Moral Accounting Versus Shared Suffering

There is a game humans play. It is about counting wrongdoings and measuring suffering. Whoever has had the worst experience, whoever has suffered the most wins. You get extra points for being a victim.

This is something all people do, left and right, women and men, young and old. Everyone has something that has hurt them or something they fear will hurt them. Some of these ’causes’ seem more objectively valid than others, but they all are real within the person’s experience.

This is the game of moral accounting. I don’t mean to judge this game as wrong. I’m one to do moral accounting when it comes to social problems. And I’ve been known to do it on a personal level. My long-term severe depression is the cross I bear. Through it, my understanding of the world feels justified. I have suffered. I know suffering. But so have almost everyone, one way or another. We all need to remind ourselves that we aren’t special, that our suffering isn’t unique.

How can I say my suffering is greater or less? There is no way to compare suffering. Suffering is suffering is suffering, the great equalizer. Obviously, in this life, suffering hits some people far worse than others. Yet we are incapable of being objective about it. Our own suffering is always worse, in our own experience.

Too easily, suffering can shut us down, close us off, isolate us from the world and from other people. Suffering, sadly, often divides us from the larger experience of shared human suffering, an experience that would lead us to compassion, even when we can never truly understand the suffering of another.

Why is this embracing of compassion so difficult? Why do we nurse our wounds as if from them we could shape weapons and armor to defend ourselves with? What do we fear would happen if others discovered our secret pain, if we just let our suffering be?


2 thoughts on “Moral Accounting Versus Shared Suffering

  1. Embracing compassion qua compassion is not difficult. Embracing compassion outside of a perceived tribe, that is epically hard. I feel you on this. Part of the reason though is shared suffering makes sense when people think their is a real material shared stake. People often come up with all sorts of othering tactics–leftists and liberals do it too in abundance actually–so that shared stake is not apparent. I will admit, sometimes, I think one should NOT embrace compassion, but in general, that is rare. Expanding one’s circle takes a kind of moral discipline. It’s hard.

    • I could imagine scenarios where compassion would not be helpful, even directly counterproductive. It’s not as if we should try to live every moment in some enlightened state of compassion where we empathize with all of the universe. That would be impossible, even if it were desirable.

      All I’m thinking about is how we can widen our circle of empathy a bit. Just a slight increase of emotional awareness might do wonders for any person. But it can be hard. We all have good reasons for why we built psychological defenses, and we shouldn’t carelessly drop those defenses out of a naive sense of moral idealism. Occasionally dropping our defenses, though, can be helpful in reminding ourselves that there are other options in relating to people.

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