“How can I prioritize and pursue my own happiness when all this suffering/chaos is going on?” is one of the questions I’ve been asked lately.
(Sidebar: The expression of “pursuing happiness” doesn’t resonate with me but I’ll save this point for a later post. Meanwhile, feel free to substitute your preferred “well-being” word or phrase.)
Indeed, when we see daily harrowing world events on tv or social media, it’s only natural that those of us who live a ‘good’ life feel uneasy about the gap that separates us with those who don’t. The desire to nurture our own well-being vs the desire to appease the suffering of others plays out like a tug-of war.
What’s the alternative? Postponing our happiness? Putting it on the back-burner? For how long? Until what?
My Happiness vs Their Suffering
As with most philosophical and ethical questions, there is a slew of possible answers and, in this case, the answer is dictated by deeply personal views and needs.
In other words, the best answer is your answer. So, here is a handful of questions to help you get clear on this topic.
“Cultivating my own happiness while others are suffering is selfish.”
A few of years ago, I was in a conversation circle with a bunch of inquisitive friends. One of them expressed how she found it selfish that monks would choose to leave their families, indulge in a life of deep self-reflection, while their relatives and community needed them. Her perspective launched a thought-provoking dialogue which stayed with me and from which these questions were inspired.
- What does selfish mean?
- What’s the difference between selfish and self-focused?
- What is happiness?
“Cultivating my own happiness is less important than helping others.”
There are many ways to help others and science proves that helping is actually good for our health. Notably, our immune system is boosted and cardiovascular health are improved when we act on our empathy. But, as resilient and compassionate creatures, we can also give so much before realizing that we have perhaps given too much or not in the right way.
- Can we not tend to both our happiness as well as the suffering of others?
- With dukkha (Sanskrit for suffering) being a innate part of existence, isn’t prioritizing our own happiness part of our need to alleviate suffering?
- Do we need a crisis to hit us personally before we give ourselves permission to make our happiness a priority?
- When is a life ‘good enough’ that we should shift our attention from self to others?
“Cultivating our own happiness gets in the way of helping, or displaying genuine care for, others.”
- What is accomplished, individually and/or collectively, when we deny ourselves the permission to nurture our happiness?
- What do we have to offer others when we neglect our own happiness?
“Letting those who are suffering see us thriving causes a detriment to them.”
Marianne Williamson, author of the New York Times best-seller A Return to Love, writes about our biggest fear as well as our greatest potential. She says:
“…as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give people permission to do the same.”
- What do those who suffer need most from us?
- Many – though definitely not all – who suffer will never receive enough support to end or diminish their suffering; what boundaries must we set so that we do not deplete ourselves?
Hopefully, some of these questions hit home and stirred the pot a little.
My mother often said, “Charity begins at home.” Interestingly, in French, ‘home’ is expressed as ‘self’. Like love, isn’t that where most good things begin?