I am a free-lancing journalist, a pop-philosopher, and so far an unsuccessful author, who is struggling to survive by materializing money out of ink. You may retort that we all have problems, whether they are small or big, physical or psychological, or even right next to us in our bed. You could also respond that there are people who have much graver destinies than me and my luxury problem.
The methodology to reduce suffering by comparing it to others who are far worse off is a common habit among fellow-sufferers. And in some cases the placebo of relative misery is indeed a palliative, even though mostly only for a short while until the next pang kicks in.
Alan De Botton, an even bigger pop-philosopher, suggested in his book Religion for Atheists that there should be huge billboards depicting the galaxy, in order to remind us of how small we and our diminutive fates are in comparison to the infinite expanses of the universe.
He writes: “rather than try to redress our humiliation by insisting on our wronged importance, we should instead endeavor to apprehend and appreciate our essential nothingness.”
The idea to reduce the momentary and minuscule grief of human kind by comparing it with something much bigger is not novel. Already the philosopher Baruch Spinoza reintroduced the concept of sub specie aeternitatis (from the aspect of eternity), which implicates, among other things, that all suffering becomes irrelevant as soon as we parallel it with infinity.
Lord Krishna uses a related argument to convince the doubtful Arjuna that even the suffering of others is to some extent irrelevant, for “of this immutable being, no one can bring about destruction…Therefore fight, O Bhārata.” Essentially he means something like, Ātman – our essence – cannot be destroyed, so do not worry about slaughtering some villains, even if they might be your relatives.
The same argument can also be aimed at one’s own suffering. Simplified and against the background of a certain philosophical stream, Krishna could say something like: “Do not suffer, in the end of the day you are and you will be Ātman. Who cares anyways, this is all just māyā and līlā.”
Even though, I personally do not oppose the idea of minimizing our affliction in such a manner, I have the impression that too much comparison and the resulting prohibition of unhappiness through oneself or others is neither beneficial nor justified.
By distracting ourselves from our own dolefulness, in most cases we neither help the person who is suffering more nor ourselves. The person who is misused as a paragon of misery in order to sooth our wounds is soon to be forgotten behind an influx of new impressions, obligations, and resurfacing problems concerning our own life.
Merely if the compared person can benefit from our compassion, it would have a positive effect. This is the case if our reflections can increase our awareness of the surrounding agony.
However, firstly, this is rarely the case, since he or she is most of all a plaster for our own gashes, and, secondly, an overdoses of the distress of strangers would result in our own depression. Therefore, it is natural to live somewhat oblivious of the surrounding sorrow.
At the same time one’s own problems are not solved but repressed by the weight of someone else’s dolor. Hence, my problem will either pop up again, now enraged by the affront of negligence, or surreptitiously spread in the subconsciousness. And be reminded, even the smallest disease can become a momentous tumor.
Psychologist would agree that we have to confront every single one of our agonies, not at last because otherwise they would soon be without customers.
That is what most eastern philosophies teach us: understand why you are suffering and then uproot it. This can never be done, if I do not confront my problems, no matter how tiny and ridiculous they seem. If I do not understand that, in my case, these problems come from wrong attachment (upādāna in Buddhism), I cannot solve my issues.
In addition, even if it is true that our essence cannot be destroyed, we should have the aim to confront the issues of the present, as our momentary manifestation might have an impact on this essence, and because we have to believe for several reasons that our current existence is worth to be taken seriously.
Lastly, we cannot build paradise on a desert. If we want to change this world for the better, we have to begin at our proximity, right there within ourselves. That is what Jiddu Krishnamurti and many other pragmatic Indian philosophers point out.
Or in the words of the erudite Blaise Pascal: “The least movement is of importance to all nature. The entire ocean is affected by a pebble.”
In summary, I believe reminding us of the suffering of other is not per se bad. Yet, reminding us solely for our own healing is merely good to a certain extent. For a change, I would suggest to apply, instead of sub specie aeternitatis, Nietzsche’s hypothetical idea of “eternal recurrence”. Since then every deed we commit would bare so much weight (as it would reoccur infinite times), that we would think twice about moral slovenliness and procrastination of the present challenges.