The Suffering League Table

A lot of how you choose to live depends upon where you put yourself on the Suffering League Table.  The Suffering League Table is that place where we compare and contrast our woes with other people's.

Simply put: there is no life without suffering.  The older you get, the more you come to understand that we have all experienced (and will continue to experience) sorrow and pain and difficulty.  When we are young we tend to think that everybody else is so sorted, so together, so confident and shiny; we think, 'It is only me who is doubtful, insecure and unconfident.'  But as we grow older and wiser we observe that not only does everyone carry around their own particular brand of insecurity, but that everybody has their own trials and tribulations to go through too.

Sure, we don't all suffer in the same way, because our pain, like our joys are unique to us.  Neither do we all deal with our troubles in the same way (but don't be fooled, sometimes it is those who seem to coping the best, that are struggling the most).  But we all have our stuff to deal with.  Nobody escapes that fact and nor should they, for it is the midst of strife that we find out who we really are and what we are capable of. 

The Suffering League Table doesn't help.  It's the process whereby we assign a value to levels of suffering and then use it to determine whether or not we should be allowed to suffer ourselves, or whether anyone else should be allowed to suffer.

The first scenario is where we say to ourselves that we don't deserve to feel bad, sad, or mad because our troubles are nothing compared to those of our friend or acquaintance who has had to deal with so much terrible sorrow.  There are lots of shoulds and shouldn'ts involved on this side of the coin: 'I should be able to cope with my new baby: everyone else can' ... 'I shouldn't find life so difficult: everybody else can cope' ... 'I should be able to handle my relationship with my brother better, why do I let him make me so angry all of the time?'  But in truth, when life is difficult, wasting your energy on being cross with yourself for being human and being who you are is the last thing you need to do.  You need all of your resources for getting through a tough time.  Besides which, your difficulties are yours, true, but we are all different and other people will struggle with things that you do with ease.

The other side of the coin is when we believe that we have had more than our fair share of terrible sorrow and that if the world knew this everyone would understand why we are so insecure, worried and unhappy.  So we wear our troubles like a t-shirt with the statements of our life's worst moments writ large upon the front: My Husband Left Me!  My Sister has Cancer!  My Mother Didn't Care For Me!  But our troubles are things to be experienced, learnt from and moved through, not clung onto and used to excuse every short-tempered moment, every mean thought or act, every one of our weaknesses. 

Neither option really serves us.  The first puts us at the bottom of the Suffering League Table, from where we cannot do the vital work we need to do to transform ourselves into the wholehearted, compassionate people we know we can be.  Without caring for our own needs we cannot best care for those of others.  The second puts us at the top of the league table, from where we cannot reach out to others with humility and acceptance and touch them with our love, for we separate ourselves off from other's struggles by positing ourselves in a special place called 'only I have suffered'.  It is useful to learn that understanding someone else's difficulty does not detract from the empathy you will receive from others for your own.

We all hurt sometimes and yet we move forward.  Our commitment to yoga practice and meditation, and to observing ourselves and the world around us clearly, helps us to move forward with courage and with our hearts wide open.  We learn how to accept our sorrows in order that we might heal, not because we want to suffer, but because we understand that everything in our life is there to teach us and sometimes the most beautiful gifts come from the saddest places and that positive transformations can come from profound sorrows.

In his book, What Doesn't Kill Us, Professor Stephen Joseph writes of people who have suffered the most appalling trauma, things that we hope we will never have to face: assault, natural disasters, terrorist attacks.  In his studies Professor Joseph has discovered a phenomenon, which he calls post-traumatic growth, whereby people affected by these terrible life-events learn from them how to reset their priorities in order to live more fulfilling lives, become acquainted with their own inner strength, and deepen their relationships with others.  One man cited in the book explains that after the heart-attack that nearly killed him, 'I don't waste time worrying about the little things any more.  You get a new perspective.  You don't need to have a lot of things that you thought you needed.'  He goes on to say that before his heart-attack this was 'true in my head, but I didn't live it in my heart.'

Not everyone transforms positively through trauma or pain, but the keys to that growth are strikingly familiar for yogis: reach out to others and appreciate our connections with them; notice your emotions; practise compassion; learn to relax; observe your reactions without judging; practise hope; look to the future; practise gratitude; accept change; learn how to let go.

So, we are blessed to have found this practice that can help us to turn everything that we do and experience in our lives into lessons that will make us more humane, more open, more loving, more understanding, stronger, kinder, more appreciative and content.  Viewed in this way our suffering becomes a kind of gift - a painful and troublesome gift for sure, but a gift nonetheless.
'The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.'
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross


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