Walking down an incredibly busy street during rush hour kind of sucks. It’s a sight to behold, and not necessarily in a good way. In today’s society, (i.e. a place like New York City or Tokyo, Japan) you feel like a nobody, where thousands of people are sandwiched in one square block. It’s a hot mess. Shoulder to shoulder, you can barely walk. And while everyone, including you, appears pretty muted from the outside, the opposite is true; we’re amped. We’re amped because more than likely, we’re focused on one of the 634,235 problems we have. And because of that, we’re suffering.
Let’s say a guy with one forearm tattoo and a crappy beard bumps into you during this rush hour hot mess. “Who the fuck do they think they are”, you ask yourself as you’re two seconds away from wishing them the sweet release of death. You’re not alone; this wannabe hipster is thinking the exact same thing. In fact, they’re probably envisioning themselves in Mortal Kombat executing a flawless fatality on you. Alright, we get it; you hate each other because your shoulders connected for 30 milliseconds.
It’s super easy to fall into this pattern of mutual hate through instantaneous contact. You’re focused on your problems and likely miserable, so I can’t blame you. Any chance someone gets to bring it out, you’re all over it like white on rice.
It’s also easy to lack compassion for someone because you don’t know them. After all, they’re just a random one-time prop in your life movie. Almost no different from something inanimate as a tree or a bench. Do you care about the bench? Probably not. We don’t care about people we don’t know. Fact of life.
You’re miserable because nothing is going right in your life, and we tend to underestimate how miserable we are. It’s called denial.
Have you ever stopped to think about how every single person you see in a crowded environment is living a life as complicated, hard, ridiculous, and expansive as yours? One with their own characters, their own problems, their own suffering, and one in which you’re a nobody to them?
Funny enough, there’s an official term for it: sonder.
“ The realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own-populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness.”
So next time you’re at a concert, a crowded subway, or a street filled with so many people you can barely move: stop and think about how every single one of them is living a complicated life. One in which you appear as some minor blip to them.
Feel small yet?
We’re usually so focused on our own problems, we don’t have time to think about anyone else’s.
That’s exactly the problem in today’s world: we’re all suffering, but our sympathy doesn’t extend past ourselves. As a result, we treat everyone as if they’re problem-free. Therefore, they’re excused and can handle the verbal assault we’re about to give them.
Not so fast. Here’s a sobering reality: we all have problems we’ll never be able to solve. That’s just life. If you need proof, look no further than HONY (Humans of New York). I’ve read enough of them to know one thing: we all have problems. Every single one of us.
So with that in mind, I like to play a little game. Imagine if every single human you see on the street walked around with a little bubble above their head. In this bubble, their top three problems were on full display.
You spot a similar hipster to the one who ran into you earlier, and you’re still enraged.
Therefore, you look at this random Portland-dweller and think evil thoughts. Then, you look above his head:
- Parents died when I was 19.
- I have an incurable disease that affects my motor skills on some level.
- I’m unemployed and swimming in debt.
You think you’ve got problems? You’d shut up pretty quick.
It doesn’t even matter if you’ve gone through what they have. As much as empathy and compassion is amplified when we understand someone’s struggles because we’ve gone through something similar, it isn’t a prerequisite. Chances are high their problems are pretty wild, making yours look like a cake walk. Read those three again.
You’ve probably gathered the theme here: we’ve all got problems, and therefore we’re all suffering. So the next logical step in this process is wondering why we’re all spending time swimming upstream in a pool of water just hot enough to make you feel uncomfortable, but not hot enough to actually burn you? Because that’s how life feels, I’ve come to realize.
Where Our Problems Stem From In Society
Life starts out simply enough: we fly out of the womb, get loved on by our parents, make some friends, attend school, and then continue onto The University of Partying, where we’re given a piece of paper reminding us we’re six-figures in debt. Then, if we’re lucky and decided to forgo a major like art history, we land our first decent job related to our degree. Remember, I said if we’re lucky. Keep in mind this is all based on an ideal upbringing; any part of this can go wrong, but we’re going with the law of averages.
By this time, we’re roughly 21–22 years old. We’ve now completed an estimated 22 full circles around the sun, having lived 260 months or 8,030 days or 192,720 hours. That’s a lot of freakin’ time. But guess what? Real life is only just beginning. Wait, what about those 22 years, or 8,030 hours, or…you get the idea? Sure, you’ve lived life up to that point.
But you lived life through a routine you were given, which meant you basically did what you were told. That’s to say, you followed a routine that you didn’t really question. And because of this routine, you were able to avoid most of the biggest problems in life. In turn, you didn’t really suffer too much (yet).
But something happens when we’re kicked out of college with a piece of paper and monthly payments to the bank — we have basically no clue what we’re doing. Surprise. You aren’t alone; you have the company of roughly 99.99934% of the general population. Another way of saying it: no one knows what they’re doing at any given point.
So now, you’re 22 years into your life and suddenly you have to make all the decisions yourself. No college curriculum to follow, no parents telling you about a curfew or cooking your meals, no time set aside for homework. The slightest resemblance to a routine you now have is your full-time job. Other than that, it’s the Wild West out there. This sudden shake-up in your existence, where you’re no longer sheltered from what I call “real life”, causes your brain to short circuit to the tune of Murphy’s Law.
But here’s where it gets tricky: the shift, while pretty immediate, isn’t damaging at first. In fact, it’s the opposite: we’re excited to be on our own, making money, starting a new chapter of our life, and thinking about what the future holds. It’s hard not to get excited by all this. Suddenly, you’re looking down on everyone because they’re not as cool as you. Like the kind of cool that reeks of check-out-my-slick-one-bedroom-studio or check-out-this-new-car-i-got-through-more-debt. So off you go, trying to show everyone how awesome you are through materialistic purchases.
Then, slowly and without fail, life starts to introduce some problems you never even knew existed. They attack you from all angles: at the job, in your personal life, with your family, in your finances, with your health, and a thousand other things. They can come one a time, or they can come in multiples. It gets even more complicated: now, not only do we have to deal with a new problem, but we also have to come up with the solution. All by ourselves. Put on your big boy pants. No longer will your parents or a teacher help make your life easier.
Oh hey, there’s stress. It peeks its head through the curtains, finally entering the stage. It does a little dance and sticks around. Then in Act Two, anxiety rears its dumb self. It joins stress in doing a little jiggy. Boy, they love each other’s company. It’s like two peas in a pod. Intermission takes place, and in Act Three, depression comes out and argues with anxiety. “ I am depression, and I regret the past!” it boldly proclaims like a badge of honor. Anxiety then eyeballs depression and snaps back with “ but I am anxiety, and I regret the future!”. A sword fight ensues on stage. It goes on and on; no one’s really winning the battle. Act Three continues for a long time. A long time. Oh boy. We’re fucked.
And this is how suffering enters and never really leaves. We start to think life is now completely unfair, when in reality life is just really hard. But no matter which way you view life, you’ve got problems. Many of which you now have to manage on your own, without help. And many of which you have to manage for the rest of your life. I hate to say it, but some things are pretty final: it’s all about keeping it under control going forward. You can’t shed things like a snake sheds its skin. That’s not how life works.
You’re probably thinking life can be unfair and hard, and I’m an idiot for thinking it’s just hard. Why does everyone consider life unfair, anyway? They’re spending all their time comparing themselves to everyone else’s crap, unfortunately. Life can only be unfair when you compare; life is otherwise just hard. You might still think I’m crazy when you consider some people’s “bad luck” in life; you know, the person who has shit handed to them, and then more shit because they just can’t seem to get enough.
Look, neither one is fun, but you amplify the problems and dig into unfair territory when you start measuring up to someone else. This is simply because suffering is subjective; what you consider your worst problem (the number one slot in your bubble of top three), someone else would laugh at. And vice versa — what you see as a minor issue, someone sees as major. This is exactly why people who seemingly have it all (according to you) end their own life. You think to yourself, how can they do that? They had it all. Says who, exactly?
The Case To Be Nice To Each Other
You’ve deduced that everyone suffers, including you, and you’ve also deduced it’s highly subjective. You go about humming your tune, living life, thinking things are gravy. Then, the waiter gets your sugary drink order wrong (you should stop drinking that crap). You unleash a tirade. Hell hath no fury like a man or woman scorned by the wrong drink. Just like hell hath no fury like a man or woman cut off in traffic. You get into an actual verbal altercation with the driver. The world-renowned middle finger goes up, along with some off-hand comment about his filthy mother.
No one really wants to deal with bullshit, because there’s already a ton of it in their lives. For the most part, everyone’s just trying to do the best they can with the knowledge they have. This is why expecting people to act a certain way or do a certain thing just leads to constant disappointment: just because you’d do X, Y, or Z doesn’t mean someone else will. They may not have the knowledge about it that you do. And who’s to say that your way is the right way, anyway?
Let’s fancy your ego for a second and agree that your way would be the right thing to do. Hey schmuck, not everyone shares the same knowledge you have. Therefore, chill out. Worst case, sleep easy at night knowing you’d do the right thing, and wishing someone else to soak in the Alan Watts or Aristotle knowledge you have.
There’s also this thing called karma. Don’t believe in it? Besides having on soul, let me help you understand its basic premise: good actions compound on themselves, as do bad actions. This means the more good you do, the more good will come your way at some point. And on the flip side, the more bad you do, the more bad that will come your way. Energy can never be created or destroyed; it only changes forms. This isn’t witchcraft: it’s true science.
There’s also one more distinction to make: the bad only compounds to your disadvantage if you knowingly do the wrong thing. Remember, we’re all doing the best we can with the knowledge we have. If you make the wrong decision without realizing it, you shouldn’t break out into cold sweats expecting bad things to come your way. Does this excuse you from karma coming your way and having to repay some debts? Not necessarily.
Life is funny like that; you can’t know what to expect. Therefore, there’s a case to try to do the right things and make the right decisions. You will inevitably screw up. Karma will inevitably bite you. But hopefully you learned and won’t do the same (bad) thing twice.
Be nice, people. Everyone in today’s society is swimming in a pool of problems. Don’t make it worse.