Suffering is a Cookie: Chronicles During the COVID-19 Community Quarantine

Suffering, I thought–as I bit on the half-eaten mango that I had stored in the refrigerator yesterday, is inevitable. There was nothing new to this concept: Buddhism’s First Noble Truth discusses the dissatisfaction that arises from changing states–hence, suffering is but a discomfort from a present situation which isn’t exactly what you expect.

But what I was wondering about was whether suffering was diminished the earlier one accepted it.

Admittedly, the only reason this crossed my mind tonight is because there is a pack of Voortman Bakery’s Fudge Striped Almonette inside the same refrigerator. Vegan, yes, but also calorie-packed, with 90 kcal per serving of each cookie. I was weighing the pros and cons of eating a piece, and wondered if I have become borderline orthorexic with this obsession.

Of course, this suffering is irrelevant in the context of other greater sufferings, like starvation perhaps, or disease. I castigated myself for even thinking that depriving myself of a cookie was suffering even worth thinking about, considering that we are currently in a state of lockdown where there are actual people out there who can’t even eat.

But to the privileged (like me, yes, I’m calling myself that), the perception of suffering becomes warped. Is it lack of empathy? Perhaps. Conceiving the suffering of unnamed people is difficult for humans, generally: we are more likely to feel for individuals instead of groups (researchers call it the identifiable victim effect.)

Even having an identifiable victim does not guarantee that we’ll feel empathetic towards that person or their group.

Quoting the paper “A Less Attractive Feature of Empathy: Intergroup Empathy Bias“:

“Unfortunately, witnessing a person in distress does not inevitably evoke feelings of empathy, nor does it always result in prosocial helping behavior. Even though we may encounter many potential empathy‐eliciting scenarios in our everyday lives, we respond with empathy to only a fraction of them.

“In fact, recent evidence suggests that empathic failures are not always characterized by attenuated empathy or indifference, but quite often by counter‐empathic responses, like Schadenfreude and Glückschmerz, which may facilitate hostility.

“Empathic reactions are therefore not automatic, but rather, the degree to which we respond empathically are modulated by multiple interlocking factors, which science is only beginning to unravel. For example, growing evidence suggests that empathic responding is influenced significantly by personal features of the empathizer (e.g., gender, trait empathy, childhood trauma), by interpersonal factors (e.g., perceived fairness, social stigma), by cultural factors (e.g., interdependence vs. independence, preference for social hierarchy), and importantly, by the social group membership of the person in distress (e.g., race, political affiliation, sports team identification.)

“Even the most deeply empathic person can mute their empathic response toward a perceived enemy under the right circumstances—a phenomenon that has been referred to as the mind’s ’empathy gap’.”

But I digress.

I suffer because I believe that I deserve that cookie. But I also know that eating that cookie comes with consequences.

I could eat it now, and suffer for it later on (by working out to burn the calories I’ve consumed.) If I don’t eat it, I suffer now because I want it now.

Desire is a very vicious, insatiable cycle.

So I wonder: if I accept that whichever way I go, I will suffer, will I feel better quickly, and until the end? Maybe life takes us all hostage and those who learn to find happiness are those who develop a Stockholm Syndrome in response to it early on. You can be happy wherever you are if you believe that where you are is where you ought to be, in the now-ness of the moment, without any thought or belief that there is any better position than where you are now. You can call it acceptance or resignation: maybe it’s two sides of the same coin.

For the record though: I didn’t eat the cookie.

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