I honestly can’t say what the fight was about. I was only there to witness its conclusion. And just barely that.
I was walking out of the drugstore yesterday with my purchase in hand, smiling and feeling the sun and the fresh fall air on my skin, when I heard a car door slam loudly and an engine revving violently. I looked toward the noise and saw a blond haired woman standing next to her red pickup truck and a tan van next to her, backing swiftly out its parking space.
As the van sped away — its windows rolled up and it’s engine gunning — the blond haired woman yelled in its direction, “I hope you have a hard life, too. Real soon!” As she spewed out her final words, her face was as red as her truck, overcome as she was with both with anger and exertion. But as she turned back toward her pickup, she shook her head and tucked a stray hair behind her ear, and I saw in her a deep sadness and an unbearable exhaustion. Her shoulders slumped as she grasped the steering wheel and before she turned the key in the ignition, she heaved a deep sigh. Deflated, she looked like a small child: confused, defeated, ashamed. And utterly alone.
And then she drove away — but her words and their fierce insistence continued to ring in the now quiet parking lot.
“I hope you have a hard life, too. Real soon!”
As I myself pulled away from the parking lot, I couldn’t get those words (or the image of her rapid, yet dramatic transition from blustery fury to quiet defeat) out of my mind.
My first thought was one of judgment and disbelief: Why would you wish a hard life on another person? And why that odd and disturbing coda: the hope for it to happen “real soon”? Then it occurred to me that this woman was saying something more than her words expressed. I believe she was trying to say, “I wish you knew how hard my life is. And I wish you could come to understand that soon. Then you would understand me — and perhaps this wouldn’t have happened.” She was asking — begging in fact — for compassion.
We have all had this feeling at times. We wish others could feel our pain with us. And this is the true meaning of compassion. To co-feel the feelings of another. Not because we want others to pity us. But because we want deeply to be understood.
Mind you, I don’t think this woman was right to wish for what she wished for — the suffering of another human being. But in a strange way, what she deeply hoped for — a basic human connection — is vital. It is not right to want others to suffer, but it is profoundly important that we feel deeply understood.
And it got me thinking that those people who want others to suffer are suffering deeply themselves. And they believe that they are suffering alone, but they don’t want to suffer alone. So they wish for — and very often create — suffering in others.
There is no doubt in my mind that the woman in the parking lot felt painfully alone. I saw it in her sadness. I saw it in her defeated slump. I saw it in her sigh. I saw it in the way she had to gather her energy just to close the door to her pickup truck before she herself sped away.
No one wants to be alone. And one of the ways we dispel loneliness is not just to share physical space, but to share emotional space: to co-feel feelings.
It’s very human to want others to co-feel our feelings. No matter what we are feeling, we have the desire for others to feel it as well. When we are in love, we wish everyone knew what it felt like to be in love. We write songs about it. We produce plays and movies about it. We compose music about it. When we are happy, we want others to be happy as well. We throw parties. We share delightful stories. We give generously. We want people to co-feel love and happiness with us.
Yet when it comes to suffering, this instinct to want others to co-feel becomes toxic. Dangerous. Even life-threatening. Everyone from history’s greatest villains to the guy who cuts you off then flips you off on the highway is suffering from the illusion that they are in a unique human predicament. And they want you and everyone else to get it. Literally, get it.
The problem is this: when we cause other people to suffer so that we are not suffering alone, we don’t alleviate the problem of suffering. We compound it. Exponentially. It doesn’t take away our feelings of loneliness — it simply creates it in the other person. And for some people, there may be some strange satisfaction in that. But there is no healing.
How different would our world be it be if we could really say what I believe the woman in the red pickup truck was trying to say: “I am having a hard time. A hard life. I am suffering. And lonely. And my words and actions are springing from that well of deep pain. I wish you could understand that. Feel for me. Feel with me. So I could know that I am not alone. So I can stop suffering. So I can stop trying to making you suffer. Real soon.”