“Everyone’s going through something,” says a billboard. An illustration of two people embracing in a garden, their figures seemingly part of the plant life, reinforces the concept. Suffering is organic.
Public service announcement or sophisticated ad campaign I know not, but the message does strike me as vaguely positive and ultimately commendable. Any nudge toward compassion, any little reminder that our individual suffering is hardly unique just might begin to make a difference in our lives and in the lives of others.
I do a little research. The entity behind the announcement turns out to be the LA County Department of Mental Health, making good on Proposition 63 which increased funding for mental health services. Under the Why We Rise banner, the department aims to fix what they call a broken system. “We demand that easy access to quality care be recognized as a civil right. Everyone deserves to be well.”
The sentiment is noble but carries an unsettling side effect. If everyone is going through something, by inference everyone is to some degree unwell. A consoling message designed to raise awareness also reminds the passerby of collective pain. And on this scale, it makes one wonder. Is this the best we can do: a world where everyone has issues?
In this day and age we have the knowledge and the resources to radically reduce suffering. Why then is everyone still going through something? Must human life always be a struggle? Perhaps we would rather suffer with the hope that our dreams might come true, than let go of our self-image and live joyfully in the moment. Perhaps we are still attached to a primitive, now anachronistic survival mechanism, the life-narrative, in which we play the role of hero. Certainly we believe in the possibility of overcoming obstacles and at some point “winning.” And sometimes that point comes, giving birth to new obstacles, other points, and so on. Then again, if personal fulfillment is an illusion, might spontaneous and enduring joy also be the stuff of fantasy?
Imagine for a moment the existence of someone not going through anything. In the context of our heroic narrative, we are likely to be repulsed by this notion, deeming it unbearably boring. Such a person would hardly be ordinary, however. Would they be sane? In order to go through something, one must consider oneself separate from the passage in question. “I, so and so, am doing this.” Autonomy. Identity. Normality. A perennially untroubled human being, on the other hand, would make no such distinctions. They would be the world, and the world them—utterly, not just conceptually.
Is such a state possible? Is it desirable? Perhaps if one has suffered enough to see through suffering, and in seeking release has lost all fear of death, one reaches this state early enough in life to set an example. One. Out of how many? And of the majority unable or unwilling to follow this path, how are they to live?
Nobody of sound mind wants to suffer, and yet we need a certain amount of suffering to inform and enrich our joy, and to grow strong. Too much suffering and what doesn’t kill us may simply break us; too little suffering and we become weak, prone to the slightest mental and physical agitations. And if we manage to strike a balance, we still have the quality of our suffering to contend with. Are we simply vain or do we trouble ourselves with deeper questions? Do we approach our hardships constructively, or do we habitually unload our burdens on others? For a second I glimpse the ideal: Heightened individual awareness in conjunction with communal support, or, quality suffering in moderation such that public reminders of the human condition are no longer necessary.