Because my existential hubris is so enormous, I am going to tell you why I think we are here: we are here to identify with the suffering.
Buddha will tell you that “life is suffering,” or “there is suffering” (they sound different to me, but both imply a very human denial of the existence of suffering in life). I have long had a huge issue with people who pretend everything is hunky dory to the detriment of people in their care who know it’s not. The courage it takes to identify, i.e. have empathy, with someone who is miserable when you think you’re not is huge. It is also necessary. As human beings, we are naturally sensitive to our environment and especially to each other. When someone around us is not happy, we are not happy. I believe the collective unconscious acts like the ocean: where there is Red Tide in one area, there will probably be Red Tide somewhere seemingly far but actually close by. Everything, however minutely, infects everything else. When we deny each other–pretend the pain or suffering isn’t there–what happens is we suffer. We get poisoned by the Red Tide. Maybe we don’t die like the others, but we carry the knowledge, however unconsciously, that we let someone whose feelings and self we feel, and are, die.
The reason a lot of saints are so popular, even to some people who mistrust religion, is that they made the primary focus of their lives identification with the suffering. Once they knew and felt what suffering people, namely the poor and sick, went through all the time, they could not stop working to alleviate that suffering. This is compassion, this is empathy. It is not a casual taking of sides, which is easy compared to actually facing what other people go through. When you are infected with real empathy, it hurts. Your courage is called into question because empathy often demands action. Sometimes the action one must take is to care for oneself.
Denial fuels every bad habit, from societally-sanctioned self-denial to murder. It is hard to be in denial when you start to care for yourself. Caring for oneself creates a safe space, and in safe spaces our vulnerability will want to surface. We may want to cry, scream, throw things. That’s why some people stay numb–in denial–instead of transitioning to the safe space which will eventually transform your life if you stay in it long enough. It’s too scary, complicated, painful, and confusing to enter to the healing safe space, in which you let yourself be and do whatever you need to, within reason. And I believe that real healing is not destructive–our true self does not what to do harm, it just wants to be heard.
The suffering are not the other. That is the big mistake people make. What Buddha says about life, that there is suffering–you can’t escape it–suggests that no matter who comes to the Four Noble Truths, there will be suffering they have to contend with, their own suffering. So when we reject someone who is in pain, it is not because they are bad. We reject them because they make us feel our own pain, and we don’t like that. That is why people who go through the most spectacular suffering, losing children, for example, are often much more open and able to receive others in their many forms. They are forced to visit the center of suffering in every person like few others.
Many of us feel called to serve the suffering, and realize in the process that it is hard. It is unromantic and unrewarding in the sense we were expecting. We realize, as we grow into adults, that service of any kind requires a certain level of setting aside expectations. We notice the people we serve are just as entitled, picky, and problematic as we are. They are not people to feel superior to or sorry for–they are our equals, making demands of us. Our inner child hates that, especially if they haven’t been cared for. That is why being honest with ourselves about our failings and coming home to the suffering person inside we struggle to identify with is so important.
Many of us want to avoid suffering like the plague, and so, we suffer. Love, that is to say, identification with people, animals, things, is what we’re here for, and avoiding suffering undermines that destiny. Try to open the door to your imperfections, your complaints, your sadness and realize you are like everyone else. You inherently belong.