The Infinite Degrees of Suffering

Peace, by Eden.

There is a story about the wise men of Chelem who always kvetched about their sufferings. Finally, God told them to pack their troubles in a sack and bring it to the village square in the evening. There, said God, they can exchange their suffering for someone else’s lesser pain. The men did as they were told and came to the square at the appointed time, but when they took one glance at everyone else’s troubles, they quickly picked up their own sack and ran back home.

When faced with a true representation of the suffering of another, the story seems to say, we are likely to prefer our own. Why then is it that we compare our troubles, judge them, rate them on a scale? Is my suffering greater or lesser than yours? Do I deserve more or less pity, empathy, sympathy, or attention? “Beware of Pity,” my mother likes to quote this title of Stefan Zweig’s novel. But is it beware of feeling it? acting on it? or receiving it? And how do I distinguish between pity and a higher sentiment like empathy and love?

“Suffering is,” says the Buddha, words of wisdom which I find myself returning to again and again. Everyone suffers, young and old, rich and poor. We suffer from unrequited love, pains, ills, neglect, injustice, loss. But, true to the saying “The neighbor’s grass is always greener,” I too often measure my suffering against another’s, except, in my case, I usually feel I don’t have the right to suffer. After all, I live a comfortable and convenient life, surrounded by people I love, and mostly enjoying good health. True to the character of the Jewish Mother, I put my own pain at the bottom of the pile.

Our hike in the Galilee where my son got sick

Two years ago, my son got ill on a trip, and I wished to return home. I was dependent on two other families, however, because I had not come in my car. They hesitated, wishing to enjoy one more day of vacation, not really understanding my concern. “I would do it for you,” I said in anger, and one of my friends, who has lost a child a few years before, has not forgiven me since. How can I be so selfish, she said, to spoil the trip for everyone for such a little illness, when she was there, and her own child was dead.

Another view of the hike

I felt guilty but was not sure why. I was (and still am) sorry for my words — knowing her sensitivity and suffering, I ought not to have spoken them. But I also feel for my suffering at that moment and my need to protect my child. When I spoke those words, her years of loss were far from my mind. All I felt was worry for my son. It was our comparative perception of pain which left us both with another sprinkling of suffering. And I still wonder, why did we feel the need to measure which one of our sacks weighed more, or less, at all?

2 Responses to The Infinite Degrees of Suffering

  1. Anonymous August 4, 2012 at 12:49 am #

    Why do we need to compare in general: suffering, success, beauty, mind, etc.

    • Sigal Tzoore August 4, 2012 at 3:53 am #

      I don’t know… and it especially makes me sad when the kids compare themselves to others (sometimes even to me), and find themselves wanting.

Sigal Tzoore (650) 815-5109