Alleviating Suffering

When we see real and unavoidable suffering all around us—on television and even within our own communities and families—we may experience helplessness or guilt. We know that these two responses do not serve others yet we don’t know what else to do sometimes.

It may seem particularly indulgent and selfish to focus on ourselves when others are struggling with basic survival. How can we let ourselves get wrapped up in figuring out whether we should go back to school, start a new career, or even what to do about a problematic relationship while others are worried about having enough food or shelter or medicine?

The answer I offer is that it is an illusion to think in such either/or terms. The truth is that we don’t have to and shouldn’t choose between helping others and helping ourselves simultaneously. Why? Because the more we do to alleviate our own unnecessary suffering, the more we are available to help serve others whose suffering is unavoidable.

We naturally feel compassion for those who suffer from pain, illness, poverty, natural disasters, or political repression and we are drawn to seeking ways to help, such as donating money or even our blood. But our ability to help will be limited by the amount of our self-inflicted suffering. What is the source of this unnecessary suffering?

There is an old Buddhist saying that our worst enemy cannot harm us as much as our own thoughts. The truth is that our self-imposed suffering is caused by our self-judgments. When we tell ourselves that we are unworthy in any way, such as convincing ourselves we don’t deserve a loving relationship or a great job because we’re too fat/old/stupid/bad, we not only are likely to make this a self-fulfilling prophecy, we will not be able to offer others hope either. We may even surround ourselves with people who have the same limiting belief, which will simply reinforce our unworthiness.

If you have ever had “a bad hair day,” then you know exactly what I mean. You wake up in the morning and for whatever reason, you don’t feel good about yourself. You go out into the world and what happens? No one flirts with you. Or you feel invisible. Or someone is rude to you, as though your feelings don’t matter. The world mirrors back to you in a myriad of ways that you don’t look or feel good about yourself.

When we judge ourselves, the world will mirror back this judgment on us. So if we think we are unworthy in any way, we will get this reinforced, not because the world or the universe is cruel, but because we exude an energy that invites this feedback. If we are mired in self-judgments, we are limited in our capacity to be of any real help to others.

Think for a moment about the last time you were in need of some moral support. Where did you turn to? Probably not to someone who you knew was also having a hard time in that moment, someone who was equally, if not more, stressed. We turn to those who are capable in that moment of picking up the slack, those who are not enduring to the same degree or at least not in the same way as we are.

So if we want to help others, it is crucial that we alleviate our self-imposed suffering. But how do we stop judging ourselves? By exiting Courtroom Earth and choosing to hang out in Classroom Earth.

Courtroom Earth is where we are our own judge, jury, and executioner. Classroom Earth is where we recognize that we are all students learning through making mistakes, practicing, and taking risks. In Classroom Earth, we don’t have to defend ourselves. Instead, we take responsibility for our errors, make amends (including to ourselves), forgive ourselves, and move on. In Classroom Earth, we practice new behaviors, ones that are in alignment with who we wish to become, not who we have always judged ourselves to be.

Because we truly want to be helpful and alleviate others’ suffering whenever possible, and because we deserve alleviation from our own suffering, we must make a decision to choose our thoughts wisely and compassionately. Whatever self-judgment you have been carrying around for years—yes, that one, the one that never goes away and you continue to find new evidence for—let it go. Be willing to see something better in yourself. Be willing to let others see something better in you. You will not only free yourself from unnecessary suffering, you will be of greater service to your loved ones and to your community.