Just beneath the surface of normal

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On Being Sensitive to Immeasurable Suffering

I’m the first to admit that I’m more than a little too empathetic. I have always had to curate what I watch on tv and in the movies, because I have a terrible sense of what they call “suspension of disbelief.” Basically I have a hard time feeling the difference between what is happening to characters and what is happening to me personally.

As you can imagine, I was the life of the fucking slumber party at 10. All my friends wanted to watch Nightmare on Elm Street for the 97th time, and I was like, “can’t we just rent Desperately Seeking Susan again? Or how about Earth Girls Are Easy?” I very quickly learned to look away and just fall asleep during horror movies, because otherwise I would lie awake terrified in a strange house positive that every sound was someone trying to kill us, while my friends drifted off obliviously. Also I spent my summers living in the woods with my dad. Friday the 13th basically rendered my entire environment potentially dangerous. Hell, I was even afraid of running into E.T. out there (at seven, I spent over half of E.T. in the lobby of the theater, because it scared the fuck out of me). So violent or scary movies were not ever really part of my growing up. I loved Star Trek and Steve Martin and Danger Mouse – sanitary sci-fi, comedies, and clever cartoons.

Even then I couldn’t always protect myself. When X-Men came out, I sat on the curb afterward and sobbed because Rogue not being able to touch anyone ever was the saddest possible thing I could imagine. My first husband was like, “oh my God, are you serious right now? It’s X-Men! It’s fantasy. It’s for KIDS! Get up and let’s go home.”

When Lord of the Rings came out, I only went because my best friend promised to help me through it. She would hold on to my hand and say “this part is going to be really violent, but it doesn’t last very long. Close your eyes and I will tell you when it’s over.” And she would squeeze my hand while the noises got scary, but I knew what was coming so I could handle it. And I was really glad I got to see LoTR, because it was fucking brilliant.

But this post isn’t supposed to be about movies. I wish it were, because even though I get caught up in them, movies aren’t real. What is real is the waves and waves of suffering the news keeps washing up. Today a hotel in Mali is taken hostage. Before that, Syria, Paris, Nigeria, Beiruit, and on and on and on – people in terror, grief, and pain. Bloody devastation everywhere. Except in these cases I can’t just turn away until it’s over, because it will never be over. There has always been pain and rage and loss. Someone is always plotting revenge for their own grief in a cycle of suffering that every religion tells some kind of story about, because it’s pretty much always been there.

When I turned on the radio and heard today’s tragedy, I climbed back into bed and pulled the covers over my head, just for a minute, just to turn away and find comfort so that I could go out into that world and not get overwhelmed by its pain. That sense of agency is a luxury plenty of people in the world don’t have right now, and that’s what got me back up and moving. People without blankets or food. Without the people they love to touch them, without sanitation, without a home, without a sense of power. I wish there were a way to love the world whole and bring peace, and it’s an entirely selfish wish because I can’t seem to stop imagining the sort of suffering that leads to that level of heartless violence, or the suffering that reaction engenders. So I walk around raw and heartbroken, because that’s what I imagine it feels like in their shoes.

I think I understand why Buddhists pray for the immeasurables – because they don’t fucking know what else to do in the face of mountains and mountains of pain, relentlessly piling up across the planet every day forever. I don’t either, so let me add my voice:

May all beings have happiness
and the causes of happiness;
May all beings be free from suffering
and the causes of suffering;
May all beings never be separated from
the happiness that knows no suffering;
May all beings live in equanimity,
free from attachment and aversion.