Reflections on Suffering and the Pursuit of Positive Change

Confession: I often get takeout food from Whole Foods Market, which is just a short walk from my New York City apartment. Mostly it’s because I’m tired or lazy or haven’t been organized enough to stock my refrigerator.

Anyway, this is not an article about Whole Foods; it’s about suffering, or what I imagined to be suffering, and how it deeply affected me. For the most part, I would say I’m aware of the suffering in the world, but so as not to be overwhelmed by it, I compartmentalize some of the feelings. I need to be attuned to suffering in my work, and I do read up on local and world events, and I do observe my surroundings. However, like most people, I keep on going and don’t necessarily stop to process what I’m hearing/seeing unless it’s in the context of someone I’m working with or it’s my own suffering.

However, let’s get back to Whole Foods. I stopped off last night to pick up something for dinner and was called to check-out at register #9. There I was greeted by a Caucasian (presumably) gentleman probably in his fifties, a bit unusual because the registers are usually (wo)manned by young folks of color. He was cheerful, polite, and efficient (as are most of their employees), but clearly was something of an anomaly in that environment.

On my way home I created a whole fantasy around why he was working there: lost his high-level position at a major company where he had worked his way up, making a high salary, long-term unemployed, unable to find work because of his age and over-qualifications. Unemployment used up, savings depleted, needing something to bring in money. Radical changes in style of living, depressed (although he was quite cheerful in the moment), and so on.

I was practically in tears because I had felt his suffering so deeply and was also feeling so deeply grateful for my good fortune to have a profession I work at and a life that is so blessed with good fortune these days.

In New York City, in Manhattan in particular, with the theaters, restaurants, bars and clubs, luxury apartments full of people, it can be hard to put it all in perspective. Those people are in the minority. There are way too many people who not only are experiencing a diminished lifestyle, but many of whom are never even given the opportunity to achieve and enjoy their lives. For the latter, suffering is the norm.

The voices of those 99% are finally being raised. Students at Baruch College in New York City are protesting an increase in tuition over the next five years that represents a financial hardship for them. All across the nation there are offshoots of Occupy Wall Street. Finally, people are standing up and expressing themselves and demanding to be heard.

It’s about time. As a civil rights activist in the 1960s and a marcher for peace during the Vietnam War era, I know how powerful the voice of the people can be and how effective. It brings me joy to see the country finally realizing that we can bring about change, not only at the voting booth but in the streets and on the airwaves.

Now I just have to figure out how I can contribute to that movement. Rather than just feel badly about some imagined suffering on the part of the gentleman at Whole Foods, maybe there is a role that I can play. And what about you?

© Copyright 2011 by Kalila Borghini, LCSW, therapist in New York City, New York. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • kelsey

    kelsey

    November 29th, 2011 at 12:39 PM

    I found this article to be so inspiring, because I too have this habit of imagining the life story behind someone I do not even know and creating this whole back story on them, not having one inch of knowledge that any of it is true or not. I just see someone in what I perceive to be a sad situation and I ponder about how they may have gotten there. In those moments I too have often wondered how much better my own life and that of others in theo world would take that imagination and run with it to really create something special and meaningful that could change the world for the better. It has to be something more than giving a few hours a week to volunteer work, although that is valuable on many levels. But what is going to make the real difference and change is to do as you suggest and get involved in something like the Occupy movements or really anything that motivates you to become a conduit and a part of change in the world. We are much too wealthy in materail goods and spiritual menaing to simply squander it and throw it all away. I think that God simply meant for us to more with what we have been give, and too few of us, myself included, really take chance to make the most of that.

  • donnie

    donnie

    November 29th, 2011 at 2:52 PM

    We see these kinds of things around us all the time, and I am kind of the opposite of the author. Instead of feeling bad, I guess I just kind of get desensitized and none of it seems to bother me too much. I compartmentalize, but for me it is all about how this is not happening to me or anyone that I know so why should I worry about it? I know that for many readers that sounds pretty selfish and callous, and I guess in some ways it is. But why should it be my responsibility to take care of the world? We should have to worry about us and ours, and so should others. If that happened then everyone would be taken care of in their own way. Don’t you on some level feel like that is the way things should be?

  • joe7

    joe7

    November 30th, 2011 at 2:11 PM

    have you considered that your whole fantasy is a total projection and a judgement. Maybe he is happy to work at whole foods? It seems that you have judged these entry level jobs as somehow inferior and only appropriate for “young folks of color” maybe I’m misunderstanding what you are trying to say, but I’m a bit annoyed by your words. Also…what does this article have to do with suffering??? I was expecting some steps for dealing with suffering.

  • Kalila Borghini

    Kalila Borghini

    December 2nd, 2011 at 5:45 PM

    Hi Joe. Sorry you were disappointed by the contents of the article. Perhaps I can clarify a few things. If I am having a fantasy, it is totally coming from my imagination and so to label it projection and judgement is technically incorrect. I have no idea whether or not the person was happy; that wasn’t the point. Additionally, I said he was incongruous in that environment. Entry jobs are just that – a stepping stone for young people. He hardly seemed in my fantasy to need that but perhaps he was starting a new career (another fantasy of mine). You sound very defensive so perhaps there is something going on in your life that made you react the way you did to the article. Also, thanks for the suggestion. Perhaps my next article will be about steps for dealing with suffering.

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