"We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience." -John Dewey
In 2017 I traveled to Colombia to meet my biological family. One afternoon as I was standing in the courtyard of my paternal grandparents’ home, watching some local children assemble for games, dancing and gifts, an aunt approached. She remarked that my hair was just like hers had been when she was a younger woman.
“How old are you?” she asked.
My sister, who had been translating throughout, told her, “30.”
My aunt squinted her eyes slightly. She looked me up and down and said in Spanish, “You have not suffered.”
I’ve thought about that comment for a long time. Despite a touch of defensiveness (for surely, to live is to know suffering), intuitively I feel my aunt was right — a feeling that only strengthened the more I learned about my Colombian family.
So what is the nature of suffering? And why might it be important to learn about the suffering of others?
Suffering is not just a stimulus like physical pain. It’s a perception, the interpretation of an experience as harmful or threatening harm. Suffering may involve pain, as in illness or injury. It may also involve distress or hardship, as in the experience of defeat or loss. These feelings are not unique to humans. Many animals can also suffer in these ways.
But there’s another layer to suffering that’s uniquely human, as far as I know. This suffering has to do with whether a difficult experience is deemed useful or useless, avoidable or unavoidable, or deserved or undeserved. These qualities of suffering make certain experiences more or less bearable.
In the Eastern tradition, suffering derives from an individual’s attachment to impermanent things. We suffer because we are attached to our youth and perfect health, we are attached to our friends and loved ones, even our money and nice things.
So what is the value of an education in suffering? There isn’t one correct answer, of course. I want to focus on how increasing our empathy for the suffering of others can help each of us make decisions that reduce suffering in the world.
But first, how do we develop our empathy? Well, the body is basically a hedonistic organism, meaning it naturally pursues more pleasure and less pain. These types of sensations trigger areas deep in the brain, and they can bring out intense sensations that either compel us (like pleasure) or repel us (like pain). When we experience our social environment, we also see mirror neurons at work. Mirror neurons help us to mimic the sensations we witness in others.
For instance, if we see someone stub their toe, we are likely to wince and feel sorry for that person based on our own experience with stubbing our toe. That’s important. Our mirror neurons mimic external experiences internally, based on prior knowledge of what you’re witnessing. Stub your toe in front of a toddler and you probably won’t get the same reaction.
Still, you don’t have to experience every possible scenario in life for your mirror neurons to trigger a deep sense of empathy. If you’ve experienced any physical pain or illness whatsoever, you have some shade of understanding about a huge range of suffering that exists in the world. If you’ve felt afraid, these memories will emerge when you empathize with someone experiencing fear, regardless if the source of your fear was completely different.
Thus, to witness the suffering of others and to allow our mirror neurons to function properly is to suffer ourselves, albeit to a much lesser degree. Since it’s the object of our hedonistic bodies to avoid suffering, this compels us to desire a change that alleviates the pain, distress or hardship.
It’s worthy to note that although mirror neurons are fundamental to brain function, it’s possible to not develop them properly for empathy, or to dull their impact in order to feel less empathy. Your mirror neurons might help you throw a baseball just like coach showed you, but you might not feel any compassion for the object of a school bully’s taunts. Psychologists also suggest that a minority of human beings might lack the capacity to feel empathy for others. These people are called psychopaths.
This suggests that empathy doesn’t necessarily occur naturally. It’s worth it to develop empathy with intention. Culture gives us opportunities to do this.
Last week I finished Kate Atkinson’s novel Life After Life (buy it here). The protagonist Ursula is born February 11, 1910 and proceeds to live her life over and over again, each time making different decisions whose ripple effects cascade out and change the world for everyone she loves. In one scenario, Ursula experiences the relentless, months-long bombing of London during World War II.
“The red glow of a false dawn indicated a massive fire in the east… If there had been no noise it might have seemed a beautiful landscape but there was noise, brutish dissonance that sounded as if someone had thrown open the gates of hell and let out the howling of the damned.”
In one timeline, Ursula works on a crew trained to rescue people trapped in bombed buildings, administer first aid and collect and label the bodies of the deceased.
“One floor above the man with the yard brush (although there was no floor) a dress was hanging on a coat hanger from a picture rail. Ursula often found herself more moved by these small reminders of domestic life — the kettle still on the stove, the table laid for a supper that would never be eaten — than she was by the greater misery and destruction that surrounded them. Although when she looked at the dress now she realized that there was a woman still wearing it, her head and legs blown off but not her arms…”
The excruciating detail about the raids and their aftermath help dramatize a painful if obvious truth: The non-combatant English civilian population did not deserve the bombs. The raids were useless in destroying their nation’s will to fight, and they were terrifyingly unavoidable. The suffering of wartime among those populations subject to the violence and destruction cannot be understated.
This reminds me that in-depth and visual coverage of the Vietnam War is still considered to be a key factor in lessening US morale and leading inexorably to American withdrawal and the triumph by attrition of the communist Vietnamese forces. Reporters at that time chronicled the suffering, and the result was a surge in compassion for US soldiers sacrificing life and limb for a cause that became more opaque each day.
This is partly why drones have become so popular in contemporary US warfare. They not only keep soldiers out of harm’s way. They alienate the military, the government and the public from the humanity of the target. The distance nearly destroys our ability to empathize with the Other, which suddenly makes inflicting wartime violence, on civilians and non-civilians alike, that much easier.
It takes a certain amount of courage to invite suffering into your life, even the relatively low-grade suffering of exposing yourself to the horrors of the world through books, films and travel. But our human(e) obligation to cultivate empathy doesn’t stop there. After you allow yourself to feel a shadow of the pain, the fear, the distress and hardship of another, you must make a connection; understand how your consumer choices and your elected representatives may connect to the suffering you witness in the world.
And then: Make a change. Vote. Donate. Contact your representatives. Don’t support industries that create destruction and suffering in the world. Speak out against the dehumanization of refugees and others whose lives are adrift from the vagaries of public policy and callous public opinion.
The good you do in the world may be a testament to the value of an education in suffering.