Every time we start talking about what is “out there” or what is “real” or what is “true” or what is “right” we get into disagreements. As soon as I, for one, shift my focus to what I think, what I feel, what I need, and what my choices are, I don’t need to argue with anyone over concepts or abstractions. They can believe whatever they want. I know their beliefs emanate from the way they see their world. I’m not going to change them, but their beliefs don’t need to be mine. Mine don’t need to be theirs.
Now, of course, some people can become pretty obnoxious when you disagree with their beliefs. Then you can simply choose whether to continue a dialog or detach and walk away.
On suffering, I wouldn’t even begin to try to answer the question, “Is suffering real?” There are some questions that have no answers. All they do is get you into arguments or send your mind spinning around in circles. That question is one of those questions.
Now, if we’re talking about what you or I feel or experience, yes certainly we could both probably say there have been times when it felt as if we were suffering. For me, when I struggled with asthma as a child, when my husband was unfaithful, when I broke my nose on the side of a swimming pool, when my daughter-in-law refused to allow me to see “her children”, whenever another person in anger has called me names or pointed a self-righteous finger of blame in my direction.
Yet “suffering” is just a word we use to describe a whole series of complex sensations within our bodies which feel different from the ones we experience when we are relaxed and content. We didn’t make up what we were experiencing, but we certainly made up the word “suffering.”
The real question, it seems to me, is not whether suffering is real, but what each of us chooses to do with those complex sensations within our bodies that we call “suffering.” They sure don’t feel good and often they drain our energy.
When I lived in Panama, a wonderful middle-aged Panamanian woman cleaned my home. Looking at her external circumstances, it would have been easy to say she was suffering.
She had completed only six years of schooling. Her husband had had no problem getting her pregnant six times. More often than not, he was unemployed, lay around the house all day watching TV, and got drunk. He rarely gave her money toward food and clothing. When she came home, he verbally abused her.
Her family of eight lived in a small home. She did all the cooking, cleaning and laundry. She fed her family rice and beans, because with eight mouths to feed, she couldn’t afford much else. Most of the time, she was the sole financial, emotional and moral support for her children. The standard wage in Panama for a maid is $15 a day. At most she earned $90 a week. She prayed a lot.
She could have judged herself as suffering, moped about, and complained about her unfair treatment. She didn’t.
Instead, she came to my house with a smile on her face, a big hug for me, and began her cleaning with joy, enthusiasm, and pride in her work. This lady wasn’t suffering. She was a queen.
With her own earnings and determination, she was financing nursing school for one of her daughters. She was such a proud mother.
Her next step? She’s going back to school herself, getting her high school degree, then going on to the university to become a teacher. What a wonderful teacher she is!