Baltimore. Nepal. What Can We Do About Other People’s Suffering?
It’s been a jarring week on social media. My feed has been dominated by two completely unrelated stories: the earthquake in Nepal and rioting in Baltimore. While these two stories are drastically different in content, the responses flooding my feed have been enlightening as to how we relate to the suffering of others.
What happened in Nepal is a tragedy. Dozens of donation links and charity events are on offer. I can’t imagine what living through such a disaster entails, although given that Los Angeles is its own geologic time bomb, it’s something I personally live in fear of. The recent (miniscule) 3.4 was enough to remind us of our vulnerability.
Commentary regarding the Baltimore riots was predominantly different. The teens and adults in the streets were branded “thugs.” Peace-loving yogis producing fundraising classes for Nepal had no issues with showing their disgust at Maryland. Compassion and empathy, two highly developed emotional responses, were brimming in one instance while invisible in another.
Our emotional response is tied to how we relate to our own inner turmoil. Our brains seek meaning: An earthquake is a natural disaster; therefore help at all costs. Rioting is destructive; therefore ignore systemic violence waged upon this community every day. We offer heartfelt hope for the sudden trauma, but only criticism at the chronic pain.
But suffering is something we all understand. While shades of it are drastically different, the feeling — the neurochemistry, the emotional content — is similar. We wonder why an event happens, how we can make it better. Our decision: Investigate and lend a hand or avert our gaze and ignore.
This is the main question Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, addressed. What is suffering? What is the root cause? How do we deal with it? Buddhism is elegant in its simplicity. There is suffering in the world. Most of it is created in your mind. Change your mind and you change your world.
It’s strange when well-intentioned dreamers lump Jesus, Muhammad, and Buddha together. Two of those religions involve some sort of belief in a prophet. One cannot really “believe” in the Buddha, although for thousands of years many have tried. The point, however, is putting into action his eightfold path to witness how it works in your life.
Instead of looking closely at those eight limbs, neuroscience offers an explanation for our suffering, and it has to do with memory. While the mechanisms of memory are not completely understood, a few things are known.
Most of us have terrible memories. Sure, we don’t want to believe that. We also like to think we’re good multitaskers, but we’re not. Our hippocampi play an important role in memory formation. When we experience something, our awareness of that event is held in short-term storage before, if making a strong enough imprint, it heads over to long-term memory.
When we later remember that event, it doesn’t come back whole. Everything that has happened since will color the memory. Details will be shuffled. People might be rearranged. Things that were said will become favorable to us, unless we lack confidence or resilience; then, even favorable experiences might be used against us. By us.
What fires together wires together. This common neuroscientific sentiment refers in part to the strengthening of our memories. The more times we do something, the more we remember it, the more it shapes our identity. We remember stories in the context of the story we want to be told, which is not necessarily reflective of the truth. The more times we self-verify it, the more that memory becomes law.
And the more we suffer. Samsara plays a big role in Buddhist and Hindu philosophy. It is the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth that all humans grapple with. But we really deal with such cycles in this lifetime, thanks to how we remember. Once knowledge was new. The more we told ourselves a story, and the more it was verified (or demanded) by others, the more it sculpted the stone into the figure we call the self.
Buddha eschewed most metaphysical questions. The gods, rebirths, and such were all speculation. What matters is what’s in front of us now. How we deal with situations. Locate a place inside of our minds in which we’re not swayed by the transience of the world.
It is compassion that greatly aids this process. Not just to empathize, but to understand and help. This is not negation, a common Buddhist debate tactic. This is immersion, throwing yourself into the world and seeing what can be done with it.
Yet at times of tragedy philosophy runs smack into reality. If the link between the two is not strong enough, survival destroys belief. Brainstem trumps neocortex. We see an earthquake and we want to help. We see youth throwing rocks and we demand they stop their infantile reactions.
Our emotions and logic influence and inform each other. Because we are emotional creatures first, our “gut reaction” is usually what we run with. If our previous experiences define who we are, well, then changing that system is one of the hardest imaginable. But it is possible.
Nepal was built on a major fault line; few buildings are up to code. Baltimore, as captured by David Simon and others, is a city that’s been on the edge for decades. There are foundations for both of last week’s tragedies. If we’re only looking at the results and not the cause, we’re missing an essential piece of each story.
When I was a teenager, I grew nearly eight inches in one year—the term “growing pains” is an understatement. Yet as I age the even harder pain is the discomfort experienced when I change my mind about how I perceive the world. I teach my yoga students this all the time: If you’re experiencing discomfort, that posture might be worth investigating. Dropping out and avoiding what isn’t pleasant doesn’t help you grow.
Human beings help one another in times of tragedy. Donating to Nepal is a wonderful idea. But we have our own problems here, in America. We might shake our heads in disbelief at the living conditions in Kathmandu, but many of our citizens are not in much better shape. Riots like those in Baltimore and Ferguson are not surprising given how much suffering those communities have endured. If we apply the same compassion and understanding — and, in this instance, charitable aid and voting power — then our collective suffering might be alleviated, even a bit.
Image: Roman Mikhailiuk / shutterstock.com