Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Life is (Other People) Suffering

Some stomach bug has churned up my guts for the last two days. At first I thought it was the result of eating at a Jack in the Box (which I don't recommend, regardless of the gastric consequences), but now I think it's something else. Now, I am remarkably healthy, by and large, and famous for being stoic to absurd degrees -- as a child I once waited two hours to tell my mom I had broken my arm because I didn't want to interrupt her visit with a friend -- so it is saying something that I'm saying something about my current distress.

Sitting up in bed last night, waiting for pain to subside, I thought of all the countless TV commercials I had seen for stomach remedies. They always featured some round-faced, portly fellow, with a shadow falling over his usually jolly face as heartburn sets in, and theatrical groans or special effects making him blow up like a balloon. I suddenly realized that, for the first time in my life, I felt like that guy . . . and in the same moment I realized I never felt one shred of sympathy for him before. I always assumed his ills were self-inflicted, and I didn't identify at all with some bellicose Italian (I'm of German descent and thin as a rail).

There is nothing particularly profound or new in this . . . I guess what's so surprising is that I can still be surprised by the realization: life is suffering, but most often it's other people suffering, and me not really giving a damn. In fact I'm starting to believe that it is psychologically impossible to feel compassion for someone without having somehow experienced their particular pain for yourself.

I remember once talking about identification and compassion in an SKS meeting, and my friend Alan was relating a story: "Everyone has had this happen to them, when they're in the parking lot of a grocery store, and you see some woman unloading her shopping cart into her car, and as she is closing her trunk and walking away you realize that she has forgotten the bag of potatoes on the bottom of her cart. And you are seized with the immediate, almost panicked desire to yell to her -- Hey! Hey! Where does that urgency come from? Because, for just a moment, those were your potatoes that were being left behind."

Do we have to experience suffering before we can experience compassion? Can we start to care about people without first seeing ourselves in them? Or is that in the very nature of love and compassion -- to identify with the Other?


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