ASK ABDI: WHY DO I TAKE ON THE SUFFERING OF OTHERS AND HOW DO I STOP?
QUESTION: I am overwhelmed by the amount of suffering on this planet: a vast majority of the population is starving, children are trafficked for sex, war seems to be everywhere, and the abuse of animals is rampant. My heart feels broken, my spirit so weary, and my health in decline.
In the past, I could manage this pain by volunteering, meditating, studying karma, and/or practicing gratitude, but none of these are working as of late. Any words of wisdom?
ANSWER: Yes, the level of suffering on this plane is horrendous. That is the nature of this temporal realm. The saving grace is that it is temporal and as such, the suffering will end. The beauty and love in this realm is also incredible. Case in point is your care and love for all the suffering sentient beings.
My question to you is, where is your care for yourself? If someone came to your door as emotionally exhausted as you are, what would you do? Would you push some more negative news in their face or sit them down and offer them some gentleness and kindness? How then would you gauge your actions towards yourself, whose “heart feels broken” and “spirit so weary”? Why focus on only the horrors of this world?
More importantly, is it possible that there is some pain inside of you, not related to the outside pain you described, that needs to be addressed? That you are so focused on all the pain outside as a way of not tending to the pain inside?
It is a blessing that all these techniques that you describe are failing you now. At best, they are stopgap measures. It takes deep courage to stare square into the eyes of our predicament on this plane. You are doing that. But empathy is only one stop on the path. Dig deeper and examine your current state. Do not drown deeper into the sorrow, do not try to numb yourself, and do not try to find answers intellectually. Examine the part of you that says no to life and numbs by constant focus on all the pain. Submerging yourself in the pain of this realm can be a defense mechanism, just as is ignoring its existence. Both can be ways of pushing away and protecting inner turmoil from examination.
As someone who has been around the brutal pain of death and illness for all of my adult life, I can offer you this piece of advice: stop connecting with all the pain in the world for one day each week. No news, no painful images, no harping on all that is bad. Find one thing that brings you joy. It can be simple, for example: listening to music, going for a walk, taking a nap, or reading some poetry. Show the kindness to yourself that you want to show to others. See how that feels. Your time here is limited. Find some joy to taste. Life brings enough pain to our doorsteps, no need to go shopping for an extra helping.
Lastly, do not underestimate the power of witnessing suffering with an open heart. Not turning away from the pain of others is a powerful and brave act that has concrete effects. But focusing on the pain around us as a way of not dealing with our own pain just further muddies the waters. Having an open heart while helping others does not mean that we must feel like we are having open-heart surgery. If you decide to get back into service, make sure that you remember the person whom you are helping is yourself.