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Suffering, Empathy, and The Parable of The Mustard Seed

Updated: May 30

For each event, use mindfulness, a sense of common humanity, and kindness to process the event in a self-compassionate way. Dr. Kristin Neff, world authority on self-compassion

A couple of days ago, our eleven-year-old granddaughter, Anna, was suffering. It came to a head at Almond Blossom, the kid’s most favorite sandwich shop on earth located in downtown Cashmere, where they can choose their own bread, meat, cheese, salad, soup, and nuts.

The problem was that on this day Anna had a wiggly tooth on the right side of her mouth and it hurt when she bit down.  The wiggly tooth was telling her to get soup, but she hankered for a sandwich and nuts. After some deliberation, she decided to get soup and a sandwich which she would eat on the left side of her mouth.

Several times Anna gave out a mournful moan as she tried to eat the sandwich. And here is where I started to pay close attention to what was going on. And I’m still thinking about what I learned.

Eli, her seven-year-old brother, responding to the latest moan, laid down his sandwich and put his hands into the air, palms out. It was a pedagogical gesture evidently meant to signal that he intended to impart some wisdom for her own good.

“It’s natural. It’s human,” he explained.

Anna just looked at him holding her jaw. She moaned again.

Again, Eli put down his food and repeated. “It’s natural. It’s human.”

At this point Anna let go of her jaw and looked at her brother.  She knitted her eyes together in a not too friendly way and pursed her lips.

“Are you saying to suck it up?!”

“Well, losing a tooth is natural, it’s human,” Eli repeated for the third time.

Anna, who is usually quick on the draw, paused.  I’m guessing she is considering the nastiest retort she can muster. But what she comes up with surprises me.

“I wish we could trade mouths right now.  I wish you could feel what it’s like to have my mouth.”

Eli listened saintly and replied, “My turn will come. It’s part of being human.”

Now you can imagine my interest in this conversation.  It’s classic study in compassion.

One person is emitting suffering sounds, perhaps with the hope of garnering some sympathy or empathy or compassion. The suffering one is appalled at the lack of sensitivity to her plight.  Switching places is the only truly powerful solution.  It’s the walk a mile in my shoes thing.

Eli, on the other hand, thinks he’s helping. If Anna could only understand that human beings do suffer, that crappy stuff happens (you’ve seen the bumper sticker), we all lose teeth, then perhaps she could accept her lot with more equanimity – less moaning and groaning. In his own way, he was trying to help her "snap out of it," be more mindful, in pointing out the common humanity we share and help her not get too carried away… fall into self-pity.

We all do suffer.  We all do want empathy. It would be helpful if more of us knew how to respond skillfully with kindness so that feelings are acknowledged and validated.

AND it is helpful if we, ourselves, can acknowledge our pain, validate it, and send kindness and compassion to ourselves without getting carried away. What do I mean by getting carried away? Well, acting like, believing that, we are the only ones in the world dealing with pain. That way of dealing with our pain brings more suffering.

Many may remember the Buddhist story of the woman who asks the Buddha to bring her dead son back to life.  It’s often called the Parable of the Mustard Seed. The main character is Kisa Gotami. Her only child, a very young son dies. Kisa is unwilling to accept his death, she carries the boy’s body from neighbor to neighbor begging for someone to give her medicine to bring her son back to life.

One of the neighbors suggests that Kisa consult Buddha who is located nearby.  Kisa does bring her son’s body to Buddha and pleads with him to help her bring her son back to life.

And here’s where the learning comes…

Buddha tells Kisa that to bring her son back to life, she needs to go back to the village and gather a mustard seed from the household of those who have never been touched by death.  From that mustard seed from the home never touched by death, Buddha promises to make a medicine.

Kisa, being quite relieved, starts her journey.  All the villagers were willing to help, but not a single family had not been touched by death.

Kisa eventually “gets it.” She is not alone in her grief. Pain and grief and suffering are part of the human experience. We share in a common humanity. Kisa accepts reality, calms, and can bury her son. She returns to the Buddha and tells him she could not find even a single house untouched by death. It is said that Kisa then reached the first stage of enlightenment.

Back to the Anna and Eli encounter.  Compassion and kindness toward ourselves when we are suffering and empathy from our fellow humans is what we want and it does help to heal us. Anna reminds me of that. AND it’s helpful to remind ourselves that everyone suffers. It’s part of the human condition. That acknowledgment helps to keep us out of the abyss of self-pity. Self-pity often leads to isolation, anxiety, and depression. That’s what Eli is helping me remember as well.

And, I learned how important it is to not rush in with our “enlightened” view of life. It makes folks want to kick us in the shins, give us something to hurt about. Comments that can help people remember our common humanity and accept their suffering with more equanimity is to say to yourself or to another, as suggested by Kristin Neff, "This is a difficult time" or "being human can be hard." Those comments compassionately acknowledge the pain while holding on to the wider human experience.

Hopefully, over time, we learn to do this with more skill so that we can hold each other with tenderness as well as contribute to each other’s resilience as we walk alongside each other…showing empathy and reminding ourselves of our common humanity.

We all at one time or another experience pain and suffering. Thank you, Rev. Steve Garnaas-Holmes from Unfolding Light for two poems that help me. The first one reminds me and possibly you of the importance of being kind in every sort of situations; the second one reminds me to be kind to myself and remember that I am not alone.

Dearly Beloved,

Grace and Peace to you.

In all our discerning

what is right or lawful or acceptable,

it comes down to this:

the choice to be kind or to be unkind.

The “right” thing to do is always kind;

cruelty is never right.

I am wary that what may feel like “justice” to me

is actually revenge; I renounce it.

I may choose not to shield someone

from an uncomfortable truth about them,

but I must do it with kindness, as if it were myself.

I may oppose someone,

or hold them accountable for their actions,

or let them endure unwelcome consequences,

but do so without malice or resentment.

I may stand up to an oppressor,

but do it with compassion.

My kindness may cause another anxiety,

but I will not be cruel to make someone happy.

If kindness to one creates suffering for another,

I seek to be kind also to the one who suffers.

If I seek to be kind but end up doing harm,

I am also kind to myself, bearing forgiveness.

The goal is not to be right but to be loving.

Life is complicated; kindness is not.

Deep Blessings,

Poem 2:

Dearly Beloved,

Grace and Peace to you. 


You are doing a hard thing.

Few people imagine what you're going through.

It may appear heroic, or it may not look like much—a personal struggle, or caring for someone,

or grieving, or maybe just aging—but it takes heart and strength and patience.

There is much you have had to surrender.

It is sometimes exhausting, sometimes lonely.

But you are not alone. You are accompanied,

held in the bosom of the One who also walks this road,

who bears the prayers of all who have come this way,

for they are one with you.

Unseen, you are fed by the Spirit,

sustained by an energy of love,

the power of a hope that is greater than you,

a heart who treasures you, who lifts you, who includes you,

who believes in you.

You are doing a hard thing.

But it is the Infinite One in you who is working the hardest.

Let yourself be carried.

Deep Blessings,

Pastor Steve

How might we journey together to The Good Life by remembering to be empathetic and kind with others as well as with ourselves AND to remember when we suffer that we are not alone?

(Do you have stories to share which help you on the journey of compassion?)





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