Subjective Suffering and How to Approach It

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There is a lot of suffering in the world. In some places it is so tangible that you can objectively state that there can be no comparison to it. Extreme poverty, past genocides and hyper-controlling authoritarian regimes are some examples of suffering in which any reasonable person would agree falls within the realm of true suffering. There are many ways that we can look at this kind of suffering, and many people put a lot of effort into trying to reduce it.

What we don’t typically focus much attention on is the subjective suffering of those who aren’t necessarily having to live in conditions such as those. It can make us feel truly guilty to think badly about our lives when there are so many whose lives are far worse than our own, and most of the time we feel ashamed to complain too loudly when things aren’t the way we think they should be. How can we feel justified complaining when we have it so good compared to much of the world?

The problem with this way of thinking is that suffering is both objective and relative. At the extreme end, there is what we think of as real suffering, and there is no other way to look at it other than with compassion. For those of us who were fortunate enough to be born into a situation where we don’t have to face those problems, suffering is still a very real and harmful thing that we need to learn to deal with.

One of the things that I’ve learned along the way is that we all have certain needs. The types of needs we have change based on how far we have moved up in what is commonly known as “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs“. The basic premise is that as we satisfy our more basic, physical needs, there are emotional and spiritual needs that begin to take the place of that which was satisfied. This means that until we reach a place where we have removed all suffering, it doesn’t really matter how much better off we are than others. We still suffer.

This is a difficult concept for many to grasp, especially men. We like to think that we are emotional rocks with no need for anything other than food, sex and sleep, but this just isn’t the case. A human being is a very long checklist of needs. Some of those needs are universal while others are tailored to the unique person that each of us is. This is what we can call subjective suffering.

If we look at the status of human beings like a list, then it becomes easier to understand why so many people who should objectively be much happier tend not to be. We might have more items on our list checked off as compared to people living in horrible conditions, but there are still a multitude of items left on our list that need to be completed before we can stop suffering. It may be that we are not physically suffering, but emotional suffering can be just as damaging.

What does this mean for us? Do we continue ignoring what makes us suffer because we have it better than most? Some would argue this, but they would be wrong. You can’t be your best self when you are suffering. Checking things off that list of needs is a must if you are to continue growing into the person you are meant to be. One cannot help others if they are still dealing with their own problems.

The trick is knowing what those needs are. We fill our heads with various ideas of what we think we need, but it is rare for a person to really figure out what it is they truly need. So many people can’t find the peace they need because they don’t know themselves well enough to understand what their needs are. Much of our lives are spent casting about and trying different things until we find the one that makes us finally able to find contentment. Most people never figure it out, but we must continue trying in the hopes that one day it will finally become clear.

What do you think about relative suffering? Do you struggle with feeling a need for something more? Have you tried different things to figure out what it is? Suffering pushes us forward into new things and it is only through that drive to cast off that feeling that we are able to figure out what life is all about. We should never feel guilty about the suffering we live through, even if it doesn’t seem as bad as what others are dealing with.

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One response to “Subjective Suffering and How to Approach It”

  1. […] said in the past that suffering is relative. It can be difficult to have sympathy for someone who appears better off than you do when you see […]


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