We often compare the suffering of one person, or one group, with another. Or we compare someone else’s suffering with our own. Both are misguided, based on a flawed premise: that the “amount” of suffering anyone experiences is universal and comparable.
When I say suffering here, I’m not speaking directly to the Buddhist concept (so no worries if you’re not familiar), but I do think the Buddha’s teachings on suffering helped inform this viewpoint for me (so read up, if you’re curious).
By “suffering” I simply mean any of the range of negative emotions one might experience, from discomfort on the low end to agonizing pain on the high end. Those negative feelings could be physical, psychological, spiritual, or – when life decides to pelt us with lemons – all three at once.
I like the word “suffering” because it sums up a lot of different ways that this idea is evoked, both in interpersonal situations and in political debates.
While people don’t often use the word itself in those situations, they’re still talking about suffering.
We just substitute in words like “violence,” “pain,” “trauma,” “misery,” “oppression,” or “subjugation” (to name a few). For many, the word suffering itself, even thought it perfectly encapsulates all of those other ideas, often brings with it baggage people would rather leave at the door.
We can think of suffering as being the opposite of thriving, health, or well-being.
Hopefully that all makes sense and doesn’t ruffle any feathers yet. Are we flying in the same direction so far? (In the shape of a V, I hope, because “ducks never say die”)
Now, here’s where things get tricky.
The ways we talk about suffering (when we’re using those other words to refer to it), often follow a pattern:
- Someone (or a group of someones) is suffering
- Their suffering is caused by someone else (or a group of someones) or something else
- We need to prioritize remedying this someone’s suffering
And when there’s pushback to #3 – for example, calls to prioritize a different person’s/group’s suffering instead, or a dismissal of this seriousness of the suffering of this person/group – we enter a scoring contest where the winner is the person who scores the most suffering points.
“Person A has it worse because X, Y, and Z.”
3 points, plus a bonus point for the combo. They’re at 4.
“Actually, it’s not that bad because historically Person A and other people like Person A have had everything handed to them.”
Minus two points for historical non-suffering. Person A has a current score of 2 suffering points.
“Actually-actually, Person B has it worse, because X, Y, and Z are all true for them, and so is U, V, and W.”
Out of the blue, Person B sweeps in with 8 suffering points. Ding ding ding we have a winner!
Have you seen this pattern? Have you participated in it? Have you been the Person A at times they’re talking about and “lost”? Or the Person B and “won”? I can say yes to all of the above.
The problem with this pattern, and the debates it inevitably leads to, is the unquestioned assumption that undergirds the whole thing: the idea that “amount of suffering” is somehow universal, and comparable between two different people.
If I have $5, and you have $1, I have more money than you. Easy-peasy. We can do that math, and compare those values. No question there.
And if we were to trade, me giving you my five-dollar bill, and you giving me your single, then the reverse would be true. You’d now have more money than me. No question.
Money is universal and easily comparable. It’s integral to the way we socially contructed that idea.
$5 is $5 in my hands or yours. It’s still $5 even if it’s been in my pocket for a month. It’s $5 whether I’m hungry or sated, cold or warm, terrified or unafraid. And it’s always worth more than $1.
This, however, is not how suffering works. Here are a few reasons why suffering is not universal and comparable:
- If we trade sufferings, the values change. What’s agonizing for one person might be a minor discomfort for someone else; one person’s pain might be another person’s pleasure.
- Suffering is influenced by exposure. If you’ve experienced a particular form of suffering regularly, the intensity of your suffering in the face of that gradually declines. On the other hand, if you’ve never experienced a particular form of suffering, your first meeting will likely be severe.
- Context creates suffering. In many cases, the experience, interaction, or event itself matters less than the situation in which it occurs. Consider these subtle differences in language, and how much different the suffering would be: someone breaking their finger vs. someone breaking your finger.
To anchor those abstract ideas, let’s run through an example.
Suffering in the form of an ice cream cone
A two-year-old drops her ice cream cone and starts bawling. We’ve all seen it (even if only as a pop culture cliché). She’s clearly suffering. Though, how much?
By conventional wisdom, we’d say this isn’t a big deal. She’s crying over spilled (iced) milk. “We can buy you another ice cream cone.” “It’s just ice cream.” “Dust it off, it’ll be okay.”
We might try to put ourselves in her shoes. (“I wouldn’t be that worked up over something so small.”)
Or relate to a time when we’ve dropped our ice cream. (“I remember doing that when I was a kid. It was the worst, then I grew up.”)
Or focus on another issue altogether, downplaying the severity of her suffering. (“It’s a beautiful day. At least you got to have ice cream to begin with! How lucky you are.“)
But each of those responses suggest that the above three points aren’t true. They reinforce the idea that suffering is exchangeable, and would hold the same severity experienced by different people. That exposure doesn’t matter. That context is irrelevant.
For us, we realize that life is full of dropping ice cream cones. For a lot of people, life is basically all dropped ice cream cones; it’s the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan, but with ice cream cones instead of mortar shells; lick or get licked.
But for her, our hypothetical two-year-old human, this might be literally the worst thing that’s ever happened in her life. And I mean that literally. Like, literally literally.
(It’s probably even worse for her than feeling of wanting to die every time I say someone say “literally” to mean “very strong figuratively”)
By comparing her suffering to what we might experience in her shoes, we’re propping up a lie. We’re not actually putting ourselves in her shoes.
Because if we did – if we made an effort to put ourselves in her shoes, empathically matched her exposure to this type of pain, and recreated the context, hopes, expectations, and history that led to this moment – we’d be bawling too. Or feeling like we wanted to, even if we were able to manage that emotion.
How do I know this? Simple: because that’s how she’s reacting. That’s the severity of the suffering she’s experiencing. So if you were her, you’d be reacting that way too.
If we limited suffering to a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most severe suffering you’ve ever experienced, and 1 being the most minor, ice cream dropping is (for the time being) this toddler’s 10. She’s never known worse. Clumsiness and a sweet tooth are the architects of her personal hell.
For me and – I’m going to go out on a limb here – you, ice cream dropping isn’t a 10.
Maybe for a while it was a 10 for you, then you experienced something twice as bad, and dropping ice cream became a 5. Until the parade of traumas that is growing up traveled through Town You, and it dropping ice cream kept dropping – 4, 3, 2, 1.
Considering you’re reading this, you’re not likely a two-year-old. And (even though I wish this weren’t true) you’ve likely experienced things that makes ice cream dropping a 1.
Or a 0, either because you have experienced suffering in your life that’s made it so dropping ice cream doesn’t even register on the scale, or because you no longer experience suffering when you drop ice cream.
If you’re with me this far, you’re no longer questioning the validity of this toddler’s suffering, and instead you might encounter a few new questions in your mind. I’ll start with the one I struggled through first.
Whose ice cream cones should we care about?
If suffering really isn’t easily comparable, is mitigated by exposure, and created by context, whose suffering are we supposed to care about? How should we prioritize remedying one person’s suffering over another’s?
I’ve talked through this idea with lots of smart people, starting with the list of criteria above that make suffering unique, and continuing through the ice cream dropping thought experiment, and the conversation always ends up at this question, and this is where things get really messy – but beautiful messy!
Everyone I’ve talked to has distinct intuitions about the “correct” answer (i.e., the most healthy, just, and/or wellness- and equity-producing). Sometimes mine and theirs overlap a bit, sometimes not. And my own has changed a few times as a result of these conversations.
The one thing that has been universal is this: everyone’s intuition about what to do with this question is different from what we intuited before considering it in this way.
What I mean is before the criteria and thought experiment everyone had one intuition about the correct answer to this question, then after they had a different intuition.
I’m highlighting that because it feels important. The delta (as we might call it, if we’re being snooty) being the same, despite the before and after being so different, has meant something to me. Namely, that this is a question worth asking, and taking the time to answer well.
It’s also a way for me to preempt sharing my own answer to that question with the general caveat that lots of other people (who are smart, and I admire and respect) have super different ones. And they might be right! Ipso facto (dang – when did I get this snooty?), you might be right if you disagree with me.
Now, without further ado (snooty af), here’s my intuition:
The best answer to that question requires us to ask it in a different way. Instead of asking “How should we prioritize one person’s suffering over another’s?“, my gut says we need to be asking “Should we prioritize one person’s suffering over another’s?”
My answer to that? Nope – I don’t think so, at least not any more.
Allow me to elaborate.
The Question Behind the Question
The idea of “triage” comes to mind. We’re back on that Saving Private Ryan battlefield, storming Omaha Beach, and people are dropping ice cream cones all around us. We only have a few medics, and limited time to apply field dressings. Who do we pick to save?
Meanwhile, I’m over here thinking, “Maybe we shouldn’t have stormed that beach to begin with. That was problem numero uno. Or at least had boats with roofs? Can we not afford roofs? We spend trillions on war and we can’t afford roofs?!”
(I’m also thinking: why is the plural to roof not “rooves”, which I’m not sure if I should categorize as snooty or not.)
That goes to say that often when we’re forced to answer a question within a certain constraint, we restrict ourselves from addressing the root of the problem.
(I am not trying to argue military counterfactuals, so please don’t @ me with your WWII history hot takes.)
The other thing I’m saying is that scarcity can force us to make decisions we would otherwise not make, if we were acting within a context of abundance.
If you only have a couple medics, and thousands of people are dropping ice cream all around you, you have to choose. You can’t save them all, and the ones you don’t choose first will die. That’s real scarcity.
The question “How should we prioritize one person’s suffering over another’s?” is smuggling in a frame of scarcity. It says “If you help this person, you hurt that person; if you tend to this group’s needs; you neglect that one’s; choosing to save this person is choosing to let other people die.”
I’m not convinced that’s true when it comes to the remedying human being’s suffering situation. I’m unsure that we have a scarcity of resources, people, time, and energy when it comes to helping other humans. I no longer believe we have to choose.
Without going too deep down that rabbit hole right now, I’ll pause here and leave you with this question: “What pathways to liberation open up to you if you believe you don’t have to choose between alleviating one person’s suffering and another’s?”
A New Scoring System for Suffering
Maybe you still want to keep score. You’re not as motivated by the question behind the question, and your intuition takes you somewhere else.
I hear that! At the very least, this is where most of the conversation about this idea within the social justice movement is, so you have the majority on your side. And with that in mind, it’s probably best that we have a framework for triaging that we’re happy with, in case we feel the need to triage.
To that I will say if we want to continue keeping score of suffering points, I’d at least suggest the following revisions to how we allocate points:
- We recognize and honor the individual-ness of suffering. Things like exposure to a negative experience, and the context within which it happens will influence how severely.
- Points are allocated based on an individual’s experience. How they’re experiencing the suffering, their previous exposure, and their context are more germane than other people’s like them, or ours.
- We resist comparing one person’s (or group’s) suffering to someone else’s. Because we know that the math there is hard to do, and there’s a good chance we’re projecting as much as we are assessing.
- When we do make comparisons between people’s (or groups’) sufferings, we do so with a big ol’ mental asterisk floating above, noting that there’s a good chance we’re wrong, we’re painting with too broad a brush, or we’re actively (even if accidentally) erasing or minimizing one party’s suffering.
- And we acknowledge this isn’t “like pie.” Acknowledging one person’s suffering doesn’t take a slice away from someone else. There’s plenty of suffering to go around. Everyone can have a whole pie of suffering and we’ll still have leftovers! (Should I pivot careers into motivational speaking?)
What’s suffering got to do with it?
What’s suffering but a second-hand emotion? Dang it, Tina! You might be right about that, but we’re trying not to get derailed right now.
I want to wrap this up by connecting the dots between suffering and social justice. Luckily, I think this is more hopscotch than long jump.
As social justice people, it’s essential that we care about suffering, have good language to talk about suffering, and be able to orient ourselves in solidarity in relation to the concept of suffering because it’s central to our project.
What is social justice if it’s not working to reduce the suffering created by society, and create a world where everyone has more opportunities to experience joy? I wrote about this in my reflection on a decade of doing activism at the end of 2019.
I won’t elaborate here, because if that’s not the kind of world you want to create, we might both be using the phrase “social justice” to describe what we’re doing, but I don’t think our hearts are in the same place.
And whooo needs a heart when a heart can be broken?