or shallow.  This is only true to the degree that a person is able to experience and process their suffering*.

The relativity of suffering means that emotional pain is experienced in relation to a person’s depth.   For example, if someone is shallow, small pains will fill them almost completely;  a prom queen’s broken fingernail can be an epic and overwhelming tragedy.  On the other hand, people who have suffered have a bigger maximum capacity – if our prom queen has experienced losing her mother to breast cancer,  the broken nail will probably seem like a trivial event.

Until compassion develops, we understand other people’s suffering on a numeric scale.  Here’s an example:

Pity happens when observed suffering is greater than the observer’s depth. For example, someone who is quite shallow (say they have a depth of five) will have no way to sympathize with someone experiencing a 200 loss.  Instead they will feel distant and different from the sufferer who in turn feels isolated and pathetic in their presence.

On the other hand, someone deep enough may experience empathy instead of pity. Empathy allows us to remember an equivalent amount of suffering inside ourselves. If an empathetic person sees someone suffering at say 100 (a broken heart)  they remember what 100 feels like to them and use this to resonate with the sufferer.  An empathetic person who sees someone suffering at one often decides that one is not worth suffering over and may say something like “get over it.”

But compassion is a ratio, based on capacity. A compassionate person looks at the sufferer and resonates with how filled with pain they are.So when a great soul (with a depth of 100,000) feels compassion for the distressed prom queen (with a depth of 5), they don’t experience 1 out a possible 100,000 – what they feel is 20%.  They have no problem sitting on the bench in the bathroom with their arm around her as she sobs.  The compassionate person does not remember a 20,000 pain, they experience it anew.  This works to further deepen them in a way that empathy does not.  Which is to say,  the more compassionate a person is, the more they suffer for others but the less they suffer from what happens to themselves.

What I learned listening is that most people have not experienced much compassion in their life. Instead they have been met with either pity or empathy.  All this circles back to your question.  Most people pretend to be ceaselessly happy because they worry that they will either experience pity or be told to “get over it” – in other words they worry that their suffering is either too big or too small.

People I listen to tell me they hide their pain.  But they also hide their joy.  They don’t want to make people jealous, or be seen as bragging or unseemly.  As it turns out, real authentic joy is happening all the time.  This is a tough planet but it is also quite beautiful and surprising.  The way to get in on all this astounding goodness is to develop Sympathetic Joy.

Sympathetic Joy is the sister and companion of compassion.  If compassion lets us share suffering, sympathetic joy lets us share happiness. In it’s purest form sympathetic joy is why we laugh and smile when we watch a baby laugh and smile.  It’s why we can watch someone open “the best present ever!” and feel happy even though we didn’t get it ourselves.

Here are two of thousands of sympathetic joy videos – feel free to add more to the comments on this answer if you wish.  If compassion reminds us that suffering is universal, sympathetic joy reminds us that right now someone has just caught the biggest fish of their life, someone just aced the test, someone is whispering support, someone just got results that says they don’t have cancer, someone has invited someone to the party, someone has caught someone’s eye, someone is dancing, someone is making love, someone is laughing their ass off.


Diane Meriwether…. a published author, counselor and workshop facilitator. She has spent 3 decades studying healing techniques including transformational bodywork, holotrophic breathing, family constellation work, shamanic journeying and voice dialog therapy. Diane left a Midwestern university in the 1980s where she was studying biology to travel to Polynesia for 10 years.

4 Responses to “A marvellous quote about suffering; you MUST read this”

  1. Vincent Says:

    There’s a lot here to think about but it’s very different from the way I see the world. I’ve no interest in sympathetic joy in the way described, but through the arts I receive the joy of those who have known beauty and joy and know how to share it: something I also aspire to do. There is no point in telling the world how much I enjoy sex, but it’s very worthwhile to write “The Joy of Sex” if it helps others; or to produce erotic sculptures. There is no point to tell about finding joy in Nature, or even about a joy which comes unbidden, like a divine blessing, unless I can evoke it in poetry or other means.

    And as for suffering, again I don’t see it that way, not in terms of measurement, ratio, capacity. I think Buddhism would tell me all I need to know about dealing with it, in myself and others.

  2. RealSteveHolmes Says:

    It’s not my quote. I just thought it was clever the way she introduces a concept of measurement to help explain miss-matches in empathetic reaction.

  3. Vincent Says:

    I know it’s not your quote, but it’s still worth arguing against, especially her flawed concept that suffering and joy are measurable or even comparable. Who can measure? Who can judge? These are rhetorical questions. I take the attitude that we cannot know what goes on in someone else, and can’t understand much of what goes on inside our own selves.

  4. RealSteveHolmes Says:

    I disagree. If people could get their own suffering into proportion with that of others then things would evolve more rapidly towards compassion. Some people think being unable to give up diet coke is as serious as being crippled by polio.

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