“At sixteen, the adolescent knows about suffering because he himself has suffered, but he barely knows that other beings also suffer; seeing without feeling is not knowledge.”

— Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Have you ever met a living, breathing human being who has escaped being hurt?  We are born with nerve endings that transmit information from our bodies to our minds.  We are born with a need to be loved and safe; and when there is no love or safety to be found, we feel abandoned and sad.  It is part of being human to experience pain.  It is part of becoming mature to understand that we are not alone in our susceptibility to hurt and loss.

I remember being a child and taking a tumble from my bike.  I remember looking down at my shredded knee and being certain that this sort of misery never had afflicted another kid — that I was the only one alive who suffered such pain and now would not be able to ride.  My world was very small, and my experience with the human condition was even smaller.  That first skinned knee brought me great suffering; and what made matters worse was the way the adults seemed to trivialize my injury.  After only a cleanup and a band-aid, they seemed to think  my knee was just fine.  As years passed, and as my experience with being human unfolded, I developed a better understanding of scraped knees and began to trust that the pain would be temporary and that healing would come.  I felt the pain of each new scrape, but my suffering diminished as I learned that it would not be fresh and raw forever.

I don’t remember exactly when I began to step outside of my own pain and understand that there were other people who had similar experiences to mine.  Perhaps it came with going to school and learning how to read.  Perhaps it grew along with my own understanding of concepts that existed beyond the boundaries of my own body.  Rousseau doesn’t even address childhood in his statement.  He begins with adolescence.  By the time we reach our teen years, it is inevitable that we have experienced pain.  It is also inevitable that we are working at exercising our egos and struggling to discover who we will be in the world when we separate from the constraints placed on us by our parents.  We become self-absorbed in such an exaggerated way that even though we might see that others also have pain from time to time, we still are convinced that our own suffering is the worst.  Sometimes we might even feel as though the universe has singled us out for suffering.

There is a Buddhist proverb that states, “Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.”  How is it that we might move from suffering into a place of acknowledging our pain but not suffering because of it?  Rousseau tells us that seeing without feeling is not knowledge.  Maybe the path to feeling pain but not becoming lost in our own suffering is to develop compassion.  If we not only see that others also are vulnerable to hurt and disappointment and pain, but we also acknowledge that their suffering might actually be as great as or greater than our own, then we might find our way to understanding our pain and not allowing ourselves to suffer.  Perhaps suffering is less due to the pain itself and more due to our fear that the pain will never end.  Only when we leave our egocentric, adolescent years behind are we able to experience our own lives in the context of the larger world — a world where all people have joy, all people have pain, all people have hurt, and all people have loss.  In the process of growing our knowledge of ourselves through compassion for others, we learn that we are not alone.  It is then that we are able to reach out in compassion and comfort one another.