I’ve 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 or hear something from them that claims unhappiness or pain or whatever other negative experience they might be going through. It is a natural thing to write off the bad things others experience when we feel like what we’re going through is so much worse. How hard can it be when you have access to nearly unlimited resources? Why should I care if you aren’t getting exactly what you want?
If you live in the United States, chances are that you aren’t living in abject poverty like most of the rest of the world. Nearly 700 million people live on less than $2 US per day, and with numbers like that it’s difficult to justify feeling unsatisfied with what we have here in America. Any reasonable person living even a modest life in a first world country should take that information and begin second-guessing any negative feelings they might be having about their lot in life. Literally millions of people have it much worse than any of us do.
Still, as Dave Chappelle famously said during one of his Netflix specials in response to a friend pointing out the children are starving in Africa: “So what? I still want lunch.” As harsh as this sounds, if we keep in mind that he’s just trying to get a laugh we can get past the apparent heartlessness of the statement and get to the core of what it’s trying to get across: the suffering of others doesn’t lessen our own needs. Starving ourselves doesn’t do any good if it isn’t actually helping someone else who’s starving. We still need to eat, even if there are others who aren’t able to. A need is a need.
One of the things that most people don’t stop to take time to consider is that most of us have vastly different needs from one another. Once you get past basic survival needs like food and water and shelter, the things each person needs begins to branch off in many different directions. Although there are an infinite number of ways that a person might have a need, these all can be categorized in loose groups. My personal favorite is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which lays out a clean, progressive pattern of increasingly esoteric things that a person needs to be fulfilled in their life.
Whether we know it or not, each of us is on a very personal and individual journey to reach a very specific destination. We don’t know exactly where it is, or even really how to find it, but it can be summarized by the word at the top of Maslow’s pyramid: transcendence. Most of us aren’t cognizant of what that word really means, but ultimately it comes down to finding that peace in our lives that fills our soul with satisfaction. It is important to us that our lives mean something, even if it is only to ourselves.
The difficult part of reconciling our own needs versus those of the other people in the world who are objectively much worse off than we are comes in the disparity that results from living in a civilized world that has removed much of the law of nature from it. We tend to forget that outside of our comfortable, first world nations the rest of nature, including those human beings unfortunate enough to live outside of the developed world , lives in a “survival of the fittest” state of existence. Only those who are strong enough to will themselves into action are able to succeed in life. All we can see is that so many of us here have it so good while so many others have to struggle just to put food on the table.
As harsh as it might sound, we have to think about what it is to be a living creature on this planet. The primary biological purpose of every living being is to procreate and perpetuate the species. It is an inherent, typically unconscious goal of each creature on this planet to bear offspring and do whatever is necessary to ensure not only their survival, but also a better future. Most people are completely understanding of this attitude, and because we are so genetically predisposed toward caring for future generations, there is little thought that really goes into the full and complete scope of what this idea truly means.
If we accept that we want to create a better future for our children, then we also have to consider the fact that previous generations did the same thing for us. Few people living in a rich nation do so because something was somehow given to someone in their past. For most, their ancestors struggled hard over many, many years to slowly build their family up to the point where their children had the opportunity to succeed. America itself was built from the ground up by people who had to flee subjectively terrible circumstances to find a life they could be content with. It is our forefathers over the last two centuries slowly building us up that provided us with the insanely rich lives we have today. It’s what they wanted for us.
When we begin to understand this aspect of life, we can feel a bit less guilty about our own dissatisfaction with the lives we have today. The prosperity we have now is a result of the centuries of hard work that our ancestors put in to advance us to the point we are today, just as we put in hard work to make our children even better off than we are. Life is the struggle of moving from where we are now to the next place we want to be. Some of us are further along the path than others, and that’s ok. Each of us must figure out how to walk it on our own, perhaps with a little bit of help now and then, but mostly the journey is ours to make.
It is commendable to have compassion for those suffering in the world, and it is good and right to try to do something about it. Just remember that your own needs are just as important, and striving to meet them, whatever they might be, isn’t a bad thing. When we ignore what we need for ourselves, we have nothing extra to give to those who don’t have as much as we do. And you can only really give when you have more than you need. Seek out that abundance.
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